Sunday, March 6, 2011

Film #52: Psycho (1960)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 8 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Restless secretary steals serious cash, then runs across a socially awkward creep at a motel.

Uncut Summary (A full plot synopsis, serious spoilers included. Fair warning. No seriously, if you have not watched this movie and have intention of doing so, do NOT read this summary!)

In Phoenix, Arizona, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a secretary who has an itch to change her life. She's wrapped up with a lover, Sam (John Gavin) who must use much of the little money that he makes on alimony payments. She's been in the same static job for ten years. Her professional and romantic lives are in a complete rut.

And then, opportunity presents itself. Her boss has just completed a major deal with an out-of-town high-roller. The new client comes into the office, makes some overtly lecherous passes at Marion and drops $40,000 on her desk. The money is part of her boss's new deal with the man, and she is charged with putting the money in the bank. Instead of seeing the task through, though, she takes the money and hits the road. She clearly sees this as a chance to join Sam and use the money to live a better life.

Marion, driving away from Phoenix, considers her recent theft.

Once she hits the road, Marion gradually becomes a nervous wreck. She begins to imagine her boss, friends and relatives wondering where she is and just how the imminent pursuit will begin. She eventually pulls over and falls asleep on the side of the road, only to be awoken in the morning by a curious police officer. Rather shakily, she tries to brush the cop off, but only succeeds in arousing his suspicions. She does, however, manage to avoid any kind of arrest or more serious trouble for the time being.

The next night, with rain pouring down and her nerves worn thin, Marion decides to pull into a roadside lodge called the Bates Motel, a twelve-room inn that sits beneath the shadow of an imposing Victorian-era house. She sees the silhouette of an old woman in the window from the road, but it is a young man who comes dashing down to help her. The man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), is friendly in his greeting and checks Marion in for the evening. Despite her fatigue, Norman convinces her to have some dinner and chat with him in the motel office.

In the course of their conversation, it becomes clear that Norman is a rather awkward fellow. He explains that the motel, which once was on the major highway, has seen very little business in recent years and that he is inextricably bound to his mother. This surprises Marion somewhat, as she had overheard the woman's voice berating and browbeating Norman in their home a short time earlier. In hearing about Norman's trapped existence, Marion becomes more ponderous and even rethinks her larcenous plan.

In the office of his motel, Norman describes his own lonely life to a receptive Marion.

After she retires to her room (into which Norman briefly peeks through a hidden hole in the wall) Marion seems determined to return to Phoenix, give back the money, and avoid trapping herself by becoming a bona fide felon. Having made this life-preserving decision, she hops into the shower, with horrendous results. A shadowy figure of a woman stalks into the bathroom with a massive knife, attacks and kills Marion, leaving her body on the floor.

Moments later, Norman comes running from the house and into Marion's room, where he finds the horrifying remains of Mother's attack. Once he recovers himself, he carefully gathers up the body, along with all of her personal affects (including the $40,000, which was hidden in a newspaper), loads everything into her car, and pushes it all into a nearby swamp.

Roughly a week later, Marion's sister Lila shows up in California, where Sam works. By now, people back in Phoenix assume that Marion stole the $40,000 and must be with Sam. Sam admits that he knows nothing about this and hasn't seen Marion since their last rendezvous before she stole the money. Also on the case is private investigator Arbogast, who has been hired by Marion's boss to recover the money. Arbogast decides that Marion must have been somewhere close, and he starts looking into all of the nearby motels.

After searching dozens of motels in the area, Arbogast eventually arrives at the Bates Motel. In questioning Norman Bates, Arbogast finds not only probable evidence of Marion's presence in the form of an alias in the motel registry, but also a suspiciously nervous Norman Bates. He doesn't get any direct admissions from Bates, but squeezes an admission from Bates that he saw Marion. Bates also accidentally implies that Marion had spoken with his mother. When Arbogast asks to speak with Norman's mother, however, Norman rebuffs him, explaining that his mother is an invalid and unable to take visitors. Arbogast reluctantly leaves.

After quickly checking in with Lila and Sam, Arbogast decides to return to the Bates motel and try to speak with Mrs. Bates. Once he returns, he quietly strolls directly to the Bates house and enters. As he ascends the stairs, however, the same be-dressed, knife-wielding figure who murdered Marion sets upon Arbogast. Before he can react, he is knocked down the stairs and stabbed to death.

The figure of Norman in front of his family home, where things become more mysterious and murderous.

Back in town, Sam and Lila grow nervous. Having not heard from Arbogast for hours past his stated meeting time, they call the local police. The sheriff is skeptical of what he hears, especially when Sam and Lila relate their notion that Mrs. Bates knows something about Marion's whereabouts. The sheriff explains his surprise by informing the two that Mrs. Bates died ten years before. This raises the question: exactly who is the “Mrs. Bates” back in the Bates house?

Sam and Lila decide to take matters in their own hands and head to the Bates Motel themselves. They have Norman Bates check them in as a phony married couple and hatch their investigation. Sam distracts and interrogates Norman while Lila slips away to the house. She searches through the house, but finds no evidence of “Mother”. Back at the motel, Norman grows very nervous under Sam's questioning, realizes the ploy, knocks Sam out and runs to the house.

In the Bates house, Lila sees Norman coming and scuttles down into the basement. In a far corner, she sees the back of an old, withered woman sitting in a rocking chair, presumably the enigmatic Mrs. Bates. When she turns the chair around, however, she is mortified to see that it is, instead, the semi-mummified and rotted remains of the deceased woman. Just as Lila shrieks in horror, she turns to see the door behind her burst open and Norman Bates, donning his mother's dress and a wig, hoisting a massive blade and ready to kill her. In the nick of time, Sam barrels in and subdues Norman before he can get to Lila.

Some time later, back at the police station and with Norman in custody, a psychologist explains everything. After intense interviewing of Norman, he explains that Norman has been a split personality. That he had, in fact, been so close to his domineering mother as a young boy and man that he felt them to be inseparable. Eventually, however, Norman's mother had taken a lover and began to shun her son. Norman apparently suffered a severe mental collapse and killed his mother and her lover. Unable to take the guilt, his mind fractured further and he began to live out both his own life as well as that of his dead mother. He took it so far that, if he would ever have any yearnings for any other woman, his “Mother” half would lash out and kill that woman. Hence the death of Marion and the subsequent killing of Arbogast.

In the end, Norman Bates was no more. After the final shock and capture, the only personality left was the “Mother” part of his persona. Left in a solitary room, he mutely awaits their judgment, lost in his own mind and delusional to the point that he believes that his current silence and timidity will save him. “They'll look at me and say,” thinks “Mother” while staring into space,”'She wouldn't hurt a fly.'”

A final look at Bates, lost in his own mind.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

This is definitely one that has seriously lost some of its luster.

Don't get me wrong. This is not because of any flaws in the film; it is simply due to the passage of time and the fact that so many of the elements that were dazzlingly fresh and shocking in Psycho became old hat some time ago.

I realize that I may be smacking around a very sacred cow here, as Psycho is universally acclaimed by critics as a cornerstone of cinema. No argument there. It is obvious that with this film, Alfred Hitchcock took mainstream viewers to places they had never been before, and he changed both suspense and horror films forever. Still, a viewer who is coming into Psycho for the first time is bound to be underwhelmed a bit. I think it helps to look at each of the strongest and innovative elements of the movie and see how they have held up over the past fifty years:

One – The psychological darkness. As far as a I know, Psycho was the first popular movie (by an immensely accomplished and respected director) to take watchers into darker places than they had ever been. The disturbing nature of the brutal knife murders and the probing look at Norman Bates' mental schisms were certainly new ground for the 1960 viewer. Anyone with a shred of morbid curiosity would have been enthralled by the entire concept. Now, in 2011, however, we cannot be shocked by such things as split personalities or fairly graphic violence in movies. Our culture has grown highly aware of bizarre psychological maladies and has seen them used in fiction for decades now, from films like Sisters and Seven, to television shows like Dexter. Within a modern context, this element of Psycho is knocked down several weight classes.

Two – The “twist” at the end. When a crazed Norman comes crashing through the basement door, in drag and knife held high, I admit that it still gives me a bit of a jolt. I imagine that if I had seen it as a viewer in 1960, I probably would have soiled my pants. I can only imagine how many minds were blown by that famous scene and how it probably haunted people for years. Once again, though, a modern viewer cannot be so easily caught off guard. The notion of “the twist” has been done so many times that we are almost trained to anticipate it. The wilder the possibility, the more likely we are to expect it. This cat-and-mouse game between viewer and screenwriter has fueled the entire careers of people like M. Night Shyamalan. In the end, Psycho's finale is now severely watered down.

Three – The sex! From the very earliest movie posters to the first seconds of the movie, Hitchcock makes no bones about titillating you. The very first scene has Janet Leigh in a rocket bra, lounging in a post-coital afterglow in bed with her strapping lover, Sam. Add to this a few other scenes with a touch of skin and the shower scene, and you have a film that probably had the more Puritanical elements of our society up in arms. Once again, though, what was probably highly erotic in 1960 film does not pack quite the same punch these days. It's not that Janet Leigh isn't still sexy in the movie (she certainly is), but one need only scan a magazine rack these days to find no less than a dozen “FHM”-type publications which don covers that go well beyond Psycho in terms of skin and sultriness.

Here's that most famous of shower scenes:

Four – The camerawork. Psycho has, without a doubt, some of the most iconic shots and scenes in film history. It's nearly on par with Casablanca in terms of being so thoroughly entrenched in popular culture that even people who have never seen the film are familiar with several of the images. This strength of the film most certainly does hold up. The composition of some of the scenes is still stunning, and shots like the slow, backward-panning, spiraling shot of a dead Marion on the bathroom floor are just as powerful now as ever.

So, from this little list of mine, only one out of the four groundbreaking elements has anywhere near the same force that it had decades ago.

I should point that, in addition to the camerawork, there are several excellent verbal exchanges throughout the film, most notably between Norman and Marion and Norman and Arbogast. This is part in due to the writing and part due to outstanding acting, with Anthony Perkins turning in a phenomenal performance as the twitchy, intense, creepy and yet oddly vulnerable Norman Bates.

Despite the handful of lasting merits, I would suggest that anyone new to Psycho not get their hopes too high. It's still a good movie, and one worth watching at least once, but I think that any newcomer under the age of 40 will likely not feel it to be one of the greatest films that they've ever seen. For many, there may be a “seen that before” feeling to it all.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research):

There are all sorts of great little tidbits about Psycho; some are well-known and some are pure urban myth.

The book Psycho, written by H.P Lovecraft understudy Robert Bloch, was based on a very real incident of a murderer in Wisconsin. The screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, along with Hitchcock, decided to alter many things in order to appeal to the audience. Foremost is that the Norman Bates character, who in the book is an overweight, boorish and wholly unsympathetic butcher, would become a handsome, mildly charming and very vulnerable person. It's quite a trick that would not have been possible had Anthony Perkins not given such convincing life to the role.

Speaking of Perkins, I learned that he was, in fact, a gay man who had struggled throughout his life under the pressures of homophobic society. Apparently, he was often rather uncomfortable around women, and for decades at odds with his own desires. While he would later be very open about his sexual orientation and find some semblance of comfort, one has to believe that these very strains were tapped into to create such an affecting performance in Psycho.

The shower scene, one of the most famous in all of cinema, is surrounded by all sorts of tales. From the difficulties of setting up and editing a nude scene to using chocolate syrup as blood to Janet Leigh having to lay stock still during the final pull-away shot, all of these were very true. They also amounted to this seemingly simple, 1-minute piece of finished film taking a whole week to shoot. One myth that I myself had shattered is that Hitchcock had ordered that, during the moment Bates pulls back the curtain, the shower water be turned ice cold in order to extract a more blood-curdling scream from Leigh. This, according to Leigh herself, was entirely untrue. Makes for an amusing story, though.

One of the scenes that will seem to drag to modern audiences is the psychiatrist's exposition near the very end. This scene was, in fact, one that Hitchcock initially felt unnecessary. The screenwriter Stefano, however, himself undergoing psychiatric treatment at the time, convinced him otherwise and it stayed. I think this is yet another element that was probably quite interesting to the 1960 viewer but will seem unduly long and all but redundant to us here in the 21st century.

The release of the movie created several trends, as well. The studio, under Hitchcock's adamant demands, ordered all theaters not to allow any late entrants into the shows. In addition, there were rather humorous signs posted outside of many theaters imploring people not to spoil the ending for others. In seeing footage of this, it became clear that Psycho was meant to be at least as exciting as it was disturbing. In fact, Joseph Stefano said he was pleasantly surprise at just how many people, on leaving the theater, would be simultaneously gasping and laughing. He likened it to how people feel when exiting a really good roller coaster. I have to feel that this is exactly as Hitchcock intended. He wasn't trying to create Silence of the Lambs, but rather an engaging thrill-ride of a movie.

The critics, unlike the audiences, were not as amused. Many of them gave it very tepid reviews, such as this original TIME magazine review, and some panned it altogether. Many of these professionals seemed to think it beneath the director of such sharp, colorful, and adventurous movies like North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, and many others in the prior Hitchcock canon. Joseph Stefano offered another theory on the lukewarm critical reception: that the reviewers were annoyed that they were not allowed to watch previews of the movie, but had to wait until nationwide release like everyone else. Perhaps this is the case, but we'll never know for sure. Curiously enough, several critics who initially torched the film would later list it among the year's best.

I have to repeat that I think any fan of films needs to see this movie at least once. You may not find it to live up to its massive reputation, but it is one that you can have fun developing an opinion on.

This is the original, full-length trailer hosted by the incomparable Alfred Hitchcock himself. It is absolutely hilarious and reveals so much of the man's genius:

That's a wrap. 52 shows down, 53 to go.

Coming Soon: Half-Time Awards!!

In honor of my finishing essentially half of this list that I started a little over a year ago, I will look back over the first 52 shows that I've watched, develop some awards of my own, and dish out completely non-existant prizes. I may drop an F-bomb or two, and maybe I'll post myself in eight different outfits, a la Anne Hathaway. After that little intermission, it's back to the movies!

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.