Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Psycho (1960)

Based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) remains a turning point in the horror cinema for a number of significant reasons, but first and foremost because it knowingly and brazenly flouts the decorum of its age. 

Psycho features not only nudity, extreme violence, and the early death of a beloved protagonist played by Janet Leigh, it also happens to feature, on-screen, views of…a toilet.  

Today, all that -- especially the bit about a toilet -- doesn’t seem like much to get worked up about. 

But when the film premiered, Psycho unsettled audiences because its explicit failure to conform to conventional, Hollywood standards meant that all bets were off, and that, likewise, audiences could see and experience anything. 

Accordingly, Psycho’s audiences felt endangered. The narrow parameters of Hollywood decorum and standards of acceptability had sheltered them in previous movie-going experiences, and by deliberately treading outside of those parameters, Psycho suddenly possessed the capacity to shock on a new, previously unplumbed level.

Every now and then on Amazon.com or some horror site, you’ll read a review by someone very young who goes back to watch Psycho and just doesn’t get why it is important, or so revered. This viewpoint arises because Psycho, like all films, must be considered and examined in its historical context.  And some folks forget that fact.

Before Psycho, no one had seen anything like it.  

Since, Psycho, filmmakers have been using the same playbook for over fifty years.  

Some films and filmmakers have surpassed it, too, to be certain (Tobe Hooper and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974], Brian De Palma and Sisters [1973], perhaps), but in its day Psycho shattered formula and blazed a new path. 

Yet the mere fact that other filmmakers have so often imitated the film's approach to its material doesn’t take anything away from what Psycho accomplished in the first place.

What makes Psycho truly great, even today is the manner in which Hitchcock meaningfully connects the film’s form and content. The narrative is shocking and unconventional, the imagery is shocking and unconventional, and, in fact, Psycho’s very structure is unconventional too. 

Virtually every decision Hitchcock makes as a filmmaker here -- save for the very last one (to restore order) -- thus creates and nurtures anxiety in viewers.

With its blunt looks at an unmarried couple having a sexual liaison, a brutal murder, and even a flushing toilet, Hitchcock -- frame-by-frame, shot-by-shot -- makes audiences feel that they crossing threshold after threshold. 

As the taboos fall away, so does any sense of confidence or certainty about what the filmmaker may show us. Psycho continues to impress today because of Hitchcock's virtuoso technique, but also because it moves with a kind of diabolical, elegant purpose.

And that purpose is, simply, to shoot down your defenses one at a time and, in the final revelation of Mrs. Bates' secret, leave you breathless and shocked.

“We’re all in our private traps.”

In Psycho, beautiful Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) wants very much to marry her boyfriend, divorcee Sam Loomis (John Gavin), but monetary concerns keeps him from committing to her. 

One day, at work, Marion is tasked with taking $40,000 dollars to the bank, but in a moment of desperation, she decides to steal the cash and flee town.

Marion escapes from Phoenix, AZ and even switches cars to avoid detection, looking forward to surprising Sam in his home-town, Fairvale. 

After a long drive, however, Marion decides to call it a day. She spends the night at the Bates Motel, a small, out-of-the-way establishment that stands in the shadow of a giant, dilapidated Gothic mansion.  

The motel is run by young, lanky Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a lonely man who apparently lives with his old, invalid mother.

When Marion shares a meal with Norman, she learns about his mother’s brutal treatment of him, and realizes how Norman has become trapped at the motel, and in an unhappy life. Marion vows not to trap herself, and decides to go home, return the stolen money, and face the consequences of her actions.

Resolved to set her life right, Marion decides to take a hot shower…

“This is the first place that looks like it’s trying to hide from the world.”

There’s a feeling, watching Psycho (1960), of viewing the world outside typical Hollywood parameters. 

Hitchcock fosters this feeling from the film’s earliest shots. After a pan across the city of Phoenix, and arriving, finally, at a cracked hotel window, Hitchcock’s camera sneaks in through that narrow portal, exploiting the opening to reveal two attractive – unmarried -- young people (Marion and Sam) after an afternoon of love-making.  

It’s as though, from the very start, Hitchcock not only pries open a literal window, but the metaphorical window of Hollywood standards and practices.

Hitchcock's other choices in vetting this adaption of Bloch’s novel are just as startling. First, he unsettles the audience by fracturing the role of the protagonist.The audience's focal point of identification in most Hollywood thrillers is one person: a man or woman who follows the predictable arc of increased learning and ascending knowledge as the three acts progress satisfyingly to a conclusion. 

The arc of "learning" on the part of the movie audience, presented through the experiences of the lead character, is usually a straight line traveling up and up, until, by the movie's denouement, the character and the viewer reach an apex, or zenith.  Apotheosis has occurred. Audiences have learned everything they need to know to understand the film's narrative, theme, and message.

But in Psycho, the protagonist role is unconventionally splintered into three or even four characters: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), Arbogast (Martin Balsam), Lila Crane (Vera Miles) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin). 

Learning still occurs over the course of the film’s plot, and the audience still attains that final plateau of knowledge through a psychologist's detailed and clinical "explanation" of Norman Bates' psychosis. 

Yet importantly, the process of learning is fractured and jumbled by the three acts and the changing point of audience identification. Each protagonist dominates center stage, very roughly, in one particular act.  

Marion does so in the first. 

Arbogast assumes that role in the second. 

And finally Lila and Sam become the point of identification and the hub of learning in the final act. We especially fear for Lila and Sam’s safety because we have seen, in gory detail, what has become of Marion and Arbogast, our two earlier leads.

Since Psycho revolves around schizophrenia -- around a splintering of a single mind into more than one individual -- the film's very structure actually reflects this state of existence not only in its villain, Norman/Mother, but in the variety and differentiation of its protagonists.  

In some sense, it's as though Hitchock is trying to impress this schizophrenic state upon us, the audience. We are asked to meet, accept, follow, root and then grieve for one protagonist after the other.

In simple terms, then, Hitchcock punishes the audience -- and ruthlessly unsettles it -- for emotionally investing in the characters. 

First, Hitchcock makes the audience fall in love with adorable and sexy Marion Crane through her ongoing interior monologue during an extended road trip. This soliloquy of sorts regards the theft of 40,000 dollars, and what the acquisition of the money and the perpetrating of a crime could mean for her life personally, professionally, and legally. Marion berates herself and mocks herself in these passages, like we all do when we talk to ourselves.

The device of the interior monologue, in conjunction with the preponderance of gorgeous close-ups during these moments in the car, actually accentuates the feeling of connection to the character and her plight. 

And of course, that forging of a close emotional connection is intentional. Hitchcock wants audiences heavily invested in Marion's imagination, her potential, her crime; the very things that make her human and therefore sympathetic. In other words, the director sucks us in with a likable character and her crisis.

And then, Hitchcock rips Marion, the star of the movie, away from the audience in the notorious shower scene. 

We watch helplessly as all our expectations and hopes for Marion -- namely that she will return the money, seek a life with Sam, and escape her personal purgatory or trap -- run down the tub drain with her spilled blood.  

Suddenly, everything the audience has taken for granted as "important" in Psycho, including Marion's dilemma regarding stolen cash is now rendered, categorically, unimportant. 

The result? The audience is rudderless.  Vulnerable.  

The only thing left to cling to, again, is that stolen cash, and the hope that another human being, perhaps sweet, harmless Norman, will find it and use it to escape from his trap, from his Mother.

The movie goes on, and the audience still feels lost without Marion. Thus it soon seizes on laconic, world-weary Arbogast as the focal point of identification. 

Yeah, he's the guy who's going to get Norman's Mother and set things right, for the memory of Marion.  He's got the chops.  He's got the professional background.  No one's going to pull the wool over his eyes.

And then Hitchcock violates traditional narrative structure and decorum again.  He pulls the exact same trick a second time.  

He kills Arbogast before our eyes in another visually dazzling murder scene, set this time upon a staircase. And for a second time, the audience loses the focal point of identification.

Finally, identification transfers to Sam and Lila, but by this point -- on a first viewing of Psycho, anyway -- the audience is surely thinking "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me," and therefore reluctant to embrace this couple, not out of loyalty to the dead; but out of the fear that, for a third time, Evil will triumph.  

Is there another reason it is difficult to warm to Lila and Sam?  Absolutely

They begin to seriously question and threaten Norman Bates, but at this point in the proceedings, the audience is still invested in him and his escape from the motel, and from his twisted, overbearing Mom. Viewers don't want to see Norman railroaded for what they believe his mother did.  They think Sam and Lila are barking up the wrong tree.

The unconventional presentation of the protagonists and antagonists in Psycho is all part of Hitchcock's masterful manipulation, his gleeful manner of misdirecting attention and subverting expectations. Yet he doesn't merely subvert by way of conveying story points; he does it via the actual narrative structure; by exploding movie conventions. 

The "Janet Leigh" trick as I sometimes call it, isn't the only trail-blazing, convention-shattering aspect of Psycho.  It's harder to appreciate this second factor given the direction of our culture since Psycho, but Hitchcock further shatters Hollywood decorum by revealing to the audience shocking imagery it had not often, if ever, seen depicted before. Things like an afternoon, pre-marital assignation in a cheap hotel room between Sam and Marion, or, simply, a toilet being flushed.

And then there’s the notorious shower scene.

Arriving in 1960, Psycho broke a critical rule/taboo in film history. It showed a vulnerable person virtually nude in the bathroom and then depicted that character brutally murdered in nothing less than a murderous frenzy.   

Many film critics and Hitchcock scholars have written expertly and at length about the staging and cutting of the Psycho shower scene, but the important thing to remember is how it plays

It is a visualization of frenzy, rage, and madness at close-up range. The helter-skelter pace of the shock editing and the very closeness -- intimacy? -- of many shots transmits the inescapable impression of a trapped animal being murdered in a blinding, fury-filled rage.  

Before Psycho, no one had ever seen anything like this. Violence, close-up, with adroit film technique embodying psychosis and powerful anger. And we weren't seeing a bad guy or some random character being killed.  Rather, a woman whom we had, as viewers, fallen in love with. To dispatch Marion when she is vulnerable, when she has so many reasons to live, and to do it in such indecorous, nay un-chivalrous, fashion, is...bracing to say the least.  It's a literal shock to the system.

The presentation of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) represents another shattering of tradition too.  Hollywood often lives by the edict that what is beautiful must also be good. And young Anthony Perkins, like Janet Leigh, is certainly beautiful. He is innocent, boyish, graceful, handsome and charming.  Simultaneously, he is a brutal murderer when "possessed" by Mother Bates. The film asks us to countenance competing visions of Norman, that he can be both innocent and guilty; a good boy and a very naughty boy at the same time. 

In large part, Hitchcock was able to get away with this complexity involving the characters, and particularly with Norman, because of the burgeoning popularity of pop psychology in the American culture of the 1950s and 1960s. Horror films such as The Bad Seed (1956) began to ask very pointed questions about human "monsters," thereby exploring the eternal nature vs. nurture debate. To a very large extent, that's the terrain as well of Psycho.  Norman is a good boy, perhaps, by nature. But a very bad boy via nurture, by his mother's parenting. Nurture is stamped over nature, in his case, and the result is psychosis.

This focus on human psychology represents an important turning point in horror history: a period wherein supernatural and fantasy can be subtracted from the genre formula and the human being can take his -- rightful? – role as the pre-eminent "Monster" in the cinema, thus paving the way for a slew of slashers and serial killers. 

Indeed, this is the point in horror history where many "monster" horror movie fans cut bait: preferring their monsters as more fantastical creations like vampires, Gill Men, or the Mummy.

Here, in Psycho, Dracula’s castle still lurks large in the frame, in the form of the Gothic Bates House, but the monster lurking inside is purely of man’s nature, not of the supernatural

Despite its brilliance and trailblazing, Psycho end with nod to decorum and tradition. Hitchcock closes the film with a restoration of the sense of order.

Norman is captured, processed, categorized, diagnosed and understood. A psychiatrist, played by Simon Oakland, explains everything. In this way, an audience might leave a showing of the film knowing that it need not be afraid in real life. The good guys still come out on top; the dangerous bad guy is punished, or at least apprehended. 

In the years following Psycho, directors like Tobe Hooper and Brian De Palma would go even further than Psycho to break established movie decorum. Hooper denied the audience (and Chainsaw's characters) the act of learning in toto; and in Sisters, De Palma did not bother to re-establish order, instead leaving the film's heroine a confused amnesiac.

But those bold, innovative steps in the genre could not have been broached had Hitchcock not re-written the rules of the game first, with Psycho.   

If you ask yourself why the 1998 remake of Psycho failed, the answer rests not just with re-casting.  It is not only because of color photography. It is not, even, because of Hitchcock's absence in the director's chair. These are all factors, of course. But that notable failure occurred because that remake failed to re-structure its narrative and format in a pioneering fashion; in a way that would have actually honored Hitchcock and the spirit of the original film. 

Thirty years after Hitchcock fooled everyone, nobody was going to be taken in by exactly the same bag of tricks  Chainsaw and Sisters are more valid remakes of Psycho, in the sense that they pursue the same aims, the shattering of standing conventions and decorum.

Despite over a half-century of imitators, Psycho is still a standard-bearer for the genre because of its historical context.  Also, on a recent re-watch, I felt too that the film had something very valuable to share with audiences about human nature. It’s sometime easy not to look at the film’s actual story, because Psycho’s form is so exemplary.

Yet pay close attention, and one starts to see how Psycho is the story of how the things we do to achieve happiness don’t actually bring us happiness. 

In Psycho, we see that people will steal, fuck, and commit murder in attempts to find happiness.  Instead, invariably, they find “traps” of their own making, not freedom, or satisfaction.  Marion created a shit-storm for herself by stealing forty-thousand dollars. But she did it because she wanted to be with Sam…and he needed money. 

And Norman is so desperate to feel happy again that he has resurrected his “mother” as a hectoring, violent shrew. He has re-imagined her as a jealous lunatic, and now once he has her back, he can’t get rid of her. She has taken over a part of his very mind.

Again, there seems to a corollary visual to go with this idea.  Marion finds a point of clarity on the road. She drives through the rain, through a storm, and comes out the other side. After the deluge, she should be cleansed, free. 

But the place she ends up is the Bates Motel: a location not where she will turn her life around, but die violently. The message seems to be that the plans we make are the very thing that lead us to destruction. 

Or, to put it in proverbial terms, Man proposes and God disposes.

Today, we all know the stylistic twists and turns that make Psycho such a classic horror film, but one need re-watch again it to remember clearly the feelings it engenders. We feel real loss when Marion is killed and Norman, despite his insanity, is a little boy lost who holds our sympathy. Their “private traps” are terrifying ones, but also ones that, surprisingly, still affect us on an emotional level fifty years later.

All this week, I'll be looking at the sequels to Psycho. They may not match the surprise, decorum-shattering genius of Hitchcock's original, but they do capture, in very poignant terms, the tragedy of Norman Bates. 


  1. I'm so happy you're going to cover the Psycho sequels. While I have no love of horror movies, I am a Hitchcock fan and thought the first sequel to Psycho to be a layered and surprisingly complex continuation of Bates' story. I'm looking forward to this!

  2. A film that still manages to upset, disgust, scare, and disturb people after all these years. Something that will never be duplicated. If ever there was a list of "most important films of all time," this would be in the top 5.