Blog Directory CineVerse: A thriller with a cutting edge that never dulls

A thriller with a cutting edge that never dulls

Monday, October 26, 2020

What can be written about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho that hasn’t already been dissected to death? While it’s difficult to suggest any important new insights or theories, summarizing the myriad ways in which this now 60-year-old magnum opus works brilliantly can remind us why Psycho is worth re-evaluating again and again. 

Why is Psycho worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still matters because it’s an exemplary work of craftsmanship by a master at the height of his powers. The carefully planned visuals, inspired editing choices, all-time great score, brave storytelling, and precision-timed suspense combine to create an unforgettable cinematic experience.
  • It still matters because of the moral ambiguity and uncertainty we end up feeling. There is no calming moral resolution by the end of this film; yes, the villain is captured, but we’re left feeling unnerved by Norman’s interior monologue in the final scene.
  • It has stood the test of time because, despite its age and its creakiness around the edges, Psycho still feels modern and relevant. With its sudden graphic violence, creepy voyeuristic themes, and cynical worldview that suggests a random and cruel hand of fate, it still commands the power to shock, disturb, and unsettle.

In what ways was this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • First, Psycho stands in stark contrast, both visually and in terms of production values, to Hitchcock’s previous work in the 1950s and subsequent pictures immediately following Psycho. Predecessors like North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Rear Window were bigger-budget, glossy color pictures with big-name stars. This was made to look like a cheap exploitation film in black-and-white—a longer version perhaps of one of his TV show episodes of the time.
  • It inaugurated a new era of increased graphic violence for intense shock value. It’s the first true slasher movie, the first horror film that brought violent murder to the mainstream. As director Peter Bogdanovich said in the documentary 78/52: “It was actually the first time in the history of movies that it wasn’t safe to be in the movie theatre, and when I walked out into Times Square at noon I felt I had been raped.”
  • Psycho broke down film censorship barriers by depicting casual sex between two unmarried lovers, showing extensive footage of a scantily clad woman, a peeping Tom, the violation of a naked woman in the shower, and even, for the first time in a Hollywood film, a flushing toilet.
  • It is also possibly the first movie to kill off its lead character before the midway point of the film—essentially making Marion a red herring diversion and Psycho a great practical joke played on us by Hitchcock.
  • It manipulated audiences into switching allegiances and sympathies from one innocent protagonist to another who turned out to be evil. Think of how you feel when Norman waits for the car to sink in the swamp, or when we hear him shockingly say to his mother, “Oh, mother…the blood!”
  • It usurped 1950s conventionality and repressive values, turning the Ozzie and Harriet generation on its ear. According to critic David Thomson: “Most films of the fifties are secret ads for the way of life. Psycho is a warning about its lies and limits.”
  • The score by Bernard Herrmann was extremely influential: a sparse, abstract arrangement of shrieking, unrelenting strings, later copied in films like Jaws.
  • Psycho became one of the first big buzz event movies thanks to a great publicity campaign and due to Hitchcock’s rule that no one be seated after the film started. The marketing campaign begged the audience not to reveal any plot twists; movie theaters soon initiated policies that set specific show times and didn’t allow audiences into the theater once a film started.

The shower sequence is often cited as one of the most innovative and important in the history of film. What’s interesting about this scene?

  • It borrows heavily from Soviet montage theory (espoused by Sergei Eisenstein and others) and New Wave filmmaking.
  • It wouldn’t be nearly as shocking/effective if Hitchcock hadn’t so masterfully developed Marion’s character beforehand and forced us to identify with her.
  • In fact, it becomes all the more shocking the first time you see it because we feel so much better about Marion right before it; she has decided to go home and give the money back, and she has a joyful look upon her face.
  • In the shower scene, you’re not actually seeing actress Janet Leigh’s naked body (that’s a body double in the nude), nor does your eye see a knife enter the body, nor is the blood real or red (it’s chocolate syrup); it’s the power of suggestion that’s at work here, and that’s how Hitchcock was able to appease the censors—a very clever solution.
  • From the moment Marion disrobes and steps into the shower, the pace and cutting of the shots quicken.
  • Also, the water shoots in contrasting directions to disorient us, as it did on her car windshield earlier, creating an anxious, out-of-sorts feeling.
  • The point of view during the shower scene shifts. Some of the shots are subjective, like Marion looking up at the showerhead and the killer stabbing the victim, while others are God’s eye points of view, like quick overhead shots, shots from an angle away from the killer and Marion, the famous shot of the water running down the drain, and the rotating shot zooming out of the dead woman’s eye.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes or messages are explored in Psycho?

  • Duality, pairs, and split personalities. Consider how there are many parallels suggested between various sets of two different characters in the film:
    • Marion and Norman: You feel empathy for each early on in the film, even though both have committed crimes—Marion the crime of theft, Norman the crime of covering up for whom you think is the murderer (his mother). We perhaps exonerate Marion because she’s stealing the money for love and because she’s pilfering from a lecherous creep. And it’s easy to put yourself in Norman’s shoes when he’s trying to hide the body and the evidence.
    • Norman and Sam: Sam had what Norman wanted (Marion) but couldn’t have. Sam is honorable, handsome, and prepared; Norman is gangly, awkward, and unprepared; both were living a double life (Sam sneaking around to be Marion’s lover, Norman personifying his dead mother).
    • Marion and Arbogast: Both are victims of Norman, but the viewer hasn’t formed a subjective bond to Arbogast as they had with Marion.
    • Arbogast and Lila: Both investigate Marion’s disappearance, but Lila makes it further (upstairs and downstairs) than the private eye did and doesn’t pay the price he did.
    • Recall how, in the first scene Marion wears white undergarments, suggestive of a good girl but later wears black undergarments, insinuating a bad girl.
    • The Norman we first meet versus the Norman we later learn has been assuming the role of his mother, revealing a split personality.
    • Additionally, the extensive use of mirrors and mirror images throughout the movie possibly implies that anyone is capable of having a split personality or a different side to their nature.
  • There’s a hidden voyeur in all of us. Think about how often characters are watched by other characters throughout this film, and, for that matter, how often we watch characters watch others, making us complicit in this voyeuristic behavior. Examples include Norman peeping through the hole in the wall, Arbogast spying on Norman and his mother, and the opening sequence in which, like a peeping Tom, the camera brings us into the motel room where Marion and Sam have just finished an intimate encounter.
  • The universe is arbitrary, pitiless, and indifferent. Ponder how, for the first third of the film, we think this is going to be a story about Marion stealing the $40,000 and having a moral quandary about the theft, which causes her to reconsider the crime and try to set things right. But as she’s taking a shower, the moment when we finally see her smile and symbolically wash away the guilt and bad feelings of her actions, she is unexpectedly brutally slaughtered, which also kills that story of personal redemption. Immediately afterward, we are forced to identify with the only major character left in the picture, Norman Bates, who, at that moment, we believe is trying to cover up the crime his mother committed and is deserving of our attention and sympathy. Despite knowing that he is an accessory to the crime, we secretly root for Norman to succeed in this cover-up; when the car he pushes into the swamp doesn’t quite sink all the way, the audience tenses up, worrying that the vehicle will be discovered.
  • Isolation. Hitchcock carefully chooses to continually isolate and alienate various characters within a given shot from other people around them. We also see how characters can look and feel isolated and lonely, particularly Norman, who lives alone in a remote environment.

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • Arguably the only blemish in this otherwise glimmering jewel of a thriller is the tacked-on psychologist’s diagnosis that explains Norman’s actions and psychosis, which probably goes on too long and softens the blow.
  • Yet, it makes the last scene of Norman’s internal monologue more effective, because everything we see and hear makes a mockery of what the shrink explains. It’s as if the filmmakers were telling us to forget the psychobabble – this guy is pure evil (so much so that you can see a human skull slightly superimposed over his Norman’s smiling face in the second to the last shot).

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its greatest gifts is that, ingeniously, it leaves you feeling terrified, vulnerable, mistrustful, and conflicted, even on a subconscious level and for reasons that are not entirely obvious.
    • Because you are compelled to identify and empathize with the person who turns out to be an evil psychopath, you are forced to examine your conscience by the film’s end and ask yourself: Am I capable of committing these kinds of crimes? Do I have a bit of Norman Bates in me? Would I ever impulsively kill or steal?
    • Also, think of how the film starts, with the dateline: “‘Phoenix, Arizona. Friday, December the 11th. 2:43 p.m.’” Right away, this feels like a true-crime tale and suggests that this scenario could happen in any random life, in any random town—thus, it could happen to you.
    • Psycho brilliantly plants the seed that you can’t trust anybody. At different points in the movie, we fear or are suspicious of the police, an attractive young woman who’s been a loyal employee for 10 years, a would-be helpless old woman, and a seemingly harmless looking young man.
    • Consider, as well, the unspeakable horrors and unconventional behaviors suggested by Norman’s actions and his past: taxidermy of a dead person, transvestism, and possible incest and necrophilia.
  • Another greatest gift is the degree to which Hitchcock can manipulate and deceive us. The first time we watch Psycho, we are fooled by Hitchcock’s misdirection; we think the story is about the money theft, but it veers off into something completely different, by random chance. It’s this sudden turn of direction and arbitrary twist of fate that shocks viewers, even subconsciously. Hitchcock forces us to dwell on the $40,000 that Marion steals—which serves as the film’s MacGuffin (defined as a device or object that motivates the characters and fuels the plot but which turns out to be relatively insignificant to the viewer). We dwell on this loot up to the point where Norman throws it in the trunk and sinks the car. This becomes Hitchcock’s little joke: The money turns out to be insignificant by the end of the film, despite all the attention we’ve invested in it. In this way, the last shot of the car being dragged out of the swamp is Hitchcock’s final laugh. It’s his way of tacking on a happy ending to the problem about the money, as it's probably found in the trunk of the authorities.

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