Sunday, November 3, 2013

Mama's Boy

Year: 1960
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles
Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

For our class during the week of Halloween, my Horror Studies professor decided to do a double feature of Hitchcock's horror movies. I decided that, instead of including them as mini-reviews in a Splatter University post, I should give each film its own full review because come on. Hitchcock.

There are seven movies responsible for everything that I am today. Twitch of the Death Nerve, a seminal Italian giallo film and one of the first slasher movies to feature a teenaged cast (for a third of the film, at least). Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, both in 1974, cemented in the idea of a Final Girl. Halloween made low budget horror massively profitable again. Friday the 13th incited the slasher boom and Scream dragged it into the modern age.

But before any of this could happen, there was a horror picture filmed for chump change on a studio backlot, based on a pulp horror novel that nobody had ever read. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was a massive splash - a watershed moment for horror and for cinema itself with a violence unparalleled in American cinema at the time.

It's hilariously tame by today's standards, but Psycho's gore took violent cinema to a whole new level. Having spent the last few weeks of class sitting through an onslaught of 50's genre films I can assure you that horror films at the time were like taking shots of milk, whereas Psycho was like having a bottle of tequila smashed over your head.

Woo! Spring Break!

Now I'm going to go ahead and assume that there's no need to worry about spoilers in a 53-year-old film that most everybody has either seen or read about. I think that's fair. If you really don't know what happens, just go watch it and come back. You can let me know how I'm doing.

To properly discuss Psycho, one must start before the movie even begins because Hitchcock isn't a simple filmmaker to discuss. No, he's much too obstinate for that. When filming an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he was impressed with the speed and efficiency of the television crew. Because they were working for TV, they couldn't waste a single second of extra budget so they had to get in, get out, and wrap shooting in record time while still producing high quality material.

He decided to challenge himself to shoot a film cheaply with a TV crew on studio sets in the Universal Backlot. What happened was Psycho and I'm not sure even he could have predicted how successful it would prove to be.

OK, maybe he could.

Which brings us to our next point. Psycho was groundbreaking in more ways than one, because otherwise that would have been way too easy to write about. In addition to its violent content, Psycho explores sex in the modern age with a newfound freedom due to the weakening of the long-standing (and astoundingly Puritanical) Hays Code of film censorship.

Only a few years before, it would have been impossible to imagine any depictions of a real sexual lifestyle, but here we are with a man and a woman in bed together, kissing, obviously post-coitus. And the man is divorced! Positively scandalous. Think of the children!

In addition to this, Psycho is one of the first films to say "transvestite" (a word that was thought at the time to be perverse and almost didn't make it past the censors) and is the first American film to show a toilet flushing onscreen. The horror!

Due to its out of the box material and shockingly modern plot elements, the film was an out and out smash at the box office. It has since made over 30 million dollars, has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (with the majority of the 3 bad reviews complaining that it's "too gory"), and landed the number one spot on the AFI's 100 Scariest Movies list.

So what's it all about, then, eh?

Pecs. That's what it's all about.

Young secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, who would later give birth to the heir to her Scream Queen throne, Jamie Lee Curtis) is dissatisfied with her life in Phoenix. Her studbucket boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) lives far away in California, her pay isn't nearly enough, and her haircut is atrocious. When asked by her employer to deposit $40,000 in the bank on the way home (today's equivalent: $315,000), she absconds with the cash and hightails it out of the state.

On her way to her boyfriend's town, she grows weary and the torrential downpour proves too much to handle so she stops for the night in a seedy little inn known as the Bates Motel. It is run by a charming young man named Norman (Anthony Perkins, who is absolutely incredible except, weirdly, in the scenes where he has to have conversation with his mother - the only acting complaint I have throughout the entire film) who takes care of his invalid mother and struggles to keep the business afloat. It's been tough ever since they moved the highway away.

Marion struggles with her guilt over stealing the money, and is eventually (indirectly) inspired by Norman to go straight home in the morning and return the cash with heartfelt apologies (Lord knows how she would have kept her job, but this was the 60's and she was a charming broad so you never know). Unfortunately, being stabbed repeatedly with a knife isn't conducive to a successful road trip.


The rest of the film follows the investigation into her disappearance by Sam, her sister Lila (Vera Miles), and the condescending Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam). But that's not important right now. Our protagonist is dead. But the film's still going. Who let that happen?

Through clever marketing (and an incredible gimmick of not allowing latecomers into the theater), Hitch primed the audience for the shock of their lives. Janet Leigh was the biggest star on the cast, had the highest billing, and was featured prominently in the advertising. Her character was dynamic, had a change of heart, and was set on a path of redemption, the likes of which the audience was surely expecting. Hitch even put in his customary cameo in the first ten minutes of the movie so people looking for him wouldn't be distracted once the plot proper began.

By quite literally cutting the main character out of the film around the halfway point, audience expectations were rent apart. Anything could happen now. What could possibly come next? (Scream also successfully used this tactic by gutting Drew Barrymore in the opening scene.) Honestly, what comes next is a bit of a letdown considering that any contemporary filmgoer who watches Psycho already knows the ending so they're not impressed with the mysteries surrounding the Bates family.

And therein lies the problem. Having heard so much about Psycho for so long, modern audiences go in expecting to see a deliciously scary film and surprising twists and turns. Due to the oversaturation of discussion on the film, they are likely to find neither of these. Thus the innate power has been diminished and ravaged by time. But for audiences in the 60's, this was enormously inventive stuff (very few of them had read the book, considering that Hitch had bought as many copies as he could to keep them out of stores).

Hitchcock is about as insane as Norman Bates himself.

It is perhaps a better experience to come into Psycho looking for a decent thriller as opposed to a great horror film. If you come in primed for horror, you'll be bored out of your mind. But as a crime procedural, it still holds water. Because, no matter what, it is still an incredible example of filmmaking from one of the medium's greatest auteurs. This is the first time I've rewatched the film since actually learning about the mechanics of the craft, and the symbolism and direction remain incredibly fascinating. 

The opening shot of Psycho is a bird's-eye-view of a cityscape, a setting I in no way associate with the film's small town vibe. But this sets up one of the film's heavy undercurrents of city slickers versus town dwellers and the associated class disparity. Marion is underpaid and overworked, but she still has the opportunity to jet off with thousands of dollars in her purse. Norman is the head of a struggling business abandoned by the highway, a symbol of the fast-moving modern lifestyle. He is trapped there by his circumstances (and his insanity) although he wishes to be free, as evidenced by his obsession with stuffing birds. 

He's jealous of the birds' ability to fly away and be free so he stuffs them and keeps them in his parlor, keeping them trapped just like himself. Just like he traps Marion in death. Also there's the whole bird of prey thing.

Two meanings in a symbol?! That's crazy talk.

Another thing I noticed this time around was Marion's propensity for ending up in bathrooms. When she's packing her bags to book it out of town, she is framed with her apartment's shower head looming over her. When she needs to exchange her car at a used car lot to avoid being followed, she goes to the Ladies' Room to hide the cash in her purse. Mind you, this was not a normal setting for action at the time. This was very very deliberate. We're conditioned to see her in the restroom so the shower scene will be that much more surprising when it finally comes along.

There's an abundance of things I haven't even mentioned, like the fact that Marion's bra changes color with her mood, but the shower scene is what really captured attention. No self-respecting review could get away with not mentioning it. But why has it become so iconic? What about it has so captured imaginations for over half a century?

First off, the attack in an intimate setting really got under people's skin. Janet Leigh herself watched the film and vowed then and there to never take a shower again. Second, the aforementioned premature murder of the woman who was presumably the protagonist. But the most memorable aspect of the scene has to be its rapid editing, with over 78 splices in 45 seconds. This cutting is of a completely different style of any other scene in the film, before or after. Because the scene's content was so jarring, so too was the style in which it was presented - much more evocative and kinetic than anything anyone had ever seen before.

It's time to bring in modern audiences again (I'm sorry, guys). Everybody has seen this scene. Babies have seen this scene. People expecting a movie just like this scene are going to be highly disappointed. Despite its thrills, and it actually is a masterful crime/police thriller, Psycho will rarely deliver upon the massive expectations heaped upon it. It's a darn shame considering the skill behind and in front of the camera. Psycho is a wonderful movie. The trick is approaching it from the proper perspective. And not even in that "it was good for the time it was made" way. It's still great today! It's just carrying way too much baggage for even the most perfect film in history to slough off.

One last thing: a word on Bernard Hermann's score - while everybody knows the screeching shower scene music, I feel that many are unaware that the entire film sounds like that. Even when Marion is driving down the street in her car in the rain, the orchestral score is shouting "CAR! CAR! SPOOKY CAR! MAYBE SOMEONE'S GONNA DIE! LOOK HOW WET AND SLICK THE ROADS ARE! WATCH OUT MARION!" I wouldn't say it detracts from the overall film in any real way, but it certainly dilutes the impact of the major scare scenes. When your score blares the alarm for everything from "BRA!" to "SANDWICHES!" it's hard to give any special attention to something like "TRANSVESTITE WITH A KNIFE!"

Let's look at Sam Loomis one last time before we go.

TL;DR: Psycho is a great, well-made thriller, but it suffers as a direct result of its massive reputation.
Rating: 8/10; and though I am loathe to give it such a relatively low score due to its cultural importance, part of my blog's mission statement is to assess entertainment value from a modern perspective. Ergo, 8.
Word Count: 2099
Reviews in This Series
Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
Psycho II (Franklin, 1983)
Psycho III (Perkins, 1986)
Psycho IV: The Beginning (Garris, 1990)

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