Sunday, August 9, 2015

Psycho

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed. And, sorry, this is a long post. There is just so much to say about this brilliant film.


I want to start out by thanking my father. He took me to see movies like this one, and Dr. Strangelove, while other parents eye-fed their children a steady diet of cartoons. Don’t get me wrong, I believe moms and dads should monitor what their kids take in. I just think quality should be the primary standard for viewing. And, when it comes to quality, it’s hard to beat Alfred Hitchcock’s works. My father loved his movies and the TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. When I was nine years old in 1960, he wanted to treat my mother to a movie after a visit to the unemployment office after she lost her job. So, we went to downtown Philly to see this shocker.


It seems everyone recognizes Bernard Herrmann’s slashing musical score. Even the opening music has a frantic, unnerving tempo as we see lines slicing through the credits, immediately foreshadowing the violence to come. We are told that the story is set in Phoenix, and we are given the exact time of day to the minute. It almost feels as if we are about to watch a documentary, or at least a retelling of actual events. This verisimilitude makes the horror to follow more startling. Our first view of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is in a hotel room on a weekday in the afternoon as she squeezes in time with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). He is leaving for the airport, indicating the lack of permanency in their relationship. She is wearing a white bra and slip. Instead of a white wedding gown, she wears undergarments of that color, emphasizing that she is having sex without the benefit of marriage. And marriage and respectability is what she tells Sam she wants. He says “respectability” is work, which implies that casual sex is easy. So, given the time in which the movie was made, Marion’s premarital intimacy is deviant behavior.


This anti-social tendency grows. Sam is divorced and must pay alimony. He has to make good on his father’s debts. He has a low income job at a hardware store. He says he will marry Marion (her name implies she is the “marry in’” kind) when he is in a better financial situation to support them. After returning to work from her lunchtime rendezvous, we see a painting of the desert behind Marion’s desk. As was said, the setting is in Arizona. Does the desert hint at Marion’s barren life? Or, does it point to her infertility, thus indicating that her biological clock is ticking since she has no children? Can it be morality has a difficult time growing within her? Maybe the painting points to all of these things.

When her boss, George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor) gives her custody of $40,000 in cash to put in the bank, she fakes a headache, goes home, and packs a bag, ready to go to Sam with the money that she thinks will bring her happiness. It is interesting that the man, Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson), who brings the money to the office says it doesn’t purchase happiness, it just buys off unhappiness. The money here is just a  MacGuffin; it’s only worth is to propel the plot. By the way, while she is packing, she is now wearing a black bra and slip, indicating her criminal activity. Her boss sees her in her get-away car. The suspense increases when a policeman, looking scary behind sunglasses, finds her asleep on the side of the road on her journey to Sam. She acts suspiciously, and he follows her to a used car dealership. She is in such a hurry to leave, she almost forgets her luggage. She imagines what the policeman and car salesman are saying about her curious behavior.



Up to now, and we’re not very far into the story, the focus is on Marion. We think the narrative will be about her and the money she took. But, the opening is a red herring. She drives us into the actual center of the story. There is a terrible rain storm at night, and Marion can’t see the road clearly (and figuratively, she is unable to visualize what is the right path to be on). And boy, does she make a wrong turn. She has definitely “gone off the main road,” as Norman says, in more ways than one. She stops at the Bates Motel. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins - how could he have not been nominated for an Oscar?), appears as the boyish, innocent-looking proprietor of the establishment. He tells her that there are twelve rooms and twelve vacancies. Even though he says they moved the highway, the lack of visitors is a reddish flag. He says that it is a “dirty” night, not a “bad night,” which adds a sexual connotation to his speech. She registers under a false name. It is at this point there is a subtle hint that there’s something not right with Norman (even though his name suggests the word “normal.” Of course, in the end he is neither woman “nor man,” but both in the same body. And, “Bates and “baits” are homophones – which implies he is trying to catch someone, with his innocent appearance). He turns to the keys hanging on the wall. It appears he will pick a higher numbered key, but he hesitates, and instead chooses number one, the room next to the office. He says that way she can be in touch easily if she needs anything. When he shows her the room, he points to the bathroom, but is unable to say the word, showing his prudishness, which, as we soon see, comes from his “mother.”


He invites her to the family house, which looks like a Gothic castle, behind the motel. It suggests the place where Frankenstein tried to bring the dead back to life, which we learn Norman, in his own way, has been doing. Marion can hear Norman supposedly arguing with his old mother in the house. Marion hears her say, “Go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food … or my son!” The writing, especially the dialogue, in this film is so meaningful (again, how could Joseph Stefano not be nominated for his adaptation?). We see here the oedipal connection between Norman and his mother. “She” is showing disgust about satisfying an “appetite” – translate that to mean sex. “She” is also jealous of Marion. So, they can’t eat at the house, and Norman brings the sandwiches back to the motel. One of the film’s great lines is uttered by Norman when he says that his mother “isn’t quite herself today,” or any day, as we learn. Marion offers her room to satisfy, literally, and in Norman’s mind, symbolically, their appetites. His mother’s influence prevents him from “entering” her space. They go to eat in the parlor (said the spider to the fly) behind the office. Norman says it would be too “officious” to eat in the outer room. Wrong word. “Officious” means meddlesome. Is it a Freudian slip, indicating the influence of his mother trying to insinuate herself into his “date” with Marion?


Marion is startled by the stuffed birds adorning the parlor. Norman is an amateur taxidermist. Again, we are given another reference to making something dead appear as if it is alive. Her last name is “Crane,” which implies she could become one of the dead creatures, or, is she already dead inside? There are also pictures of birds in Marion’s room. Norman says Marion, true to her last name, “eats like a bird,” which is an ominous thing to say, since they are surrounded by dead ones. But, he says, he would not stuff cats or dogs. Birds are passive, he says. Norman can identify with them in a way. His personality is mostly passive, and he deals with the birds after they are dead. He, himself, looks like a skinny bird. But, when we see Norman outside, his reflection mirrored in the window, he appears dark and mysterious, implying there is a sinister aspect hidden underneath the benign exterior.


The exchanges between Marion and Norman in the parlor are very revealing. Marion admits that she is “looking for a private island … where I can be alone and no one can find me.” Norman responds by saying, “No one really runs away from anything. It’s like a private trap that holds us in like a prison … we’re all in our private traps, clamped in, and none of us can get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.” Norman here has great insight into his predicament, admitting that he can’t psychologically escape his prison (like a caged bird?). Marion then reflects on her situation when she says, “Sometimes we deliberately step into those traps,” as she has done getting involved with Sam, and stealing the money. When Marion notes how badly his mother treats him, Norman says, “It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” To which, Marion replies, “Sometimes, just one time can be enough.” Stefano said in an interview that he saw Marion’s act of stealing as a “mad act.” So, Norman is really talking to the audience about how there is madness in all of us. However, in his brief statement, Norman shows the self-denial of the severity of his illness.

When Marion suggests putting his mother away, we see some of Norman’s madness. He becomes angry at the thought of putting his mother in a ‘madhouse,” and seems to know way too much about these places, suggesting he has looked into them, or that his mother investigated the possibility of committing him at one point. He says he couldn’t just leave his “mother,” either. If he did, in her room, “it would be cold and damp up there like a grave.” This statement again shows his desire to resurrect the dead. He says, “I don’t hate my mother. I hate what she’s become. I hate her illness.” Which, of course, is his illness. He tries to reassure Marion, and himself, that he is alright, by offering the arrested development statement “a boy’s best friend is his mother.” He then admits that a son is a “poor substitute for a lover.” In these sentences, we have Norman’s oedipal crisis.

Hitchcock tends to implicate the audience in the wrongdoings he depicts on the screen. He indicts the audience for what happens in The Birds. In Rear Window, we join James Stewart in his voyeurism. Here, when Norman looks through his peephole at the undressing Marion, the camera becomes the best friend of the voyeur in each of us. And, if you are a heterosexual male, you become frustrated when the lens points back to Norman, and we are deprived of seeing the nakedness of Janet Leigh’s voluptuous from. Later when Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles) investigates the house, she is startled because she thinks she sees someone watching her. But, it is only her own image in a  mirror. Or, does this image suggest that she should be frightened, since we, the audience, are there, stalking her? Or, maybe the mirror, always a symbol of our “other” self, is reflecting back to Lila that she, like everyone, has the potential to be both victim and perpetrator of dark deeds. Maybe just entering this “haunted” house takes us, as it did Marion, down the road that should be less traveled.

The famous shower scene shows the killer’s face in the dark, since we are not supposed to know the murderer’s identity at this point, even though the suggestion is that it is the jealous mother. But, as we learn later, it is Norman dressed as her, and it is his own guilt over allowing himself to be aroused by this woman that turns him toward the mother part of himself. Marion is a threat that may seduce Norman away from his attachment to his mom. Thus, the only way the matriarchal aspect of his personality allows him to “penetrate” her naked body is with the phallic substitute of a knife blade. A person’s sexuality is revealed in a shower, but also the individual’s vulnerability, stripped of protection, the noise of the cascading water masking any sound of approaching danger. The shower head appears like a cold eye, perhaps another symbol of the voyeur, looking down on its victim. She reaches for the shower curtain, a last-ditch attempt at shielding her vulnerability. But, the quick snapping of the curtain pulling away from the rings as she falls has the ring of a life cut short. Life flows out of Marion after the attack, literally, in the form of blood, mixing with water, an image of fertility ironically in counterpoint to the earlier dessert images. The life-sustaining liquids go down the drain, whose image is replaced by Marion’s eye, telling us that all we have left is a lifeless corpse. It is also ironic that Marion dies soon after she admitted that she was going to return home, make things right, and confess her wrongs. She was going to reveal her crimes, which Norman cannot do. It’s as if the shower represents her desire to “come clean.”

When Norman realizes what “mother” has done, he goes to Marion’s room. He is shocked, and backs into the wall, knocking down a painting of a crane. A crane is a wadding bird, which means it is found in marshes, which is where Marion Crane winds up. This, of course, symbolizes another dead feathered creature, in this case a “Crane,” that has to be dealt with. We again are made to identify with Norman, as he cleans up the room. We think at this point that Norman is innocent, and all he is doing is protecting his mentally ill mother. But, Norman is psychologically covering up his crime. He washes the blood off of his hands, but, like Lady MacBeth, one can’t cleanse away true guilt. He unknowingly throws the money, wrapped in a newspaper, into Marion’s replacement car. When the automobile hesitates in its submersion into the swamp, we share Norman’s anxiety. The pause in the car sinking hints at the possibility of confession. But, we, too, want to distance ourselves from the crime and share in Norman’s relief when it is covered by the muddy liquid (clear water and blood have been replaced by the dense, cloudy liquid of the bog). Haven’t we all done something we felt was wrong, and tried to cover it up, even pretended it never happened, burying it in our subconscious?


Lila joins with Sam to find out what happened to her sister. They encounter Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a private investigator who was hired to find the missing Marion and the money by the firm where she worked. Arbogast says they want to keep it quiet, hoping the money will be returned, and there would be no pressing of charges. This is a convenient, one could say contrived, plot device to keep the action focused on the principals, and not involve the police. Arbogast stops at the Bates Motel in his quest for Marion. He catches Norman in a lie about not admitting that Marion stayed at the motel. He asks him to look at her picture “before committing yourself.” This statement is darkly funny, given the fact that Norman should, indeed, be committed to a mental institution. The PI checks out the Bates’ house. We have an overhead shot (again to hide the face of the killer) and we see “mother” come out of her room, wielding a knife. “She” slices at Arbogast, and there is an almost surreal bit of editing that conveys the feeling of the victim’s falling down the steps, followed by the raised knife plunging into the PI. We see Norman soon after at the swamp again, which lets the audience know that Arbogast has joined Marion in Norman’s literal and figurative cover-up.


Lila and Sam investigate after the PI, who told them about Norman’s mother living in the house and who, according to Norman, had talked to Marion, goes missing. They learn from the local sheriff, (John McIntire) that Norman’s mother was dead. She was part of a murder-suicide ten years earlier when she poisoned her lover and herself. Sam and Lila check into the motel. While Sam interrogates Norman, she checks out the house. Norman’s mother’s room has been kept to look as if she lives there, even down to the human indentation in the bed. It shows the extent to which Norman tried to keep his mother alive in his head. Sam’s pressuring about Marion, the PI, and the mother results in Norman temporarily knocking Sam out. Norman goes to the house, and Lila heads to the fruit cellar where Norman carried his mom (“Do you think I’m fruity?” we heard her say to her son – we’d have to give a big “yes” to that one). It is an appropriate place to put his mother. In Gothic stories, there are subterranean passages, because physically, and psychologically, scary actions are hidden from the literal and figurative light of revelation. Lila sees the shape of “mother” sitting in a chair, clothed in a dress. When Lila spins her around, the audience sees mother’s corpse, with empty eye sockets. Lila, recoiling in horror, screams. We hear the slashing Herrmann music, and she hits the hanging light bulb. The movement of the light on the dead woman’s face makes it appear as if the eyes are blinking, alive, which they are to Norman. Bates appears dressed in his mother’s clothes, wearing a wig, wielding a knife. Sam stops him from duplicating the deed on Marion’s sister.



At the police station, the psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) provides what many have said is an overlong, obvious analysis of Norman’s mental illness. He does inform us that it was Norman who killed his mother and her lover. The horrible crime of matricide was too much for the son to bear, and that is why he had to keep his mother alive to escape facing the guilt of his terrible crime. We last see Norman, talking in his mother’s voice, looking motherly as he/she shrouds himself/herself in a blanket. Her internal voice says it was Norman who is the monster, not her. She won’t even harm the fly which has landed on her hand. Norman then stares sinisterly into the camera, as his mother’s skeletal face is briefly superimposed onto his. The last image is that of chains pulling Marion’s car out of the swamp, as if resurrecting the unspeakable acts thought buried forever.


Next time you look into a mirror, ask yourself, what do you really see?

Next week’s movie is Repulsion.

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