PSYCHO Deconstruction of a Scene: Arbogast questions Norman Bates

Psycho contains one of the most deconstructed and talked-about sequences in film history.  I’m referring to the shower scene, of course.   There is an entire documentary film devoted to this one scene.  The murder of Arbogast has also received a lot of attention.  I am going to go in a different direction and focus on  my own personal favorite scene in this movie:  Arbogast’s questioning of Norman Bates.

To set the scene:  Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is visiting all the hotels in the Fairvale area, looking for any sign that Marion Crane has stayed there.  This is set up with a brief montage.   Our scene opens on a dissolve to the Bates motel, with Norman sitting outside, eating candy corn and reading.  This sequence will run 8 minutes and 13 seconds, which comprises 7% of the entire film.  That’s a pretty long sequence for a two-person dialogue.  And yet it seems to pass in much less time.  There are 99 editorial cuts, which averages out to about one cut every 5 seconds.  Lets look at how the master did it.

The opening shot is longest of the entire sequence, running about 64 seconds without a cut.  As Norman is sitting in his chair, Arbogast pulls up, gets out of his car, walks up to the porch, and introduces himself.   Arbobast is clearly a detective with good instincts.  He comments that the Bates Motel is the first place he’s seen that looks like it is hiding from the world.   This is a classic interrogation scene between a man whose job is to find the truth, and another man who will do anything to hide it.

 

As the two men walk into the motel’s office, Hitchcock cuts to the office interior, following the two inside.  This second shot of the sequence is the second-longest, running 36 seconds.  This establishes the men in a medium two-shot.

 

Now Arbogast hands the photo of Marion to Norman, and Hitchcock begins a standard back-and-forth cutting, keeping both men in a medium shot.  Arbogast asks Norman to look at the picture “before committing yourself”.  Interesting choice of words to use with someone who will literally be committed by movie’s end.   Note the mirror behind Arbogast, capturing his reflection, and Norman’s stuffed birds behind him in the parlor.   While the cutting here is fairly standard, Hitchcock often has the camera not on the speaker, but on the listener.  Reactions are very important in this scene, as Arbogast begins to suspect something is awry, and Norman’s attempts to dissemble become more uncomfortable.

 

At this point, Norman leans over and flips a switch, and Hitchcock cuts to the Bates Motel sign lighting up.  Both shots last about a second together, almost subliminal.   Martin Scorsese has suggested this quick shot is rather like a slash from Norman’s knife.

 

After a little more standard back and forth cutting, with the same framing as before, Arbogast asks to look at the motel register.  Hitchcock cuts to a closer side-view of Arbogast’s hands above the register.  Then comes the most peculiar, and interesting shot of the entire sequence.   As the camera remains static, Norman moves around to look at the name in the register that Arbogast has pointed out.  The camera is looking up at the underside of his chin and his neck.  This scene plays for 16 seconds with no cut.  Hitchcock did something similar in a few films, having a character move into a close-up rather than cutting to them, but he never did it in such an unsettling way as he does here.

 

And now Hitchcock returns to the back-and-forth cutting.  Only now, the men are in close-ups rather than medium shots.  and the shots themselves are shorter.  The close-ups and tightening shots heighten the tension on screen.  Arbogast has caught Norman in a lie, and begins to press him.   Norman begins to stutter, expressing his discomfort even more, especially when Arbogast asks if Norman slept with Marion.   Arbogast openly admits his skepticism of Norman’s story:  “If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jelling.”  

 

Finally the tension is broken with a return to the medium two-shot, followed by the men walking outside.  Arbogast walks up to the left, and then we finally get a subjective POV shot (Hitchcock just had to sneak one in), as Arbogast looks at Norman going down the line of cabins, then looks up at the house, seeing “Mother” in the window.

 

Norman comes back quickly, and the two men finish the sequence with another series of back-and-forth shots, only this time framed “over the shoulder”.  Arbogast presses Norman about Mother, and Norman finally asks Arbogast to leave.  Finally Arbogast drives away, leaving Norman alone in the dark, and the scene ends as it began, on a dissolve.

 

For me, this sequence is absolutely perfect.   The writing, the powerhouse acting by two actors at their absolute best.  And of course Alfred Hitchcock’s direction.   As he did in most of his memorable sequences, he combined his three favorite techniques here:  the long take, the quick cuts (or montage), and the subjective POV.   Even when the cutting is standard, he breaks it up by cutting to the listener rather than the speaker, or cutting over dialogue mid-sentence.   And he inserts one of the most bizarre camera angles ever seen on film for a two-person dialogue shot.   Once again,  something that could have been quite simple became much more than that in the hands of Hitchcock.

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HITCHCOCK (2012): “Don’t upset yourself darling, it’s only a bloody movie.”

HITCHCOCK (2012) – Fox Searchlight Pictures – ★★★

Color – 98 mins. – 2.35:1

Directed by Sacha Gervasi

Featuring:  Anthony Hopkins (Alfred Hitchcock), Helen Mirren (Alma Reville), Scarlett Johansson (Janet Leigh), Danny Huston (Whitfield Cook), Toni Collette (Peggy Robertson), Jessica Biel (Vera Miles), James D’Arcy (Anthony Perkins).

Screenplay by John J. McLaughlin, based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello

Music by Danny Elfman

Cinematography by Cronenweth

The making of Psycho was a watershed event,  both in the career of Alfred Hitchcock, and in the history of cinema in general.  It was a very fitting subject for Stephen Rebello’s book, which covers the history of the movie in chronological sequence.   When I first learned that Rebello’s book was going to be made into a film, I assumed it would be a documentary.  Instead, director Sacha Gervasi brought us a period biopic, peopled with some of the biggest actors in the world.

My initial reaction to this movie when it came out was mixed at best.  I was viewing it with the critical eye of a Hitchcock scholar, focusing too much on the minutiae of details that were altered or invented from whole cloth.   Now that some time has passed, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit it.

The movie begins with Alfred Hitchcock at the absolute top of his game.  He is riding high on the success of his recent blockbuster North by Northwest.  But he is looking to make a change.  He decides on Psycho as his next movie, against the wishes of Paramount Studios, and most of his creative team.  He undergoes crises both financial and emotional,  and is aided by the love and support of his wife Alma, played brilliantly by Helen Mirren.   The role of Hitchcock is played by the one and only Anthony Hopkins.  What happens when an inimitable director is portrayed on film by an inimitable actor?  Something has to give.  Considering how well known both the voice and visage of Hitchcock are, director Gervasi and Hopkins found a middle ground.  Prosthetic make up gives Hopkins a look that is closer to Hitch, without completely losing his own identity.  It is in no way an imitation, nor was it intended to be so.

The end game of the movie is certainly no surprise; after all, Psycho was Hitchcock’s biggest commercial hit.  But does this film accurately portray the making of the movie?  Let’s take a look at a few of the movie’s specifics.

First of all, did the Hitchcock’s really mortgage their house to get Psycho made?  Absolutely not!  That was added for dramatic effect.  Hitchcock was already a  wealthy man at this point, and owned two houses.  He did agree to completely waive his salary for points on the back end, which ended up being the smartest financial decision of his life.  This movie alone earned Hitchcock upwards of $10 million.  But at no point were the Hitchcock’s in any kind of dire straits.  They certainly did not have to cut back on groceries, or their staff.

Did Alma Reville really come close to an affair with Whitfield Cook?  The jury is out on this question.  The Reville/Cook partnership actually occurred about a decade earlier than the time period of Psycho.  Whitfield Cook co-wrote the screenplays of two Hitchcock films:  Stage Fright (1950) and Strangers on a Train (1951).  Alma was a close collaborator at the time.  If one is to believe Whitfield’s diaries, he and Alma were affectionate.  He describes a scene where they were close to physical intimacy, when they were interrupted by a phone call from Hitch.  That moment is portrayed in the movie.  At the very least, based on Whitfield’s diaries and the surviving correspondence, there was an emotional bond between the two.

Did Alma Reville really direct a scene of Psycho while Hitchcock was ill?  Again, no.  Hitchcock was bedridden at one point, and asked his assistant director Hilton Green to shoot the day’s scenes without him.  When Hitchcock recovered and saw the dailies of Green’s footage, he realized much of it would have to be re-shot.  Alma was most definitely a collaborator on all of Hitchcock’s films to some extent.  She received on-screen credit on eleven films, but certainly gave input on every film.  Alma had been in the movie business longer than her husband.  She was a good writer, and a good film editor, and Hitch frequently sought her approval.

Was Hitchcock really cold and distant towards Vera Miles on the set?  To an extent, yes.  By all accounts he was always professional, but he was much more businesslike in his scenes with her than he was when directing Janet Leigh.  Hitchcock apparently never got over his disappointment in Vera Miles getting pregnant after he had cast her in the lead role in Vertigo.  Hitchcock enjoyed immensely his interactions with both Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.

Did Hitchcock really want the shower scene to be music-free?  Initially, yes.  He conceived of a scene that would be aurally filled with running water, stabbing sounds, and screams.  It was only after he heard Bernard Herrmann’s scoring for the scene that he relented, realizing the scene would be better with the music.

Alma and Hitch’s marriage is portrayed as fairly tempestuous at this point.  Is this accurate?  While we can never truly know what went on behind closed doors when the Hitchcocks were home alone, by all accounts they were a truly happy couple, who were married for 53 years.

So this movie does play around quite a bit with history, but it is entertaining nonetheless, with good performances.  And while the historical truth may be toyed with, perhaps there is an emotional truth to the material.  This is the first movie to really give Alma Reville the recognition she deserves as half of the great Hitchcock partnership, and for that reason alone it is worth seeing.

Definitive edition:  The 2012 blu ray contains a commentary track with director Sacha Gervasi and author Stephen Rebello, one deleted scene, several featurettes, and the original theatrical trailer.

PSYCHO II, PSYCHO III, PSYCHO IV: The legacy of Psycho

psycho2When one thinks of Alfred Hitchcock one does not think of sequels.  And while he never directed any sequels himself, his 1960 release Psycho has generated quite a legacy on film, television and in print.  There are three feature-length sequels, all with Anthony Perkins reprising his role as Norman Bates.  There are two television shows, one that never made it past the pilot episode, and one that has just concluded its first successful season.  Robert Bloch also wrote two sequels to his original novel, something he arguably would not have done had the movie not been such a success.  There is an excellent non-fiction book by Stephen Rebello about the making of the original film.  There is a movie based loosely on Rebello’s book.  And there is also a remake directed by Gus Van Sant.   (I should note that Alfred Hitchcock had nothing to do with any of these projects; they all were released after his death in 1980).

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Psycho II (1983) – Universal – Rating: ★★1/2

 Color – 113 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Richard Franklin

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Vera Miles (Lila Loomis), Meg Tilly (Mary Samuels), Robert Loggia (Dr. Bill Raymond), Dennis Franz (Warren Toomey).

Written by Tom Holland

Music by Jerry Goldsmith

 First off, let’s acknowledge that Psycho did not need a sequel.  But the horror genre was experiencing a massive popularity burst in the early 80’s, thanks in large part to movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th.  And Universal Pictures owned the rights to the original movie, which meant they could use its characters, or even steal scenes from it.  They also still had the Psycho house standing on their backlot.  (The motel building had been torn down, and had to be rebuilt.)  And the most important piece of the puzzle:  Anthony Perkins, who somewhat reluctantly agreed to reprise his role as Norman Bates.

This movie is in trouble from the very first moment.  It begins with the shower scene from the original Psycho, but in edited form!  How can you edit one of the most iconic scenes in movie history?  Either let it play out,  or don’t use it at all.  The set-up for the film is actually quite good, and the tagline on the movie poster sums it up as well as anybody could:  “It’s 22 years later, and Norman Bates is coming home.”   Norman is released from the mental facility where he has spent over two decades, and returns to his childhood home to find the Bates Motel being run by an obnoxious sleazebag played by Dennis Franz (this is before Franz made the switch from obnoxious sleazebags to endearing sleazebags.)  Within five seconds of meeting Franz’s character we know he is going to die, and this points to the movie’s biggest problem; there is just no subtlety to be found, either in plot or dialogue.

Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles are both very believable in the roles they had initiated over 20 years earlier.  It’s quite plausible that Lila Loomis would have married Sam after the death of Marion.  It’s also believable that Lila would hate Norman Bates, and do anything to get him locked up for good.  It is a bit of a stretch, however, to believe that she would use her daughter as a pawn in a potentially deadly game.  Robert Loggia is very solid in the role of Robert Loggia.  (That is not meant as a slight; he is a good character actor, who helps keep this movie from going completely off the rails.)  Meg Tilly is, well, annoying at best.  Rumor has it that Anthony Perkins did not get along with her, and asked for her to be replaced at some point during filming.  Honestly though, you could put any other actress in that role and it would not have been enough to save the rest of the movie.

Jerry Goldsmith wrote a beautiful score;  too bad it sounds like the score of an entirely different film.  Of course, what does one do when scoring a sequel, when the original film has one of the most iconic scores in movie history?  He could either follow in Bernard Herrmann’s footsteps, or go another direction entirely.  Goldsmith chose the latter, and it just doesn’t quite suit the material.

So, people are stabbed to death, Norman questions his sanity, and let’s not forget about the surpsise ending.  There is an absolutely ludicrous plot twist that seems to undermine the logic of the original movie.  I can’t really fault the director Richard Franklin, who was a student of Hitchcock, no less, but a stronger script may have helped this be something more than what it is.   The movie is not a total loss;  there are some fine moments, and Anthony Perkins is great.

Definitive edition:  Shout Factory released a blu ray edition in 2013.  First of all, the sound and picture quality are very good.  Included with the film are an electronic press kit, which has audio and video issues and repeats itself.  For all that, it does have some good interview clips.  Also included is an audio commentary with screenwriter Tom Holland, and audio promotional clips, as well as a photo gallery and trailers.

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 PSYCHO III (1986) – Universal – Rating:  ★★★

Color – 92 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Anthony Perkins

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Diana Scarwid (Maureen Coyle), Jeff Fahey (Duane Duke), Roberta Maxwell (Tracy Venable), Hugh Gillin (Sheriff John Hunt).

Written by Charles Edward Pogue

Music by Carter Burwell

The third chapter in the Psycho series is somewhat better than its predecessor,  but is still miles away from being a truly good film.   Norman is back to his crazy ways, having installed Mother 2.0 in the bed where he kept the first model.  Norman has a love interest again, this time a nun who has been kicked out of her convent.  She caused a mother superior to fall to her death, in a scene that deliberately (and quite effectively) evokes Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  She ends up at the Bates Motel, along with Jeff Fahey’s character Duane, a drifter looking to make a score, and make it with every woman who crosses his path.   Hugh Gillin reprises his role from the last installment as Sheriff Hunt, a man who sympathizes with Norman Bates and wishes everyone would just leave him alone.

So, this being a Psycho movie, you can be assured that people will die violent deaths, and Norman will wage his mental battle with Mother.  And that is what really drives this movie, and makes it worth watching.  Anthony Perkins still makes Norman Bates a sympathetic character.  We watch him perform acts of evil, and yet still root for him to somehow overcome in this struggle with his dead mother, who is the real source of evil.

Anthony Perkins directed this movie, and did an admirable job, considering it was the first (and only) time he sat in the director’s chair in his career.   He overcame his initial nervousness about directing, and won over everyone on the set.  Several cast and crew members remarked that Perkins was a pleasure to work with as a director.

Psycho III throws in a plot twist at the end, regarding Norman’s family tree, that seemingly attempts to untwist the twist at the end of Psycho II.  Once again, ludicrous!  But if you’re watching this movie, you’re not doing so for plot points.  You’re doing it because you just can’t get enough Norman Bates.

This movie also features one of Carter Burwell’s early film scores, and it really plays well.  Burwell made a modern (for the time) score, eschewing strings altogether, and that turned out to be a great decision.

Definitive edition:  Once again, Shout Factory’s 2013 blu ray release has good sound and picture quality, and a handful of extra features.  Included is a commentary track with the screenwriter, and several interesting featurettes, as well as a photo gallery and trailers.

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Psycho IV: The Beginning  (1990)- Universal – Rating: ★★1/2

Color – 96 minutes – 1.78:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Mick Garris

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Henry Thomas (Young Norman Bates), Olivia Hussey (Norma Bates), C.C.H. Pounder (Fran Ambrose).

Written by Joseph Stefano

Music by Graeme Revell

When a horror movie franchise reaches part 4, you know its time for the inevitable flashback motif to show up, if it hasn’t already.  And so a good part of this film is the older Norman Bates recounting his teenage years.  For the first time we see Norma Bates in the flesh, and we see how Norman became who he became.  This movie was written by Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s original 1960 Psycho.  Stefano does a pretty decent job; I would say the screenplay is definitely better than the last two movies in the series.  Some have said that it is highly improbable Norman Bates would have been released from the insane asylum a second time, and that is certainly true.  But Joseph Stefano wrote this as a follow-up to his original movie, more-or-less ignoring the existence of Parts II and III altogether.  If you take that into consideration, the plot of this film makes a little more sense, although its probably a little too late to introduce sense into this movie franchise, considering how senseless the last two screenplays were.

Anthony Perkins initially expressed interest in directing this installment as well, but Universal nixed that idea, based on the poor box office of the Perkins-directed part III.  As it turns out, the potential box office of part IV was not a factor, because it was never released in theaters, but instead went straight to video, premiering exclusively on the Showtime cable TV network in 1990.

The set-up here is pretty good.  Norman Bates calls in to a radio talk show hosted by Fran Ambrose.  Fran is played quite convincingly by C.C.H. Pounder.  Norman admits that he has killed, and says he is going to kill again.  While on the phone with Fran, Norman talks about his childhood, and we get to see several flashback sequences showing Norman in his teenage years.  The young Norman is played well by Henry Thomas of ET fame.  He does not try to copy Anthony Perkins’ mannerisms in any way, which was a good decision.  And young Norman’s mother is played in creepily good fashion by Olivia Hussey.

Norman’s present-day situation, and the reason that he feels he may have to kill again, is both surprising and disturbing.  And the film’s resolution seems to imply that the Bates family saga has finally come to a conclusion.  This movie is better than the cable TV movie-of-the-week status to which it was relegated.  It is interesting to observe the ease with which Anthony Perkins now slips in the skin of Norman Bates.  And while the quality of the movies definitely declined, Perkins’ performance is a marvel; he stayed true to the character, and made his atrocities believable from first to last.  (When Psycho IV was being filmed, Anthony Perkins had already been diagnosed as HIV positive, and was receiving treatment during filming.  This was one of the last projects he completed before his death.)

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Definitive edition:  Shout Factory released this on blu ray in 2013, with a nice looking print of the film.   The behind the scenes featurettes on this one are not very engaging.  One time is enough, if that.  The commentary track however, with director Mick Garris, and actors Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey, is quite engaging.

PSYCHO (1960) continued


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PSYCHO (1960):  continued

Technique:  From the opening frames of the movie, Saul Bass’s jarring graphic title sequence coupled with Bernard Herrmann’s frenzied musical score are designed to put the viewer on edge.  After this unsettling opening the audience gets a breather, as slow, melodic strings take us into the movie proper.   Titles on the screen establish the setting, as the camera starts with a wide view of the city of Phoenix, panning and zooming in on an open window.  Inside are Sam and Marion,  sharing in a little afternoon delight.

It is interesting to observe that Marion Cranes’s brief story arc is basically encounters with a succession of men.   We first meet Marion with her boyfriend, Sam.  Marion is clearly a smart young woman, but she cannot make Sam look past his pride, and agree to move Marion in with her.  Next we see Marion back at the office where she works.  Here she interacts with her boss and his client, the brash and boorish man who flaunts his wad of cash in Marion’s face, offering to buy away her problems, more or less offering to buy her in the bargain.  One gets the sense that Marion has to deal with men like this quite frequently;  men who objectify her, never recognizing her true qualities.  It is a very well-drawn character portrait.

Marion’s only interaction with a woman occurs here in the office, with her co-worker, played effectively by Patricia Hitchcock (the daughter of Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville).  But Patricia’s character does all the talking, and her very small part exists only to provide some comic relief, all at the expense of relationships.   She has a couple of great lines,  casually mentioning that her mom gave her tranquilizers for her wedding night, and observing that the customer flirted with Marion and not her because “he must have seen my wedding ring”, when the truth is that Marion is a far more attractive woman.

The next man Marion interacts with is the highway patrolman.  He obviously represents authority, and does so with an effective thinly-veiled menace.  By this time Marion has taken the money, so she has reason to be afraid.  She asks him if she acts like she’s done something wrong, and he responds “quite frankly, yes.”  She then interacts with the car salesman, California Charlie, who is surprised by how quickly Marion wants to trade in her car, saying “this is the first time the customer ever high-pressured the salesman.”   As with all of the men Marion has encountered, he also has preconceived ideas about the roles of a female, telling her “you can do anything you’ve a mind to.  Being a woman, you will.”   And there is Mr. Highway Patrolman back on the scene, standing across the street, inscrutable behind his sunglasses, but menacing as ever.

Finally Marion arrives at the Bates Motel, and interacts with Norman Bates, the last man she will ever interact with in life.  To Marion the Bates Motel is a sanctuary, from the torrential rain and from her guilty thoughts.  She definitely finds Norman a bit odd, but clearly feels sorry for him, and likes his good nature.  His conversation shows a genuine interest in her as a person, which is more than all the other men she has dealt with have shown.  His gentle nature, his talk, have a strong influence on Marion, perhaps even more than she realizes.  By the time she returns to her room to shower, she has decided to return the money, and clearly Norman’s conversation played a strong role in that decision.

 psychoshower Shower scene:  The shower scene in Psycho is one of the most well-known movie scenes of all time, referenced and parodied in everything from The Simpsons and That 70’s Show to National Lampoon’s Vacation.  What makes it so memorable?  To start with, Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, that jarring string section, which sounds like the thrusts of a knife put to music, is unforgettable.  At one point Hitchcock considered playing the scene with no music.  Of course the music is considered such an iconic and integral part of the scene that it’s hard to imagine it without.  On the Universal blu-ray, you can watch the scene without a musical score.

Hitchcock said “It took us seven days to shoot that scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage.”   The scene itself is just a montage of images, many of them too brief to leave more than a subliminal impression.  And many of them are also unforgettable.   There is a point-of-view shot looking directly up at the shower head as water pours seemingly right at the camera.  There is a great shot of Marion’s hand grabbing the shower curtain as she falls, and the curtain pulling from the hooks, one by one.  There is a close-up shot of water swirling down the drain, which suddenly turns dark with blood.  The “blood” was actually Shasta chocolate syrup, according to make up man Jack Barron.  And the unforgettable final shot of the sequence, which starts on a close-up of Janet Leigh’s eye and slowly pulls back, revealing her dead body.  The camera continues into the bedroom, showing the newspaper that hides the money inside, then shows the open window, through which Norman can be seen running from the house to the motel.  Hitchcock wanted this to look like one continuous shot, but it is actually a composite of three separate pieces of film put seamlessly together.

The symbolic aspect of this scene should not be overlooked either.  As Janet Leigh described it:  “Hitch was very clear about what he wanted from me in the shower scene…The shower was a baptism, a taking away of the torment from her mind.  Marion became a virgin again.  He wanted the audience to feel her peacefulness, her kind of rebirth, so that the moment of intrusion is even more shocking and tragic.”

The shower scene is worthy of its place in cinematic history;  it is impeccably shot and edited, and endlessly entertaining.  You may view this scene ten times, and still discover new details with each viewing.

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The murder of Arbogast:  Another fantastic scene is the one showing “mother” killing Detective Arbogast.  This scene begins with Martin Balsam’s character entering the Bates house and slowly climbing the stairs.  When he gets to the top the camera cuts to a very high  overhead shot.  This is a shot that Hitchcock employed in almost every single movie he made.  Removing the camera from the action, giving us a “God’s-eye view” if you will, makes the viewer feel helpless, and heightens the tension to an extreme.  The way “mother’  purposefully strides towards Arbogast in this overhead shot is scary as hell, and the direct cut from the overhead shot to the close-up knife slash is equally effective, something that was deliberately planned by Hitchcock.  Arbogast’s fall down the stairs has a surreal, dreamlike quality, obtained through a process shot.  First Hitchcock did a dolly shot down the stairs, then sat Martin Balsam in a special chair in front of a transparency screen showing the stairs, and had the actor flail his arms.

Stairs are supposed to be a symbol of knowledge.  One must climb to achieve enlightenment.  Certainly Detective Arbogast does find the knowledge he is looking for when he ascends the stairs, but that knowledge costs him his life, and leaves him dead at the foot of the staircase.  Some knowledge is just not worth seeking, and some stairs not worth climbing.

There are several other great sequences, including the cleanup sequence.  We watch Norman Bates methodically clean the motel room and dispose of the evidence.  This takes several minutes of screen time, and occurs with no dialogue at all.  More of Hitchcock’s “pure” storytelling.   This is a movie that works exceptionally well on a storytelling level, but does have a deeper significance for those who choose to look for it.   It is absolutely required viewing for anybody that wants to understand Hitchcock, or American movies in general

PSYCHO (1960): “Mother, uh, what is the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today.”

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PSYCHO (1960) – Paramount – Rating:  ★★★★½

 B&W – 109 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (Marion Crane), John Gavin (Sam Loomis), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), Martin Balsam (Milton Arbogast), Patricia Hitchcock (Caroline).

Produced by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch.

Director of Photography:  John L. Russell

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann

Titles designed by Saul Bass

Note:  Because of the significance of this film in Hitchcock’s catalog, I will divide my analysis into two parts.  The first is a general overview;  the second will be a more detailed look at several key scenes in the movie, as well as overall techniques employed by Hitchcock.  Also, in past Hitchcock movie entries I  have tried to walk a fine line between review and analysis.  Going forward I will focus on analysis, and presume that my audience has already seen the movie.

Everybody knows Psycho.   It is part of a select group of films (e.g. CasablancaThe Wizard of Oz) that are part of the the movie-going collective consciousness, to the extent that even those who haven’t seen it almost feel as if they have.   Elements of the movie have been referenced, alluded to, copied, and parodied hundreds of times in popular culture.  But Alfred Hitchcock certainly did not set out to make a groundbreaking movie.  Psycho was intended to be an “experiment” of sorts, one that proved to be a massive success for all involved.

Source material:  The movie is based upon the 1959  novel of the same name by Robert Bloch.    Bloch’s novel is a well-paced, fast-moving thriller that most fans of the movie would likely enjoy.   The plot structure of the movie follows the book to such a degree that the book almost reads as a movie treatment.   The most significant change made by Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano relates to character, not plot.  In the novel, Norman Bates is described as an overweight, middle-aged, pathetic looking man.  Bates’ physical description makes him a repulsive character from the first page.  For the movie, Hitchcock and Stefano made the wonderful decision that Norman Bates should be younger, more attractive, and likable.  Hitchcock loved to create a sympathetic antagonist, and perhaps there is no greater example  in his entire canon than that of Norman Bates.  He may be one of the most sympathetic “bad guys” in all of cinema.  Of course one could make the argument that Norman isn’t the villain at all;  rather his mother is the true antagonist, and Norman just another one of her victims.

The “experimental” film:  The word “experimental” could apply to a handful of Hitchcock’s films:  certainly The Wrong Man, Ropeand Lifeboat at the very least could be classified as such.  But Psycho was an experiment of a different nature, by Hitchcock’s own admission.

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He had just released North by Northwest in 1959.  That film was a breathtaking spectacle for the eyes, large in scope, shot in Technicolor and VistaVistion.  Why follow that up with a small scale, black and white film that has very little dialogue and takes place primarily in small cluttered rooms?  It is often said that Hitchcock had to make Psycho in black and white because the censors wouldn’t have allowed him to show blood in color, to the extent that he wanted to show it.   That certainly was a consideration, but Alfred Hitchcock also chose to shoot in black and white (and Psycho was his last non-color film) because he used his television crew to film it.  Alfred Hitchcock had the notion that he could use the technical crew from his very popular “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV show to shoot a feature film, and that they could do it in less time and with less money.  This was of some significance to Hitchcock because he was also the film’s producer.  Keeping costs down meant more money in his pocket.  And Psycho went on to become one of the most profitable film’s of Hitchcock’s entire career.  His “experiment” paid off in spades. 

Themes and motifs:  All of the major themes of Hitchcock’s career can be found in Psychomaking it a very representative work for that reason.  The concept of guilt is very significant.  Marion Crane is hounded by guilt almost from the moment she decides to flee with the money.  It is only after talking to Norman Bates at the motel that she has a change of heart, and makes her plan to return the money.  What a sad irony that Norman helps her come to this realization, only to kill her moments later.  Norman’s guilt is of a much more profound and complex nature.  He is portrayed as a victim, as much as anyone in this film, and yet he is most certainly a killer.  Another major theme is the relationship between men and women.  Hitchcock often portrays relationships with much more realism than was common at the time.  His films show that sacrifices have to be made for relationships to succeed.   Marion Crane is ready to make any sacrifice to be with Sam, but his pride gets in the way.  When he remarks sardonically that she can lick the stamps when he writes his alimony checks, the love and devotion in Marion’s voice when she replies “I’ll lick the stamps” is heartbreaking.  One could argue that Sam could have prevented the tragedy to come if he had merely put aside his pride and agreed to let Marion live with him.

psycho3To say that the “mother” motif shows up in this film is a major understatement.  Mothers in Hitchcock’s films are often domineering and belittling of their adult male children, nowhere more so than here.  Even from the grave, Mrs. Bates’ domination of her son is total.  Hitchcock’s fear of the police is on display here as well.  Hitchcock often portrayed law enforcement as inept, bumbling fools.  Here however, the highway patrolman is played with a sense of menace, and it works very well.   Some Hitchcock scholars have pointed out the many staircases that figure in his movies, and there is one that features very prominently here.

It is interesting that Hitchcock’s follow-up to this movie would be The Birds, because birds are all over in this movie.  Norman’s parlor is full of his stuffed birds.  He comments that Marion eats like a bird.  Marion’s room at the motel has pictures of birds on the wall.  Marion’s last name is Crane, a type of bird, and she is coming from Phoenix, named after the mythological bird.

Performance:  The two standout performances here belong to Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.  Janet’s character undergoes a lot of different emotions in her shortened screen time, and she also has several scenes where she is alone on screen, and must convey her feelings with no dialogue.  She does a fantastic job of playing it low key.  And Perkins portrayal of Norman Bates is one of the best acting performances in any Hitchcock film.  Veteran character actor Martin Balsam is solid as always, in his portrayal of Arbogast.   The one performance that doesn’t quite work is that of John Gavin, playing Sam Loomis.  There is no real chemistry between Gavin and Janet Leigh in their opening scene, and he comes off as somewhat wooden.  Vera Miles, who plays Marion’s sister Lila, also gives a somewhat detached performance.  Miles is good, but somehow off-putting.

Promotion:  For Psycho  Alfred Hitchcock employed what may be the most ingenious marketing campaign in the history of motion pictures.  It all grew out of his concern that word of mouth would kill the movie’s surprises, and hurt its box office chances.  His first decision was not to have any advance screenings, either for critics or for a test audience.  He then made the decision that nobody should be allowed to enter the theater once the movie had started.  He actually made this a condition for theaters who wished to show the movie.  Movie theaters were sent a ton of promotional materials from Paramount explaining the policy of no late admissions, including signs, life-size cardboard figures of Alfred Hitchcock, and vinyl albums with repeating messages recorded by Hitchcock.  Here, you can listen to one of these promotional messages in its entirety.

Delivered with Hitchcock’s usual dry humor, the dialogue was written by James Allerdice, who also wrote most of Hitchcock’s dialogue for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show.  Another of the recorded messages  urged moviegoers not to give away the movie’s secrets to their friends.

Some theaters even hired security guards to man the lobbies, preventing late entries into the theater.  Hitchcock even went so far as to tell theater owners how to show the movie.  He suggested that the house lights should remain off for 30 seconds after the end credits finished.  Hitchcock suggested that this would imprint the movie’s images into the viewers minds.  He then suggested a very low light, ideally green, while moviegoers exited the theaters.   The campaign was a huge, unparalleled success, with massive lines queued up outside theaters all over the country.  Alfred Hitchcock also created one of the most unique and impressive theatrical trailers for this movie.  Rather than showing clips from the movie, the trailer features Alfred Hitchcock giving a “tour” of the Psycho movie set.  This highly entertaining trailer runs over 6 minutes in length, and can be seen in its entirety on the Universal blu-ray or DVD.

Recurring players:  Vera Miles appeared in the film The Wrong Man.

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   Mort Mills, who plays the highway patrolman so well, would later appear in Torn Curtain.  Frank Albertson also had an uncredited part in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Sam Flint had a small role in Strangers on a Train.  Virginia Gregg had an uncredited role in Notorious.  And Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia can also be seen in Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train.

Where’s Hitch:  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo comes very early in the film.  At about the 7:00 mark, he can be seen standing outside the office where Marion works, wearing a cowboy hat.

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Academy Awards:  Psycho received four nominations:  Alfred Hitchcock for best director, Janet Leigh for best supporting actress, John L. Russell for best black-and-white cinematography, and Joesph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy and George Milo for best art decoration/set decoration black-and-white.  Psycho did not win in any of these categories.

What Hitch said:  He told Truffaut that his main satisfaction with Psycho was that “the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important.  I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting…I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion.  And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this…the audiences…were aroused by pure film.”

Definitive edition:  Universal’s excellent 2010 blu ray release has a treasure trove of extra features:  a commentary track by Stephen Rebello, author of “Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho“; a feature-length documentary; a 10 minute segment on the new 5.1 sound mix; a 26 minute documentary featuring Martin Scorsese, Willliam Freidkin, Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, and many other filmmakers lavishing praise on Hitchcock; a 15 minute Hitchcock/Truffaut audio interview clip;  an 8 minute vintage newsreel; the shower scene with and without music; Saul Bass’ storyboards for the shower sequence; posters, ads and lobby cards; production and behind-the-scene photos; original theatrical trailer and 5 short re-release trailers.

Below you can watch one of the best scenes from the movie:  Arbogast questioning Norman Bates about Marion.  Here are two character actors at the absolute peak of their craft, and they are a joy to watch. When the two actors completed the first take on this sequence, the crew erupted into applause!  It was Anthony Perkins idea to chew on the candy corns, as was the stutter that creeps into his speech as Arbogast presses him.  Notice the shot, early in the sequence, when Perkins leans in to look at the signature.  The camera is underneath him, looking up at his chin.  Perkins leans in, keeping his face in frame, then stands up, and the camera follows him, all in one smooth take.   (Note:  Universal Pictures owns all rights to this movie.  If you haven’t seen it, please purchase or rent it!)