So much has been writing about this film that I’m sure not to add anything new to the conversation, but for this blog’s purposes, I’d like to talk about the literary device of the Red Herring. A red herring is something that leads the viewer or reader to a wrong conclusion. It’s a relevance fallacy that may seem important at first, yet ultimately proves unimportant.
In Psycho, the whole first part of the film is a red herring. Marian stealing money and running away sets up a detective story or a chase narrative. Indeed we see her on the run having second thoughts, being afraid of the police, etc. Once she checks into the Bates Motel, events transpire that soon show Marion and her transgression is not even relevant to the narrative Hitchcock has so painstakingly set up.
The audience could very well feel cheated, but it’s done so masterfully and is so much more interesting than Marion’s story that we forgive the storyteller and go right along until the shocking twist ending that has resonated throughout horror film history. We cry a little when the stolen money is dumped in the lake right along with Marion and her car because it forces us to let go of that part of the narrative and we’re scrambling for a new attachment. All we have is this boy named Norman and his overbearing mother who is dead set on keeping women from corrupting her son. Hahaha You know the rest!
Lots of films use this trope. Think of Bishop in Aliens. Ripley meets him and immediately has her doubts due to here experience with androids in Alien, as do we, but he turns out not only to be ok, but to help save Ripley and Newt.
Even in the recent Godzilla movie (2014), the previews all make it appear that Godzilla is the big threat, but he’s not.
My favorite is in the film X-Men when Magnito looks at Wolverine’s dog tags and asks Sabertooth, “Where is the mutant now?” and we’re lead to believe hs is talking about Wolverine when actually he’s talking about Rogue. Very well played.
So you see Red Herrings can add some interesting twists for the audience. Used poorly it just leads to bad storytelling and confusion.