Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Let’s Review a Movie: Psycho (1960)

Halloween is here again so I’m looking at my favourite ‘thriller’ film.

Actually it is not just my favourite thriller it’s my favourite Hitchcock film of those that I have seen, which I will admit is not his entire filmography.  I think it’s because it’s a wonderfully structured film with a lot going in what is a standard murder mystery.  It was a low budget film with a television film crew and it’s an adaptation, and those can very hit and miss.  This might have been awful and yet it now stands as a defining film in cinema history.   

As I’ve said before films can work on many layers, and I admire filmmakers like Hitchcock who use those layers to their advantage; Psycho is no exception.  For instance the movie is done in black and white, but this wasn’t done just as a money saving thing and to tone down the gore and that’s it. Hitchcock worked to use the black and white medium to build the atmosphere with all kinds of shading, character silhouettes, and makes a great climax when Lila screams at finding Mrs. Bates body and hits the bare light-bulb in the fruit cellar, and this makes a first as I will complement a filmmaker for using a lens flare in their movie.  It looks very much like a Film Noir, although that is in look only.  The motifs of Film Noir are not present.  The black and white is used in costumes and props too.  Norman wears a white shirt and then a black sweater.  Marion changes her bra and slip from white to black after she steals the forty thousand dollars, which is also the trademark McGuffin for this film, a Hitchcock staple.  Marion also changes from a black car to a white one when she goes to the car dealership.  Possibly a foreshadowing that she is becoming an innocent victim, because the next place she drives to is the Bates Motel.    

I will also freely admit that there are some levels of the film that I still don’t get; for example, the mirror in the motel office or Norman and his stuffed birds.  Sure when he and Marion are talking the birds have a menacing feel with the wings spread wide and displayed above the characters, but they’re shown in the hotel room too and a picture of one falls on the floor when Norman turns in shock at the sight of Marion’s body.  It’s obviously important because the camera cuts to the picture when it hits the floor, but I still don’t know what it means.  Another thing I didn’t think about until I watched the making of features about this film was the use of food as a symbol in the lead up to the murder, something that goes on in other Hitchcock films as well.  It was also neat to connect that with Norman eating candy as he talks to Detective Arbogast and how unsettling it is.   

One thing I always thought was always neat was the advertising campaign when Psycho was first released.  That you can’t come in after the movie has started, and the way it’s structured you really can’t.  Things don’t make sense out of context and I speak from experience.  I actually watched the shower scene by itself before I ever watched this movie and I didn’t get what made it so great.  Sure the music was cool, but why was this considered such a great moment in cinema history?  Well to get to that I had to watch the film from the beginning to truly understand the build-up to the shower scene.  With the beginning in place I can see why the scene works so well, and I think it’s in large part because the first act follows the standard storytelling structure.  We start off this story the way any Hollywood narrative might start.  We meet the protagonist and we hear about her problems.  We see her presented with a chance to fix all her problems if she makes a bad decision.  Marion does take the money so Sam can get out of debt and then we watch her going to meet him in Fairview.  When she meets Norman she talks to him about personal traps and realizes she made mistake and plans to go back to Phoenix and fix it.  The audience feels good about this and her.  We want to see her make up for her mistakes and we want to see where the story goes from here.  Then she goes into the shower and the camera moves over to show a shadowy figure coming into the room.  The shower curtain is pulled back, the music comes in, Janet gives that awesome scream, and then the camera becomes the knife.  The whole thing is wonderfully shot and masterfully edited, but it certainly wouldn’t be nearly as affective if we didn’t care about the woman seeming to reach out to us as she dies, and we can’t help her.  The person we thought was our main character is dead on the floor and now we don’t know what to do.       

Then Norman comes in to fill the void left by that death.  With Norman cleaning up the crime scene we have another moment of pure cinema and a great manipulation of the audience.  The entire scene, except for Norman screaming about blood, is totally silent.  It is also has a lot of shots of Norman’s face and what he’s looking at as he gets Marion’s car in the swamp, and we are so drawn in by that that when Marion’s car stops sinking in the swamp we hold our breath just like Norman does and want the car to sink.  Hitchcock just got the audience to agree with Norman to hide the murder.  Because to quote the writer Joseph Stefano “It’s not about her, it’s about him.”

Having switched over to Norman’s point of view the audience is from then on in the unique perspective with the use of dramatic irony in relation to the other characters.  We know that Marion is dead and where it happened and so the tension goes up for us as the film goes on.  We know it isn’t safe to be at the Bates Motel, especially at night, so when Detective Arbogast leaves after talking to Norman there’s a sense of relief ‘oh good he made it out alive’.  Then he phones Lila and Sam to say he’s going back to talk to the mother.  The camera closes in on him in the phone-booth with the inky black outside, making it clear that it’s truly night now and we have the proverbial ‘oh shit’ moment.  Then he is killed at the house and now we know that like the motel it isn’t safe either.  So when Lila and Sam go there looking for answers, the simple shot of the camera following Sam and showing Norman standing in the doorway is enough to make me jump.  As Hitchcock himself said let the fear be in the mind of the audience, and he drives that idea home here.  Audiences are great at putting their imaginations to work when given the opportunity. One need only look at any television fandom in the months between a cliff-hanger season finale and the start of the next season.  Speculation and debate are rampant.  The same is true here, we think the killer is hiding behind every door, because we know how dangerous the situation is when the characters don’t.  We start thinking about all the horrible things that could happen to them even as the violence becomes less and less as the movie continues.  Audiences are much better at winding themselves up into a frenzy than Hitchcock could ever be with all the violence he could throw on the screen.

Taking a break from Hitch for a second let’s praise some other hard working individuals like the composer’s great score; and the wonderful acting by everybody.  Even side characters like the car salesman is a fun performance and Martin Balsam as Arbogast comes off as a professional hard-nosed detective.  Anthony Perkins does a great job of making Norman not just some creepy killer, but a man warped by his overbearing mother in his childhood and then in his very mind with the personality he constructs of her.  This is a departure from the source material, but one that works.  Norman as described in the novel, a forty year old man pudgy balding man, wouldn’t work as well on screen and so we have a positive change.  He becomes a young man who can’t be his own person apart from his mother.   I also like that Norman’s room emphasizes this because it still looks like a little boy’s room.  There are toys and pictures of sailing ships that look like they belong in a five year old’s room. He never grew out of his dependence on his mother, never moved on from childhood.  He is vulnerable and awkward, and we feel sorry for him even as he does terrible things.  And of course his slasher smile at the end is the thing nightmares are made of. I also really enjoy Janet Leigh’s performance.  Like Norman we get to see her problems as Marion and so she too comes off as sympathetic.  Also she has great facial expressions in the voice over scenes when she’s driving.  It makes her thoughts about what is happening back in Phoenix and with the cop at the car dealership, and her growing anxiety of her decision to take the money very realistic. 

I love the great camera work, especially the shot where Norman is talking to ’mother’ about hiding in the fruit cellar and the camera moves up and around from coming up the stairs to on over-head shot as Norman comes out of the bedroom holding mother’s body.  Finally I want to give props to the writer for having a lot of subtle dialogue on the idea of mothers.  Marion’s co-worker says her mother called, and Marion talks to Sam about coming to her home for dinner with her mother’s portrait on the wall.  The theme of mother and character’s connections to maternal figure are brought up long before we ever meet Norman and his ‘mother’ and it feels like a natural subject to bring up with him too.

In short I truly think Psycho is a masterpiece of filmmaking.  It proves the point that low budget doesn’t equal bad.  It works on all points with its writing, acting, music, and of course direction.  It stands the test of time as an iconic moment in movie in history, both in its impact on audiences and on other filmmakers.    

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