4/13/11

Hitch on the Hump: Fascination with Fear's Christine Looks Deep Into Psycho's Eyes

When I started this series of Guest Posts, there were people who I literally could not wait to invite to participate. One of those folks is my internet cousin (don't ask) Christine Hadden from Facination with Fear. Christine is both a great writer and a great lover of Hitchcock. While I take my obsession with Vertigo pretty damn seriously, no one can talk Psycho quite like Ms. Hadden. I'd take a vote as to if it was time to turn it over to Christine, but I think the "eyes" would have it.

It’s hard to imagine what one could even write about Psycho that hasn’t been said before, and yet - when asked to contribute to this Hitchcock series, I couldn’t NOT write about it.  Oh, I thought about Rear Window and Strangers on a Train, as well as several others.  But the Norman Bates lover in me would not stop the voices in my head screaming PsychoPsycho!  So I had to go with it. 

Obviously a review of the film would be a moot point.  Anyone worth their salt and reading this blog has seen (and treasured) Hitchcock’s most famous film. Hitch's brilliance is undeniable here. There have been discussions about every darn frame of the film, and finding something to focus on became difficult for me, even though I would count it as being one of my top two favorite films. Ever.

So I chose to focus on something perhaps less ordinary.  The eyes.  This masterfully filmed movie has more focus on the character’s eyes than you can shake a stick at.  Someone once said (a very long time ago) that the eyes are the window to the soul, and I have to agree...

When we first meet Marion in the motel room with her lover, we are yet to discover the horrors that await.  It seems like a quick nooner has become a luxurious afternoon delight, with Marion and Sam rolling in the sheets and giving each other the googly eyes.  But on closer examination, you can see the desperation in their eyes that tells the tale of their struggling relationship. 

Though Sam is stuck paying alimony to his ex-wife, for the life of me I still can't figure out why he and Marion are sneaking around.  He's divorced, so what?  Regardless, you can see the yearning in his eyes as he longs to have a normal relationship with his beloved.  But Marion seems somewhat distracted.  Could it be she feels she's at a dead end with Sam?  At any rate, the eyes tell the story of a pair of troubled lovers, with no idea of the events yet to come.

Once Marion makes the fatal (literally) mistake of stealing the forty grand, we witness her attempt to get out of Dodge.  While she is supposedly home nursing a headache, she is in fact skipping town with the dough.  As luck would have it though, at a stop light her boss is crossing the street and at first smiles, then gives her a second glance, realizing something just isn't right with this picture.  The look in his eyes is so telling, and when the weekend is over and he is back at work on Monday, he'll finally comprehend just what was going on.  And he'll be pissed.

At this point, Marion knows she's caught. The look in her eyes as she is caught with her pants down is sheer terror.  That feeling you get when you're ensnared in a lie is such a powerful one.  We've all been there, it's just that Marion's lie is to the tune of thousands of dollars. She has no choice but to continue on, and she heads out of town. 

When Marion pulls off the road after nearly falling asleep, she is startled to have a cop knocking on the driver's side window of the car.  The officer is kind at first, but when Marion gets all hinky and suspicious, his mood changes.  He does not, however, take off his sunglasses.  It gives him an ominous look, but even though we can't see his eyes, we know damn well he just isn't buying what Marion is selling.  It's even more obvious when he ends up at the used car sales lot when she is there trading in her jalopy for the swamp-destined car.  He stands across the road and glares.  Like I said, you can't see his eyes but it is all the more effective that way.

By the time Marion makes it to the Bates Motel, she is exhausted and feeling guilty as hell.  Meeting Norman Bates must have felt like a breath of fresh air, plus she wouldn't have had to feel any real nerves since Norman doesn't know her from adam. 

At first, he seems like the perfect host, rather nerdy and flustered around a beautiful woman.  His eyes say so much at this point in the film.  Here is where I fell in love with Norman Bates, folks.  Right. Here. 
Those boy next door looks, gentle demeanor, and soothing voice just took me away.  And I think it took Marion away too.  His eyes here are quite kind - just what our Marion needs to make herself feel better. Us too, as viewers.  We're already aghast that Janet Leigh is playing a criminal, right? 

Of course the chat in the parlor changes all that, I think.  When Norman goes off on a tangent about people clicking their thick tongues and always suggesting they put their demented loved ones somewhere, I'm pretty sure Marion has figured out he's slightly off his rocker.  When she retires to her room though, she's all but decided that she's going back to make things right.  She hops into that shower and... well, the rest is history.

But before the big screeching murder scene, we see something else.  The true Norman Bates.  We are privy to his little hole in the wall (and I don't mean his house or business).  We see he's actually rather disturbed, even more than we thought after the parlor rant.  Here is the place in the movie where we all recognize the signs of psychosis.  With just one look.

I'm certainly not saying Norman Bates is a pervert, because I don't see him that way at all.  I see a boy trapped in a man's body - someone that wasn't allowed to grow up the same as other children and someone whose mother has cheated him out of a normal life and exposed him to such things as jealousy and hatred when he neither deserved it nor had a clue how to deal with it.

Probably the most famous "eye" scene in Psycho is Marion after the shower. Obviously.
Though truth be told her eye would certainly be dilated after death, that scene in which the camera goes from the drain to her lifeless eye is what I would call a big money shot.  After all, they killed off Janet Leigh for Christ's sake!  That particular scene has been played over and over in countless retrospectives and clips, but it just never gets old. Very, very effective.

But better than that, in my opinion, is the shot of Norman after he's sent Marion's car to a watery grave, attempting to destroy all the evidence that she'd ever been there to protect "Mother".  It is a quite panic, and shows us all just how fragile and panic-stricken he is. At first, he seems simply nervous.  But as the car sinks to the depths of the swamp, we see that chilling look in his eyes. Now that's the Norman most people are familiar with.  I've no idea how Anthony Perkins didn't win an Oscar for this performance.  It has so many layers and nuances I can't keep up. Damn!  The simple soul we met in the motel lobby turns into the indignant mama's boy in the parlor, then morphs into the manipulative yet detached villain, only to end up the confused crackpot we feel sorry for as the credits roll.  And every bit of it is easily experienced just by the looks on his face. Every emotion, every tell-tale sign of his madness shows in his eyes.

Once Marion's sister Lila gets in on the action, rushing to Sam's looking for her misguided sis, we also meet private detective Arbogast and his looks of wary disbelief.  He's sure, after meeting Norman, that something "just ain't gellin'", and damn if he isn't right.  In every scene he's in, his eyes belay his intuition.  Even when he snoops around just a bit too much, his eyes tell the tale.  Should have stayed home, dude.

Lila Crane (Vera Miles) brings a dose of reality to the film.  Even when everyone is sure Marion is A-ok, Lila pushes the issue, and goes so far as to explore the Bates house herself.  The eyes certainly have it here, as we are finally introduced to Mrs. Bates.  Poor Lila thinks Norman is hiding Mom down in the fruit cellar so she won't be able to incriminate Norman - well, yeah - it is something like that.  In one of the most famous few moments in cinematic history - perhaps even more so than the shower from hell - is the look of sheer horror and disbelief in Lila's eyes when she turns that chair around and sees Mrs. Bates at long last.

And that look remains intact when she whips around to see Norman dressed as his dear old mama, wielding a butcher knife with deadly intent.  Powerful stuff.   Even the eye sockets of Mother's mummified remains are expressive.  See, you don't even need actual eyeballs in this film to relate feelings.Better yet, Hitchcock's fantastic talent with the camera is never better than right here, where the bare light bulb hanging by a string casts long shadows through the empty sockets of Mother's corpse. Absolutely brilliant.  If someone wasn't a fan of Hitchcock before this film (and just who are those people, anyway?), then this one certainly hitched them.  (Pun intended.)

But even after all the film's strongly effective looks, peeps and glances throughout Psycho are over, one compelling screen shot remains. You know the one. The last reel of the film.  Those last, terrifying moments.  Even after our pal Norman's plan with the knife is foiled by hero Sam and he is taken into custody, and we are regaled with the psychiatrist's tales of an overbearing mother and a belittled and jealous son, we get that shot of Norman/Mother in the police station. The voiceover by the Mother side of Norman's personality isn't the most frightening thing - it's the look in Norman's eyes as he gazes directly into the camera...telling everyone he wouldn't even harm a fly. 
In all my countless days of watching horror I have never witnessed a more effective scene in my life.  As I've mentioned at the beginning of this post, the eyes are the window to the soul.  And it has never been as true as in the final moments of Psycho.

As I suspected, that was incredible stuff from Christine. Check her out over at Fascination with Fear, and come back here on Friday to check out another entry into the Spring Slashers. Then Sunday I'm kicking off a brand new feature!

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff here. Yea, Psycho is a movie I don't know if I would ever tackle a post on. Just too much so well said already.

    I don't know if I can volunteer myself or not. Can only so no then I jump out a window. I would like to contribute a post someday on my favorite Hitchcock film (well, outside the cool Jimmy Stewart stuff)... Frenzy... which I just rewatched with the wife and she loved it too.

    If you think you might be into it or unless it is taken let me here or at my Facebook which I think you're linked to. Man, it would be an honor to have a guest post here.

    Keep up the great work

    Bill @ The Uranium Cafe

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