"A boy's best friend is his mother...
I watched Psycho last night on a whim. Nothing more to it than wondering what to see, and my eyes happened to catch the Hitchcock box set.
However many horror movies or suspense thillers or stalk and slash, slice’n’dice movies I see, and trust me - I’ve seen way, way more than my fair share, with one exception (and that’s Carpenter’s Halloween) this is the closest thing to being the absolute epitome of that genre or perhaps more accurately, sub genre, that I’ve ever seen. It still bewilders me to this day that someone had the sheer balls to attempt a remake. Psycho is a perfect, textbook example of the art of film making, by one of the greatest film makers to ever hod court behind a camera.
There’s so much to enjoy here that I’m not even going to bother trying to present this article in as spoiler free a way as possible. If you haven’t seen Psycho, seek out a copy immediately, stop reading right here and come back and read the rest when you’ve watched it. It’s okay - we’ll wait.
Okay - from here on, there be spoilers ahead....
Psycho was, as far as I remember, the third Hitchcock film I ever saw, it was late one Friday night on the BBC. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I had previously seen The Birds and North By Northwest in my preteens. I had no idea back then who Hitchcock WAS, let alone that he would become one of my all time favourite directors.
From the opening strings of Bernard Herrmann’s score, which is itself both chilling and urgent with a memorable string section that’s instantly recognisable, it’s obvious that we’re in for a treat. Herrmann’s music as much a part of the Hitchcock presence as John Williams and Star Wars, or Danny Elfman with Tim Burton.
We’re in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s early afternoon and a couple are languishing in a hotel room after a frantic lunchtime. This is scandalous for the time of the film’s production - the couple aren’t married. (Heavens above, the permissive society will take over the world!!) She is Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), unmarried, office worker. He is Sam Loomis (John Gavin) a divorced hardware store proprietor and they are having an affair. They can’t get married because he’s still paying off some debts and is keeping his ex wife in alimony.
So, succumbing to temptation that very afternoon, she steals $40,000 cash from her employer and takes off to join her lover with the intention of paying off what he owes and setting up home as a respectable married couple. Interesting note, when she’s with him in the hotel, she’s wearing white underwear - but as soon as she makes the fateful decision to steal the cash, she’s seen in black, depicting or maybe emphasising the fact that she’s now a good girl gone bad.
From the very second she decides to take the money, the film becomes an exercise in mounting paranoia fuelled by guilt. Having excused herself from her job on the pretence of a headache, she sees her employer as she’s stopped at a crossing while making her getaway and an inquisitive cop becomes more of a menacing figure than upholder of the law. We are manipulated by the Hitchcock into sympathising with Marion.
Stopping off to stay the night at a motel, she meets the proprietor, Norman Bates, a twitchy, quirky, nervous but quite earnest young man played by perfection by Anthony Hopkins. Norman has some serious mother issues, as he’s completely, humiliatingly dominated by the unseen harridan bitch living in the house behind the motel.
Marion decides to go back to Arizona and hand the money back after a change of heart inspired by a conversation with Norman after supper (she also switches back to white underwear) - but she never makes it. As she takes a shower before retiring for the night, an unseen attacker slashes at her mercilessly with a knife in one of the most famous screen slayings in cinema history.
Mother has struck.
Okay, let’s pause here. The film had struck serious issues with the censors of the day here - but not for the reasons you’d think. We’d had larceny, murder, nudity, blood.... But none of that was the problem. Hitchcock had been canny enough to ensure there was nothing overt about the nudity in the shower scene, so he was clear. Clever editing of that montage of shots by Saul Bass, to Hitchcock’s painstakingly detailed storyboards meant that the audience thought they we seeing more that they actually were, but it was all implied and suggested.
He had deliberately shot the film in black and white for two reasons:
A) He used the same crew as was working on his weekly anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (which was also filmed in monochrome, and
B) He knew he’d run into problems with the blood that had to be shown during the shower sequence. So, instead of having the red stuff flow, he used the chocolate flavour sauce that goes with ice cream. It showed up well on screen and the consistency meant it wouldn’t disappear in the water and not be picked up by the camera lens.
So what caused the moral outrage this time? Well, it was, strangely enough - a toilet.
A toilet seat had never before been seen in a motion picture and what was worse - as Marion tears up a scribbled note, she throws most of the pieces in the toilet and flushes. Yep, never before in the annals of film history since the earliest silents to the then present day of 1960 had a toilet been flushed on screen. Yet another groundbreaking moment for Alfred Hitchcock.
So, back to the story - we’re half way through the movie, a film about a girl stealing a wad of loot and going on the lam - then she’s senselessly slaughtered. What gives? Had Hitch lost his mind? Not at all. Marion crane’s story was only the set-up. The REAL story is Norman’s. In fact, Norman doesn’t even know she’s stolen any money. Clearing up after his mother, he takes the money, unknown to him wrapped in a newspaper, throws it on the back seat of Marion’s car and rolls it into a swamp, where it’s sunk in the murky depths along with her body and some other, earlier victims.
The film becomes a whole different deal as Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles)shows up, looking for her missing sister assuming she’s with Sam, as does a private investigator, Arbogast (Martin Balsam). It’s poor Arbogast who doesn’t last very long, investigating Bates Motel. He’s slashed across the face on the landing by the shadowy figure of an elderly lady.
Mother’s pretty busy, and the swamp fills up just a little bit more.
Trying to trace both Marion AND Arbogast now, Sam and Lila visit the motel and discover the sickening truth. Mother is long dead, and is discovered in the fruit cellar by Lila
Years earlier, she was poisoned with strychnine by her own son, along with her lover. Now that’s bad enough, but Norman - a keen taxidermist, has used his skills to preserve the body of his mother, and has developed the habit of dressing up in her clothes, talking in her voice and murdering in her name. Mother’s personality has now taken over completely as the film closes with Norman even going as far as thinking in the voice of Mother.
It doesn’t matter how often I watch this movie, it simply never gets old. It’s a classic in every sense of the word and a prime example of a perfect film.
Copyright © 2010 - 2011 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.