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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CAPE FEAR (1962): “Go ahead. I just don’t give a damn.”

capefear2CAPE FEAR (1962) – Universal – Rating:  ★★★★

B&W – 105 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Gregory Peck (Sam Bowden), Robert Mitchum (Max Cady), Polly Bergen (Peggy Bowden), Lori Martin (Nancy Bowden), Martin Balsam (Mark Dutton), Jack Kruschen (Dave Grafton), Telly Savalas (Charlie Sievers), Barry Chase (Diane Taylor).

Directed by J. Lee Thompson

Cinematography by Sam Leavitt

Editing by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann

Art Direction by Robert Boyle and Alexander Golitzen

Screenplay by James R. Webb

A Hitchcockian thriller:  While filming the movie The Guns of Navarone, Gregory Peck acquired the rights to a book called The Executioners for his newly-formed independent production company.  He asked his Navarone director, J. Lee Thompson, if he would come to Hollywood to make the picture, and Thompson readily agreed.  This was the birth of the movie that would become Cape Fear.  Thompson did not set out to deliberately evoke Hitchcock in his movie, but Cape Fear features an editor, music composer, two art directors, a leading actor and a supporting actor who were all associated with Hitchcock, so it is hard to avoid comparison.  It is not a true Hitchcock movie  in theme or in style, although in camera movements, in economy of shots, in the tightness of the editing, in the evocative score of Bernard Herrmann, it is very Hitchcockian indeed.

The story centers around a prosecuting attorney named Sam Bowden (played by Gregory Peck) a well-respected family man in the prime of life.  All of a sudden, a man from his past appears in town.  Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) spent eight years in prison, primarily because of testimony given by Sam Bowden.  And it quickly becomes clear that Cady blames Bowden, and plans on exacting some kind of revenge.  Cady gradually insinuates himself into the Bowden’s lives, and more importantly into their psyches.  Sam, the law-abiding attorney, tries to use the law to protect himself and his family.  But after the family dog is poisoned, and the daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) is traumatized and struck by a car when she feels Cady is stalking her, Bowden begins to feel helpless within the law.  Cady always seems to stay just this side of the line, keeping himself above prosecution.  And this introduces the major theme of the movie (and the original novel as well):  how far would you be willing to go to protect your family?  If your career, your entire life, is based on upholding the law, and now that law seems to be failing you, would you cross over to the other side?  Would you be willing to commit a crime, even murder, to keep your family safe?  Ultimately, Sam Bowden decides he has no choice but to cross that line, using his own wife (Polly Bergen) and daughter to stake out a trap for Max Cady, which leads to the films finale on the Cape Fear river.

Hitchcockian themes:  Certainly the theme of introducing menace into an idyllic family setting had been explored by Hitchcock, most notably in his brilliant, underrated Shadow of a Doubt.   In that case, the menace comes from within the family, which makes the plot more complex, and twisted.   Another theme in Cape Fear that is frequently seen in Hitchcock is the emasculated male.  Oftentimes in Hitchcock movies, the male protagonist finds himself in a situation where he feels completely helpless.  In Hitchcock, it is often the female protagonist who comes to the rescue.  Think of Rear Window:  Jimmy Stewart is helpless in his wheelchair, it is Grace Kelly who risks life and limb (literally) climbing in the window of the suspected murderer.  At the conclusion of the original The Man Who Knew Too Much,  the father (Leslie Banks) is helpless, trapped inside the house with the criminals.  It is the mother (Edna Best) who snatches a gun from a policeman and shoots the man who is menacing her daughter.   In Cape Fear, we do not have this gender reversal, as Gregory Peck eventually overcomes his feelings of inadequacy and rises to the occasion to protect his family.   As a matter of fact, one minor quibble about Cape Fear is the subtle sexism in some scenes, certainly a product of the time.

This film shares some visual ideas with Hitchcock as well.  First of all in the director’s decision to eschew color photography.  As J. Lee Thompson said “I saw it only in black and white.”  Of course, Hitchcock had made a similar decision the previous year with Psycho, this at a time when black and white films were already beginning to die out.  Of course, both directors used black and white for artistic reasons, and both made the correct decision.   Thompson  used a lot of interplay with light and shadow, something that Hitchcock had employed in a couple of films, most notably The Wrong Man, and portions of Foreign Correspondent (that film’s windmill interior could almost be a Rembrandt painting, in its interplay of light and shadow).  Thompson uses this interplay in a different way however.  He designed a “cage” motif, where Mitchum would frequently be shot looking through the bars of a fence, or a wooden lattice, or tall grass, with shadows lining his face, highlighting his animal as well as his criminal qualities, as if he were in a cage, or a cell.

Mitchum looking through a fence, part of director Thompson’s use of a “cage” motif.

There are other differences as well.  First of all, Cape Fear is more overtly sexual than any film Hitchcock had ever made (or ever would make, with the exception of Frenzy).  Even coming a year after Hitchcock’s Psycho, which had shocked a generation of movie-goers, and broken new ground in what a movie could show, Cape Fear feels almost contemporary in its raw sexuality.  When Max Cady leers at a woman’s backside and says “look at that wiggle”, when he calls the underage Bowden daughter “juicy”, and especially when he breaks the egg over Peggy Bowden and begins to rub the yolk into her cleavage,  one can only imagine the discomfort of an early 60’s audience.  Part of this sexuality comes from the screenplay, certainly;  but a greater part comes from the seemingly effortless portrayal by Mitchum.  One taboo that could not be broached in Cape Fear was the rape of a minor.  It was certainly implied, but the “R” word was off limits.   Sam Bowden says to his wife:  “What would you do if Nancy was…attacked?”  And we all know what he means, but it could not be uttered directly.

Performance:  The performances throughout are stellar.  Gregory Peck is playing his typical stalwart all-American model of virtue, a variation of his Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch a couple of years earlier.  Polly Bergen was better known as a singer than an actress, but she is spot-on in the role of Peck’s wife, a role that requires considerable range, and some challenging scenes.  Lori Martin brings the right amount of vulnerability and innocence to the role of the Bowden’s daughter.  And then there’s Robert Mitchum.   He absolutely exudes menace, along with a raw animal lust, sensuality, and brutality.  He was one of the screen’s greatest actors, and this is one of his best performances.  Martin Balsam was one of the greatest character actors to ever grace the screen; he brought a genuine, believable quality to every role he played, and his Chief Dutton is no exception.  And I would be remiss if I did not mention the brilliant Jack Kruschen, a character actor who buried himself in his parts, truly becoming the character.  It’s hard to believe that the man who is playing the shyster southern lawyer Dave Grafton in this movie, is the same man who played the Oscar-nominated Jewish Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Lemmon’s neighbor) in The Apartment just one year previously.  Telly Savalas and Barry Chase are also solid in early film roles.

Mitchum, Kruschen, Balsam, Peck: four great actors at the peak of their craft.

An Alfred Hitchcock team:  Several people who worked on this film had worked with Hitchcock in the past, which couldn’t help but influence the way the movie was designed, shot, edited and scored.  Let’s take a look at some of these Hitchcock collaborators.

J. Lee Thompson, director:  Thompson got his start at Elstree studios in the late 1930’s, initially hired as a screenwriter.  He also worked as an assistant to David Lean, who at that time was one of Elstree’s premiere film editors.  After this experience he was assigned the job of dialogue coach for Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock’s last British film.  Of this experience, Thompson said

I saw the great master at work…Of course I studied Hitchcock, all his films, very carefully, but it is one of my precious memories that I saw him closely at hand at work.  He had everything plotted down to the last detail, so it wasn’t a matter of actors coming on set and trying to improvise.  He knew exactly what he wanted and,  as he said to himself:  “I could shoot this from  my office, I don’t need to go down on the floor.”  Of course he did, but the theory was he worked out every shot, every move, and he didn’t want any actors’ suggestions.

Robert Boyle, art director:  Of frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bob Boyle, J. Lee Thompson had the following to say:

It was a supreme pleasure to work with him, knowing that I was very much in tune with Hitchcock.  I really had an Alfred Hitchcock team.

George Tomasini, editor:  Thompson said of Hitchcock’s favorite editor that

We worked extremely well together.  We got  the suspense and the right pacing.  He understood that perfectly, obviously having worked with Hitchcock.

Bernard Herrmann, composer:  Of Herrmann’s work on Cape Fear, Thompson explained that  he

said how much he enjoyed it…He kindly compared it to some of Hitchcock’s best films.

Source material:  James R. Webb’s screenplay is based on the novel The Executioners, by John D. MacDonald.  The film follows the basic structure of the book, with a few exceptions.  In the book, the Bowden family has three children, two small boys in addition to the teenage daughter.  The final act of the book takes place at the Bowden family farmhouse, rather than on a river.  There is no river at all in the book.  And Max Cady is killed at the book’s climax.  The basic theme of the novel however, is the same as in the book.

 

Hitchcock connections:  Gregory Peck starred in two films for Alfred Hitchcock:  Spellbound and The Paradine Case.  Martin Balsam had appeared as the detective Arbogast in Psycho.  Edward Platt (who most people will recognize as the Chief from Get Smart) played a judge in one scene in North by Northwest, just as he plays a judge in one scene in this movie.  Editor George Tomasini also cut nine of Hitchcock’s films, including many of his best-known films from the 50’s and 60’s.   Bernard Herrmann famously collaborated with Hitchcock several times, doing some of his best work as a film composer in the process.   Both of the art directors on this film had also worked with Hitchcock before.  Robert Boyle had been involved in several Hitchcock films, including Saboteur and North by Northwest.  And Alexander Golitzen had received an Academy Award nomination for his art direction on Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent.    And last but certainly not least, director J. Lee Thompson was a dialogue coach on Hitchcock’s last British film, Jamaica Inn.

Remake:  Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear in 1991.  Many moviegoers today are probably more familiar with his version than the original.  As a matter of fact, many people may not even be aware that Scorsese’s version is a remake.  The updated film is definitely worthy of a viewing, and has many admirable updates in plot and execution.   One of the nice touches in the remake is the appearance of Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in cameos, also with a bit of role reversal (Peck plays the shyster lawyer who represents Cady, while Mitchum plays a police Lieutenant.)  An ailing Martin Balsam also has a cameo.

Definitive edition:  The Universal blu-ray (released in 2013) has a very crisp, clear image.  The two-channel audio really highlights Bernard Herrmann’s score, which sounds great.  The dialogue is discernible, but not as clear as the score.  The blu-ray includes a 28-minute documentary, which features interview footage of both director J. Lee Thompson and star Gregory Peck, reminiscing about the film.  Also included are the original theatrical trailer, and a 5-minute montage of behind-the-scenes and promotional stills, intercut with short clips from the movie.

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!)