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The role of the death-mother in film

Hitchcock’s famous Psycho (1960) has an enduring legacy in the slasher-horror genre. Its impact on this genre is an enduring one, as suggested by the A&E series Bates Motel, culminating with Rihanna cast in Janet Leigh’s indelible role. Perhaps its most striking contribution, however, is its thematization of a figure I call the death-mother. This figure emerges from the diegetic world of the film, but exceeds it; she is born from abstraction, remoteness, distance. She emerges from the fusion of narrative concerns, embodied by the mysterious unseen persona of Mrs. Bates/Mother, and the heightened aesthetics of the genre artist.

Psycho expands on a work that anticipates some of its central themes of an overpowering female presence. Currently revisited in a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical starring Glenn Close, Billy Wilder’s great 1950 film Sunset Boulevard charts the comeback of the fictional silent movie star Norma Desmond, played by the real silent movie star Gloria Swanson. Wilder’s movie, which he co-wrote with Charles Brackett, explores the tortured relationship between Norma, who verges on the brink of madness, and a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden), whom she hires to polish up her comeback vehicle (she has written a screenplay that defies logic).

Figure 2: Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in the current revival of the musical version of Sunset Boulevard.
Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in the current revival of the musical version of Sunset Boulevard. By Angelalitt CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The film famously begins with a shot of a man, who turns out to be Joe, floating dead in a swimming pool. He narrates the film in voice-over, in good film noir fashion, albeit from the dead. Joe floating in the pool: this shot returns the male subject, horrifyingly, to the womb and origins. Much of the film proceeds from this basis. Norma, in fierce, Kabuki-like make-up and dress that exaggerate her femininity and suggest a drag performance, alternately seduces and repels Joe.

There is an especially chilling, femme fatale moment in which Joe, comforting Norma after a suicide attempt, falls into her outstretched arms. Norma, a death’s-head smile on her face, enfolds Joe into her bosom, a fusion of the femme fatale and the mother of death. This moment anticipates the scene in which Norma literally kills Joe, shooting him and leaving him floating dead in her vast swimming pool, a grotesquely reabsorbed fetus.

What links Sunset Boulevard to Psycho are the associations of Norma and death and the level of aesthetic sublimity they achieve by the end of the film. Having fallen off the brink of sanity and become truly mad, Norma stands at the top of her decaying mansion’s long central staircase, believing, in her madness, that the television crews and the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (playing herself), assembled at Norma’s home to document her arrest for murder, are all there to herald her triumphant comeback. “Max,” the cryptic, bald servant who looks after “Madame,” and is in actuality her former husband and film director (played by the real-life film director Erich von Stroheim), “directs” this scene of Norma descending the stairs.

As Norma descends the stairs, grandiose and melodramatic music (by Franz Waxman, who scored several Hitchcock films, most notably Rebecca, another film about an overpowering female presence) harrowingly ironizes Norma’s “big moment,” as she regally proceeds towards the cameras, gives a speech thanking all of those “wonderful people out there in the dark,” and says, to the director she once worked with and hopes will direct her comeback, “Mr. De Mille, I am ready for my close-up!”

Figure 4: Norma’s big moment. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Norma’s big moment. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Two key aspects of the representation relate to the death-mother. As Norma, with antic, intensifying theatrical energy, makes her way down the stairs, the various reporters assembled, at different points, on the staircase stand stock still. This creates an exquisite tableau of life-in-deathness, which informs several Hitchcock films. It is as if Norma had entered the world of the dead, or re-entered the world while herself being dead, Hollywood as a carnival of souls.

Then, once Norma announces her readiness for her close-up, the music rises up again. As Norma, again with theatrical fervor, undulates toward the camera, something strange occurs. Or, to put it another way, an aesthetic choice is made. Her face does not come into greater definition (close-ups being crucial to this film, in which Norma says of her silent movie era, “We didn’t need voices then—we had faces.”) Rather, her image recedes into a misty, evanescent, smoky obscurity, and with it representation itself.

Both Wilder and Hitchcock find recourse in Surrealistic film technique, in which the film medium itself—the image itself—undergoes a profound distortion. The death-mother emerges from the concatenation of multiple effects—consistent motifs, associations, et al.—that then recombine in order to produce the effect, through an intense stylization and a series of concomitant aesthetic choices, that we have entered the world of death, one that is tinged with and indissociable from images and associations with the mother, grotesquely inverted as the mother who brings forth death, not life. Such occurs at the climax of Psycho, when the Mother’s skull-face is superimposed over Norman Bates’ face, and this image dissolves into one of a car being dragged out by a metal chain from a swamp.

Norman’s face fuses with Mother’s. Public domain via Blogspot.
 Norman’s face fuses with Mother’s. Fair use via Blogspot.

Psycho and Sunset Boulevard both reveal that a particular relationship exists between works that seek to thematize the terrors of gendered identity and sexual desire, specifically the relationship to the mother’s body and female sexuality, while also seeking an especially calibrated, considered aesthetic effect. The death-mother may suggest a great deal about the dread of the mother in culture and the misogynistic dimensions of this dread. Perhaps as resonantly, it reveals, as a fantasy but also an aesthetic preoccupation, that a profound and troubling linkage exists between the dread of a death-associated femininity and the zeal to create dazzling art.

Featured image credit: Norman Bates house from Pyscho. Public domain via Pixabay.

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