Friday, September 28, 2012

Hitchcock's Psycho

Janet Leigh in the infamous shower scene before the attack.  Hitchcock worked in some sensual imagery to establish a completely different effect before the "murder/rape" sequence. 
Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest film directors of all time. His 1960 thriller, Psycho, shocked audiences in new ways, as I eluded to in a recent post. I had the film in the back of my mind when I read last week that Anthony Hopkins, one of my favorite living actors, is portraying Hitchcock in a new film about the director's making of Psycho. The stars feel all aligned on this one (forgive the slight pun).  I'm really looking forward to it.  So, I decided to watch the original film again - for the first time in many years.
The film begins with the conclusion of a sexual encounter between two unmarried lovers in a hotel room. 
Psycho is a highly erotic film, reflecting the inner, probably frustrated, sensual nature of Hitchcock. Janet Leigh is another in a long line of young blonde women Hitchcock loved to direct. Her performance is devious, subtle, conflicted, wonderful to watch. One of the film's great shocks, of course, comes when, about halfway through it, the primary actress is brutally murdered. The second half feels like a completely different film. It becomes a detective story carried forward by the appearance of Vera Miles.

The second half reveals the underlying truth of Norman Bates' mother. His mother had an affair with a married man. Only she didn't know he was married at first. When Norman (Anthony Perkins) discovered this he poisoned both his mother and her lover with strychnine while they were "in bed" together. This twisted and sexual undercurrent motivates Norman to commit what is perhaps the most famous murder in Hollywood history.

Norman then became obsessed with his dead mother, taking on her personality in stressful times. As the psychiatrist says near the end of the film: "He was never all Norman, but he was often only Mother."  So disturbingly perverse, even today.

I found Psycho to be dated in some respects as I watched it again. It is clearly a product of the 1950's in many of its details and in aspects of its storyline. But, the fundamentals of the film and the actual, brilliantly directed and edited shower scene are timeless and still seem fresh and powerful today.

This led me to reread the section pertaining to Psycho as discussed in Donald Spoto's great biography of Hitchcock. Let me share some of this with you...

"Of all his films, Psycho is the most famous - and the most shocking for audiences both then and later. Its legendary shower murder changed the course of Hollywood history, and although few filmmakers matched its technical virtuosity, many tried to imitate its powerful sensual violence." (page 413)

"'From the start,' Joseph Stefano recalled, 'Hitchcock had decided to use a nude professional model for the shots in which a torso would be glimpsed, so he wouldn't have to cope with a trembling actress.' About the central sequence, which has evoked more study, elicited more comment, and generated more shot-for-shot analysis from a technical viewpoint than any other in the history of the cinema, Hitchcock always retained a cool attitude. And rightly so, for he delegated the design and the shooting of it to the brilliant artist who had created the title designs for Vertigo and North by Northwest, and who, eventually, would do so for Psycho, too.  'I'm going to get Saul Bass to do a storyboard for the shower scene,' he told Joseph Stefano when they reached this point in the script, 'so we know exactly what we are going to do.'


This is the final frame of the knife slashing shot, which Hitchcock insisted be included in the sequence.  It is a rather provocative image even by today's standards but particularly for 1960 audiences even though it is on the screen for only a fraction of a second.
"As it happened, Hitchcock made two important - and personally revealing - additions to Bass's designs: the quick shot of the knife entering the woman's abdomen (done by a fast-motion reverse shot), and the shot of blood and water running down the drain.  'It had been my idea to do it entirely as a bloodless sequence without overt violence,' according to Saul Bass, 'but he insisted on inserting those two shots.' And to the description of the brutal murder in the screenplay - only generally stated by the writer - Hitchcock added to shot 116: 'The slashing. An impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film.'  If there's a vicious anger throughout Psycho, this is the single moment when that spreads that anger before and after it.

"But it was not the brutality of this sequence that caused alarm at Paramount: it was the unprecedented shot (and sound) of a toilet being flushed. This, not the scarcely glimpsed, soft-focus nudity in the shower, was the most iconoclastic image in the picture - more influential that Hitchcock's killing off of the leading lady almost halfway through the film. Toilet imagery, as mentioned, and allusions to bodily functions not only surfaced in Hitchcock's humor - they also mark a recurrent, obsessive motif in his films. everything about Psycho was bold; and in Hitchcock's mind, perhaps nothing was so bold as this explicit lavatory detail." (pp. 419-420)

A moment of voyeurism.  The audience becomes Norman Bates spying on the beautiful Janet Leigh as she undresses for the shower.
"Perkins spies on Janet Leigh as she disrobes for her fatal shower. And to gain access to his concealed peephole, he removes from the wall a painting of Susanna and the elders, the biblical story (in Daniel 13) of a woman overtaken in her bath by voyeurs whose passions were aroused as they spied on her from a secret place as she prepared to bathe. The artistic representation of voyeurism and sexual exploitation is thus replaced, in the world of the film, by the action itself; and the knife murder, therefore, is deliberately recorded as a stylized rape scene, an artistic depiction beginning with close shots of a screaming mouth and a raised knife.

"What Hitchcock makes clear, moreover, is the degree to which the audience is implicated in all this. One not only watches Perkins watching - the camera swings round and the viewer stares with him. The watching therefore has the moral function of a supreme irony - as ironic as the final protest of 'Mother' from beyond the grave, who (like the chair-bound viewer) cannot, as the voice says at the end, 'do anything but just sit here like one of his stuffed birds...'" (page 424)

"...all of this is expressed by Hitchcock's insistence on changing the killer's hobby from stuffing animals, in the novel, to stuffing only birds. The sexual wordplay is obvious - 'stuffing birds' is the hobby of a sexual psychopath - and the gazing eyes of stuffed crows and owls can see nothing. 'Owls belong to the night world' as Hitchcock pointed out; 'they are watchers, and this appeals to Perkins's masochism. He knows the birds and he knows they are watching him all the time. He can see his own guilt reflected in their knowing eyes.'. This explains other avian imagery: the crucial shot of Perkins knocking over a sketch of a bird when (in his 'son personality') he discovers the body of Janet Leigh - the last 'stuffed bird' is, aptly, a woman named Crane, who came from Phoenix (a city named for the mythical bird that returns from the dead); and why, when Perkins suggested candy, Hitchcock insisted it be candy corn, a confection that resembles the kernels pecked by chickens. (As will become clear, everything about Psycho points forward to and aesthetically necessitates Hitchcock's next feature film, The Birds.)" (pp. 425-426)

Alfred Hitchcock was a prolific director of many great films beginning with The 39 Steps (1935).  But between 1954 and 1963 he made Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963) - an unprecedented achievement of consistently high standards.  Truly he was a master of suspenseful story-telling at the height of his talents during this time. 

Vertigo is now considered the greatest movie ever made.  My personal favorite of these films is Rear Window.  But, none of his film projects match the sheer visceral power of Psycho.  It is a brilliant film, much imitated but never surpassed as a cinematic thriller.

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