Sunday, May 18, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Psycho (1960)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh
Psycho is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s most effective film, but it is also his most flawed. It’s a psychological horror film, scaring us not with what we see (which is actually very little), but with what it makes us think we’ve seen. It is a tightly controlled, stripped-down film that is an unqualified masterpiece… until the end, when it begins to lose the thread, forgetting something essential about fear. What can be explained away, laid out for us step-by-step, is not terrifying. It’s what isn’t explained that scares us the most.
With its protagonist Marian Crane (Janet Leigh), Hitchcock breaks a lot of rules. First, he gives us a “bad” girl – an adulteress and, eventually, a thief – without providing a “good” girl as counterpoint, and without redeeming her before the end. Second, and most importantly, he kills her off half-way through the film. He sets us up to identify with Marian as we watch her flee with the money she’s taken, as we listen to her inner thoughts as she imagines being found out and caught, and then he takes her away from us, forcing us to shift to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Now, where once we feared for Marian, we fear for Norman, who at first glance appears to be a victim as well (though as anyone familiar with the twist knows, he is anything but). He looks with shock at what his mother has done, then collects himself and calmly goes about cleaning up the evidence, ridding the bathroom of any trace of Marian. When he gets around to disposing of her body and her car in the swamp, we - like him - have a feeling of dread when it appears that the car might not sink to the bottom after all. And when Arbogast (Martin Balsam), the private detective, comes around, we’re made almost as nervous as Norman is by his questions.
Much of what happens in the film is foreshadowed in earlier scenes. In the first scene, Marian and her lover Sam (John Gavin) are in a motel which she states is of the kind that you can check in whenever you want “but when it’s time to go…” The Bates motel is similar. You can check in at midnight, but when it’s time to go, you really do go. Later, when she’s being shown her cabin at the Bates Motel, Norman happily takes her through it until he gets the to bathroom, which he can’t seem to bring himself to mention. It’s Marian who says it and Norman just nods, already knowing how and where this will end. Later still, Marian and Norman sit in his parlour which is littered with stuffed birds that loom ominously over the room, foreshadowing the revelation of his more sinister taxidermy project.
Psycho functions on its ability to suggest. The shower scene is one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema and one of the most terrifying. But we never see the knife going into Marion and we hardly see any blood. Similarly, when Arbogast is murdered, we don’t actually see the knife going into him, we just see him recoil with the first shock, fall down the stairs, and then we see Mrs. Bates on him, knife in hand and hear him scream. We don’t really see what happens to them, but Hitchcock is able to make us think that we’ve seen something most gruesome. The Arbogast scene, to me, is the more effective of the two because of the way it’s shot (and perhaps because it isn’t as famous and not part of the collective imagination the way the shower scene is). We follow him up the stairs and then the camera overcomes him and we watch Mrs. Bates come out towards him and then watch him fall from her perspective. All the scenes in the Bates house are effective because they’re shot at strange angles, suggesting that all is not well here.
Right up to when we finally see Mrs. Bates, both the “real” and the “fake,” this is a deeply engrossing film, and then the film segues into a scene that really drags it down in terms of tone and overall psychological effect. When the psychiatrist who has interviewed Norman at the police station enters to deliver his monologue on the “whys” of Norman’s condition and the crimes he’s committed, the story loses its way. Up until this point, Hitchcock has proved that what we’re left to imagine is much scarier than what we actually see with our own eyes, and the same principle applies to this scene. Having it all explained to us stabilizes the character of Norman in a way that spoils the effect of the character. Norman is a character who ought to remain unstable in our minds, not pinned down with psychiatric explanations. Besides which, none of the conclusions the psychiatrist reaches couldn’t also be reached by the average viewer, which makes this scene entirely redundant. However, until this scene, this is an absolutely peerless film and if what comes before doesn’t exactly excuse the last ten or so minutes, it certainly makes them easier to forgive.