10/14/09

Hitch on the Hump: Psycho (1960)- Part 2: Mother! Oh, God, Mother! Blood! Blood!

(Don't Miss Psycho-Part 1:We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes) Following Saul Bass’ title sequence, Psycho opens with a helicopter shot, and across the screen, it proclaims that we are looking at Phoenix, Arizona, Friday December 11th, Two Forty-Three P.M. The camera descends gradually into the window of a hotel and the aftermath of an afternoon delight between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam (John Gavin). This scene, the most important derivation that screenwriter Joseph Stefano made from the novel, would set the tone for the film allowing for the viewer to be instantly thrust into the role of peeping tom which never wanes throughout the film. The reality of the situation, Marion in her brassiere, Sam shirtless, the time, date and locale all laid out before the audience instantly gives the picture a feeling of real life. As William Rothman noted in his book Hitchcock- the Murderous Gaze, "Psycho's fiction is that its world is real.”

After a tiff with her lover Sam, Marion returns to work as a secretary at a real estate office. Incidentally, she passes Hitchcock on her way into the building and the director gives her a sidelong glance from under the ten-gallon hat perched on his head. She complains of a headache to her co-worker, played by Pat Hitchcock, who offers Marion some tranquilizers left over from her wedding night (a batch of lines that must have delighted the director and his bawdy sense of humor, even if they were coming out of his daughter’s mouth). Then the pivotal character in Marion’s life shows up, the rich, arrogant cowboy Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson). He flirts with Marion and tries to impress her with the $40,000 dollars cash that he is paying for his soon to be wed daughter’s new home. Marion’s boss asks her to take the cash to the safe deposit box, and she asks if she can go home after to recover from her headache. At what point she makes her decision is impossible to say, but after she leaves we cut to her in her apartment as she packs her bags, the money peeking out of an envelope tossed casually on her bed.

Cassidy had bragged that he could “buy off unhappiness”, and the question is, is Marion merely taking his advice to the extreme? Her boyfriend is in a dead end job, fraught with debt and alimony payments. She is reduced to trysts with him in a hotel room, and then going home to live with her sister. Perhaps she is seeking revenge on men like Cassidy who feel like they can have anything they want, including her, if enough money is thrown around. Whatever reason for it, Marion takes off in her car, heading out of town, only to be spotted by her boss as he casually crosses the street. She takes off across the Arizona desert and crosses into California before she has to stop and sleep in her car for a while. She is awoken by a Highway patrolman in a set of dark glasses unrivaled until Cool Hand Luke, and the fear he instills in her mirrors Hitchcock’s lifelong phobia of policemen.

She travels though the California countryside ending up caught in a torrential rainstorm, though her wipers are working furiously her vision partially obscured by the downpour. (As William Rothman noted, “in retrospect we may recognize the rain and the vision of the [wiper] blade as prophetic of her fate".) Finally, off the main highway, she pulls into the parking lot of the Bates Motel that lurks in the shadow of a “California Gingerbread” home above it. A man comes down from the house, introducing himself as Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). She signs into the hotel under an assumed name, but agrees to have a bite of dinner with Mr. Bates. As she settles into her room, she overhears an argument between Norman and his mother in the house, perhaps something Norman intended to hear when he opened the window in her room to make it less stuffy. When he returns, they retire to his parlor behind the office for sandwiches and milk. They talk. She learns that Norman does taxidermy for a hobby, that a boy’s mother is his best friend, and that sometimes we all fall into personal traps. Marion knows she is in one, and decides to return to Phoenix to face her fate, whatever that would be.

After tallying up the money she has spent and flushing the torn up figures down the toilet, she undresses to take a shower. Little does she know that she is being watched by Norman as she undresses. The camera cuts back and forth between Marion and Norman’s watchful eye until she enters the shower. There she cleans herself, symbolically washing away her crime. She intends to emerge renewed, and after a good night’s sleep, do the right thing, but she never gets a chance. A figure of a woman appears as a shadow seen though the curtain. A hand grasps the shower curtain and pulls it back, and she screams as the knife slashes down. Marion falls. Reaching out for help that will not come or to try to save herself, she pulls the curtain down and falls to the floor. Her blood stains the walls, appears on the knife, and swirls down the drain.

This scene, set some forty-five minutes in, is the defining moment of the film. Undoubtedly, it is the most violent moment in the movie, and Hitchcock said as much many times noting, “the showing of the violent murder at the beginning was to instill in the minds of the audience a certain degree of fear of what is to come. Actually in the film, as it goes on, there's less and less violence because it has been transferred to the minds of the audience.” It’s a masterfully constructed piece of work that not only shows the skill of the director, but also of his chosen editor George Tomasini. There are thirty-four individual cuts that lead up to Marion’s death in the shower, but the sequence actually begins when she flushes the toilet and we are greeted with the swirling waters swirling down (the first time that such a thing had been seen on film). Almost everything after will be reflected in one way or another. Marion’s lifeless eye calls back to Norman’s staring through the wall. Both eyes are set in a tight shot, and while Norman sets the voyeuristic tone for the scene, Marion’s blank stare ends the action with a note of finality that could not be stronger.

The whole scene is built by setting up the audience as the ultimate voyeur. We shared the experience of Norman Bates as he peeped in on Marion, and now we are sharing her shower, but as the curtain opens, Marion disappears from the frame and the audience is left facing the knife-wielding killer. The scene takes us from being a voyeur to the intended victim. We even see the killer before Marion, and by the time she turns her screams are being drowned out by the shrieking violins of Bernard Herrmann’s score. As many times as I’ve seen it, I always know she screams, but I can’t ever remember hearing it.

The scene is shocking, and the audience in 1960, like me as a child, is left bewildered. Marion was our lead actress, and now with half of the movie left, she is dead. It is a credit to Hitchcock that the film is so compelling that we want to know what is going to happen next. Hitchcock noted that, "I was actually seven days on that little thing; it's only 45 seconds" Yet in those few seconds, Hitchcock turned cinematic convention on its ear while flouting censorship with the risqué scene. It’s interesting to see how people remember this scene, from a black and white film, as being enormously bloody. Little blood (or chocolate syrup as the case may be) is seen, the knife never pierces Marion’s body, and no blatant nudity is seen. There is nudity though. While Janet Leigh’s body was covered with strategically placed moleskin, Hitchcock also filmed the scene in slow motion with a body double. In his interview with Warhol, Hitchcock even went so far as to plainly state that “there was nudity in Psycho.”

Through a note being written by Marion’s lover, Sam Loomis, we are transported away from Norman Bates cleaning up the mess that his mother has made, and into the heart of the second act of the film. The structure is not unlike that of Vertigo, a film criticized for being built of two episodic parts. In Sam’s hardware store, we quickly meet the rest of the characters who will inhabit the final half of the film. Vera Miles appears as Lila Crane, Marion's distraught sister who wants to help her sister before it’s too late, and Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a detective hired by Cassidy to return his money shows up with questions for Lila and Sam. The meeting of the three of them forms the basis for the investigation into Marion’s disappearance, and Arbogast tracks her to the Bates motel.

The detective questions Norman Bates who gets increasingly nervous. He denies Marion had been there, but then a slip of the tongue forces him to admit that she was. After informing Sam and Lila of his findings, Arbogast sneaks into the Bates’ home, intent on questioning Norman’s mother. After all, Norman said, “She might have fooled me, but she wouldn’t fool my mother.” This leads to the second stunning sequence in the film. The detective enters the house, and slowly he begins to climb the stairs. The camera follows him, but then it positions itself high above him. When he reaches the top, a woman with a knife attacks him from a doorway. With the camera so high above, we can’t see her face, but it’s not noticeable, something Hitchcock wanted to avoid so it didn’t feel like “cheating.” After he is attacked, Arbogast falls back down the steps in what must be considered one of the best and most seamless composite shots of Hitchcock’s career. As he falls, it feels like he is gliding down. His arms flail in front of him as the floor rises up behind him. While the shower scene is a lesson in editing, Arbogast’s death is a study in technique. Hitchcock combined a dolly shot going down the stairs with an overlay of Balsam’s fearful form to give the death a dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality.

Soon enough it falls to Lila and Sam to travel to the Bates motel and uncover what has happened to Arbogast. Though I assume that most folks have seen the film, I am going to refrain from describing the last act in detail. The sequence of revelations perfectly frames the film, and it encapsulates Hitchcock’s whole idea for the film. “It's no different than a man who designs a roller coaster. The man hammers the nails and the screws in seriously, but the result is going to be screaming.” Hitchcock did not see Psycho as some deadly serious affair. It was a thrill ride, and like all great rides, after the first big thrill, each subsequent shock is lesser because it is still feeding off the energy of the first. By the time the ride ends, it is a series of gentle scares meant to keep the blood pumping, but its ultimate goal is to let you off the ride easily and intact.

Hitchcock’s thrill ride would break attendance records all over the world, and by the end of the year the $800,000 film had made more than 15 million dollars in foreign and domestic sales. This made Psycho the second highest grossing film of the year behind Ben Hur, which had a budget of 11 million. Critical reaction was all over the map with Time magazine calling it “gruesome”, Esquire labeling it “a reflection of an unpleasant mind”, and the New York Daily News giving it four stars. Hitchcock knew his film would not please everyone, and in his interviews with Francois Truffaut he remarked, "People will say, 'It was a terrible film to make. The subject was horrible, the people were small, there were no characters in it.' I know all of this, but I also know that the construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences all over the world to react and become emotional." This holds true even today. Even though most viewers know the plotting of the film, it is a perennial favorite that draws in fans of genre film and mainstream cinema alike.


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