This month, over at Past Offenses, Rich is gathering bloggers together to celebrate the mystery fiction and cinema of 1960. It’s not a year particularly suited to my tastes, and as I trolled the lists to find something, the only title that called out to me was the Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho. I wrote briefly about Psycho a couple of months ago as part of a larger piece (here it is), and I looked forward to devoting more time to this horror classic by the Master of Suspense. Hitchcock is my favorite director, and I discuss many of his movies, including Psycho, in the film class I teach. So thank you, Rich, for giving me the opportunity to explore the film in greater depth.
The genesis of Psycho is the real life horror story of Ed Gein, who was raised under the thumb of his Puritanical mother in Plainfield, Wisconsin and who, after her death, perpetrated crimes against at least two women. He was captured, found both guilty and insane, and spent the rest of his life in a mental institution. His story inspired a host of writers to create fictional monsters, and if you read or watch The Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or House of 1,000 Corpses, you can get a sense of the way Gein worked.
Some have assumed that novelist Robert Bloch adapted the story of Gein’s murder spree to create his novel Psycho because Bloch was actually living only 35 miles or so away from Gein when he decided to write the story about what might happen if the small town boy next door turned out to be a deranged killer. He was almost finished with the novel when Gein was arrested and his crimes exposed; seeing the similarities between Gein and his own fictional killer, Bloch went so far as to refer to Gein toward the end of his novel.
The story of the 1960 film is kind of amazing for two reasons: the way Hitchcock adapted the novel to film and the fact that he could make the film at all. Coming off the high-budget, high gloss North by Northwest, Psycho was the last thing that Paramount wanted Hitchcock to make. He had been in preparation for another star vehicle for Audrey Hepburn when the actress got pregnant and had to bow out. A trusted assistant showed Hitchcock Bloch’s novel, and although the director was determined to make it, the studio refused to finance or staff it. Hitchcock ended up using his own money and the crew from his hit TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents in exchange for distribution from Paramount. The bare-bones budget only helped create the nightmare blockbuster that Psycho would become: the film was shot quickly and in black and white, a decision that allowed the director to film some truly gruesome scenes without fear they would prove too gory for audiences to take.
The result was a film that scared the pants off 1960 audiences, and though it was slow to take off at the box office, it eventually became a huge hit, garnering four Oscar nominations, including best director. It made Hitchcock, as producer, fabulously wealthy, and it ranks as one of his best and most hard-hitting films.
The key to its greatness lies in the adaptation by Joseph Stefano, guided by Hitchcock to deepen the original story, incorporating some of the cinematic motifs of which he was so fond. The themes of voyeurism and of love and marriage are explored in fascinating ways here.
While the novel begins with Norman Bates, who owns a motel off the beaten track that he runs with the help of his mother, the film first introduces us to Marian Crane (called Mary Crane in the novel), who is spending her lunch hour in a romantic tryst with her married boyfriend, Sam Loomis. Hitchcock knew how to work his way around the censors, and these opening moments are both tawdry and erotic. The camera takes us through a hotel window to find Marian sprawled in her bra and slip on the bed while Sam, shirtless, admires her. Marian is dissatisfied with the current arrangement; she wants a deeper commitment. But Sam needs money to pay off his wife to divorce him, and things are not going well at the general store he owns and runs.
Opportunity presents itself to Marian upon her return to work: a client is about to make a big deal and has brought $40,000 as payment. Marian’s boss asks her to deposit the money in the bank. Instead, Marian absconds with the funds and drives from Phoenix to California to give the money to Sam. The sequence that follows – Marian’s boss gets wise to her, Marian decides to switch cars, Marian believes she’s being chased by the cops – is not only bursting with suspense, it serves to bind our emotions to Marian’s fortunes. Casting a big star like Janet Leigh in the role reinforces our belief that this is a movie about a girl willing to do stupid things for love. (We know that Hitchcock was determined to fool his audience: after deciding to do this film, he tried to buy up all available copies of the book so that audiences couldn’t get wind of the story’s true nature.)
A blinding rainstorm diverts Marian from the main highway and forces her to stop at the Bates motel. (In Hitchcock, water takes on an iconic significance of danger.) There she meets Norman, and Hitchcock pulls another brilliant casting coup. Ed Gein was a fat, ugly alcoholic, but the director chose a charming young leading juvenile, Anthony Perkins, to play Norman. In the scenes between them, we see a bond build between this lonely boy, who has been cruelly berated by his mother for offering shelter to a pretty girl, and this unhappy woman, who has broken her own moral code out of desperation and love.
One of my favorite scenes occurs next in the parlor behind the check-out desk, where Norman feeds Marian. He is very solicitous, and she is very appreciative. But in one of the first clues that all is not well, Norman watches Marian dine, smiles, and says, “You eat like a bird.” That’s true; Marian is nervous and not very hungry. But she is also surrounded by trophies of Norman’s hobby: stuffed birds of prey that loom over the couple as they talk. What’s more, Marian’s last name, Crane, signifies her as another of the trophies Norman is looking to acquire. (Birds are another disquieting symbol for Hitchcock, one he will explore in even greater depth three years later.) It’s a disquieting scene, brilliantly filmed, and it’s significant to the story because Norman opening up to Marian about his own problems earns him the audience’s sympathy and convinces Marian to give up her insane scheme, drive back to Phoenix and return the money.
In another sort of film, this decision would earn Marian some points, and we might imagine that we’re entering a compelling romantic drama about a girl trying to choose between two men. Yet, neither of these men is suitable since both have deep ties to other women – Sam to his wife, and Norman to his mother. And it really is creepy of Norman to take the picture off the wall in order to watch Marian strip. Then again, the girl feels in need of a ritual cleansing, and that shower looks so inviting . . .
The shower scene is justifiably included in every top 100 list of best movie scenes ever. It took a week to film. In the novel, the killer beheads Mary Crane. Here, the use of a large kitchen knife lends both a domestic note and a frisson of sexuality to the execution. The sequence is composed of 50 cuts and 77 different camera angles. Hitchcock used chocolate syrup for blood; it read better in black and white than stage blood. Due to the brilliant editing, to this day people think they watched Marian get butchered by a mysterious old lady, yet we never see the killer’s face, and the knife barely enters Marian’s flesh; we’re too busy fending off the thrusts as Hitchcock places us right in the midst of the action. The sounds we hear come from a knife stabbing a grapefruit.
Did I leave anything out?
People who watch movies expect to be guided through a film’s structure, to have it pointed out to them who they must follow and root for throughout the movie. Hitchcock sets up the audience to believe that Marian is the protagonist, and I can only imagine the theatres full of people with their jaws dropping open at the shot of the blood running down the drain and spiraling out to Marian’s lifeless eye. What the heck are they going to do now?
Fortunately, Hitchcock provided us with someone to transfer our support to. The director manipulates his audience to root for Norman as he tries to hide all evidence of the murder in order to protect his mother. When he almost leaves the $40,000, the red herring that started all of Marian’s troubles, on the nightstand, we want to shout, “Norman, look over there!” By the time he has sunk Marian’s car, loaded with her body and the cash, into the swamp conveniently located behind the motel, we breathe a sigh of relief right along with Norman.
Some saw Hitchcock as a sadistic director: he shocked and horrified audiences, he reportedly treated actors like cattle, and he lusted over the pretty blondes he tended to cast. Actually, Hitchcock was always aware of his audience’s feelings and took care of us, no more so than in the last half of Psycho. He knew that eventually he had to reveal the truth about “Mother” and that this would cause an even deeper shock. Thus, in the second half he begins to transfer our sympathies to Lila, Marian’s sister, and Sam. In the novel, these two eventually become romantically attached, but Hitchcock wanted to focus on the mystery and to keep both of these characters sympathetic. So they merely work together, with the help of a hard-boiled insurance investigator named Arbogast, to find out what happened to Marian.
The murder of Arbogast is every bit as awesome as the shower scene. Bernard Herrman’s score reinforces the sense of danger Arbogast faces as he breaks into the Bates home to interview Norman’s mother. Hitchcock made iconic use of staircases throughout his career, leading characters up to danger or down to knowledge. Think of Lisa Fremont climbing into Mr. Thorwald’s apartment in Rear Window or Melanie Daniels climbing up to the attic after the latest attack in The Birds. Having Mother attack Arbogast at the top of the stairs allows Hitchcock to use a birds-eye view shot to show the murder without revealing too much about the assailant. (Hitchcock repeats this shot later when a desperate Norman decides to hide his mother to protect her!)
Ultimately, it is Lila who discovers the truth about Norman Bates and his mother by traveling downstairs to that most appropriate of places, the fruit cellar. But that’s not the end of the movie. Hitchcock attaches a scene at the courthouse where a psychiatrist explains to Lila, Sam, and the audience the pathology that drove Norman to do what he did. Some people might ask why this relatively dry, tame scene was included, but I think this is a case of Hitchcock taking care of his audience by 1) explaining something so out of the ken of our normal world to reassure normal people that there is an explanation, and 2) giving audiences a chance to calm the heck down before he sent them out into the streets!
Well, that’s Psycho for you. Do yourself a favor: ignore all the sequels and remakes and watch the original carefully. It’s such a rich film that it merits multiple viewings to see how complex and thoughtful this cheaply made little thriller actually is. It also carries something of a curse: it is said to have ruined Anthony Perkins’ career, it was the last chance the director gave Vera Miles to turn her into one of his great stars, and Janet Leigh insisted she could never take a shower again. On the plus side, it made Hitchcock even more of a household name, something very few directors up to that time had accom-plished outside of the cinema cognoscenti. It is an honor well deserved.