starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Vera Miles
screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the book by Robert Bloch
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I'd wager there aren't any films that have been more analyzed than Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, the expanse of scholarship spent on it a curious echo of its own curious psychobabble anti-climax. Find studies of this film as the wellspring for everything from feminist film theory to measured leaps into psychoanalytic theory, from technical dissertations to Citizen Kane-style forays into authorship pitting the contributions of Hitch against those of graphic designer Saul Bass. I've read pieces on composer Bernard Herrmann's unparalleled work in the picture; on the artwork used in the Bates Motel; on the ways that Hitch's own queasy obsessions--themselves on the verge of explosion with his collaborations with poor Tippi Hedren--bled into the production. I've read about how the film was shot with Hitch's television crew on a minimal budget and about the controversy surrounding, of all things, the depiction of a toilet for the first time since the pre-Code silent era in the United States. I even recall writing something about how this film, along with the other miraculous releases of 1960 (Peeping Tom, Eyes Without a Face, Breathless, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Rocco and His Brothers, Shoot the Piano Player, The Stranglers of Bombay, and Nabuo Nakagawa's miraculous Jigoku), announced that cinema after this very particular point would never be the same. I've heard Janet Leigh's oft-repeated tale of how the flesh-coloured pasties on her breasts peeled away as they tried to get that shot of her hanging over the tub and how, damnit, she wasn't going to move even if it meant the crew in the rafters getting a good look at those world-class goodies. I know my favourite quote regarding the Sixties in film belongs to Ethan Mordden's indispensable Medium Cool, comparing the previous decade to the new day dawning like so: "Surrender to the Wild Ones yields a dissolution of society. Surrender to Mrs. Bates turns you psycho." I've heard the apocryphal tales, the legends; I've listened to Truffaut interview Hitch about the shoot. Hell, I've taught the picture a few times in my own limited way to classrooms still surprised to learn there are more things left to discover in Psycho.
What I haven't heard much about is how Psycho derives the queasy fascination we've had with it for forty-eight years now through a careful cultivation of a relationship with its audience that it will ultimately betray. What I don't hear much, in other words, is explanation as to why the film remains so vital to the conversation. I'd argue that it's more than what we feel about the on-screen death of its only star (Janet Leigh, forty-eight years later, is no bigger a name than Anthony Perkins, after all), and it's more complex than a voyeuristic complicity with a character who, if all is as Hitch famously wished, we should sympathize with as Marion Crane's car almost doesn't get swallowed up by that swamp behind his place. Let's approach it this way (for doing it any other way is doomed to be hopeless, or inadequate survey, or both): Despite this being the ultimate "spoiled" film, the wonder of Psycho right at this moment is that there is a generation of adults--not necessarily the culturally-retarded ones, either--who have no idea that Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is his own mother. Without that knowledge, knowledge I can no longer remember not enjoying, of course we side with poor, put-upon Norman doing what any good son would do in trying to protect his admittedly unbalanced mother from life in a "home." It only dawned on me very recently that when I used to ask a class to consider their "suture" with Norman as a means through which Hitchcock smeared his audience with complicity what a stupid thing that was, because it's not until the movie's over that you know you've been duped and, in the end, it's not your fault that you want him to hide the body. I had forgotten that anybody could still be ignorant of the picture's twist, forgetting that time has a way of resetting itself. And it's not that people could still be ignorant of it, but that there's a new group of fascinated viewers who haven't had a chance to know it. The one thing I don't hear very much about as many barrels of ink are spilled on this picture is how Hitchcock isn't impishly pricking at our perversity but instead undermining every single article of faith in American society of the 1950s with meticulous efficiency and sadism.
The cops--everyone knows Hitch hated cops, and most even know the story of Hitch in the jail cell as a boy--in Psycho menace poor Marion after she's stolen forty grand from her employer (more specifically, from the disgusting Texan letch who makes the mistake of having good taste in horse flesh) and advise that instead of catching a catnap by the highway she squirrel herself away in some roadside motel. Cops are ineffectual in Psycho: they refuse to investigate, provide unsolicited advice, and give way to a private investigator, Arbogast (Martin Balsam), who learns the answers but isn't able to share them. Medicine is ineffectual: Poor, tranquilized office-mate Caroline (Pat Hitchcock) and the boss with the bottle in his desk speak less of the much-bandied themes of deception and disguise in the film and more to a failure of medication, self- or otherwise, in treating real "sick"ness. Religion is useless, remembering that the events of the finale occur on a Sunday after church while the whole thing is more or less set at Christmastime. Family is, of course, impotent and, in the cases of Norman and lovelorn Marion, destructive. The least interesting part of the film, and the part of the film with which Hitch was purportedly the least interested, is the third-act sleuthing by Marion's dull boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) and dull sister Lila (Vera Miles); though they figure out what there is to figure out, they do it in the most staid, disinteresting way possible. Of course there's the shrink (Simon Oakland)--that representative of the faddish Freudian psychoanalysis that swept through the Fifties intelligentsia, Hitchcock included--who offers a ridiculous recitation that has the effect of underscoring the idea that there's actually no good explanation for everything that's happened in the picture. The greatest betrayal, though, is Perkins's performance, which is so good--so, what's the word...eternal--that no matter the number of times you see Psycho, you still want to believe he has Marion's best interests at heart.
The film plays with the desire to forgive Norman his peeping on Marion as she readies for her shower as something a lonely boy would do (rationale here for Gus Van Sant imposing sounds of masturbation in his shot-by-shot remake as a means of distancing sympathy? Is that why the remake fails?)--a lonely boy, as it happens, put upon by a puritanical Mother who shudders at the thought of, of all things, dancing?! It isn't that we identify with Norman despite the assumption of his point-of-view in the scene so much as that we feel sorry for him: his loneliness, his sad devotion to his dotty Mother, his lonely hobbies, his lonely existence in the spaces left when the highway's gone away. (And what does the highway represent to the car-crazed United States of the 1950s more than the promise of self-determination and freedom?) Norman is the guy we like to patronize--the sheep we want to shepherd, the pigeon we want to free; more than most of the astonishing films that share this year, Psycho predicts the end of the decade's horrors like 1968's Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby (the one with a baby eating her mother, the other with a baby (Rosemary) incubating the literal Anti-Christ), or Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, which contains elements of both. In Psycho, we find Norman, the baby arrested, eating his mother, his mother eating him--the beginnings of the counterculture in this thought that the very things we held closest to our breast are now flower children bringing down the gates of the apocalypse at Altamont and Woodstock. Norman is the reap of what the '50s sowed. His charm infectious, his desire to befriend Marion to the extent that his obvious lust for Marion (so embarrassingly skewered by Mother within earshot of Marion) is futile (she's the hottest thing on skids, the Angelina Jolie of her day; he's Tony Perkins) elicits parental empathy, the stickiness of Psycho lies in the blatant cynicism it harbours towards our noblest intentions. It skewers not only our belief in our fellow man and every single traditional tent pole of security, but also our trust that our children won't turn out to be monsters that exist ineffably apart from us. Psycho kills because it casts the innocent as The Other.
If the identification with Norman seems in doubt, the early identification with Marion isn't. At the beginning, Hitch establishes in seriocomic fashion the exact place ("Phoenix, Arizona"), day ("Friday"), date ("December the eleventh"), and time ("Two forty-three P.M.") over flat stock footage of nowhere big-city America, zooming in on a non-descript high-rise window1 where Marion and Sam have snuck away to what Mordden calls a "the middle of a working day where the two have slipped into a hot-sheets hotel for a quickie." For Marion, the story begins and ends in sordid rent-a-rooms, beginning when she decides to renounce these premarital relations, leading to her theft to ostensibly pay off Sam's debts so the two can make her, ironically, an "honest" woman. Interestingly enough, both Marion and The Birds' Melanie Daniels appear to be punished for renouncing their lives of crime: Marion when she decides to return the money, Melanie after she declines to leave a nasty note for Mitch. Take a quick dip into Hitch's headspace to locate the fair read that he punishes his blondes for choosing domesticity with the traditional Hollywood hunk (freaky-klepto-with-mommy-issues Marnie Edgar, too, let's not forget) and not, we infer, with a rotund British movie director. Hitchcock has done so much to vulgarize Marion in the film's first half that identification is unconscious: We cringe when the Texan hits on her, appreciate when she tries to give Norman good advice about institutionalizing Mother, and try our best to ignore that while she's sitting in Norman's parlour eating a sandwich, Norman is doing his best to equate her with the taxidermied birds that litter his room. Better to see the birds as Norman, right? Alternately stuck in their little traps as Norman confesses (pleads?) to Marion his plight and offering in their own bright, dead eyes an illustration of Norman's description of a mental institution. At this point, without our privilege of foreknowledge, we sort of want Marion to rescue Norman, to replace Mother with her younger version in a perversion of the Oedipal dilemma2--to replace her, as it happens, with exactly the kind of slattern Mother warns Norman about because, after all, we've seen Marion writhing around in two different shades of bra and half-slip already. We want this because we like Norman better than Marion and Norman is urging Marion obliquely to restore societal order. We want this because Hitchcock, in the process of amalgamating Mother with Marion3, has made us...Mother?
The feeling of betrayal in Psycho stems from the uneasiness of this association with an invisible, demonic muse--something commensurate with the never-seen phantom of Rebecca that hangs over the film bearing her name. Norman sets the groundwork with his "we all go a little mad sometimes," and yes we do, and no we wouldn't like to be interred in a loony bin either, would we, betrayed by a son who has a bad tic for loose women. No wonder we go after girls like Marion when they threaten to take Norman away from us. In a sense, what Psycho fosters is deep societal unrest as youth takes on a mind of its own, leading by the end of the decade to all that infanticide/matricide in our genre fiction. It's an early representation of our distinct revile at a generation gap fast disintegrating into a bloody rift. Psycho is sticky because the ultimate wronged party is Mother, stuck in an asylum once the dust settles when the only thing she ever wanted was to restore cultural equilibrium on a swiftly tilting playing field. The distinction should be clear that it's not the murderous Mother of Norman's unfortunate Madonna/Whore displacement but rather the idealized mother image that we hold in harmony with the idealized image of the devoted, doting son. The betrayal engendered by the piece has everything to do with the sensation that what Psycho has really attacked is the sanctity of the bond between a mother and her child--that this archetype, this handshake agreement we have with the universe that Mom is God, has been displaced by the encroachment of different rules and coarser realities. Everything else--the toilet, the gaze, the Oedipus, the mirrors4, the doubling, the score, the delicious scene where Norman gobbles candy corn as he peers over at his ledger, the perpendicular lines, the car in the swamp--feeds the essential truth that Psycho remains effective because it's ageless commentary on how the very things that make us decent are useless against the chaos and entropy of the world.
There are two significant differences between the new Universal Legacy DVD reissue of Psycho and the previous, already quite adequate, Collector's Edition. The first is that the film is at last presented in anamorphic video, the freshly-scrubbed 1.85:1 widescreen transfer rendering John L. Russell's black-and-white cinematography in an attractively craggy chiaroscuro. (The brilliant image is matched by clear DD 2.0 mono audio that reproduces Herrmann's incomparable genius with a commensurately craggy fidelity--screaming strings never sounded so raw, and I'm on pins and needles waiting for the inevitable (I hope) remaster of The Birds somewhere down the road.) The second is that the picture now sports a feature-length yakker from Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho author Stephen Rebello, who offers the liturgy with deliberate fastidiousness. It's not an overly compelling track, especially for a film this studied, but he points out what he needs to point out and assigns proper credit to Bass's contribution to the shower scene as well as to Perkins's work in developing the idiosyncrasies of Norman's character. I would have liked more analysis, except in saying so I realize that more analysis probably would've just irritated me. Commentaries are tricky things--it seems the ones I like the best either are convivial reunions (like the Bruce Campbell/Sam Raimi collaborations, for instance, or the John Carpenter/Kurt Russells) or boast sharp-eyed analysis, like Tim Lucas's frankly humbling contributions to the Mario Bava discs.
The first platter of this two-disc set includes a vintage promo reel, "The Release of Psycho" (8 mins.), that shows the lines outside the theatre, bits of Hitch's droll bans and warnings, and a woman who is not Janet Leigh screaming under the now-familiar title graphic. "The Shower Scene" compares the scene without music--as Hitchcock initially wanted it--to its legendary finished form. This, in particular, is what a special feature ought to be in that it addresses one of the key stories about the making of the film and lets the viewer decide who was ultimately right. For my part, seeing the scene without music is so deeply nihilistic that it's almost unwatchable. This isn't a bad thing, but it lends a wonderful depth to Hitchcock's agreement to the use of music in the final product. In a way, all those screaming strings distract from the hopelessness and visceral violence of the scene. It's shocking without them; I wish there was a way to branch the unscored version into the film proper. Saul Bass's "Storyboards for the Shower Scene" (4 mins.) are incredibly detailed and end with the notorious shot of a naked Marion draped over the rim of the bathtub. Powerful, heady stuff, to be sure, and completely in keeping with the mood of the 'silent' murder. The remainder of the disc is given over to exhausting galleries dedicated to production photos, lobby cards, promotional art, and behind-the-scenes and on-set photos. Production notes prove equally exhaustive and almost equally redundant, though the trailers for the picture are memorably dry.
The second disc recycles Laurent Bouzereau's "Making of Psycho" (93 mins.) documentary from the aforementioned CE. Collecting usual suspects like Pat Hitchcock and Donald Spoto to tell twice-told tales a third time, it's neither good nor bad, neither illuminating nor obfuscating; it is exactly and only what it is. Better is "In the Master's Shadow: Hitchcock's Legacy" (25 mins.), gathering filmmakers like Scorsese, William Friedkin, John Carpenter, and Guillermo Del Toro to speak of how heavily their work (and that of others, Spielberg especially) owes entire passages and themes to the Master. I love Del Toro talking about Hitch's rarely-discussed masterpiece I Confess and the utter lack of decency in Frenzy--and I love the focus that these luminaries attach to the fetishistic aspects of Hitchcock's work, such as the eyeless corpse of The Birds, or the legs and feet of Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt. The audio tapes from the Psycho section of the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview (15 mins.) are reproduced beneath scenes from the film: a nice reproduction of Hitchcock's distracting auto-analytical process in his own words, the more I hear it, the more it actually seems spot-on. I appreciate the "candour" with which he admits to not really reading the Robert Bloch source material (shades of the Coen Bros. typical "fuck you" comments regarding The Odyssey and O Brother Where Art Thou?), and wondered a little at the real barrier that Truffaut's translator brings to the flow of the interrogation. The set closes with the highly-overrated "Lamb to the Slaughter," a complete 1958 episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" starring the exceptional Barbara Bel Geddes in the lead role as a doting but unstable housewife. Included most likely because it ends with a gaze of madness that sort of recalls the one that closes Psycho, it would nevertheless probably go better with Vertigo. Of most interest to me is that the script is by Roald Dahl from his own short story, which is superior in the same way that Ray Bradbury's stuff can, generally, only be read. Originally published: December 1, 2008.
1. Hitchcock's dream of opening with an elaborate helicopter tracking shot was abandoned after it became clear that the technology wasn't up to the task. return
2. Instead of murdering the father to replace him at his mother's side, poor Norman is left with a parade of Mother manqués that prove, each, inadequate in slaking the identification-shift that his father's premature death has denied him. return
3. Like the shadows of Sebastian with Mother Sebastian in Notorious, but note, too, that the two death's head grins offered through the fourth wall of the film belong first to Marion, then to Norman/Mother in a haunted double-exposure. return
4. And note that Norman, save one exception, is only ever reflected in shade-blackened windows--his split is his Shadow, and it's not too much to suggest that his Shadow might be a collective one. return