Hitchcock Collection: Psycho Review
“I think the film is reflection of a most unpleasant mind, a mean, sly, sadistic little mind” (from Dwight MacDonald’s review of the film, 1960)
“M…m…mother isn’t… quite herself today…” (Norman Bates)
Psycho is one of the most famous films ever made and one of the most written-about. This leaves the would-be reviewer with an intimidating sense of obsolescence. What, after all, can be written about this movie that is going to cast any new light on it? Still, this is the task I am set and so if any reader hasn’t seen this wonderfully entertaining, wickedly funny film then I implore them to ignore my comments on the movie and go straight to my review of the disc.
In 1959 Hitchcock made North By Northwest, one of his most richly entertaining films. A wild chase across America packed with dry comedy and riveting suspense set-pieces, it epitomised the kind of light entertainment which Hitch could do with his eyes closed. It’s fair to say that the success of the film led to much discussion about what the Master of Suspense would do next. He had intended to go to London to make a film called “No Bail for the Judge” which was to have starred Audrey Hepburn and Lawrence Harvey. However, this sensational story of importuning and corruption featured a rape scene and when Hepburn read it, she pulled out of the picture. Left without a project – and a considerable amount of resentment towards his would-be star – Hitchcock decided to make a complete switch from the furrow he had ploughed with Vertigo and North By Northwest. He planned a low-budget, black and white suspense thriller to be made by the crew from the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV show
It’s a very simple story in which boy meets girl, the only complication being that boy dresses up as his mother, kills girl, dumps girl in car in swamp and then kills someone else before being confined to an institution. Marion Crane (the excellent Leigh) takes off, on an impulse, to her be with her lover and, menaced by well-meaning police, gets lost and is forced to seek shelter at the Bates Motel, run by Norman Bates (Perkins), a nervous young man who is seemingly terrorised by his aged and unseen mother. When Marion disappears, her sister Lila (Miles) and boyfriend Sam (Loomis) determine to find her.
The critical reaction was hysterical. I can’t think of many occasions where critics have been more off-beam in their response - Peeping Tom around the same time is the other notable example – and it wasn’t long before they were hastily revising their opinions. But it’s not surprising that some of the more straight-laced writers were shocked because Psycho seems deliberately designed to shock them. It deals with all manner of taboos and does so in a style which was devastatingly frank for 1960. Worse, as far as those critics were concerned, it does so in a lip-smacking style in which the black humour is implicit in virtually every scene. Leslie Halliwell, one of the doubters, once wrote that there were no jokes in Psycho but, typically, he was missing the point. The whole film is a joke played on the audience which constantly brings them up short, defying their expectations and forcing them to become complicit. Hitchcock could do this with such a light touch that his manipulation is not only painless but welcome. At a given point in the film he will increase the tension to an unbearable degree or shock us rigid with a great set-piece murder. Then he’ll break the suspense and make us laugh at ourselves for being so easily wound-up.
The first half of the film is paced very deliberately, something which some viewers find infuriating. But it’s necessary to involve us completely in the poignant little world of Marion Crane, a woman who asks for nothing from life except to be happy and, in one moment of impulsive stupidity, drives off to her death. The opening conversation with Sam Loomis is beautifully played by Janet Leigh, lying on her bed exposed to both the gaze of the audience and the banal little mind-games of Sam, one moment encouraging and pushing away the next. Then, going back to the office, she is idly mocked by her all-too vocally married work colleague – a nice study in loquacious malice by Pat Hitchcock – and patronised with whisky breath by the rich Texan whose role in life, as he says, is to “buy off unhappiness”. Ironic of course, because the one thing Marion knows all too well is that unhappiness can’t be cured or bought, it’s something that people have to put up with rather like the weather. When she makes her getaway, she doesn’t really know what she’s doing and once she has time to think, she returns to her senses and resolves to return the money. Her meetings with an ambivalent traffic cop and a fast-talking car salesman crank up the tension because we don’t want Marion to be caught. I think we like her – she’s a well portrayed, credible independent woman – and we want her to find the happiness which seems so elusive. Within 25 minutes of the film beginning, she arrives at the Bates Motel and her fate is sealed. 25 minutes later, she is dead and being wrapped up in a shower curtain.
It’s hard to understand now just how shocking Marion’s death must have been for the first audiences for the film. It had been made under strict conditions of secrecy and he had implored critics not to give too much away in their reviews. Famously, audiences were asked not to reveal the ending – “After all,” said Hitch, “It’s the only one we have!” The result seems to have been some kind of panic. Needless to say, it’s one of the biggest, blackest jokes in the film and it works on a couple of levels. Firstly, it takes the movie’s only big star and disposes of her during the middle of the film. Secondly, through brilliant planning and editing it persuades the audience that they’ve just seen a far grislier, bloodier scene than they have done. Thirdly, and most subtly, it takes a sympathetic, carefully built female character and kills her off in a random, meaningless fashion almost guaranteed to upset viewers who had spent the first half of the film relating to her. It’s not hard to believe that this was the aspect which most amused Hitchcock since it violated some unspoken pact with the audience. Theorists, particularly feminists, who claim that Hitchcock is somehow ‘punishing’ Marion for stealing the money or sleeping with someone out of wedlock are, to my mind, clutching at ideological straws. Hitchcock is simply having fun with the audience’s expectations and how better to do that than kill off their point of identification fifty minutes into the film?
The shower scene is possibly the most discussed scene in cinema history – other candidates would include the Odessa Steps in Potiemkin and the Ferris wheel sequence in The Third Man. Yet from the moment Marion turns on the water to Norman entering (again) and screaming, “Mother, oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!” only 2 minutes 53 seconds elapse. For a scene to make such a cultural impact in such a short length of time is quite remarkable and it’s probably the element of Psycho which was most influential on other films. Although a whole string of cheap black and white horror films cashed in on the success of Psycho, they were generally more indebted to Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. The brief scenes of shattering violence were what they took from Hitchcock but few of them could match the genius of the filmmaking. I don’t want to dwell on questions of authorship here and would prefer to hand out credit individually to four men. Firstly, Saul Bass who storyboarded the sequence in minute detail. Secondly, Alfred Hitchcock who filmed it and added three key elements – the knife slashing towards the viewer, the very brief shot of the knife entering the victim’s abdomen and the final shot of blood running down the drain. Thirdly, editor George Tomasini who had the task of putting a cascade of brief shots together to make a coherent sequence. Finally, composer Bernard Herrmann for providing some of the most influential music ever written for a film. It’s a stunning sequence, even if it’s now more fascinating than horrifying, and the first time that Hitchcock’s own repressed anger seems to have completely erupted onto film. He was well known as a very gentlemanly sort of person who very rarely lost his temper and although some earlier murder scenes suggest some of this suppressed rage – the strangling in Rope, the viciousness of the central set-piece in Dial M For Murder, the famous murder reflected in the glasses in Strangers on a Train - in Psycho it bubbles up to the surface. But it’s tempered by both black humour and remarkable humanity. The first is well represented by Hitchcock’s insistence on using chocolate syrup for the blood as it swirls down the plughole and his delight in showing a flushing toilet. The second is evident in the sudden switch of tone to one of tragic waste and frailty as we cut from the swirling water to a shot of Marion’s eye and a slow track back to show her still pretty but totally lifeless face. It’s a small touch but a memorable one and it demonstrates how skilfully Hitchcock could control our emotions within the space of a few minutes.
Once Marion is dead, the pace speeds up and Hitchcock delights in misdirection. ‘Mother’ is still considered the perpetrator and Norman her not entirely willing acolyte, an impression strengthened by the second murder. Very few direct clues are given to the true identity of ‘Mother’ apart from the fact that she and Norman are never seen in the same shot. The decision to give ‘Mother’ a different voice in Norman’s head is fair enough. When Marion hears her talking then it is an obvious cheat but we’ll let that one go. Much relies in the characterisation of Norman and the brilliance of Anthony Perkins’ performance is only completely revealed on a second viewing. Once you know the truth about Norman’s assumption of his mother’s identity (along with her clothes) then his dinner conversation with Marion is revealed to be full of twitches and very specific emphases when the subject turns to gazing or mothers or institutions or madness – “We all go a little mad sometimes” he says, jocular tone contradicted by the dead stare and the repressed body language. What on a first viewing seems to be nerves over what ‘Mother’ might do turns out to be a catalogue of self-revelation and his nerves when he cleans up after the murder are not due to worry over what Mother will do next but the completely natural result of trying to cover-up his own behaviour.
If we think of Psycho as a sophisticated game then it’s one which harks back explicitly to several earlier Hitchcock movies. We have the Gothic trappings – the old dark house, the mysterious and all-controlling parental figure, the heroine going willingly into the wolf’s lair, the endless concealment of secrets and various levels of deceit – which crop up endlessly in Hitchcock’s films ranging from Rebecca to The Man Who Knew Too Much. There is the sudden outbreak of violence which disrupts a quiet, unexceptional life - North By Northwest played comic variations on this theme while Strangers on a Train did it for real. On a more complex level, we have the exploration of voyeurism through the cascading eye imagery which pervades the film – the PI hired to find Marion, Arbogast (Balsam), is stabbed in the eye; Norman removes a picture to stare through an illicit peephole at Marion; the picture he removes is one of Susannah and the elders (from the Book of Daniel, a story about a woman spied upon as she takes a bath); the eyes of the dead birds in the Office which stare at Marion as she takes dinner with Norman; the vacant eye-sockets of Mrs Bates’ corpse as the light swings at her in the chair. Characters are constantly looking either into or out of windows and the gaze of the camera swoops into Marion and Sam’s hotel room window at the start to catch the end of their lovemaking. Hitchcock delights in switching points of view – one of the interesting things about the shower scene is that it’s seen from the perspective of both killer and victim. Hitch’s old favourite theme of ‘doubles’ also comes to its ultimate conclusion here where the killer is a double within himself, both Norman and Mother.
The second murder, when Martin Balsam meets his death on the stairs, is less showy than the shower scene but equally ingenious. It’s the opposite of the first killing in the sense that it’s a suspense set-piece rather than a shock. We don’t expect Marion’s death but we’re anticipating Arbogast’s the moment he enters the scary old house and prowls up the stairs. The instant of the killing is beautifully done as Hitchcock switches to an overhead shot and then floats with Arbogast as he falls backwards down the stairs. Fantastic stuff and, once again, the joke is implicit because as Balsam plays him, Arbogast is a far more interesting and engaging character than either Sam or Lila Loomis. He grabs our interest in his amusing game of double-speak with Norman in the motel office and we genuinely miss him once he goes.
Throughout the film, the dialogue is excellent thanks to the sharp pen of Joseph Stefano – who went on to “The Outer Limits” for television. The script is packed with zingers - “Headaches are like resolutions. You forget hem when they stop hurting”; “People always mean well. They cluck their tongues and nod their heads and suggest ever so delicately.”; and the ones which have offer a touch of dramatic irony – ““I say, insect or man, death should be entirely painless” and Lila’s claim that “I can handle a sick old woman.” The script is particularly valuable for taking the time to make Norman Bates a credible, fully realised character and he gets our sympathy during the first half as he describes his pitiable situation– he empathises with Marion by saying “We’re all in our private traps, clamped in them and none of us can ever get out.” Even at the end, this dialogue resounds in our heads as we realise that the trap confining Norman is actually in his head. Stefano (along with Anthony Perkins) takes care to never make Norman entirely villainous. Clearly, he does things which are unforgivable but even towards the end, when John Gavin is bullying him, we tend to feel protective towards Norman (John Gavin’s non-performance has something to do with this). Some writers have criticised the portrayal of Norman (who can’t form relationships with women and seems to be a ‘fey’ stereotype) as essentially homophobic but I think that’s completely missing the point. Norman’s illness is psychological and his sexuality has little to do with it. If we consider the way he is portrayed as a person for much of the film then Norman’s ambivalent sexuality is treated sympathetically, almost as of he were a victim. That may not be a shining example of Gay Pride (we might remember Stefano was a closeted homosexual at the time) but it’s certainly not a prime example of Hitchcock’s gay-bashing tendencies – for those you’d be better looking at Leonard in North By Northwest.
Hitchcock’s filmmaking has an urgency in Psycho. Even when relatively little is happening in the story, Hitchcock and his DP John Russell are picking out significant details such as the lascivious way that the Texan millionaire leers at Marion or the way the policeman’s face is hidden in a kind of half-threat by his sunglasses. As events begin to pile up and the story catches fire, Hitchcock never misses a chance to wind up the suspense and Russell’s monochrome lighting is a study in gloom, suggestive of unspeakable danger. Every dark corner of the Bates house seems to harbour a secret. Notice also the way Norman’s face is frequently half-hidden in shadow, suggesting his dual-identity long before it is spelled out by the psychiatrist. This aspect of the film, incidentally, is where it falls down at the final hurdle. It’s not enough to change its status as a masterpiece but the lengthy explanation offered by the psychiatrist (voiced in appallingly pompous tones by Simon Oakland) does little except tell us what we’ve already worked out for ourselves. One suspects that this was either intended to spell out some complex psychological matters for the less attentive audiences at drive-ins and suchlike or Hitchcock’s delighted giggly attempt to get words like “transvestitism” into a mainstream American film under the cover of medical accuracy. Luckily, all is saved in the final shot when ‘Mother’ gives us her final testimony assuring us that she wouldn’t even hurt a fly, shortly before her grinning carcase is briefly superimposed over the face of her son.
Psycho is perhaps not as shocking as it was forty five years ago but it remains a brilliantly cinematic thriller which has been endlessly influential from every angle – the brutal killing, the disposal of the star before the halfway point and Bernard Herrmann’s sinuous, threatening music scored for nothing but strings (and endlessly quoted in scores by everyone from Jerry Goldsmith to Pino Donaggio). It’s the kind of film which, if you allow it into your head, stays with you forever and makes you ashamed of laughing. It’s Hitchcock’s darkest, nastiest joke, a deliriously enjoyable horror movie and one of the films for which he will be eternally remembered.
Finally, Universal have given Psycho what it should have had back in 1998 – an anamorphic DVD release. The enhanced 1.85:1 picture is, I think, pretty good indeed. It’s certainly grainy but then Psycho always was and I suspect this was intentional. It has the look and feel of a low-budget ($800,000) shocker and this adds a good deal to the final effect. However, I do tend to agree with those who claim it is excessively grainy and that the texturing damages some fine monochrome lighting. However, the upside is the abundance of fine detail and some delightfully crisp shadow definition. Some print damage is evident, incidentally, which makes me suspect that Psycho needs a full restoration and soon.
The mono soundtrack is a delight. Bernard Herrmann’s strings, so delicately suggestive at times that they give you an ever so slight chill, come across beautifully and the dialogue is always clear. There is no hiss or crackle.
The extras are the same as we got on the previous Collector’s Edition except for the omission of the 100 minute making-of documentary. Thankfully this is present on the bonus disc of the Masterpiece Collection and I will be reviewing it in due course. What we get on the Psycho disc itself are some nice little features which certainly add to your enjoyment of the film. We get the shower scene, with and without music, which demonstrates how much Bernard Herrmann added to the impact of that key moment. There are a large number of photographs from behind-the-scenes and publicity shoots, along with lobby cards, a poster gallery and some of those delightful newspaper ads in which Hitch informed audiences that no-one would be admitted after the film began. We get 7 minutes of newsreel footage covering the extraordinary effect which Psycho had on its first release and some brief but interesting production notes. Finally, the disc contains some re-release trailers and, best of all, the original theatrical trailer which is a glorious bit of Hitchcock at his quirkiest. I won’t spoil this for anyone who hasn’t seen it but it really is almost a little film in itself.
As with the other discs in this collection, the film has optional subtitles. However, on this occasion, the extra features do not have subtitles which will mar some viewers’ enjoyment of that wonderful trailer.
If you’ve never seen Psycho then you owe it to yourself to do so at the first possible opportunity. It’s not quite Hitchcock’s best film but it’s still a masterwork from a director working during his prime. You will be surprised by the plot and perhaps even more surprised by how funny Psycho is. Don’t worry about laughing – you’re supposed to. This DVD looks, to my eyes, better than the old release and is a worthy part of the Masterpiece Collection.