Saturday, October 31, 2015

PSYCHO (1960)

(June 1960, U.S.)

Once again, timing and coincidence are kind to me in that I can post one of the scariest films of all time on Halloween! And once again, like POLTERGEIST, I can't believe I even have to take the time to clarify that this is the original 1960 version of the film. That in mind, I'd like to offer a heartfelt, sincere apology on behalf of myself and all classic film purists out there to the great Alfred Hitchcock for Gus Van Sant's inconceivable attempt to remake your great film in 1998 with a shabby, shot-for-shot remake. What that poor bastard was smoking at the time, I suppose we'll never know.

PSYCHO is, perhaps, a shining example of a film you feel you know so well that you actually find yourself blanking out on what you'd actually like to say when the time comes. To discuss this film seems like an act of futility in the same fashion one may feel about discussing JAWS or STAR WARS with blog readers. There are just some films the whole world just knows! On the other hand, perhaps only some of us know the drama that took place in the conception and making of Hitchcock's film, in that it all began with a real-life serial killer and grave robber in Wisconsin named Ed Gein. From that, Robert Bloch wrote his novel PSYCHO and the infamous character of Norman Bates based on Gein's actions. Hitchcock financed the film himself and kept costs low by filming it in black and white (thank goodness!) and used the crew from his "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV show. Upon the film's release, Hitchcock himself decreed that all theaters showing PSYCHO would not permit theater patrons in after the film began (something unheard of at the time!) so that audiences would take in the full effect and experience of the film and it's astounding conclusion ("Don't tell your friends!"). They even made a special movie poster out of it...

How's that for a film maker protectively standing behind his work!

From my earliest childhood memories, PSYCHO was one of the most forbidden films I was aware of. It was the 1970s and the film was frequently shown on the local station WOR Channel 9 as part of a program they called "Million Dollar Movie". I knew nothing of it except that it was considered an incredibly scary film with a vast array of frightening black and white images that began with a rather sinister looking Victorian house just steps away from an isolated California motel...

And of course, it goes without saying, there was the knowledge of the horrible murder of a young, pretty woman while she's taking a shower and the blood-curdling open eyes of the victim after she's been killed and fallen to the tiled bathroom floor...

From a kid's perspective, that's horrifying enough. I was not yet aware that part of the shock value involved was the elimination of Janet Leigh's central character Marion Crane only midway through the film (again, something unheard of at the time!) and that real life women were terrified to take a shower because of that scene. Then there was that final moment when a woman enters a dark, damp fruit cellar and attempts to speak to an old woman in a chair, only to learn that the woman is a grotesque corpse...

Oh, by the way, you may have already noticed that I'm taking every advantage to post many images from the film to accompany my writing. This is no accident! PSYCHO is as much a stunning visual experience as anything else you may have enjoyed on the screen, large or small. It's contents and it's memories for me are rich in visual photography, whether it's the experience of driving down an isolated highway or watching a detective slowly ascent the stairs of the house only to meet his demise at the hands of a a crazy person with a butcher knife! Even just before the credits, Hitchcock gives us something to think about as we say goodbye to Norman Bates' (played perfectly by Anthony Perkins!) and get that final image of him incorporating his face with that of skeletal teeth, giving us a new definition of frightening...

(Okay - I think I've made my point regarding the visual importance of this film. I certainly don't want to be accused of overkill!)

Plot wise, I've always held the strong opinion that PSYCHO is one of the strongest, most original stories every put on film (despite being based on a novel). It's one of those extraordinary times when a film starts out going in one direction and ends up in a completely different one. From the beginning, we're meant to believe that we're following Marion Crane's journey as a petty thief of $40,000 cash in order to get to and marry her secret boyfriend Sam Loomis (played by John Gavin). This is intriguing drama that may or may not lead to the traditional suspense that Hitchcock had provided in the past. Then, out of the blue, Marion is killed and we're meant to try and understand not only the big why, but exactly what unnatural force may be behind her murder and those that occupy the isolated motel. Slowly, the pieces of the mysterious puzzle are put into place and inevitably lead up to that golden moment when we learn exactly who and what Norman Bates is and how his mother fits into all of this...

(Sorry! I couldn't resist just one more image!). But since I posted it, I have to say there's one thing that bothers me about this exact moment. For years, as I watched Bates/Mother enter the fruit cellar and head toward Lila Crane (played by Vera Miles), I always heard her say something to her intended victim, but I could never make out exactly what. Then I finally read Bloch's novel and in it, the character says, "I'm Norma Bates!" before moving in for the kill. I watched the film again and realized that was the same line being said in the film. I won't lie to you - I was disappointed! That's a terrible line in a film filled with perfect, often quoted dialogue. Really, I wish he'd/she'd just kept her mouth shut and just screamed or something.

Let me continue with the infamous shower scene because I'm not quite done with that! There's something I'd like to discuss and it's probably not what you think it is. I want to discuss the moments of the shower scene before Marion is murdered. Believe it or not, we learn a lot about her character in the shower just before her demise. Let's recap a point or two - Marion Crane has stolen a large sum of money from her employer and, following a meal and a conversation with the clever Norman Bates, decides to go back where she came from to return the money and face whatever consequences are to follow. Look carefully at Marion's face in the shower and study it! This is not just an ordinary shower, but rather a moment of redemption and cleansing! The water is warm, it's soothing and it's literally washing away Marion's sins over the last twenty-four hours. Tomorrow, at the crack of dawn, she will take a long drive back to Phoenix, Arizona and (presumably) become a new person with a second chance at her life, which up until that moment, has been filled with confusion and dissatisfaction. We sympathize with Marion and we may even feel joy for the new positive outlook on her life. Then, in what I can only describe as the absolute sickest case of twisted irony, she's murdered with a large butcher knife and cannot possibly conceive of who or what is behind it, her chance at redemption taken away from her! To be honest, I would find it hard to imagine that no film critics or scholars have not previously considered this outlook on the shower scene, but if they have, I have yet to hear it for myself. If they haven't thought of it also, then I hope I've introduced a new take on an old classic!

Now, let me conclude with one more personal point that will (sorry!) involve one more image. If you go back in time and re-read my post for JAWS, you will recall that I described a fondness for re-release movie posters because, unlike originals, they imply and describe a history behind a film that has already had it's theatrical run and has had it's impact on audiences. That being the case, I am drawn to this particular re-release poster of PSYCHO because it follows a time in the 1960s when the film had already been shown on television with what I can only imagine were very heavy cuts and edits (they had those same edits in the 1970s when I was able to catch a bit of it here and there on TV when my parents weren't looking!) and promises audiences a chance to revisit Hitchcock's masterpiece with every scene in tact. I'm sure fans of the film were very grateful. But as you can see, you still weren't allowed into the movie theater after the film started...

Still, it's a pretty cool poster! And now, as a truly devoted fan of PSYCHO, I'd like to offer my sincerest thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Robert Bloch and Bernard Herrmann (just to name some) for all of their efforts involved in giving me, the world, and cinematic history one of the greatest shockers of all time. We're all eternally grateful. Now if you'll all excuse me, I'm going to go watch PSYCHO again in perfect high-definition Blu-Ray picture and sound! 'Tis a beautiful thing!

Favorite line of dialogue:

Dr. Fred Richmond: "Now to understand it the way I understood it, hearing it from the mother...that is, from the mother half of Norman's have to go back ten years, to the time when Norman murdered his mother and her lover. Now he was already dangerously disturbed, had been ever since his father died. His mother was a clinging, demanding woman, and for years the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world. Then she met a man...and it seemed to Norman that she threw him over for this man. Now that pushed him over the line and he killed 'em both. Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all...most unbearable to the son who commits it. So he had to erase the crime, at least in his own mind. He stole her corpse. A weighted coffin was buried. He hid the body in the fruit cellar. Even treated it to keep it as well as it would keep. And that still wasn't enough. She was there! But she was a corpse. So he began to think and speak for her, give her half his time, so to speak. At times he could be both personalities, carry on conversations. At other times, the mother half took over completely. Now he was never all Norman, but he was often only mother. And because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was jealous of him. Therefore, if he felt a strong attraction to any other woman, the mother side of him would go wild."
(points finger at Lila Crane)
"When he met your sister, he was touched by her, aroused by her, he wanted her. That set off the jealous mother and mother killed the girl! Now after the murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep. And like a dutiful son, covered up all traces of the crime he was convinced his mother had committed!"
Sam Loomis "Why was he dressed like that?"
Officer: "He's a tranvestite!"
Dr. Richmond: "Ah, not exactly. A man who dresses in women's clothing in order to achieve a sexual change, or satisfaction, is a transvestite. But in Norman's case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive! And when reality came too close, when danger or desire threatened that illusion...he dressed up, even to a cheap wig he bought. He'd walk about the house, sit in her chair, speak in her voice. He tried to be his mother! And, he is. Now, that's what I meant when I said I got the story from the mother. You see, when the mind houses two personalities, there's always a conflict, a battle. In Norman's case, the battle is over...and the dominant personality has won."
Sheriff Al Chambers: "And the forty thousand dollars? Who got that?"
Dr. Richmond: "The swamp. These were crimes of passion, not profit."

1 comment:

  1. You list it as your favorite line of dialogue, but all that exposition after the climax is anti climactic to me. Saw this on the big screen a few weeks ago. Another one I can start from any point and watch the rest. Your analysis of the shower scene is exactly right. I think I read someone else writing about the washing away of sins as well, but your descriptions is terrific.