Where do I begin? This is without doubt the tricksiest Hitchcock to approach as it comes with so much attention and acclaim and verbiage and baggage that has sprouted in the past fifty years – all justified and legitimate as the movie is another stone cold classic and, in many ways, the greatest film the director made.
With its stark black and white photography courtesy of John L. Russell* and its all time classic score from Bernard Herrmann, with its simple and stylish Saul Bass opening captions and the performances of all the actors, ‘Psycho’ stands as the absolute peak of Hitchcock’s career.
From hereon in he will produce one more classic (‘The Birds’) a bizarre but enthralling curio (‘Marnie’) and a final few rather more patchy pictures.
What to write about this too oft scribbled about film? There’s loads – and this time I may do it in a more listy way – the things I love and admire about Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’…
1. the photography – worth watching just for the images, the film looks great and could run as a silent movie for whole sections of it. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) moving aside his office picture to gaze at the undressing Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in her (black) bra (her previous disrobed scene with John Gavin as Sam Loomis saw her wearing white underwear, before the fall from grace of the $40k theft from her boss).
The murder of Marion and the slaying of the detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) – both shocking and sudden and beautifully handled.
Check out the wonderful photo book by Richard J. Anobile which presents the whole picture in stills with dialogue**.
2. the performances – Perkins is just great as Norman, ostensibly kind but bristling with under the surface mania. The early dialogue between him and Marion is superb, he ramping up the tension and intensity of his performance. Leigh also shines in her doomed role, as does Balsam (see note below).
3. the music – right from the start, Herrmann’s score is urgent and compelling. The famed ‘violin stabs over windscreen wipers’ is a wonderful touch also. The score has a great authority to it – it has discordant elements (as you’d expect from the story of a complete nutzoid) married with gentler themes. The perfect marriage of music to mood and narrative.
4. profile shots galore – a Hitchcock trademark, they’re all over the place right from the one of Marion in the opening post coital hotel scene, later Norman profiling and her as they first enter her room. Later, Sam and the local Sheriff Al Chambers (John McIntire) also heavily are featured in profile, talking out of frame as they try to suss what the heck is going on.
5. sex – oozing out all over the place. The opening 2:43pm hotel scene with Marion and Sam; the lascivious – almost drooling – Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) who plants his fat acre on Marion’s desk and unwittingly sets her off on her thieving of his $40k and eventual death; Marion’s forwardness with Norman (she seems to sense he’s very naïve and ramps up her own sensuality – thus causing Mother to get extremely irked and rise up against this female threat); the whole Marion death by stabbing scene, of course.
6. sound – married to the score is some wonderful sound play as per many Hitchcock releases. Especially good is Marion imagining the conversation back at the office when they rumble that the cash has gone. Her expression whilst driving here is quite bizarre – she looks almost mad herself with her slightly stary eyes and half smile: she’s clearly enjoying the thrill not only of seemingly gotten away with it and having a fair old chunk of change but also the sheer excitement of the running away and possible future with loverboy Sam.
That dark glasses wearing cop who spots her and keeps popping up ain’t helping though (she acts so suspiciously when trading her car in it’s a wonder she doesn’t get called in for questioning right then and there).
Other audio fun – the sound of Marion’s ablutions covering Mother’s entrance to the bathroom; Mother’s slightly echoey voice berating Norman.
7. the birds – the stuffed ones positioned behind Norman in the parlour/sandwiches scene. He is backed by calm birds to match his mood – as he gets agitated or upset Hitchcock repositions his camera low, looking up at Norman and having big threatening birds of prey behind him.
He tells Marion that she ‘eats like a bird’ as she pecks away at her food. Marion’s name, of course, is ‘Crane’ – plus the obvious presaging of the director’s next picture. Norman has a bird-like quality to him generally – you can see it as he plunges Marion’s car into the swamp, he seems to be pecking and twitching as the car temporarily grinds to a halt.
He then allows himself a satisfied smile once the vehicle disappears from view. Tellingly, when he dashes into her room to view Mother’s handiwork, he knocks a frame picture of a bird to the floor –oooh! When Arbogast is checking the register, Norman leans in in a very unusual under-the-chin image which is really great and has, again, a looming bird-like quality. ‘…sit and stare like one of his stuffed birds’ says Mother at the close of the film…
8. dialogue – wow, there’s some great stuff: ‘we’re all in our private traps’/ ‘she might have fooled me, but she didn’t fool my mother’/ ‘well if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates, who’s that woman buried out in Greenlawn Cemetery?’ and on and on. Even with lots of great dialogue, it’s interesting to note that much of the film plays silent and is all the better for it.
9. voyeurism – Hitchcock is clearly fascinated with the naughtiness of watching where you shouldn’t be and ‘Psycho’ is laden with the forbidden, ultimately making his viewers voyeurs.
10. circles – of course the murder of Marion needs no further comment, aside from the wonderful derailing it gives the audience. She’s our heroine – this temptress/slut/thief – and the only person apart from Mr. Bates we have come to know. When she’s gone, you’re left with a sense of ‘where’s this movie going to go now?’ and in the presence of laughing boy Norman and his non existent Mother – not a nice place to be. It’s also sad that Marion has decided to go back, return the cash and face the music – just at the point of death. That’ll learn her. Fantastic correlation of circular images here – the shower head/the plug hole/her eye in gentle rotation like the space station in Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.
11. time – the clean up sequence is pretty convincing and accurate, Norman taking care to cover up for Mother’s outburst. There’s a good few minutes of it and it feels like pretty much real time as he takes the trouble to dispose of all her stuff and remove any trace of her – of course, forgetting her signature in his register. The newspaper shrouded money adds another tone of suspense – will he forget it? Will he find it? Checking one last time, he bungs it in the car’s trunk and sinks the vehicle in his bog. From the twitchy individual we have seen before, Norman is cool personified here – meticulous and organised, the suggestion being he’s covered up for Mother before.
12. Martin Balsam – as the Private dick Arbogast. Balsam’s a great character actor (see ’12 Angry Men’ and the great ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’) and wonderful in this. He has that great cops insistence and directness, cutting through all the crapola that everyone feeds him – including Norman (whom he runs rings around, leading to his savage stabbing). Norman becomes increasingly hassled and discombobulated as Arbogast (what sort of name is that, by the way?) keeps hammering him with questions. It’s a wonderful scene, both actors at their absolute peak, the camera positioned low and high where needed to emphasise the scene’s meaning.
13. murder – both killings are superb, Marion’s obviously being the most feted and celebrated. But the killing of Arbogast is also superb – really out of the blue and terrifying as he mounts the main staircase (hello!) and Hitchcock cuts to a shock above the action shot as Mother appears and takes him out. There’s a great trick shot as the detective tumbles backwards down the stairs and is then pounced on and stabbed into oblivion. Wow – it’s actually more shocking than the previous murder as Arbogast seems to operate with such authority it’s a surprise he is bumped off so fast and savagely. The same high shot pops up again as Norman lugs Mother down to the fruit cellar, again to disguise the fact that she’s a stuffed 10 years dead corpse.
14. the oh-so-subtle ending – after all the psycho(analytical) fireworks, Norman stares straight at camera and smiles, seemingly copacetic but inwardly a raging mess of walking contradictions. Hitchcock pulls off a wonderfully subtle double dissolve – ostensibly he is transitioning to the car being dragged from the swamp, but there’s just a really quiet double exposure of Mother’s skeletal face right over Norman’s. Really great little detail.
The watching of ‘Psycho’ is a near reverential experience, there’s so much in it and it’s so wonderfully done. It’s all fantastic stuff and stands alone in all of Hitchcock’s work as being a truly scary and shocking movie. Yes, there are surprises in so many of his other movies but here it’s the raison d’etre for the whole damn thing – and he pulls it off fantastically. Top five with a bullet (or a big old knife…).
Hitchcock positions himself outside Marion’s office wearing a grand stetson in true Phoenix, Arizona style. Nice little cameo from Pat Hitchcock also, working in Marion’s office as Caroline.
*his only Hitchcock feature as DoP, Russell would go on to photograph most of the director’s TV work.
**Anobile seemed very taken with this photo book thing – you can get ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Casablanca’ and loads of others (a 1970’s/early ‘80’s phenomenon). The artist Douglas Gordon put together a film in 1993 called ’24 Hour Psycho’ which projected the entire film at two frames per second to fill the entire day. That’s how great this movie looks!
Got through this one without mentioning the word ‘shower’ once! Oh, bugger…
The picture was, fairly bizarrely, remade by Gus Van Sant (who should know better) pretty much shot for shot, in 1998 – with Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche and Julianne Moore. A strange curio, but worth a look.