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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Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello

ALFRED HITCHCOCK AND THE MAKING OF PSYCHO by Stephen Rebello

1990 – St. Martin’s Griffin – 224 pages

 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was not only a blockbuster; it was also a game changer.   In retrospect it’s a little strange, how one little black and white film changed the course of movie history.  Stephen Rebello’s book gives fans a deep dive into the making of this classic movie, exploring truths and debunking myths along the way.

Rebello certainly did his homework.  Not only did he interview many of the cast and crew, he also combed through the Hitchcock collection of papers, which was donated to the Motion Picture Academy library by Patricia Hitchcock.   What emerges is a very thorough exploration of the making of the film. Rebello arranges the material chronologically, beginning with a chapter on Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer that inspired writer Robert Bloch.    From there Rebello gives the reader a chapter on Psycho author Bloch;  he then connects this thread from Gein to Bloch, and finally to Hitchcock.

From this point the author explores every aspect of the film’s journey from screenplay to its release and runaway success.   Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano  contributes some great insight into the creative process, writing for and with Hitchcock.  Rebello discusses the casting of the film, and Hitch’s decision to shoot the movie “on the cheap”.

The reader also gets a very detailed description of the movie’s production.  The scenes are so vividly described that at times the reader can almost imagine being on the set.  Of course, many pages are devoted to the infamous shower scene, and Rebello seemingly puts to rest the claim made by Saul Bass that he partially directed the shower scene.

The post-production gets a chapter as well, with much discussion of Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable musical score.  The marketing of this movie was a vital aspect of the film’s success, and Rebello details the many marketing techniques worked to perfection by Hitchcock.  Rebello concludes with a look at the continuing legacy of the movie.

Not only is the book very informative, it is also thoroughly engaging.   It is a gripping read, not unlike a juicy novel.  I am not surprised in the least that this book was optioned to become a movie.  If you have seen the result, 2012’s Hitchcock, do not read this book expecting it to tell the story of the film.  Where the movie is occasionally over-dramatized, the book sticks to the facts.  And what a great story it is.

This book is  a must read for any true fan of Hitchcock or Psycho.  Beyond that, I think any movie lover in general would find this book hard to put down.  Highly recommended.

78/52: HITCHCOCK’S SHOWER SCENE: “He has broken the covenant of filmmaker and audience”

78/52:  HITCHCOCK’S SHOWER SCENE (2017) – IFC Midnight – ★★★ 

B&W – 91 mins. – 1.78:1

Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Featuring:  Guillermo del Toro, Walter Murch, Danny Elfman, Peter Bogdanovich, Ileanna Douglas, Eli Roth, and many more, through direct interview and archival footage.

There have been plenty of documentaries made about particular film directors, and particular films.  This may be the first documentary inspired by one scene from one movie.    Granted, it is an iconic scene.  (The title is based on the 78 different camera set ups and the 52 editorial cuts in Psycho‘s shower scene).  I first saw Psycho on television in the early 80’s, by which time the horror “new wave” was in full swing.  Little did I know how significant was Hitchcock’s film.

This film, like many documentaries, is a series of “talking head” shots, of dozens of people in the film industry, talking about the importance of Psycho in general, and the shower scene in particular.   There is a good balance between historical information (the nuts and bolts of how the scene was shot) as well as more abstract discussion about the meaning and influence of the scene.

Director Alexandre O. Philippe is a long-time documentarian, whose best known work is The People vs. George Lucas, which examined the often contentious post-prequel relationship between the creator of the Star Wars universe and his fans.  Whereas the George Lucas film was seen by many as overly critical of its namesake, this new documentary is more complementary to Alfred Hitchcock.  This is a film that could only have been made by a fan;  who else but a die-hard fan would stab casaba melons with a knife in an attempt to recreate the foley sounds Hitchcock had created to represent the stabs of the knife in the shower scene?

Director Philippe does make a couple of artistic choices that detract from the overall appeal of the film, in my opinion.  First of all, the movie opens with some re-created shots; scenes attempting to mirror similar scenes from Psycho.  So we get to see some girl, who is not Janet Leigh, driving a car in the rain, with camera set-ups similar to those used by Hitchcock.   These shots are unnecessary.

He also made the decision to shoot the movie in black and white.   I have seen at least one review dismiss this as pretension.  Since Psycho was in black and white, perhaps it makes some artistic sense, because we will be viewing clips and still images from the earlier film frequently?  Except, we also see color clips (several of them) from other movies, which breaks the artistic framework established by black and white.  Ultimately, I don’t think it really makes any difference.  I would probably feel exactly the same way about this movie were it shot in color.

There are an awful lot of images of people watching the shower scene, and reacting to it.  This is similar to the many youtube videos which show peoples’ reaction shots, without seeing what they are reacting too.  While it might be cool for two seconds to watch Elijah Wood going “Oh my God!” as he watches the shower scene, this particular contrivance gets old quickly.

For any fan of Hitchcock, though, there is much to enjoy here. We get to hear  Guillermo del Toro talk about Hitchcock “breaking the covenant” between director and audience by killing off the female protagonist a half hour in to the movie.  We hear the brilliant film editor Walter Murch discussing the editorial choices made in the scene.  We hear Danny Elfman talk about how much he was influenced by the musical score of Bernard Herrmann.    These scenes form the meat of the movie, and are the most appealing to watch.

If you are interested in learning about how this groundbreaking, game-changing scene was made, and the impact it had, then this movie is well worth 90 minutes of your time.  The blu ray also includes bonus interview footage of both Walter Murch and Guillermo del Toro,  which is a real godsend for fans of these two influential filmmakers.  Also included is footage of a variety of melons being stabbed, and the original theatrical trailer.

 

Robert Bloch and PSYCHO’s legacy in print

This blogblochpsycho has already explored the long legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in movies and television.  Now let’s take a brief look at the legacy of Psycho in print.

Robert Bloch’s novel first appeared in 1959.  All of the major elements of the movie were already firmly in place in the book, including the surprise ending.  Bloch’s prose style was very straighforward, it was his plotting and structure that made his books memorable.

Alfred Hitchcock put in a “blind bid” for the rights to Psycho, meaning that Bloch did not know the identity of the bidder.  This was fairly common practice at the time, for if an author knew that Alfred Hitchcock wanted the rights to his work, he would have demanded more money.   Bloch reportedly received $9,500 for the rights to his novel, which is a decent amount of money by the standards of 1960, but still far less than he could have received from a high-profile director at a major studio.  There are some unconfirmed stories that Robert Bloch was upset by being “duped” into selling his book rights on the cheap, but there it little evidence to support this.  Bloch would go on to write ten episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show and another seven episodes for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which would suggest that Hitchcock and Bloch had a good relationship.

psychoII

Robert Bloch initially wrote the novel Psycho II as a treatment of sorts for Universal Studios, who had announced plans to produce a movie sequel.  Universal rejected Bloch’s work, and reputedly the studio suggested to the author that he abandon any plans to publish it.  Bloch did publish the novel in 1982, to solid reviews and decent sales.   Many people must have assumed that the movie Psycho II was inspired by the book, as both sequels shared the same title.  The truth is that they have nothing in common, except of course for the character of Norman Bates.  Psycho II is a good read, equally engrossing and unsettling, and a worthy followup to the original novel.   It begins with Norman Bates escaping from the mental institution where he has lived for 20 years.  At the same time, a Hollywood movie studio is planning to make a film about the original Bates murders.  The novel’s greatest failure is in the “gotcha” plot device, similar to the one used in the original novel, where we learn at the end that Norman was actually becoming his mother.  Bloch must have felt a need to create a similar ending here, which was quite unnecessary.

Psychohouse

Robert Bloch revisited his most famous creation one last time in 1990, with the release of Psycho House.  This novel focuses on an attempt to create a Bates Motel “theme park” of sorts, a macabre attraction for paying tourists.  An investigative journalist is in town to learn about the opening of the Bates themed property, and bodies once again begin to accumulate.  This is the weakest of the three Psycho novels, but fans of the earlier two will most likely enjoy it.   In Booklist’s review of this novel, they celebrated Bloch’s “marvelous bargain-basement prose, full of well-turned cliches and wry cracks.”  Bargain basement?  That’s a backhanded compliment at best.  Bloch does love alliteration and assonance, and occasionally uses them in a self-conscious manner.   He is also fond of morbid puns, which occasionally work, and other times fall flat.  In one early scene, a character is in a diner, “gazing at the glass-coffined slices of embalmed pies and pastries,” a fairly typical Bloch description.

Bloch was an incredibly prolific writer, publishing over 20 novels and 500 short stories, as well as dozens of television screenplays.  He has been cited as a major influence by many writers in the horror genre, most notably Stephen King.  And yet, were it not for his creation of Psycho, and Norman Bates, he would be virtually unknown today.   Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho are encouraged to give Bloch’s novels a try, particularly the first two.

Remembering Saul Bass on his birthday

saulbassGraphic designer Saul Bass was born on May 8, 1920, making this year the 94th anniversary of his birth (Bass died in 1996).   Before we look at the Bass/Hitchcock connection,  let’s take a look at what made Bass’s career so memorable.

You may have never heard the name Saul Bass before, but you are definitely familiar with his work.  Bass designed dozens of corporate logos, many of which became iconic over time.   Everything from the AT&T “bell” logo, to the Warner Brothers’ “W” logo, and many others that you would instantly recognize, all were created by Saul Bass.

Take a look at the following corporate logos, all designed by Saul Bass.  How many do you recognize?  This is just a small portion of his total output over a 40 year career.

Saul-Bass-Logo-Design

Saul Bass was so good at marrying a logo to a brand, creating “brand recognition”, that it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling, asking Bass to design movie posters.  Saul Bass designed dozens of iconic movie posters over a span of 4 decades.  Let’s take a look at just a few of his many memorable posters, including three that he designed for Alfred Hitchcock.

SaulBassVertigoSaulBassPsychoSaulBassBirds

 

 

saulbassStalagsaulbassSeven

 

Saul Bass’ most significant contribution to movies was not his iconic posters, however, but his title sequences.  Movie directors began approaching Bass in the 1950’s to create innovative and memorable opening title sequences for films.  Bass’ first title sequence was for the 1954 movie “Carmen Jones”, and his last was for Martin Scorsese’s 1990 release “Casino.”   Within that 36-year span Saul Bass created many ground-breaking title sequences.  It is not an understatement to say that Bass single-handedly changed movie title sequences.

This is what Saul Bass had to say about creating a title sequence:  “My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way.  I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.”

Saul Bass created three title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock:  for Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho.  All three of his sequences are pitch-perfect; all succeed in “setting the audience up”, as Bass once put it.  It is worth noting that all three of these films were scored by Bernard Herrmann, and in each instance Saul Bass’ title sequence works in unison with Herrmann’s score to put the audience in a particular frame of mind, a particular emotional state, before seeing one image of Hitchcock’s movie, or hearing one line of dialogue.

Saul Bass’ legacy lives on beyond his death.  Not only are many of his corporate logos still used today, but his movie posters are collectors’ items,  and the title sequences he designed are seen every time somebody watches one of the classic films he was involved with.  Below you can watch Bass’s unforgettable title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Note how in sync Bass’ title sequence is with Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful score.  (All rights to the movie Vertigo are owned by Universal Pictures.)

Bates Motel – “The Immutable Truth”

batesseason2finaleThe Immutable Truth – Season 2, Episode 10 – original air date 5/5/2014

So Sheriff Romero is driving down the road, and who should he see coming out of a field towards the road, but Dylan?  And what does Dylan tell him?  “Nick Ford is dead.  I killed him.  They have Norman.”  Romero quickly processes these 10 words, and all they entail, and simply says “get in.”  Just another typical day in White Pine Bay for the most badass sheriff West of the Pecos.

Of course Dylan and Romero free Norman (we knew he wasn’t going to linger in the box until season three), and then there is the aftermath to deal with.  Anytime Norman tries to talk openly and honestly with Norma about his blackouts, she immediately suppresses him.   Only Norma could respond to what is essentially a confession of murder with “Eat your pot roast before it gets cold.”

It is very nice to see Norman confide in Emma, to a point, even if it was only done to try and get her to stay at the Motel.  Norman is making a list and checking it twice;  the last entry on that list is “Mother.”  Certainly the writers don’t expect us to believe that Norman is going to take her out?

Romero and Dylan continue their partnership, to take care of the inevitable.  It was definitely wish fulfillment to see that Sheriff Romero is a “man of his word”, although it was kind of sad to see Jodi become collateral damage, even if that seemed inevitable too.

Dylan’s embrace of Norman, after Norman is pulled from the box, may be the most touching moment in this show’s 2 season run.  Although Norma telling Dylan that he is a miracle was pretty damn cool too.  Dylan is really the moral center of the family, a magnet that pulls the others in the right direction.

And the finale is the lie-detector test, which has been set up for a couple weeks, the results of which are no surprise at all.

So:  no big cliffhangers, no mind-boggling revelations, yet a very satisfying, and at times sweet, finale.  Almost a clean slate going into season three, certainly from a standpoint of character development.   Not your typical season finale episode.  Bravo for that!

 

Bates Motel – “The Box”

The Box – Season 2, Episodebatesmotelthebox 9 – original air date 4/28/2014

It’s kinda funny to see Norma tiptoeing in the house, like a teenager sneaking home after a night with her boyfriend.  Here she is, worried that she will disturb Norman.  Little does she know that there is no Norman to disturb.

Of course we knew who took Norman.  That was no surprise.   This was set up well in the last couple episodes.  It’s also no surprise that Norma would freak out, and immediately go to Dylan.  How about that look on Norma’s face, when Dylan tells her what Nick Ford wants him to do.  Obviously she was expecting something a little less violent, but to watch her face, as she goes from shock, to horror, to acceptance and resolve, all in a few seconds, is frightening.    It is one thing to be willing to kill for your son.  It’s another to ask one son to kill to save another.

And let’s not forget that Norma is the one that really got Norman into this mess.  She is the one who got in deep with Nick Ford.  Granted, she didn’t know who and what he was, at first, but for her to blame Dylan for Norman’s abduction is pretty sad.  But even worse than that is the way Norma so icily dismisses Emma, rather than confide in her.   Emma embodies everything that the Bates family is missing, and needs to find in themselves.

The outcome of the Dylan/Nick Ford meeting was not a big surprise, but it was pleasing; I was beginning to worry that Dylan might not make it to season three.    This doesn’t change the fact that Zane really needs to go.

It makes sense that Norman’s confinement in the box would lead to an amplification of his mental problems.  And the big reveal finally confirms what we figured was the truth.  All in all, a very good episode.

Vera Farmiga deserves an Emmy nomination for her excellent work this season, don’t ya think?