Oh God! Mother!
Film essay by: Witney Seibold
Warning: If you have not seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and are unfamiliar with the story, do not read this essay. Most people are familiar with the plot twists at this point, so I feel fine discussing them openly. If you do not know the twists… well, first of all, it’s o.k. to come out from under that rock now, but also the twists should remain a surprise.
The blood in the famous shower scene is reported to be chocolate syrup. Hitchcock felt that Leigh’s screaming wasn’t intense enough, so he had a stagehand turn off her hot water unexpectedly during the shoot. These legends may or may not be true.
When “Psycho” opened in 1960, most cinemas were still showing their film programs on a constant loop that lasted all day. They would show an “A” feature, which was usually the big studio picture on the marquee, a short film, a serial, a cartoon, a news reel, and a “B” feature, often a genre film. Showtimes were almost never posted.
Alfred Hitchcock probably wasn’t the only film director who found this practice repellant. After all, a film writer and director agonizes over pacing, timing, and deliberate plotting, only to have their vision marred by the comings and goings of a noisy audience who were willing to see their films out-of-order. Hitchcock, an auteur if ever there was one, decided to do something about it. Namely, he convinced Universal, the studio distributing “Psycho,” to enforce a new theater policy: theaters were to deny entrance to anyone who came late. Not only did this satisfy Hitchcock’s need to have audiences pay closer attention to his film, but it was a crackerjack ad campaign, leaving audiences in suspense. In the film’s preview, Hitchcock even pleaded with audiences not to give away the film’s ending. “It’s the only ending we’ve got,” he said.
You can watch the preview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-uXsQdZuxo
And thusly, the filmgoing habits of the world changed. After 1960, the come-when-you-will practice began to wane, and showtimes began running in newspapers. It could be argued that it was this practice that allowed audiences’ tastes to develop, and for people to become more savvy to the language of filmmaking.
All film turns us into voyeurs; as an audience, we are the unseen God’s eye that looks over all the characters’ lives. But “Psycho” is the first film (with the possible exception of Powell and Pressberger’s “Peeping Tom”) that addresses the idea of voyeurism to the audience. “Psycho” shows us a few things that films up to that point had never shown: a couple snuggling post-coitally in a seedy motel, a woman casually changing her clothes and revealing her underwear in a non-burlesque setting, a shower scene, a peeping tom (we get to peep on the peeper), and, most notoriously at the time, a flushing toilet. On a certain level, “Psycho” is a lurid and trashy film that seeks to break barriers and reach new levels of mere shock.
Indeed, Hitchcock went to great lengths to make this film look trashier and cheaper than it needed to. In 1960, Hitchcock was already well known for Technicolor blockbusters like “Vertigo,” “North By Northwest,” and the 3-D “Dial ‘M’ for Murder.” He also had a hit TV show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” With that sort of fame and clout, you would think Hitchcock would shoot “Psycho” with a well-moneyed cast, gorgeous color cinematography, and the high slickness that he was capable of. He chose, instead, to use his low-budget TV camera crew, shoot in black-and-white, built a somewhat cheap-looking set on the Universal backlot (which can still be seen to this day), and keep the camera in close and tight to his actor, making the whole production seem a little bit more down-and-dirty.
“Psycho” doesn’t necessarily read as down-and-dirty, though, as we know Hitchcock so well. It plays more like a wicked wink to the audience. I have the capability to make something huge, Hitchcock seems to be saying to us, but I choose instead to make something that kids with the conventions of the most lurid aspects of cinema. This approach is ingenious, as we are able to get one of the most gorgeously shot movies ever made in the guise of a gory potboiler.
The film is about Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a desk jockey in a Phoenix real estate office. We have seen her canoodling with her divorced boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin), and they have discussed marrying if only they had the money. That very afternoon, a rich southern land baron (Frank Albertson) floats into her office, and waves $40,000 in cash in front of her and her co-worker (Pat Hitchcock). Marion’s boss asks her to deposit the money in the bank. There seems to be a little internal debate, but Marion instead starts driving out of town with the money and a packed suitcase.
We are firmly entrenched in Marion’s inner world. We hear hypothetical conversations she has with herself, and we see the panic in her face. We may not feel her desperate need for the money (this is right near the beginning of the film, so we’ve only been given the most basic backstory), but we completely understand her decision.
She is accosted by a cop (Mort Mills). The cop is an eyeless brute who quietly gives orders and who seems to be eight feet tall in close-ups. “Am I behaving as if there’s something wrong?” she asks with terrified doe eyes. “Frankly, yes,” The cop returns. The shots of the ever-present cop stalking Marion on the highway, and following her into a used car lot just over the California border are wickedly menacing. Hitchcock himself had a fear of policemen and prisons (he was once forced by a parent to spend a night in a prison cell), so cops in his movies are never seen as heroes or enforcers. They are seen as phantoms and threats. Indeed, the theme of the Wrongly Accused Man being stalked by a relentless police force is a common theme in Hitchcock’s movies.
Marion swaps cars, quickly, and heads out into the California desert. I like the scene in the used car lot. It’s the first time she spends a bit of the money she’s stolen, indicating, once and for all, that she’s beyond the point of no return. By nightfall, it is raining, and she turns off the main highway by accident. She stumbles into the parking lot of the Bates Motel, run by the milquetoast Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
Norman is polite, awkward, and never gets any business anymore. He’s happy to find a lone customer at his motel. Marion flirts with him a bit, and is invited into his parlor for sandwiches. They have a rather intense discussion about the lives stations. Marion heard Norman’s mother belittling him and yelling at him, and suggests he escape this place. Norman is unresponsive to her suggestions, and even less so to her flirting. What is wrong with Norman? He is twitchy and guarded. He is ultra-polite one moment, and vaguely threatening the next. Perkins gives one of the iconic performances in cinema with Norman Bates. He is creepy, yet fascinatingly watchable.
Marion returns to her room, determined to return to Pheonix and return the money and accept the consequences of her actions. She takes a shower…
Here, the film takes one of the most famous “left turns” in all cinema history. The heroine we have been following for about 45 minutes is suddenly and unexpectedly slain in the shower by Mrs. Bates, Norman’s mother. This is not only a shocking twist in the film’s plotting, but a both narrative leap. We begin to see that “Psycho” is not about Marion at all. It’s not about her theft of the money, her psychology, or even her life. The film is about Norman Bates, the put-upon motel owner with a murderous mother, and the pressures he goes through to cover up his mother’s crime.
Marion’s murder scene is, indeed, one of the most virtuosic pieces of filmmaking of the decade. Shot without any dialogue, we see Marion return to her room, repack her suitcase, fold the stolen money into a newspaper, we see Norman peeping at her through a hole in his office wall, we see her strip, get in the shower, we see Mrs. Bates enter with a large kitchen knife, we see the murder, we see Norman discover the body, we see him clean up the blood, pack all of Marion’s things and her corpse into the trunk of her car, and we see him trying to sink the car in a local swamp. In a few minutes of largely silent film, we have shifted “Psycho” from a routine thriller to a chilling and engaging psychological study, we have seen the narrative shift from a hero to a villain, and we have managed to see one of the most shocking and frightening sequences from any film.
After this, Norman’s life become besieged with interlopers. Thanks to the theft, a private detective named Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is hired. He teasm up with Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Sam Loomis (whose name, I should point out, was reused in John Carpenter’s classic “Halloween”). He scours all the local motels, eventually finding the Bates Motel. Arbogast questions Norman and clearly has the upper hand in all conversations. The interplay between the two is tense and incredibly well-written. When Arbogast sneaks into Norman’s house to question Mrs. Bates, he meets a fate similar to that of Marion. The cut over Arbogast’s eye is more shocking than any bucket of gore from any given modern day horror flick.
Eventually Lila and Sam head to the Bates Motel as well, seeing as Arbogast has not returned any calls yet. At this point in the film, we begin to see that it’s only a manner of time before Norman Bates and Mrs. Bates are caught. Thanks to a conversation with the local sheriff (John McIntire), Sam and Lila learn that Mrs. Bates had a funeral a few years back. Hm… Is Mrs. Bates still alive? Whom did they bury all those years ago. Is the woman who says she is Mrs. Bates an imposter? When Sam and Vera arrive at the Bates Motel we know that the truth will finally come to light, and the audience is, with hope, shaking on the edge of their seats. Will Mrs. Bates kill Vera and Same as well? We’ve been forced to lose hope for Marion, but perhaps the villain and villainess will be apprehended.
And what is the truth? The figure we’ve glimpsed in doorways wearing a dress and wielding a knife is none other than Norman Bates himself, suffering from a psychotic break where he believes he is his own mother. He keeps the poorly-maintained corpse of his mother around the house, treating her like she’s still alive.
Wow. That is amazing. Especially for 1960. This is a conceit that has been ripped off dozens of times by dozens of lesser films. I wish I could have been one of the audience members in 1960 when the film came out and experience that twist afresh. Sadly, I am too young.
The film then has a hugely unnecessary scene in which a shrink (Simon Oakland) explains explicitly what we already understand implicitly. This scene grinds on and on, explaining and explaining until we’re not interested anymore. It’s the one misstep in an otherwise impeccable film.
And yes, I say the film is impeccable. Every single shot is needed, and, the shrink scene notwithstanding, nothing is extraneous. How clever of Hitchcock to make a film purporting to be a lurid potboiler, and giving us one of the most technically marvelous and masterfully crafted thrillers in history.
“Psycho” made Janet Leigh a star, earning her an Academy Award nomination. She was also nominated for a Golden Globe, and a Laurel award. Hitchcock was also nominated for several awards, as were the film’s photographers. The film was an enormous box office hit, and remains, to this day, a seminal tentpole of the genre, and is taught rigorously in film classes. I think I still have my copy of the shower scene’s original storyboard somewhere. Hitchcock always felt that storyboarding a scene was far more interesting than actually shooting it, so he spent more time planning shots than actually shooting them. It was largely this process that gave his films such a strong, professional air.
Here were two unsung heroes in the film’s earnings, though. The first is, of course Anthony Perkins, whose iconic and creepy performance has influenced the performance of every single film psychopath since. He is weak and mealymouthed, yet brutally terrifying. He is not seen as calculating, and we fear him. And he is, strangely, pleasant to be around. There is a childish innocence behind the murderous rages.
The other unsung hero is the film’s famous composer, Bernard Hermann. He was the one who composed the famous screeching music during the stabbing. The entire score is, uniquely, performed on stringed instruments. No brass, no percussion. Just the loud, slipstream song of violins and violas and cellos. This is a classic example of less being more. Has the film had a more bombastic score, many of the thrills may not have worked. Indeed, the early scenes of Marion in her car are only a shot of her and Hermann’s score. We are lost inside of her, thanks to the music.
In 1998, Gus Van Sant attempted to remake “Psycho” in color, using Hitchcock’s original storyboards, and changing only the slightest details. Van Sant is a good filmmaker, and was bold for making such a strange experiment. The experiment, most would agree, was largely a failure. Somehow Van Sant’s modern sensibilities felt more like sterile homage than a new interpretation of an old thriller. I admire the 1998 version, if only to show that filmmaking styles and trends have changed so much, that working in an old idiom may not work anymore; a new thriller can imitate down to the last afterthought, but the thrill comes from the unexpected, and a film has to do something new to really catch one’s attention.
I saw “Psycho” again recently, on the big screen. The audience was mostly young people who likely knew all of the twists and details, and indeed would even recite certain lines of dialogue they deemed their favorites. The audience was in silent awe for most of the film, and left the theater disturbed and moved by Hitchcock’s wicked little killer. If any film holds up upon repeat viewings, and will continue to be shocking, scary, wicked and fun throughout the ages, it’s “Psycho.”