Psycho : Hitchcock’s Macabre masterpiece that became a pop cultural phenomenon

Alfred Hitchcock designed his 1960 film Psycho as a personal, passion project devoid of any stars or a big budget simply to have some fun  and indulge in his passion for pure cinema. But it ended up creating a pop cultural phenomenon

It’s an area of film-mak­ing in which it’s more important for you to be pleased with the technique than with the content. It’s the kind of picture in which the camera takes over. Of course, since critics are more concerned with the scenario, it won’t necessarily get you the best notices, but you have to design your film just as Shakespeare did his plays—for an audience.

Hitchcock on Psycho

Anthony Perkins is no man’s definition of a Hollywood movie star , leave alone the star of a Hitchcock movie. Hitchcock heroes are embodied by screen acting giants with the class ,cool, handsomeness  and dignity of a Cary Grant, James Stewart, Gregory Peck,  Laurence Olivier and Henry Fonda. So the diminutive,shy, twitchy Perkins is the last person one would think of as a Hitchcockian hero. And yet , Perkins came to embody the ultimate Hitchcockian hero (or villain) in public conscious more than any of the screen legends mentioned above.All due to his portrayal of the iconic character of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho . Psycho  itself was  very different from the films that Hitchcock was churning out during the period.His 1959 film North by Northwest was his biggest, most entertaining and most successful film of his career with his regular star Cary Grant who is one of the biggest movie stars of all time . Hitch wisely realized that this was the biggest film that he could ever make and perhaps he has exhausted the sophisticated, suspenseful,  romantic adventure template ,with wronged heroes and mysterious blondes, that has powered his career up until that time. So he turned to making a smaller film, with an edgy ,gritty feel to it, the kind that film makers in Europe were making at the time and which was becoming very popular internationally. He zeroed in on Robert Bloch’s book Psycho, But the studio , Paramount was not enthused about this project and so Hitch had to finance the film himself , putting up the modest 800 thousand dollars and hiring the crew of his TV program Alfred Hitchcock presents to shoot the film economically.

Hitchcock begins  Psycho  with an aerial view of the city of phoenix, Arizona . the camera slowly moves over the buildings arranged like little boxes and it finally enters one of the boxes through the window. Hitch was planning a shot like this for a long time, but this was the first time he managed to do it. But it wasn’t perfectly executed the way he wanted, because the camera was heavily shaking, hence he had to cut it up and could not achieve the fluid movement he was going for. Inside the room,  We see a man and a woman, half naked , making passionate love in the bed. The time is shown as 2:43 P.M.the woman and man are Marion Crane(Janet Leigh) and her boyfriend, Sam Loomis(John Gavin). After their passionate tryst, they start discussing their personal woes. Sam is in debt and hence he cannot marry Marion, while Marion wants to settle down into the respectability of matrimony as soon as possible..Then Marion, who is a  real-estate secretary and had stolen away to meet her lover during the lunch hour, returns to work after the break.

Thus in his most economical, cinematic way, Hitchcock pretty much sets up the characters and the basic themes of the film. He draws the viewers in as voyeurs to a sexual tryst. Both voyeurism and sex is the main theme of the film. And the way the couple discuss their precarious financial situation, we are sure that one of them is going to attempt some kind of criminal activity to secure the money.And it happens in the very next scene. A customer drops 40 thousand dollars in Marion’s lap and instead of depositing it in the bank, she decides to steal the money and drive to Fairvale, California, where Sam lives. (This 40 thousand dollars would be Hitchcock’s trademark Mcguffin in this film). But she arouses the suspicion of a highway Patrolman , who begins following her. To get him off her back,she drives in to a California automobile dealership and trades in her Ford Mainline, with its Arizona license plates, for a Ford Custom 300 with California tags.The driving scene from then on is a pure Hitchcockian cinematic moment, where the camera is focused on her face as she is driving the car , and she is  hearing voices in her head about what the various players involved will be saying about her theft. Up until this time , the film takes place in bright sunlight. But as her journey continues,the climate changes rapidly as it gets dark and rainy. Water and darkness;A foreboding of her doomed fate ,because Within ten minutes of screen time, she is going to step into a shower and will be slashed to death by a dark figure. But before that, she makes her acquaintance with Norman Bates and his ‘Mother’  at the Bates Motel;the place she decides to spend the night  on her way to her lover. The twitchy , thin, shy, weird but likable caretaker Norman comes across as the most regular guy, though we realize that he has some issues with his mother. His mother does not like to see him getting close to women and hence disapproves of Marion staying at the motel. Both Norman and Marion bond  over dinner , talking about their respective problems .

 

Apart from the stuffed birds on the walls, there is hardly anything sinister about the whole set up. But then Marion is a Crane and Norman thinks that she eats like a bird,so perhaps she must be careful,if she don’t want to join with those birds on the walls. Nevertheless,  Moved by Norman’s story, Marion decides to drive back to Phoenix in the morning to return the stolen money, which she hides in a folded newspaper on the nightstand.So when she decides to get into the shower ,it acquires a religious dimension, an act of baptism to purify her soul . But instead of a divine act of baptism, what follows is a demonic ritual of ‘sacrifice’, as Mrs Bates appears as a dark satanic silhouette cuts her down mercilessly. The scene ,one of the most famous scenes in movie history and a marvel of Hitchcock’s technical mastery , is made up of 77 camera set ups and 50 editing cuts packed into 45 seconds of screen time, though it feels much much longer. The scene validates Hitchcock’s faith in the power of montage. Most of the shots are extreme close-ups, except for medium shots in the shower directly before and directly after the murder, rapidly pieced together. Add to that Bernard Herrmann’s iconic scoring ; a soundtrack of screeching violins, violas, and cellos, that elevates the  horror and suspense of the scene by several notches.We hardly see the knife piercing the flesh or blood spurting out, but the horror that the scene generates is just the same.After Marion falls down to the ground, the soundtrack goes absolutely still for a few moments, as if mourning for the dead, with the camera focused on her open eyes.A physician wrote to Hitchcock that it is medically wrong, as some one dead from stabbing will have dilated pupils, but Hitchcock has never cared about reality and there was also budgetary constraints in achieving that effect. So he Just let it stay. It also ties into Hitch’s filmography ,as it is reminiscent of the dream sequence in spellbound designed by Salvador Dali,where we had a procession of images of eyes.

 

To return to the film, Norman comes down to the room in a state of panic and seeing what his mother has done, he decides  to clean up the traces of crime. He puts Marion’s corpse and her possessions—including the stolen money—into the trunk of her car and sinks it in the swamps near the motel. Now the next soul to visit Bates Motel is Private investigator Milton Arbogast(Martin Balsam). who is investigating Marion’s theft of $40,000. The conversation that follows between Milton and Norman is the most (darkly) funniest of the movie, with Hitchcock heightening the tension, with baroque camera angles and editing cuts. Norman’s habit of chewing on candy corn – improvised by Perkins- is used by Hitchcock at the moment when they are checking the register , as he moves the camera underneath his jaw while he is chewing, to create a moment of extreme irritation and unease to the viewer. Then there is a cut , where Norman switches on the light, that mimics the slashing of the knife. Ominous signs that Milton is going to be mama Bates’ next victim and Hitchcock does not disappoint. He stages Milton’s death by the hands of Mrs. Bates in another baroque scene, where we see Milton plunge to his death from the top of the stairs  with blood all over his face. Now Norman has one more body to dispose off in the swamp.

Marian’s sister Lila and Sam decides to investigate Marion’s missing themselves. Based on clues provided by Milton they approach the local deputy sheriff, who informs them that Mrs. Bates died in a murder-suicide ten years ago.With this startling revelation ,the film hurtles towards its shocking climax as both Lila and Sam reaches the Bates Motel. Lila goes into the house , while Sam is talking to Norman.Lila finally meets Mrs. Bates, or rather her mummified corpse . The very moment, she is attacked by Norman in his mother’s dress and wig. But then Sam manages to overpower him and hand him over to the authorities. The final scene involving the police psychiatrist explaining Norman’s  split personality syndrome is an antithesis of  Hitchcock’s concept of pure cinema. He hates exposition and likes economy. But then it does tie into the darkly humorous aspect of this film, with Hitchcock extending it to a point that it becomes an absurd parody. The final scene where we see Norman, now completely consumed by his mother, is a typical Hitchcock moment and brings out the demonic side of Norman as well as the acting talent of Perkins to the full.

As already mentioned, the film was radically different from previous Hitchcock films. Starting with the basic set up.In all his films, the hero is the wrong man- the innocent guy wrongly accused of crime and on the run. But here both Marion and Norman are criminals. Then there is the concept of the Hitchcockian blonde; sophisticated and mysterious , who traps the hero. But here Marion is a just an ordinary working class girl and it is she who get killed by the hero . Killing of the biggest star of the movie within halfway through the film itself was a radical idea.Though hailed as a Master of Suspense, Hitch is basically a manipulator of audiences’ emotions and loyalties towards his characters.We start out with our loyalties being with the adulterous couple , After she commits theft, we want her to be caught. then she arrive at the Bates Motel and we find out that she is going to return the money, and we are back with her. We believe that all the problems are solved and everything is going to end well. At that precise moment, Hitchcock delivers his  master stroke; The main heroine gets killed in the most horrifyingly violent scene- not only of the film, not only of Hitchcock’s film career, but in the history of movies up until that time. What it does is that even though there aren’t any more scarily violent scenes , barring the death of Milton, the audience feels that violence till the end , thus always keeping them on the edge.Then we get to Norman trying to dispose  the body in the swamp and our sympathies are with him now, because he is trying to protect his mother. So when the car hesitates a moment , we desperately wants the car to go into the swamp.Next comes the murder of Milton and here too somehow we want him dead, because he is trespassing into an area which he is forbidden to.But in the end when we hear that Mrs. Bates has been dead long ago, we turn against Norman.The final act twist is also a new thing for Hitchcock. Usually he sacrifices surprising twists in favor of building suspense. The murderer or the main antagonist is revealed to the audience much earlier in his films.

But the element that survived from his previous film is this dark macabre sense of humor, present mainly in Shadow of a Doubt or Strangers on a Train. . Here the son who dresses up like his mother and undergoes a process of reverse pregnancy: Mother kept him inside her for nine months before he was born and now the son keeps his mother alive inside him after her death , would make for a good comedy only if the guy wasn’t indulging in murder . Norman does every thing possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive, so as to hide the sin of matricide. And if anything  threatened that illusion, he’d dress up and sit in her chair, speak in her voice and be his mother and being his mother requires him to be jealous of his own sexual feelings, just as he was for his mother. This lead to the  murder of Marion. And finally, he is totally consumed by his mother. This is a very pathetic character: both tragic and comic at the same time. Oedipus gone mad rather than blind.Hitchcock expands on this weird set up by having mother and son indulge in conversation- meaning Norman talking to himself, always kept off screen to deceive the viewer.  Something what Martin Scorsese would do in The King of Comedy, with Robert De Niro playing a funny version of a Psycho living in an imaginary world of illusions, where he is the funniest comic.  And the murders in the film, especially of Milton’s, though horrifying, looks very funny. Which means that, Though it’s one of the most frightening films ever made, Psycho possesses elements of  black comedy in abundance; dealing with  confused identities and characters living in an alternate world of illusions..

Its also interesting to see how Hitchcock amps up the level of crime (or sin) step by step as the film progresses. The film opens with a scene of adultery, then there is theft, after that we get a macabre scene relating to hunting featuring the stuffed birds. Then the first murder, second murder, and then it goes even further into matricide, incest, sexual deviancy and finally  Psychopathy . The film also broke a lot of censorship taboos of the time. Those days , it was forbidden to show even married couples sharing the same bed, so it was revolutionary to see an adulterous couple making love in which the man is stripped to his waste and the woman is wearing a brassiere. If Hitchcock had his way , he would have shown Janet Leigh topless in the scene and had her naked breasts bumping up against Gavin’s chest, but whatever he could put on screen itself is a miracle. The same with shower murder scene as well. Also the subjects of Psychopathy and homosexuality, though not unfamiliar subjects for Hitchcock- he had already tackled subtle variations of this theme in Rope and Strangers on a train- but not so explicitly. The film was a major pointer to the fact that the age old production code was crumbling and soon it would crumble,  allowing an influx of adult content into the movies and paying way  for the emergence of a new Hollywood in the latter half of the 60’s.

 

The film turned out to be both a financial goldmine and a critical success for Hitchcock. Hitch had 60 percent stake in the film and the with the film collecting more than 15 million in its initial run, Hitch became richer by about 5 Million. He later exchanged his stake in the film for 150 thousand shares in Universal studios , thus making him the third largest share holder. Artistically , the film proved to be his zenith. it was a continuous dream run he was having from Strangers on a Train in 1951.He will never have this kind of box office success again,though his artistic streak continued with his next two films The Birds and Marnie. But after that , his career will go in to decline with successive artistic and commercial disasters like Torn Curtain and Topaz.But then he would attempt one more time to pull of the Psycho magic by catering to the changing zeitgeist and making a film called Kaleidoscope-Frenzy, which was again going to be a Black &White, low budget , dark and dirty, sexually explicit thriller about a serial killer. But alas , in-spite of being a major stakeholder in Universal, The studio guys; namely Lew Wassermann, his one time agent and now head of the studio, did not allow the film to proceed fearing that it would damage the Hitchcock brand irrevocably. The film remains one of history’s biggest what ifs?, as far as unmade film projects go. Hitch did make a serial killer thriller again called Frenzy, but very  much a watered down version of his original idea, which was his  last critical and commercial hit. His final film, The family Plot was not received well  and he soon retired from film making. He passed away on 29th April 1980.

P.S:Though labelled a master of suspense, Hitch was a very versatile filmmaker. The same Hitchcock who made the dark and horrifying Psycho also made the glossy and grand To Catch a Thief with two of the most Gorgeous stars ;Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, a film that’s exact opposite of Psycho in every way. check out an analysis of the film on the below link.

https://manksjoint.home.blog/2019/04/27/to-catch-a-thief-cary-and-grace-set-the-screen-on-fire-in-hitchcocks-glossiest-production/

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