Psycho (1960)

May 30th, 2008 by Perfesser Deviant

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Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Joseph Stefano based on a book by Robert Bloch
Release year: 1960

A boy’s best friend is his mother.

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a young woman on the run, stops for the night at the isolated Bates Motel. The motel manager, oddball Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), is happy for the company, but Marion is distracted by her recent past. The motel has a past of its own in which Marion soon becomes immersed….

(Spoilers follow…)


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Cinemaphiles generally consider Alfred Hitchcock to be one of the greatest film auteurs. Many of his films are excellent and most pushed the boundaries of what censors (and society at large) of the time were willing to accept. Lifeboat’ (1944) dealt with the inhumanity of war in a harrowing situation. ‘Rope’ (1948) tells the tale of sociopathic killers Leopold and Loeb, which was nothing new, but rather than the usual gangsters these were ‘nice boys’ who killed. ‘The Trouble with Harry’ (1955) is an irreverent black comedy about death (of all things). ‘Vertigo’ (1958) is a twisted tale of death, insanity, and love. Even so, none of these was such a radical departure from conventional film as Psycho. In Psycho, Hitchcock broke several mores of film making, leaving the audience profoundly disquieted.

The first section of the film deals with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her impulsive choice to steal $40,000 from her boss and run off to her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). The film opens with Crane and Loomis finishing up an afternoon tryst in a cheap hotel and follows to Crane’s job. The crushing mundaneness of her life has left Crane almost defeated until she finds the chance to get ahead in life, but she has to steal to make her happiness with Sam a reality. A quick run home to collect some clothes and she heads out of town with no one but paranoia as company. Hitchcock uses voice over to tell us what is going on in Marion’s head as she drives. This voice over is where the subtlety of Hitchcock‘s method comes into play as he is able to literally let us get into the head of the protagonist. Through this identification we are able to feel her terror when the cop surprises her, her anxiety when she feels like he is following her, and her relief when she thinks she has finally lost him.

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The relief is short-lived since she ends up quite lost. When she finally finds some civilization, she is unlucky enough to have it be the Bates Motel run by the creepy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). He invites her to dinner in his parlor where, surrounded by the birds that he stuffs as a hobby, they talk. The birds hang over them in the scene, birds of prey behind Norman and smaller songbirds surround Marion. He tells her that she eats like a bird and continues to ramble on, very awkwardly. She comes to realize that she has to go back and face up to what she has done, so she excuses herself. The bird motif extends to Marion’s surname of ‘Crane’, making her a perfect victim for Norman. Norman’s frustrated sexuality becomes evident through the entire sequence as he tries to interact with Marion, but is not successful. He is reduced to watching his little bird through a hole in the wall before he hears Mother calling him from the house.

What follows is one of the quintessential terrifying scenes in cinema: the shower sequence. As Marion showers we see a figure through the translucent shower curtain approach, the figure pulls back the curtain and begins to stab Marion with a chef’s knife until Marion falls. The whole sequence is a mere two minutes of screen time, but includes 50 cuts (edits, not stabs). Because of the rapid-fire editing, the sequence seems much more graphic than the actual film shows. In a shot-by-shot analysis there is little blood and only one shot that shows the knife actually striking Marion’s skin, but the frenetic pacing and sound make people remember far worse. In terms of the sound, Marion’s screaming is raw, the stabbing sounds are hollow and awfully carnal (although they were made by stabbing a melon), but it is Bernard Herrmann‘s score that dominates the sound. Herrmann screeching violins have become iconic to the point that people who have never seen Psycho are aware of them.

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Marion goes through a journey in the film that goes well beyond scope of a the simple trip to join her boyfriend, she travels a road on which she has to reconcile morality and desire. In the beginning, she violates norms of the time by meeting with a boyfriend and having sex with him in a cheap hotel room. This is something that nice women simply did not do in 1960s America and Marion is torn between her love for Sam and her desire to be a respectable woman. During this opening, Marion is wearing white, after she steals the money she changes her clothes and now wears black. During her meal with Norman she realizes that she’s trapped herself as surely as Norman is trapped by his motel, and decides to go back and face the consequences of what she’s done. The shower that she takes is meant to cleanse her of her sins, to return her to her previous relatively innocent state. Unfortunately, her sins cannot so easily be forgiven as she is killed. In this way, the script shows its extreme sense of morality as, despite her contrition, she is killed for her moral crimes.

This film suffered some censor problems, especially due to the shower scene. The use of a bathroom in a film or television was simply not done, especially not a toilet. The censors were also upset by the nudity that some of them saw in the shower sequence. Hitchcock sent the same film back to the censors without making any cuts, but some of the OTHER censors now saw nudity. Hitchcock cut out a shot of buttocks and sent it back, which got it past them. I watched the sequence on DVD frame-by-frame and swear that there are a couple of glimpses of, albeit blurry, breasts. What is notable though, is that the censors had no problem with the violence.

While the violence and apparent nudity would be shocking to a 1960s audience, the death of the character that the audience would have identified as the protagonist in the middle of the film was unthinkable. Hitchcock recognized the powerful nature of such a film and worked hard to keep it a secret. He shot an amusing, but deceptive trailer and ran a disinformation campaign to keep the studio insiders (including critics) from finding out details of the film. He even went so far as to buy up all available copies of Robert Bloch‘s novel and keep the film under an alias (they shot it as Wimpy) not as a working title, but to keep it under wraps. In a move worthy of William Castle, Hitchcock insisted that no one would be allowed into the theater after the film began. This attention to detail is typical of Hitchcock‘s style and is what made him such a master of suspense.

After the death of Marion and the subsequent disposal of her body, the film slips into normalcy for a bit to give the audience a chance to recover their equilibrium. Marion’s sister Lila Crane (Vera Miles) and private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) show up in town looking for Marion and the stolen money. Arbogast goes out to the Bates Motel to try to trace Marion and runs afoul of Norman. The battle of wills between the two men seems like a sure thing since Arbogast is the archetypal film noir detective, but while Norman proves to be too stubborn to let Arbogast get anywhere he acts suspiciously enough that Arbogast decides to look deeper, and sneaks into the Bates house to speak to Mrs. Bates.

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We watch as Arbogast climbs the stairs toward the upper floor bedrooms, we see the bedroom door open, we see Mrs. Bates come running out and stab Arbogast with a sick squishing noise, we see Arbogast stagger backwards down the stairs with Mrs. Bates in pursuit, but, no matter how shocking the murder is, the audience knew it was coming. The attack is savage as Arbogast’s blood sprays on his face after the first strike and the absolute helplessness of Arbogast is assured as he tumbles down the stairs. As he lies on the floor, stunned, Mrs. Bates delivers the coup de grâce with another wet knife strike as Arbogast half screams, half groans. This set piece uses the same music as the shower sequence and the same horrid sound effects, but the shot is very different. The murder of Arbogast does not use the quick cuts of the shower, but instead uses a continuous shot as grimacing Arbogast, arms flailing, staggers backward down the stairs to the floor.

This film was both a major departure for Alfred Hitchcock and something that had really never been seen in mainstream American cinema before. Instead of coyly hiding the carnage behind the scenes or just off-camera as had always been done before, Hitchcock presented them front and center to directly horrify the audience. In effect, this film (along with Peeping Tom’, also from 1960), by explicitly showing brutal murders by a psychopath, is the first slasher film. Like a slasher film, it could be interpreted as a simplified world of moral absolutes where Marion is punished for her sins (stealing and premarital sex) until the killer is defeated by a more moral pair in the form of Sam and Lila. By modern standards the gore is minimal (Hitchcock made sure of this by shooting the film in black and white), but it seems much more bloody than each shot shows; the whole is far more than the parts.

Hitchcock chose to go with crisp black and white film for numerous reasons, including keeping the gore quotient down and the relative cheapness of black and white film stock. The B&W gives the film a sort of film noir quality that makes it seem more savage than it would in even the brightest, most vivid color. Paramount did not want to spend much money on this film, so Hitchcock used his crew (except for the editor) from his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This cut costs substantially and allowed Hitchcock to become a part owner of the film and reap profits like he never had before when one of his films became popular.

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The final shock of the film occurs when Lila and Sam go back to the Bates Motel and Lila sneaks up to the house to see Mrs. Bates. Norman realizes that something is wrong and knocks Sam over the head and runs up to the house while Lila sneaks down into the fruit cellar. We get the shocking reveal about the nature of Mrs. Bates and the killer. Lila is scared by the desiccated corpse that she finds and is terrified when the killer shows up in the doorway and the film wraps up very quickly. The notable thing about this scene is the way that Hitchcock used light and shadow in this scene with the expertise of the best film noir directors. The swinging light bulb gives the scene a surreal quality, even making the mummy seem to blink. Like the killing of Arbogast and the shower sequence, this scene is brief, but seems much longer.

In terms of actors, the whole film hangs on Perkins, whose performance is so powerful and iconic that it left him typecast; for the rest of his life he was stuck playing psychopaths. Beyond actors, the music of Bernard Herrmann and his miniature string orchestra adds a lot to the film, and Hitchcock himself said that a third of the impact of the film was the music. Herrmann‘s screeching violins have become as part of the popular culture as the shower sequence itself. The film has been referenced hundreds of times in other works, most famously by John Carpenter in Halloween’ (1978) when he cast Janet Leigh‘s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis and called Donald Pleasence‘s character ‘Sam Loomis’.

Hitchcock and scriptwriter Joseph Stefano changed Robert Bloch‘s story in few, but significant, ways. The major change was the character of Norman, in the original book he was a fat, middle-aged drunkard. The problem with that was Norman needed to become a sympathetic character in the second half of the film, which would not be possible if the character seemed sleazy. By making Norman sad and pathetic rather than evil, his character could become a proper protagonist, in effect, just another victim. There were other, minor changes too–Arbogast became a private investigator rather than an insurance investigator, the violence was toned down, Sam and Lila found no blood in the motel room–but these has much less effect than the humanity given to Norman.

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Robert Bloch was influenced by the notorious Ed Gein, who lived near Bloch‘s home at the time of his capture. Ed Gein was a strange man whose puritanical mother ruled his life. When Ed‘s brother rebelled against mother, Ed killed him. When Ed‘s mother died, leaving him alone, he became weirder and weirder, raiding cemeteries for the bodies of middle-aged women to serve as his surrogate mother. Many of the bodies he skinned, using their parts to make furniture, bowls, and waistcoat. It wasn’t until Ed graduated to murdering women that he was detected by authorities, who linked him to one murder, and found evidence at his home which implicated him in another. Ed Gein himself has become one of the most commonly reference serial killers in films–The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and Silence of the Lambs’ come to mind–perhaps surpassed only by Jack the Ripper in terms of quantity.

If it has been a while since you last watched this genuine masterpiece, check it out again.

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