A CUT ABOVE: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

I can just imagine the Hollywood studios in 1959 watching North by Northwest and heaving a great big sigh of relief! At last – they thought – the Master of Suspense has finally gotten the message!! NO more art films, NO more experiments. Just good old fashioned exciting-but-wholesome entertainment. Certainly they had cause for hope: Alfred Hitchcock had come this close to making The Wreck of the Mary Deare with Gary Cooper, and he had been in discussions with Audrey Hepburn and Laurence Harvey to film No Flowers for the Judge

Poor studios! They had not accounted for Hitchcock’s booming success in television, a medium whose production costs were a fraction of those in motion pictures, or of the publication in 1959 of a little novel by horrormeister Robert Bloch called Psycho. A layman picking up this book would find a based-on-fact, stupendously gore-laden thriller that wallowed in deviancy. A certain director, however, saw yet another piece of writing that was ripe for the Hitchcock treatment, like Rear Window and Vertigo before it. 

In the end, the man who had directed one A-list film after another, including one that years later would be called by some the best film of all time, achieved his most profound legacy with a cheaply made, black and white horror movie that nobody wanted him to make. 

A visit from Mother

Psycho is so iconic that the folks in our film class who had never seen it before (surprisingly, a few still exist!) felt as it unfolded before their eyes as if they had somehow seen it! That might be because it is widely considered the first ever slasher film, and its imagery has been inspiring horror and suspense filmmakers worldwide for sixty-two years. 

The studios thought they could stop the film by withholding funding, but Hitchcock got the last laugh: he financed it himself, made it on the cheap, and netted a fortune, both in money and in fame. A few years after Hitchcock’s death, the sequels started coming: three films (all featuring Anthony Perkins and all ranging from pretty lousy to terrible), a ghastly color frame-by-frame remake in 1998 by Gus Van Sant that justifiably bombed, and a “prequel” series on Fox about young Norman Bates and his mother (Bates Motel) that I hear was pretty good. 

Giving the credit/blame to Psycho for the slasher genre is complicated by the release of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Yes, the British film’s premiere predates that of Psycho by two months. Yet Powell and Hitchcock were good friends, and it is clear that the former was influenced by the latter as Peeping Tom contains elements of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Yet while Powell created a piece of cinema that more closely conforms to later slasher films than Psycho – more gruesome, a higher death count, even a “final girl” – Tom’s failure at the box office most likely influenced Hitchcock. He refused to give a press screening and developed a brilliant marketing plan, including a lengthy film trailer that prepared audiences to expect in advance something that skirted the boundaries of cinematic decency.

“Mother hasn’t been herself lately . . . “

Our teacher Elliot reminded us that, in addition to Psycho, 1960 saw the premiere of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. The influence these two films had on what would be deemed acceptable to watch on the legitimate screen in terms of sex and/or violence was profound. The new cinema of the 1960’s is proof of that, although the focus was on sex, and it took horror a little longer to brew. George Romero reinvented the zombie in 1968. The giallo films of Italy, born out of that country’s mystery literature but clearly influenced by Psycho, took off in 1970 with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. John Carpenter, Brian de Palma, Sean S. Cunningham and a host of others made the 1970’s – 80’s the Golden Age of gory psychological and/or supernatural suspense, and the mantle has been picked up today by the likes of Eli Roth and Ari Aster. More than one of these filmmakers has given credit to the Master. 

Even Hitchcock himself was influenced by Psycho and the movement it spawned. Many have noted the influence of the giallo movement on his 1972 film Frenzy. What’s interesting watching Frenzy is what a “typical” Hitchcock film it is, full of his trademark humor, the conventional theme of the wrong man accused of a series of murders while his double, a villainous mama’s boy who is clearly a cross between Bruno Anthony and Norman Bates (and who happens to be, like Hitchcock’s father, a greengrocer), and a few brilliant shots, like the reverse tracking shot that signifies the murder of the film’s only sympathetic character. 

Yes, Frenzy is hard to watch

I’ll be honest – this time around I just couldn’t handle watching Frenzy in its entirety. It is a sadistic piece of work, and its treatment of women is truly horrifying. You may say that this is the killer’s modus operandi, but it is Hitchcock who is upping the violence, perhaps to compete with the Argentos and Carpenters competing for audiences. Despite all this sensationalism, it is little ol’ Psycho that is the true classic, both utterly Hitchcockian and totally subversive. He does things here he has never done before, leading Psycho to become, for better or worse, a trailblazer. It is also a brilliant work of art. 

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I can just imagine the typical audience of 1960, standing in a long line to see Psycho because of Hitchcock’s demand that theatres not allow people to enter the movie after it had started. There’s a nurse on call in the lobby in case people faint (and, evidently, some people did.) By the time the lights go down, the crowd’s nerves have been ratcheted up by an expert – and then come the piercing strings of Bernard Herrmann’s overture, shredding the darkness and making folks jump in their seats. 

But then . . . . it’s as if we’ve made our way into the wrong movie. For what we get is a romantic drama – a very adult romantic drama – but one with nary a sign of any psycho for a long, long time. And here is the first way that Psycho differs from other Hitchcock films: this time the director is trying to shock and surprise his audience over and over again, with the biggest shocker saved for the ending. In that way, the film resembles a more traditional whodunnit, except for the positioning of the detective figure, who is minor, and the identification of the hero, who changes several times. 

Marion (Janet Leigh) and Sam (John Gavin), post-afternoon delight

After the grandeur of North by Northwest, here we find perhaps Hitchcock’s most intimate film, not just because it covers less ground and less glamorous people, but because the audience is physically placed right in the middle of things. The traditional long panning shot of the Phoenix cityscape ends up sucking us through the window of a grubby hotel on a Friday afternoon where two people have clearly just been making love. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) lies on the bed in her white brassiere and slip while her lover Sam (John Gavin) stands over her, shirtless and still lustful. It’s clear that Marion wouldn’t mind sticking around for a while longer either, but she’s got to get back to work. More importantly, she has to make Sam understand that furtive affair isn’t going to satisfy her much longer. Sam runs a hardware store in California, and all his money goes to making the business run and providing his ex-wife with alimony. He refuses to wed Marion until he is financially on his feet. Lots of exposition that is softened by the obvious attractiveness and arousal of the couple!

Back at the real estate firm where Marion works, we find 1) the requisite directorial cameo; 2) Patricia Hitchcock in a small, very funny role as Marion’s chatty co-worker (wonderfully chatty: she manages to spill the fiasco that was her wedding night during the conversation); and 3) a drunken client who hits on Marion before entrusting her with a $40,000 down payment on a bridal house for his daughter. In one short scene, then, Marion is bombarded with reminders of weddings, blissful and otherwise, and when she agrees to her boss’ wish that she take the money to the bank, it’s understandable that she never makes it there. 

Cut to Marion in her house, packing her bags and preparing to run for it. Interestingly, she has now changed to black undergarments: the first swirls of guilt have already started to hit her brain cells. The next 10-15 minutes of film are almost procedural, as we see Marion drive from Phoenix up north toward Fairfield, California where Sam lives, have a run-in with a cop (filmed in typically menacing fashion), exchange her car, and think, think, think as she drives. Finally, a rain shower (get it?!?) forces Marion off the highway just 14 miles from her destination and, fatefully, into the parking lot of the Bates Motel. 

In 1960, Janet Leigh was a big star and a sympathetic one. Orson Welles had really banged her around in his 1958 noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil and she had just played the lead in a popular romantic comedy with Tony Curtis and Dean Martin. Anthony Perkins had already been nominated for an Academy Award (for Friendly Persuasion) and had shown himself to be highly versatile in comedy and drama. Those who had perhaps forgotten the name of this picture might have imagined the plot might go something like this: Marion meets Norman and is drawn to his lonely plight. She helps him rid himself of his mother’s influence, and he helps her see the error of her ways. Maybe the fall in love. Maybe Sam gets a little psycho when he hears about that. 

Getaway to a private island

It’s clear in those early scenes at the motel that Marion and Norman Bates for a sympathetic bond for each other. He is clearly attracted to her but disarmingly shy about it. Except . . . these scenes are filmed more like a horror movie than a romance. The creepy old Bates residence looms over the drab modernity of the motel. The whole sequence plays out against a stormy nightscape. Herrmann’s music looms in the background, and John L. Russell’s camera captures the couple at weird angles.

Um . . . this is not a private island!

In the centerpiece scene where  the parlor behind the motel office, Marion and Norman are dwarfed by the stuffed birds of prey that lean over them. (Notice all the paintings of birds that hang in the motel room of Marion – last name Crane, and she eats like a bird – it’s almost like Hitchcock wants to make a film about people surrounded by threatening birds – but that can’t be right.) In the parlor, we finally discover the meaning of the film’s title: Norman’s mother . . . well, she hasn’t been herself lately. She just goes a little mad sometimes. A boy’s best friend is his mother. 

Oh-oh . . . 

“It looms, Norman! It looms!”

By the time Marion decides to go to bed and then drive back to Phoenix to make things right, we can tell that Mother’s influence has made a mess of Norman. He is clearly aroused by his guest, but all he can do about it is stare through the hole hidden behind a religious painting in his office at Marion undressing. Of course, sexual arousal is a good thing, and it looks like his feelings might give Norman the strength to have it out with Mother and begin a process toward independence. Maybe Norman will have the same happy ending that Perkins had playing Cornelius Hackl in The Matchmaker!?! Unfortunately, once he gets to the house, he loses his steam and retreats sulkily to the kitchen, paving the way for Mother to make her way down to Room #1 to have it out with the hussy who has been making eyes at her son. 

I won’t attempt to provide any real insight on the shower scene, which mostly likely has been viewed even by those who have not watched the entire film. Director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) calls it “the purest expression of the assault on the female body.” I found that quote in a documentary I watched about the scene called 78/52 (the number of shots and cuts that it took to make). It’s available on Hulu. I learned among other things that the scene was shot separately from the rest of the film, and that the body double hired to play Marion through most of the scene ended up working seven days compared to Janet Leigh’s twenty-one. The significance of this is the amount of time and care taken for the first time on a scene depicting violent death. Another first for Hitchcock and for Hollywood (as was the presence of a toilet in the motel bathroom!!) 

A shower that ends in spirals . . .

People are so gobsmacked by the shower scene that they do not notice the brilliant psychological transference of audience sympathy – from Marion, who we hope will get away with her theft and find love with Sam, to Marion and Norman, who we hope will both escape their private traps, to Norman, tasked with covering up Mother’s latest horrific crime. Again, we are treated to a procedural-like sequence of Norman cleaning, washing, and getting rid of all the evidence, including that $40,000 Maguffin. 

One of the most interesting oddities is that our sympathies hardly extend to Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) who comes to Fairfield to confront Sam and find her sister. Our teacher Elliot suggested that Hitchcock might have handed this role to Miles as punishment for abandoning him during Vertigo (how dare she have a baby!) and indeed Miles is as dowdy as she was in The Wrong Man and oddly repressed for a woman in a movie with such an up-to-date attitude towards sex and violence. In the film Psycho II, we discover that Lila and Sam got married, but he’s already dead, and (spoiler alert!) she doesn’t make it to the closing credits. 

Even after Lila and Sam meet, the real focus turns to Mr. Arbogast (Martin Balsam), an insurance investigator hired by Marion’s boss to find her and avoid scandal. Arbogast combs through the town and winds up at the Bates Motel where he makes mincemeat of Norman. There’s a great moment when the investigator is examining the sign-in book and Norman leans over to watch him, revisiting the bird imagery as his neck moves like a turkey’s gullet. When he isn’t gulping, Norman is pecking at a handful of candy corn (a bit that Anthony Perkins himself added to the character; it fits!)

The scene facing Arbogast: Hitchcock stairs!

Arbogast’s death is just as beautifully filmed as the shower scene, beautifully edited and scored, including the first of two bird’s-eye (get it?) shots of Mother coming out of her room. Here, she strides purposefully, knife raised. Later, she struggles in her son’s arms as he carries her downstairs to the fruit cellar (“You think I’m ‘fruity,’ boy?!?”) for her protection. 

There’s not much movie left – but there’s more than usual in a Hitchcock film because after the thrilling climax where it is revealed that Mother and Norman are closer than one could ever have believed and then Sam rescues Lila, we should be at the point where a quick wrap-up signals the cue for “THE END” to appear on the screen. Hitchcock was never one for long resolutions. But here he got scared. What would audiences make of Norman Bates’ transition to his mother? Would they confuse it with homosexuality, as people have been doing for generations when it comes to transvestism? Would they laugh at Norman’s permanent submergence into his mother’s head? 

The Final Couple: a long way from Hitchcock’s usual happy ending of love and marriage

Hitchcock wanted to avoid all of this. He wanted the audience to understand all that had come before and what they were about to witness when a cop brings a blanket for Mrs. Bates (“she says she’s chilly!”) And so he cast Simon Oakland as a psychiatrist who explains the mental nightmare Norman has been living through his entire life. On the one hand, it does slow things down for a minute. On the other, I think for the time Hitchcock made the right call. The final moment, where we hear Mother speaking inside Norman’s head, and the instantaneous superimposition of her corpse-like face over Norman’s face in that final shot as Marion’s car is dredged (along with how many others?) from the swamp, is a perfect coda for a late Hitchcock where it’s very clear that the Darkness has won.

I am writing this two days before Thanksgiving. Due to the holiday, our final class session has been pushed back a week. To compensate for that, Elliot has given us not one, not two, but THREE bonus films. One is a Hitchcock I do not love, one is a De Palma film that might be his best, and the third is something I have never even heard of before. All of this to accompany Hitchcock’s last great film, another tale of love and marriage, of Hitchcockian tropes like stairs, eyeglasses, and water, where the director sets his sights on nothing less than the apocalypse! See you next week!

Caw! Caw!

A happy Thanksgiving from us to you and yours!