Monday, November 8, 2010
Psycho: Long Night at the Bates Motel
Posted by Joel Bocko at 5:00 AM
Contains spoilers - if such a warning is necessary.
Last week, I almost wrote about Psycho as my #1 horror film. I went with The Shining instead - partly because it may actually be my favorite, partly because it's more exclusively a horror film than Psycho (which contains strong elements of mystery/suspense and psychological drama, with the horror elements consuming surprisingly little screen-time). Besides, the film had already been discussed in the last entry for the horror countdown I was paying tribute to (in a great picture post - check it out). On the other hand, the time was ripe to write about Psycho, as I had just managed to see on the big screen, proceeded by a playful introduction from critic David Thomson, who described his overwhelming desire to grab someone and hold on for dear life after the "big scene" - he even claimed that his 19-year-old self loudly proclaimed to no one in particular (except perhaps the auteur hiding behind the screen as if it was a shower curtain), "Oh please, don't do that to me again!"
Fascinating to me because, well, I've always known that the shower scene was coming. And I've always known that Mrs. Bates was Norman. Indeed, the film has never held many surprises for me, and as I watch it for the umpteenth time I find myself humoring some vaguely contrarian thoughts which perhaps have little bearing on the film itself, but a great deal on my own involvement with it. Psycho has probably been written about more times than any other film save Citizen Kane - although perhaps Norman's knife surpasses Charles' sled in inspiring critical prose. There's a great deal out there already both in print and the blogosphere (for a great example of the latter, check out the Film Doctor's in-depth analysis of the very first scene, tartly titled "Turn Momma's Picture to the Wall".) So what I have to offer here is just my own personal take on the film (which certainly may overlap with others' observations), some scattered reflections and observations, as sliced and diced as Marion's corpse after that fatal cleansing.
One reason I picked the above photo, with its peculiar texture, is that it represents how I first came across Psycho - in a book. I can't even recall the first time I discovered the shower scene; given the movie books I liked to leaf through as a kid, it must have been gleaned almost subconsciously. But I do remember reading my first synopsis of the plot, including its transgressive, transvestite denouement - I was about six or seven, in the throe of a horror-movie fascination, and had checked out a book from the library. Most of the entries discussed Universal monster movies and B creature flicks from the 50s but the book concluded, appropriately enough, with Pyscho. (Jamie Uhler has recently offered a convincing argument that Psycho represents not just a turning point in film art generally, but a crucial fulcrum within the horror genre itself.)
Who knows when I first saw a clip of the shower sequence, but I watched the film's conclusion in a TV clip in the late 90s, just before I finally saw the whole movie: I found the revelation of Norman (even though I had already read about it) to be a perfect blend of the horrifying, the weird, and the hilarious - priceless expression on his face when he rushes into the room unconvincingly got-up as Mom. And the shrieking chords of Bernard Hermann's stabbing score are the perfect accompaniment; whereas the music is submerged in the shower sequence, almost a sound effect accompanying the murder, in this climax the violins stand out all the more because they are almost dissonant - for a moment there's no movement at all, just Norman's wacked-out visage as he poses in the doorway with a gleeful grimace on his face.
Anyway, this has always been my favorite part of the movie; it still gives me the shivers whereas the shower scene has become almost abstract, hard to see through all the intellectual and formal verbiage that has surrounded it over the years. When I finally saw the movie, I enjoyed it start to finish, even if it contained no surprises; it was fun to see how the plot I'd read about in summary unfolded in screen-time, and exciting to see how skillfully Hitchcock unwound his story and its effects. Psycho remained near the top of my favorite films list, although I always considered Vertigo my favorite Hitchcock, and probably the director's masterpiece. Nonetheless, I always had a few questions about the film and its reputation as an all-out shocker.
For one thing, what exactly were audiences expecting when the film was called Psycho? Did they really expect it to be about a young woman who absconds with $40,000 stolen from her boss' client? Of course not, and I suppose the argument is that Hitchcock involves us with this plotline despite the fact we know there must be more, yet sometimes I feel the surprise of Hitchcock's gear-shifting is exaggerated. I guess even if we know the story will take a turn for the demented, we're not expecting Janet Leigh to be knifed - yet look at those opening credits, and she appears last ("and Janet Leigh as Marion Crane"), which is hardly the proper form for listing a main character. Sure, this probably went over a lot of viewers' heads but I've always been attuned to this sort of thing, and I think a lot of other film fans have too - wasn't anybody suspicious in 1960 when the star's name was saved for last, as if she was making a special appearance in her own movie?
Then there's Norman Bates. Read a number of descriptions about the film, and you'll expect him to show up as a cheerful Boy Scout, the last person you'd ever expect to kill a woman straying at his motel. This is not how Anthony Perkins plays the part - sure, he's charming, and the actor had a reputation as a dashing pin-up boy at the time - but Norman is a creep from his very first encounter with Marion; furthermore, she seems to pick up on his creepiness right away. What's more, the Bates Motel is not set up as a mundane location in which murder will unexpectedly intervene, but rather an ominous locale, glimpsed in the rain with a seemingly haunted house hovering on the hillside. In other words, audiences might not have known what they were in for, but they certainly knew they were in for something.
This time around, for whatever reason, the Marion scenes did not grip me quite as much as they had in the past and I found myself impatient for Norman's appearance. I was not disappointed - Perkins' performance was even juicier and more entertaining than I remembered. Recall that everyone in the movie, released when the 60s was still the 50s, is pretty stiff and square. We like Marion because we're stuck with her, but her boyfriend is not particularly interesting and her sister is dowdy and frumpy (Hitchcock's revenge on Vera Miles, the actress who plays the part and who had skipped out on his Vertigo two years earlier). The detective plays like he's dropped in from "Dragnet," while the other characters are tiresomely lecherous old men, obnoxious co-workers, or reedy bosses who hide alcohol in the office.
By contrast, Norman Bates is something of a hep cat, with his black turtlenecks, scrawny physique, and especially his spontaneous, fidgety way with words. Sure he's a bit fucked up, but at least he's not a square. His dialogue with Marion in the bird-room is a masterpiece of who-is-this-guy?, with Marion politely nibbling on her sandwich while Norman - his weirdness just barely, and occasionally, hidden by his well-groomed appearance and frequent smiles and chuckles - rambles on about stuffing dead things, being best friends with his mother, and being completely locked up in a private trap which he only pretends to like. There's one shot which represents the most dramatic shift in mood in the film up to this point: a low-angle with a stuffed predator spreading its wings over Norman's head - his eyes have narrowed, his mouth is pursed, his head is displaced within the frame.
This image brims with malevolence, and it's soon followed by the first outright evidence that Norman is not just a slightly awkward but harmless young man - when he removes a picture from the wall, and peeps through a hole at Marion as she strips. As normal as Porky's, yet within the context of the film it's an uneasy shocker, and we're not sure who to identify with. After all, this is the first moment in the movie that we haven't been with Marion; in fact, I would argue that this scene, and not the clean-up after the shower, is where we really shift our point of view, and where the film changes its tone. It's a fascinating move on Hitchcock's part and with this perverse and perverted gesture, Psycho begins to soar.
Yet it doesn't stay in the air - as some disgruntled critics of the film have noted, we don't stay with Norman, but move back and forth between him and Marion's lover and sister, who are trying to trace the murder victim. What I like about this approach is how Hitchcock employs formal contrasts which not only work within the context of the film but also set up where the cinema in general will go later in the decade. After all, the shots focused on Norman, especially once Marion has left the room, tend toward abstraction. There are rich shadows and harsh light areas, the angles are skewed, the close-ups fragmented and dramatic - all of which may suggest noir, but something about the mundane settings and costumes, as well as the somewhat dehumanized approach to the cinematography avoid any connotations of an older style. Instead, 21st century viewers will recall Bergman's Persona or Polanski's Knife in the Water - it is with the visual focus on Norman and the reflection of his own fractured psyche that Psycho fully becomes a "Sixties" movie.
When we switch to brightly lit, carefully but somewhat impersonally composed master shots, the contrast couldn't be clearer. Norman belongs to the cinema of the future, uncertain, broken, full of skewed close-ups, long-lens, abstract inserts which call attention to themselves rather than "clarifying" an overall situation. Marion's sister, Marion's boyfriend, the detective - all belong to a cinema of the past, of the 50s (represented more by television than by the widescreen Technicolor epics of the era) which Norman is helping to kill alongside his human victims. On this viewing, it seemed to me that the film's greatness lay not in its twisty plot but in the character of Norman Bates, both for what he is (a fascinating individual, easily the most watchable in the movie) and for what he represents.
Even that pat conclusion, in which a psychologist explains every last aspect of Norman's behavior with a dime-store Freudianism, is strengthened by the subversive game Hitchcock is playing throughout. Whether intended or not, the scene's easy explanations and the peculiar, forced reactions of the actors (one gasp from Miles elicited widespread chuckles from the audience) just add to the campy vibe cultivated by the previous scene. We're more uncertain than ever whether to laugh, nod somberly, or shiver in our seats. And Simon Oakland delivers his cameo with such wacky gusto we're not sure if he's really a shrink, or just an inmate who escaped from an asylum and is impersonating a doctor (like Gregory Peck in Hitchcock's Spellbound).
Then, when we switch back to Norman Bates, the dissonance is more jarring than ever. From the easily identifiable geography of the sheriff's office, with everyone clustered together and walls, shelves, and desks all in their place, to Norman's cell, with its one long blank wall out of Antonioni, its figure isolated and imposed in front of it, huddled in a blanket, staring into the camera as if to burn the fourth wall out of existence with his wicked gaze - we've passed through much more than just a hallway, we've entered into another dimension.
Two last observations, one which I'd noticed long ago, and another which I'd forgotten but noticed again. The first is that dissolve from Norman to the car being pulled out of the bog, in which - just for a second - a decaying skull is glimpsed across Norman's fading face: his now-complete identification with the dead mother, or Marion's corpse glimpsed through the metal of the car's trunk? The second moment is brief but just as subversive as anything else in the movie: Norman walks up the stairs to his mother's bedroom and the audience begins to chuckle. Those who haven't caught on look closer and laugh themselves: Mr. Bates is ever so subtly sashaying up those steps, wiggling his rear as if he's walking in one of those tight-fitting dresses from the 40s. Turn Momma's picture to the wall indeed - the movies would never be the same again.