"A boy’s best friend is his mother" A Love-Letter to Psycho

Last night my housemates and I watched Psycho together, providing me another reminder of why that movie rocks. It is especially fun/scary watching it in our house, since from our couch, you can see our neighbour’s creepy window:
“As if I could do anything but just sit and stare”
When Te and I watched the movie on Halloween, the lights were all out, we were huddled together under a blanket because it was freezing, and suddenly the light in that window went on – and someone was standing there, terrifying both of us. We have referred to it as “the Psycho window” ever since.
Since I have nothing else to write about at the moment, I will write a love letter to Psycho.
 If you haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho, stop reading here. And go watch it now.
First of all, Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of the greatest, most recognizable in film history. From the opening credits, you get this immense sense of foreboding – even though it doesn’t seem much like a horror movie for about half an hour. The violent violins, paired with the choppy, fractured opening sequence, foreshadow the fragmented villain’s mind, and create tension right from the beginning.

The camera work is also stunning. The infamous shower scene has been written about a hundred times, but with good reason. It may not seem as frightening by today’s standards, but for its time, it was horrific. The rapid cuts and Herrmann’s score gives it a sense of crazed urgency, and it’s still tense to watch, even though we all know it’s coming before we see the movie. My favourite scene for camera work – actually, my favourite scene period – is the parlour scene, where we really get to see Norman’s crazy side. The room is full of birds, which are framed differently, reflecting the conversation. When Norman begins talking about his mother, an owl hovers over his shoulder, and doesn’t leave until the conversation changes again. By the end of the scene, a crow looks over Marion’s shoulder, and birds of prey frame Norman’s face. After Marion’s death, Norman knocks over the picture of a small bird in her motel room, and he uses tentative, bird-like motions at many crucial points in the film. If you haven’t already, watch the film again, and watch out for any references to birds, whether visually, like stuffed birds and suggestive gestures, or audibly – Marion “eats like a bird”, and her last name is Crane.

The script has some flaws (notably the exposition scene at the end, but more on that later), but over-all it is wonderfully quotable, and perfectly paced. The aforementioned parlour scene is a perfect example: through dialogue, Norman goes slowly from awkward but sweet boy-next-door too insane dude with serious mommy issues.  There is a lot of subtext, both in the dialogue and in the camera work, but the incestuous implications really keep this movie disturbing. I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think that Norman and his mother (or her corpse) ever engaged in actual sexual acts, but there was undoubtedly sexual jealousy there.  He was still “all Norman” when he murdered his mother and her lover – while they were in bed together – and I severely doubt that he was just jealous of the attention/time she was giving this guy. Unfortunately though, “a son is a poor substitute for a lover”.

The Macguffin and its usage in this film is one of Hitchcock’s best, in my opinion. The $40 000 dollars (about $2 million today, or so I’m told) drive the plot for the first half of the movie. The assumption is that it will continue to do so. However, the main antagonist doesn’t only ignore the cash, he doesn’t even know about it – and it goes down in the swamp with his victim’s car. Hitchcock just takes all of the viewers’ assumptions and expectations about where the film is going, and chucks them out the window. You’ve watched this mostly sympathetic everywoman as the protagonist, and she’s suddenly dead – so what happens now? We don’t notice on a conscious level, but that is upsetting for movie viewers. The twist ending (even though most of us know it now, whether we’ve seen the movie or not) is respectable, and hadn’t been done to death when the movie came out. The skeleton spinning around in the chair is still effectively chilling, even if you know it is coming.

The acting is mostly quite good. John Gavin is pretty wooden, but Sam isn’t a particularly interesting character anyway. Janet Leigh makes Marion sympathetic, but not weak or helpless – despite the fact that she’s a thief, you’re rooting for her. She’s wonderful in the shower scene too, especially the final shot where it zooms out from her eye – so unsettling. Vera Miles and Martin Balsam do their jobs as Marion’s sister Lila and a private detective investigating her case. But this movie is really all about Tony Perkins, who carries it beautifully. I don’t think I need to say much about why – if you’ve seen it you know how he is scary and crazy and sympathetic and kind of cute the entire time.

I also like both of the Crane sisters – they’re feminine, but without being the helpless damsel-in-distress types. They make their own decisions, and contribute to the plot beyond being love interests/murder victims.

My only complaint about the film is the awful expository monologue by the detective at the end. It’s poorly written, poorly delivered, and mostly unnecessary. I can understand wanting to explain some of the psychology to viewers, but I feel like most of it was pretty obvious. Not to mention, it’s written like a bad detective movie from the 40’s, and is delivered in the same manner, which feels hugely out of place. However, apparently some disagree with me, and feel that it is helpful in summing up the movie, so maybe it is useful. Either way, the scene is followed by the “I wouldn’t hurt a fly” scene, with Perkins staring psychotically into the camera – and the superimposition of Mother’s skull over his face leaves you feeling chilled, negating the effects of that crap detective scene.

The final shot of the car being pulled from the swamp means that Marion’s family can recover her body, the money can be returned, and the status quo essentially resumed. But Norman Bates is still out there, so who’s to say something like this couldn’t happen again? With no ghosts or evil birds, this is one of Hitchcock’s scariest but also most plausible films, and certainly a classic in his oeuvre and in all of horror film.

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1 Comment

  1. Arrr-booo-gasst


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