29 March 2006

100 films: Psycho

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starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, and Martin Balsam
written by: Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch
directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
NR, 109 min, 1960, USA

NOTE: This review will discuss the film's ending. If you haven't yet seen it, beware.

The film that made a generation wary of the shower[1], Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is a landmark of cinema, one of the high-water marks for the man many consider to be one of the greatest directors in history. Janet Leigh stars at Marion Crane, a rather ordinary secretary who one day decides to steal $40,000 from her boss and run off with her unsuspecting boyfriend. After napping on the side of the road, she arouses the suspicion of the local authorities, but nothing comes of it. Nearly in the clear, she stops on a rainy night at the secluded Bates Motel. She rents a room, shares a pleasant enough discussion with Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the son of the hotel's owner. Then, she is brutally murdered[2]. Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, Crane's boss starts to worry, both about his secretary and his cash, so he sends a Private Eye (Martin Balsam) looking for her.

While a great number of people would like to forget it ever happened, there's no denying that Psycho was remade in 1998 by indie auteur Gus Van Sant. Employing a shot-by-shot approach and starring Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche, the re-make is generally considered to be a horrific travesty, but has some value for our purposes[3]. One would assume that a shot-by-shot remake would approximate the quality of the original, at least to some extent. It doesn't. So what does this tell us about film? Well, for one, one could argue that the contributions of actors holds more value than originally assumed. After all, that's the major variable at play. Beyond that, though, it suggests that perhaps film is an art form where genius lies between the shots. That is, if the shots are identical and the script is identical, then what does it do to the auteur theory? Van Sant is no slouch of a director[4], so you have to wonder if his remake indicates that perhaps we're spending too much time analyzing the specifics of a shot, if perhaps there isn't something larger at play that conventional criticism can't put a finger on. It is, at very least, something to ponder.

As for the masterpiece, to fully understand the impact Psycho had when it was originally in theatres, you have to know a little of the backstory. Hitchcock purchased the option to Robert Bloch's little-known novel without telling anyone, then proceeded to buy every available copy he could find. During the production, which was filmed under the fake title Wimpy, he planted casting rumors in the press that he was considering Helen Hays for the non-existent role of Mother, had a chair on set reserved for the character, and went to the trouble of billing Janet Leigh as the film's lead, despite the fact that she dies in the early going. Effectively this created two stunning plot twists with the dual benefit of being completely unexpected both in the context of the film and in the reality of anyone familiar with the various Hollywood machinations of casting. Few expect the lead to die in the first half of the film and fewer still expect the casting rumors to involve a character that is a figment of another character's madness.

Part of what makes Leigh's death scene so powerful is that the film never gives us any indication that it isn't going to be about her theft of the money. It invests a great deal of energy in developing her story, from the opening scene of her in a hotel room with her lover, to the nerve-racking encounters with the police, we are completely behind her as a protagonist. So when Hitchcock kills her, revealing the theft as the ultimate MacGuffin[5], it has the ability to take your breath away, but the way Hitchcock films it--with quick cuts and lots of screaming--creates one of the most harrowing scenes ever put on film. It is such a vivid scene that many audience members swore they saw red blood washing down the drain, when in fact the film is done entirely in black and white.

With the protagonist gone, the audience is left scrambling, open to suggestion and manipulation and all sorts of trickery. So we focus on the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother, or what we believe to be his mother. Hitchcock wisely gives us only as much information as is absolutely necessary for us to be convinced of her existence--a shrill voice, a silhouette in a window, a shadowy figure in a dress--but none that might suggest otherwise. Yet the ending survives our suspension of disbelief, partly due to the psychiatrist's explanation but largely thanks to the performance of Anthony Perkins, who is nearly flawless as the boy with the Oedipal complex. He's a friendly enough person, perfectly comfortable with small talk, but note the slight shift in his eyes when someone mentions his mother. He reflects both devotion and a quiet desperation, but more importantly goes from helpful to protective. It should be clear that he's got something to hide, but the devotion to one's mother can be a fierce one, so a son protecting his mother's health isn't all that insane. Only, in this case it is.

To me, one of the most powerful aspects of Psycho is the way the film presents two false realities without undercutting the impact or validity of what's truly going on. So often a twist ending is either telegraphed well in advance by excess foreshadowing or so far-fetched that no reasonable person would ever believe it. But Psycho manages to avoid both pitfalls, striking a perfect balance where it is both shocking and realistic. Factor in Hitchcock's unique ability to ratchet up tension shot by shot and what you've got is a top-notch thriller the likes of which most films can only dream of duplicating, even if they duplicate everything else.

[1] According to IMDB.com, Hitchcock received a letter from a father angry because his daughter, who had already sworn off baths after seeing Les Diaboliques (1955), would no longer take a shower after seeing Psycho. Hitchcock's response? "Send her to the dry cleaners."

[2] It isn't any old film that can have a brutal murder qualify as a standard plot point. But, with Hitchcock, anything is possible.

[3] Full disclosure: I actually saw the remake before I saw the original, back when it was in theatres, on a date (The fact that I took a date to Psycho should tell you something about how the relationship turned out.) I remember thinking Vince Vaughn was actually pretty good in the Anthony Perkins role, but Anne Heche was pretty terrible. I imagine she was cast, in part, for her short blonde hair.

[4] He's best known for Good Will Hunting (1997), but is also responsible for Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), My Own Private Idaho (1991), and Drugstore Cowboy (1989). It's a pretty impressive filmography, for the most part.

[5] Basically a Hitchcockian red herring.


ryan estes said...

You had a date? In college?

lucas said...

a couple

AH Films said...

Great post! I knew of the Psycho shot-by-shot remake, but never considered how that could provide some insight into the subtler elements that go into film-making. Seems obvious now.

You make some good observations about Psycho. You should post some comments about it on Alfred Hitchcock Films.

Thom said...

I hate the redundant remake by Van Sant. The actors aren't the only thing that's different. The mediocre result only proves that the autuer theory has merit. Despite copying the same shots, albeit in color with different actors, Van Sant fails completely to capture anything that makes the original so memorable.

Bob said...

Nicely done rundown..

And speaking of movies with twists being bad date films..."The Crying Game" was a choice I once lived to regret. Let us never speak of it again.

lucas said...

i'm guessing it didn't go well?

but, hey, if your date sticks around after that, you may have a keeper

Brian said...

I'm fascinated by the fact that you saw the Van Sant Psycho before the Hitchcock original. Did you know much about the plot going in? Did you find the film effective?

The Psycho remake has always struck me as fascinating (and I've sometimes been accused of being a contrarian or an idiot or worse for defending it) precisely because the original film derived so much of its initial horror/shock/notoriety from the kinds of surprises of casting, etc. that, as you relate, Hitchcock went to great lengths to create. For someone familiar with the original, it makes for a very different viewing experience than almost any other film I can think of. It's something like rewatching a familiar film, only finding it to be somehow "off" of what you remembered.

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