Psycho – The Money MacGuffin

When setting up a scene from Psycho (1960) it might be a layup to frame the shower scene (which is brilliant), but what always struck me the first time I saw this film—and Psycho is a film that you feel like you’ve seen for years as a child of the 80s before you first see it—I was struck by how genius Janet Leigh was in the first 11 minutes of the film. In fact, after re-watching it recently, it’s amazing just how tight the whole first act is, starting with Janet Leigh lying in bed with her illicit lover in an hourly room through to her impulsive theft of $40,000 cash from an obnoxious and wealthy cad who pushes himself upon her. Her character is setup so brilliantly in such little time with seemingly no effort, that it makes you wonder what happened to such narrative art in film. Within the first five minutes we find out she’s unmarried (and quite unhappy about that fact), she’s working a dead-end job in a real estate office, and the financial and cultural limitations of being a woman in 1959 frame her character with prison bars. In fact, if you watch Janet Leigh’s performance—which far outstrips Anthony Perkins’, in my opinion—you’ll notice that almost immediately she acts and reacts like a caged animal, ready to escape, to be free of the confines of her life and its limitations.

And then, and then, $40,000 in cold hard cash falls on her desk, and she makes a decision to run for it. The tension in the following scene created by the camera with that wad of money laying one her bed in a bulging envelope while she is packing her bag is absolutely riveting, not to mention the scene immediately following that one wherein she is stopped at a traffic light and sees her boss cross the street while she’s escaping with the money. These two scenes, which I have included below as one given they follow each other, may be Hithcock at his most intense and compelling. The tension created around the theft is only heightened by the deep empathy you feel for Janet Leigh’s plight, and Bernard Hermann’s score heightens the effect 1000x. It’s one thing to say Hitchcock is a master of the medium—and that idea is nothing new—but it’s another to nail exactly why, and for me there are few, if any, better examples than the first 11 minutes of Psycho. And while the the money is just a MacGuffin that will be forgotten by the end of the film, it adds such an amazing sense of urgency and drama to an almost instantly complex and haunted character.

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5 Responses to Psycho – The Money MacGuffin

  1. Jared Stein says:

    Janet Leigh is a MacGuffin.

    Don’t get me started on MacGuffins…

  2. Reverend says:

    Do you like MacGuffins? I’m intrigued 🙂

  3. mike. says:

    I also felt that the money (hell, Janet Leigh even) was more a red herring than a MacGuffin. There is a difference. I think there is, in any case.

  4. archie says:

    amazing movie, amazing play of light and shadows, great mac guffin
    and the montage is just brilliant

  5. Lancelot Griffith says:

    Both could be macguffins.
    I don’t like your snarky attitude Jared. What do you mean,
    Don’t get me started…” Are you that intelligent that you know everything there is to know about them.
    So-called film buffs like you truly annoy me….with all your opinions and self-righteous manners of speech.

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