Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Psycho


 
Psycho
1960
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin

Don’t go in the bathroom.

I have to say this from the get-go: I have to talk about spoilers in this write up.  I hope that readers of this blog know that I try really hard not to spoil a film if I can possibly help it, but I can’t help it here.  So… if you haven’t seen Pyscho, just skip this whole entry.  Go read something else.  Or, even better, go watch Psycho.

So is that perfectly clear?  I’ll be spoiling away here?  You know what you’re getting yourself into?  Fantastic.

The police officer has warned you!

Marion Crane (Leigh) is a receptionist for a realtor in Phoenix.  She loves her sexy boyfriend Sam (Gavin) but they’re too poor to marry.  When an opportunity presents itself, she leaves town with $40,000 in cold hard cash, running away to marry her boyfriend.  But Marion is a pretty shitty thief, and she is plagued by attacks of anxiety.  She pulls over in a rainstorm to spend the night at the Bates Motel where she is met by quirky oddball Norman (Perkins) who manages the place while his overbearing mother watches over the motel from their house on the hilltop.  Poor Marion doesn’t make it through the night at the Bates Motel, which prompts Sam and Marion’s sister Lila (Miles) to start investigating Marion’s disappearance.

Part of the reason I mention the spoilers at the beginning is because I had this film massively spoiled for me.  I suppose it’s my own fault – I didn’t get around to seeing Psycho until I was in my late twenties.  By then, being as interested in pop culture as I am, bits and pieces had been continually leaked to me and I had put everything together.  In all honesty, because of this and because of the enormity of Psycho’s reputation, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed the first time I saw it.  I mean really, how on earth was it going to live up to its incredibly ridiculous reputation?  It just couldn’t, not for me.  I rather wish I had seen it when I was younger, as it would have been lovely not to expect Janet Leigh’s shower scene death or Norman Bates dressed as his own mother.  Psycho will always have a touch of the disappointing to me.

Something I’ve realized about Hitchcock is just how much of an innovator he was.  He made successful films, but he also liked to experiment with film – just consider Rope.  I consider the major innovation in Psycho to be the narrative (along with some pretty badass shot composition).  I mean really, the dude essentially invented an entire subgenre of films with this one explosive film, the slasher horror genre, with a nice dose of the concept of the serial killer film as well.  Psycho was technically based on a novel (which was based on a real life killer), but Hitchcock, by his own admission, read it then completely threw it away, cherry-picking things he liked and changing things he didn’t.

The film is almost three stories in one.  The first half hour is focused entirely on Marion’s anxiety-laden decision to steal the $40,000.  We meet her in a seedy hotel (with a great crotch shot of her boyfriend right above her face that made laugh, it was so suggestive) and establish her financial difficulties.  When she finally decides to flee with the cash, we have what I consider to be the tensest parts of the film.  Marion is not a good criminal – she’s never done it before, after all – so when a cop stops her on the road to ask her some routine questions, she’s stupidly nervous in her responses, which naturally raises red flags for said cop.  Her decision to trade in her car for a different one at a used car shop is unexpectedly filled with danger.  Marion’s escape from Phoenix to the Bates Motel is incredibly tense and suspenseful.  That’s story #1.

hee hee hee...


Story #2 starts as soon as Marion pulls into the Bates Motel and we introduce Norman.  This story is about a sad, lonely man living alone with his vicious mother, and we openly feel sympathy for him, just like Marion.  Still, he’s a little off, so while the sense of suspense has faded from the first part of the movie, it’s been replaced with a different feeling, one of unease.  In the classic parlor room conversation between Marion and Normal, Hitchcock rarely films the two in a two-shot, instead choosing alternating one-shots to help convince us how they different these two are.  Marion is shot with a lovely, flattering light, surrounded by soft shapes, emphasizing that she’s fundamentally likeable.  Norman, however – ha ha ha.  Norman is shot from unflattering angles with harsh lighting, and he’s surrounded by the birds he’s stuffed, many of which are arranged in horribly vicious positions filled with sharp angles.  Our initial sympathy for Normal is fading a bit, and the feeling of unease is increasing.  When Marion is killed in the classic shower scene, a scene so famous it’s a bit ridiculous, Norman finds the body and cleans up after the killer.  I found the clean-up more interesting than the actual murder.  Norman is shocked by Marion’s body, but watch how he cleans up – with ruthless efficiency (just like the Spanish Inquisition).  He barely pauses for breath as he goes about scrubbing the bathroom clean then dumping the car, with the body, in the swamp.  I love Hitchcock’s touch of having the car sink most of the way then stop.  It’s a heart-stopping moment, least of which is because you realize that you are rooting for a man to get away with covering up a murder.  


Story #3 starts as soon as the car has sunk and is also my least favorite portion of the film.  Marion’s sister Lila is investigating Marion’s disappearance with the help of Marion’s boyfriend Sam and a private investigator.  This part of the film has a hint of the haunted house to it as we get peeks for the first time behind the door of Norman’s mother’s house.  The house holds all the answers to the secrets that have been asked, and it is in the house that additional murders are committed and attempted, but also where we do finally get our resolution.  The clunky investigating skills of Lila and Sam are laughable, but I think they’re meant to be.  We have Norman’s final attack, the discovery of the mother, and then that ending.

Even my husband, who is not nearly as analytical as I am when it comes to film, commented independently (I was trying to remain mum on the subject, as I was curious what he thought) that he felt the psychiatrist ending was unnecessary.  “Show us a bit of it,” he said, “and show us Norman wrapped up in the blanket, but we didn’t really need all of that.  Plus it was way too long.”  Honey, I completely agree.  There’s far too much exposition at the end of the film.  Really, we get it.  We’ve seen Norman dressed up like dear old Mama.  You don’t need to blather on for many minutes about his multiple personality disorder.  Thank goodness for the cut to Norman in the room, because it manages to get back that sense of creepiness that we lost in the psychobabble.  (I suppose Hitch really does love his psychobabble – Spellbound is proof enough of that.)

I forgot how good Anthony Perkins is as Norman Bates.  He stands out amongst his cast members.  The fifties and sixties were a time of great change in film, changes that included approaches to acting style.  Perkins’ performance seems to come from the same school of thought that Marlon Brando championed, related to the idea of method acting, where a role is completely embodied in a very naturalistic manner by the actor.  Everyone else in the film, however, is much more old school Hollywood in their performances.  They’re fine, but they feel far more theatrical, and therefore, less real.  Perkins, with all his stutters and tics and nervous twitches, is so much better.  It’s easy to understand why Perkins was never capable of completely shedding Norman Bates – he’s just too good.  (My husband would appreciate me adding that he thought Janet Leigh did a very nice job too.  While I don’t think she was as good as Perkins, I do think this is the best performance I’ve ever seen by her.)

 
I also forgot just how good Bernard Herrmann’s score is.  Everyone knows the knife slashing “REE REE REE!” of the shower sequence, but there’s so much more to Psycho’s score than just some dissonant chords.  Done entirely with a string orchestra (as a clarinetist, I officially want to lodge a complaint to Herrmann – show some woodwinds some love, man!), the score as a whole is very good.  It’s alternately thrilling and then quiet and tense.  It’s particularly good in the first half of the film, helping greatly to up the tension when Marion is fleeing.  (My husband would now appreciate me adding that the main theme of Psycho – not the REE REE REE bit but the actual main theme – is used as a musical introduction when his favorite band Dream Theater performs live.)

The last thing I want to say about Psycho is that it will always remind of an anecdote from my family.  My mother was 10 when this film came out, and Hitchcock flooded the airwaves with advertisement and strategic marketing techniques (No one admitted after the film has started!).  My grandfather, who was a hoot and a half, was rather taken with Hitchcock’s personality, and would march around the house quoting the ads, saying “Don’t go in the bawwwthroom,” as he was mimicking Hitchcock’s low voice and British accent.  I can hear my grandfather saying that, as well as my mother imitating my grandfather.  It makes me smile. 

I really like the first hour of Pyscho much more than the last 45 minutes.  It’s stronger, it’s tenser, it’s more interesting.  Solving the mystery of Psycho in the last half is necessary but clunky.  But I will absolutely give Hitchcock his due, and admit that though this films lacks some traditional Hitchcockian suspense elements (not all, but some), he also pretty much invented the slasher horror genre, the psychopathic serial killer genre, and must have also supplied a huge inspiration to what would eventually become the police procedural television series.

I just wish I hadn’t had the whole dang thing spoiled for me.  It certainly sapped the film of some (most?) of its power.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

6 comments:

  1. I don't know how it's possible to NOT know what happens in the shower in Psycho, even if you haven't seen the film. It's entered the pop culture public consciousness, like the connection between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker has.

    I wish there had been some way that I hadn't known what was going to happen, because for the first section of the movie I was mostly just sitting there waiting for it to happen. I thought this was just an okay film, but I'm almost positive that if I had gone into it knowing nothing it would be much higher in my estimation.

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    1. Yes, most definitely. Like you rightly say, I don't know if it's possible to avoid knowing about the shower scene, but I really wish I hadn't known. Imagine going into that fresh. Imagine not knowing what was coming - at any point in the film. That would have been a pretty crazy ride.

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  3. So let's try this again.

    To really understand the genius of Psycho, you need to look at it from the perspective of someone who doesn't know the story. We start with Janet Leigh, and for the first chunk of the film, she's who we've got to root for. We meet Norman, and we feel a little sorry for him, because we get the sense that his mother is not all together there. And then the shower scene happens.

    What are we left with as the audience? Norman. He's the only character with whom we can sympathize. We know he's oppressed by his mother and we have a tense moment on his behalf when the car stops sinking. Norman is the only person left for us to root for until the end of the film.

    And then there's that end of the film and we get the whole story on who we've been pulling for for the last 30 minutes or so. This is a genius move. The first-time audience is so completely suckered by this and so completely knocked sideways by the twist/reveal. It's a truly amazing moment in film.

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    1. And I think that's what I was trying to get at, the idea of playing with narrative as being the major innovation Hitchcock was working under for this film. You just put it a lot better than I.

      again... I just wish I could have experienced that ride. I didn't get a chance to. It's not Psycho's fault - if anything, it's a testament to its legacy. But still...

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