Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
This is a story about a woman who steals $40,000 from her employer, and goes on the run with some vague ambition of giving it to her deeply-in-debt boyfriend. After a number of close calls with law enforcement and car dealerships, she stops on a “dirty night” at the tiny out-of-the-way Bates Motel, over which looms the home of its friendly but leering operator, Norman Bates. Marion overhears Norman’s mother screeching violently at him with the kind of old-world moralism she’s yearned to escape. After a late-night conversation in which Norman informs Marion that “we’re all in our private trap” — one of the key lines of dialogue in American cinema — Marion has an epiphany and determines to make good, to reverse her plans and escape her trap. The decision to find this redemption in herself and face up to what she’s done exhilarates her, and she takes a cleansing shower to commemorate the moment. Whatever comes afterward, the terrifying and aching loss of opportunity and waste of life that is just moments ahead, Marion has discovered herself and will experience that relief for these few moments, just before a knife plunges into her — and the frames of celluloid we’re watching — again and again.
Alfred Hitchcock’s move away from star-driven, glossy productions really starts with the documentary-like The Wrong Man; it’s a misnomer, really, to say that there was such a thing as “normal” Hitchcock, but the skillful and contented mid-’50s films The Man Who Knew Too Much and To Catch a Thief are the closest we get in his filmography to the generation of unabashed crowd-pleasing fun, a vacation of sorts if you will. With his best films up to that time all massive hits, Hitchcock must have believed he understood his audience well enough that they’d follow him where he took them. The first painful failure was The Trouble with Harry, a comedy masterpiece that’s still misunderstood to this day. Then came Vertigo, the film that changed things. Vertigo was the end of Hitchcock the earnest Hollywood filmmaker, at least for a while, when critics and audiences were proven unwilling to be brought down such a morbid, personal path. Evidence suggests that the film meant a great deal to him, and the three angry, pointed efforts that followed it all seem more than faintly to be reactions to its mediocre performance. First came North by Northwest, a cathartic and ingenious self-parody that touched the sky in its scope and mocking humor. Then, of course, there was the little film Paramount, among others, didn’t think Hitchcock should even make that would then turn out to be the shining beacon of his legacy, the film that would remain most profoundly and instantly associated with his name long after his death — and long after hundreds of attempts, conscious and otherwise, to duplicate and dilute its impact. It can’t be done, because Psycho is one of the truest exercises in pure cinema, a wry, brutal, joyous, surreal assault on good taste and the senses that still sears and surprises, no matter how familiar you are (or think you are!) with it.
The director’s stated reasons for making a low-budget black & white film in 1960 were, ironically, analogous to the groans that some conservative critics would later make when it was issued to theaters: the industry was changing. Annoyed by the increasingly bloated salaries requested by stars — Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, to name one — and the heavy-handed glitter of studio filmmaking, he hatched a notion inspired by Roger Corman’s success at American International: what would it be like if a B-picture, a small-budget quickly produced “exploitation” thriller, were well-made, well-written, well-acted? For a director of his stature, this sort of writhing in the muck was unprecedented, and Paramount — already peeved at him for contracting with Universal, where he’d stay for the rest of his life after this film, and for supplying MGM with the enormously successful North by Northwest — loathed the idea. But what could they do? Hitchcock was a box office draw in those days, he owed them one more film, and preferred star of original vehicle No Bail for the Judge, Audrey Hepburn, was unavailable. Hitchcock ignored everyone’s objections and went ahead with Psycho, based on Robert Bloch’s Ed Gein-inspired novel. Gein wasn’t himself a serial killer, but his permanent legacy on the cinema of the serial killer is immovable: Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs each borrow elements of his story. But in turn, Bloch’s character of Norman Bates himself would arguably change cinema as a whole: the cackling, complex, affable figure of a troubled soul. The age of the simplistic villain was permanently over.
Superficially, the film couldn’t have seemed farther from the Hitchcock thriller traditions of the wrong man on the run, the chases across landmarks, the “cool blonde” and the teetering climax. Those are overstated themes in analyses of his work anyway, but now he would forever leave that frothiness behind. Psycho does, of course, fit with other fixations on his part, some inherited from Bloch, some enhanced by screenwriter Joseph Stefano (an outstanding choice), and some pure Hitchcock: the woman alone with a cross to bear (two women, in this case), the psychology of the sexually perverse, toward whom he was consistently compassionate, and the nature of “objective” reality. The commentary on this last point is the strongest subversion of Hitchcock’s storied techniques, though there is some antecedent in Vertigo and both films owe something to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s harrowing Diabolique: although the camera is omniscient by accumulation, in any given scene the sympathies are clear and it’s fully subjective. This was the director’s true artistic trademark, a mark of his empathy, but in his previous films he’d kept to a complete subjective narrative. Now, the audience’s sympathies were to be juggled no less than six times: from Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) to Lila Crane (Vera Miles) to Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) to Norman again and back finally to Lila and Sam (John Gavin). The official line is that the film alters course with the murder of Marion, but that’s just the first of many complete sideswipes and turnarounds.
On a purely intellectual level, that’s a fascinating storytelling gimmick more exciting than a world of 3D camerawork and reverse zoom shots, but a large part of Psycho‘s appeal and purity is how little one notices this as it’s happening, and how much it instead becomes a tragic, unforgiving tale of people in “private traps.” No cold exercise, this is as pressing and human as any of the director’s work — and is arguably his most sophisticated story not merely in narrative structure but in its reading of the frayed, chaotic nature of life, which (see also The Wrong Man) refuses to correspond to movie-narrative ironies and arrangements. But we do also inherit some of the sardonic gleefulness of North by Northwest in Psycho‘s capability of not toying with the spectators so much as playing them like instruments, a stated longing of the director’s. What he’s mostly doing, though, is presenting a mirror in front of us like so many of those visible throughout the film: we become different people, we “go a little mad sometimes,” we fall into private traps because we’re wandering around like pawns in an often bleak and oppressive landscape whose hindrances upon us create an ominous cumulative. The prevention of romance, sex, humanism in Psycho and the general instability of this Gothic horizon of dark rainy highways and imposing sleazy motels (not just Bates’) and houses are a caricature of Hitchcock’s vision of the world. Indirectly, he argues that Marion’s presence in the society that would frown upon her trysts with the man she loves is as constraining as Norman’s isolation from it.
Along with Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, this is one of the first films to use black & white as an artistic choice, communicating a far-flung American desolation that’s the ideal setting for its level of threat, and would of course become one of its most influential elements. Hitchcock didn’t use his typical staff for Psycho, salvaging composer Bernard Herrmann and editor George Tomasini but otherwise borrowing the crew of his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the frame, nevertheless, is highly evocative, and Hitchcock and cinematographer John Russell (long ago the cameraman of Welles’ Macbeth) pack the dense 109 minutes with stunningly atmospheric, often tauntingly unnerving visuals. Through the scaling back of routines and procedures of film production, Hitchcock single-handedly created the horror film vernacular that remains in use today — its application would be immediately clear in the subsequent creation of the “slasher” genre and in benchmarks like Night of the Living Dead, and Hitchcock’s own The Birds.
The secular morality play that opens Psycho, expanded from the two chapters in the novel about Marion, is crucially deceptive but also the crux of the true meaning of the film. Ostensibly, the trickery is of a nature befitting the director’s reputation for practical jokes: an audience flocks to see the new film starring big star Janet Leigh (who took a significant pay cut to make the picture), only to find that she’s gone less than halfway through the film, that it isn’t “about” her at all. But oh, my friends, it is. Though like many Hitchcock films it has received the opposite criticism, it isn’t much of a stretch to consider the analogy drawn between a boy prevented from living within the larger world by his mother — and a woman, even a conservative and proper (though unapologetically sexual) woman, prevented from the life she wants by shaming and misogyny, triggering a subconscious lashing out at the bombastically sexist cowboy who lays the money on the table early in the narrative. This notion is reinforced by much of Hitchcock’s entire filmography, especially his next two films (The Birds and Marnie, both starring Tippi Hedren), but it doesn’t have to be. It’s perfectly mounted as it is, and as excellent as Psycho is in its entirety, with its juxtaposed narratives and galvanizing suspense theatrics, the Marion story that occupies its first forty-five minutes is perhaps the pinnacle of Hitchcock’s achievements, certainly the culmination of everything he’d ever learned about the thriller form in the prior forty years.
It couldn’t be a more beautiful construction. Marion is our vessel immediately, because we comprehend so deeply her yearning for her divorced lover and frustration at his desire to be capable of a “normal” life before he can take her on as a wife. When she returns to her job and $40,000 is plunked down a table, we don’t get a reaction shot from her, rather from her two coworkers — yet we know what she’s thinking and why, because she has already gained our sympathies so absolutely, and because we have quickly come to understand her character so well. That’s why our hearts are in our throats when she’s pulled over and challenged by the police and rushes through a transaction with a car dealer, why we (normal law-abiding people just like Marion!) smile along with her when she can’t help imagining with a mixture of horror and maddened delight when she fantasizes about what the stuffy occupants of her old world will say when they “find out,” and lastly why we feel like a new day has dawned when she steps into that shower and revels in the “baptism” (Hitchcock’s phrase) along with her.
And why, finally, we feel so violated and destroyed when she is then killed, completely unexpectedly. And it is completely unexpected, even fifty-two years later when you know what’s coming either because you’ve seen the film a million times before or you already know about the “shower scene” because everyone knows about it. And about that shower scene. The reductive way of looking at it would be as one final nail in the coffin of the Production Code that had begun to unravel with Otto Preminger’s work in the prior few years, but for all the movie mythology that’s come to be attached to it, there’s been some backlash to the way it’s popularized brutal violence against women as the giant trope of the horror world. But the thing is it isn’t exploitative or tasteless or “sexy” or “fun.” One of the many ways in which the scene — which is, admittedly, very beautiful, but largely because it’s so tragic — seems to burst out threateningly from the frame is that it is an undiluted examination of the absoluteness of death and all that it entails. Because it is unflinching before the demise of the woman who is currently its protagonist, it is the very antidote to the sort of copout that marks most cinematic treatment of murder and death. Janet Leigh’s face as she reaches her arm out in vain one last time, as she lies dead with her eye still open and a visible tear crawling from it, tells us everything: the depth of this loss, the agony of it, the ugliness. The tremendous technical mastery of the scene is really something, the 50-shot concoction (not directed by Saul Bass as has occasionally been reported, though partially storyboarded by him) as shocking and harrowing and intrusive as we imagine murder to be, but its emotional content is what sticks, and we only leave without deeper trauma because the film keeps going before we have more than a moment to grieve. In some respects, this makes Psycho the flippant response to the culture of the murder mystery as escapist pursuit (exemplified by Hume Cronyn in Shadow of a Doubt) — this is what a killer does, what a killer takes away. How audacious of Hitchcock to then ask us to become sympathetic to Norman Bates (who we know, on repeat viewings, to be the killer) and, amazingly, to succeed.
Joseph Stefano was a new collaborator for Hitchcock, a young screenwriter who’d only made one movie previously, but the two of them put together what must be one of the tightest and most eloquent screenplays in the director’s oeuvre. Few films are more consistently quotable, the dialogue only slightly elevated but improbably wise and revealing, its wordplay and irony well-placed and natural. Stefano shows arguably far more empathy than Bloch toward Norman, whose entrance and world are a psychological hotbed that inspires in Marion as well as the audience a degree of respectful pity, for the instant we meet him we like him and are cognizant to the difficulty of his living situation — a connection that doesn’t dissipate even after the twist casts his actions in a new light.
That wouldn’t be possible without Anthony Perkins, of course, and Perkins is so much more than the defining of a future-typecast movie villain here. Much has been said about Hitchcock’s attitude toward actors over the years, but one thing that is nearly indisputable at this point, as we survey Hollywood’s legacy into its second century, is that the great actors who worked with him gave their absolute best work under him, and that can’t have been a coincidence: James Stewart in Vertigo, Grace Kelly in Rear Window, Ingrid Begrman and Cary Grant in Notorious, and most relevant to us here, Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, an embodiment of a psychopath so vivid and persuasive as to be genuinely chilling. Perkins is just as extraordinary, catapulting a novel’s caricature into a living, breathing human in complex, cascading dimensions. He’s so much beyond the “likable villain” in the James Bond sense. To start with, he’s not even really a villain, he’s a victim, and his friendliness manifests as a self-effacing but delicately genuine veneer that comes out of a hindered desire to relate to other people. But of course, the cracks must show, and they do often, as in Bates’ rant about mental institutions over dinner with Marion. Perkins’ performance is simply one of those moments of absolute perfection in movies that can’t simply be “decided” to happen, it’s just the magical convergence of actor, writer, character, and director that makes it a chilling piece of true filmed divinity.
His is of course the performance of the picture, but he has some competition — among the support players, only John Gavin seems slightly out of his element, the type of “normal guy” Hitchcock always had trouble casting (a quirk he reflexively criticized in Sabotage and Shadow of a Doubt, both also arguably feminist films) — with Janet Leigh rising to the challenge of rendering a strong woman capable of a flight of fancy that leads her to the wrong side of the law, and finally to a heartbreaking loss to herself and the audience. Vera Miles, the unfortunately cast-off co-lead from Vertigo, embodies a dark sense of purpose as Marion’s sister Lila, subtly driving the investigation of Marion’s demise far more than Gavin’s Sam, and of course finally the solver of the film’s twisted mystery. And the always delightful Martin Balsam is a treat as enterprising Arbogast, the innocent man who asks too many questions and is along with Sam the opener of the crevices in Norman, who twists his head around like a bird munching on candy corn and stares cockeyed in his presence. Balsam’s greatest, most “real” moment is not his staircase murder but the wonderful tidbit when Norman asks if he’ll help him change the linens while he asks his questions. “Nooo,” Arbogast chuckles. “That’s — that’s okay.”
Some have said, indeed, that Psycho is Hitchcock’s most truly collaborative film, but that’s arguably in part because it’s so well-documented and its actors were so forthcoming in later years about their experience. It also was a massive box office hit, so Hitchcock was less reticent about discussing it than he was about, say, Vertigo, the failure of which arguably never stopped bothering him. The point being that while it’s interesting that Leigh and Perkins were advised to improvise during their lengthy conversation scene, that sort of thing was more common on a Hitchcock set than has often been reported — the actors in Notorious, for instance, virtually created their characters on the fly as the cameras rolled. Hitchcock was always a purely visual filmmaker and this was no exception, but he did care about the script and the dialogue, he simply found it secondary, and he was often right. The “sense” of life and containment you receive from Marion and Norman’s scenes together says more than the lines they’re reading, great as they may be. Getting back to visuals, of course, Bass overstated his stake in the film over the years, but he was a key element in its success. His second-unit version of the Arbogast murder had to be reshot, but Bill Krohn and Stephen Rebello have documented that his ideas for the shower scene were kept mostly intact when Hitchcock filmed it. And of course the title sequence, frantic and wild and twisting, is one of Bass’ greatest. But the key collaborator here is the one, of course, with the rather unheard-of privilege of having his name in the credits last of all, just before the director.
Bernard Herrmann’s music for Psycho is probably not the most famous film score ever. John Williams’ work in Jaws and Star Wars undeniably edges it out, and it’s not unreasonable to guess that Maurice Jarre’s music in Lawrence of Arabia and Max Steiner’s for Gone with the Wind have remained equally recognizable. But the harsh, violent, teasing music Herrmann made for this film may have had the biggest role of any score in determining the final impact of a film — Hitchcock himself would say that a third of Psycho‘s power was owed to Herrmann. That’s especially true in the shower scene, which the director initially wished to be silent; Herrmann piles on top of the already pronounced violence in the sequence with the bursts of birdlike violin corresponding to the stabs of the knife, an alarming blow to our consciousness. More than simply a bit of mad-scientist manipulation, it’s artful and sublime.
Still, a close examination of why Psycho makes such a strong impression returns to the masterful and carefully detailed manner in which it’s directed. It is, by pure aesthetic value, the ideal Hitchcock film. The camera angles and tricks all have a purpose, as aesthetically thrilling as they can be: the bird’s-eye views of the staircase that hide the twist of Mother’s identity underneath her delightfully barbed lines, the “figure in the window” specifically calling back to Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, the rainy night that lands Marion in her cage. These are the things that make this rigorously engineered film such a cathartic, transformative experience; far from the dream-world of Vertigo, we now seem to be thrust into a new twist on a terribly unadorned reality, the environment in which we’re most vulnerable and most “available” to be toyed with. The stuffed birds, the odd trinkets, the busy realism of the interiors (arrived at through reference photography in Phoenix), everything becomes a piece with the uneasy tone of the narrative — the mirror just slightly distorted, but finally permanently so.
And what does it say that after we know that Norman killed this woman whose story we were so invested in, after we see how brutally and nastily she was destroyed, we see the film again — inevitably! — and still find ourselves siding with Norman as he covers the damage and hides the body? Getting pent-up and tense when the car won’t sink farther into the swamp (a moment effectively echoed in reverse by the chilling final shot)? Mostly it just says just how much these narrative devices that Alfred Hitchcock spent decades fine-tuning can finally take control over us, it visualizes the extent to which he invented a new way of telling stories and elucidating upon their characters’ inner lives, and of course it’s meant to give us a final feeling of bleakness and pure horror — but, of course, with that tantalizing tiny bit of humor intact. “I’m not even gonna swat that fly,” Mother says, and Norman smiles, the smile of an irreversible slide into movie oblivion.