Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: PSYCHO

at 1:00 PM
The long-awaited. If I had to describe to you how much hatemail we got as a result of delaying PSYCHO for almost two months, I would describe it as almost none at all.  You know for whatever reason that poster reminds me of video game boxart

PSYCHO (1960)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch

PSYCHO in one sentence:
Yourself: For almost a decade, the advertising slogan of Candy Corn was "We all go a little mad sometimes.".

Golem: One man's ventriloquist act goes too far.

Here's a story about me and PSYCHO:
Yourself: Supposedly the MPAA of 1960 was as worked up about the toilet flushing as it was about the stabbing, but it's the sandwich hovering millimeters from Marion's lips that gives me the willies. Stop breathing on your food like a goddamn animal.

Golem: I actually went into this film without knowing the plot! Hooray!

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: As this is the movie that single-handedly invented the spoiler, I did not share the delight of witnessing PSYCHO in the dark. The first act dragged for me, not because it was poorly paced or poorly made but because I was in the theater to see Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. But Lord Almighty is that not to say that Marion is some generic slasher meat; her conflicts are set carefully enough to persist even after Janet Leigh has been gone for an hour.

That there are so many memorable scenes from this first half is a testament to a.) the formal strength of PSYCHO and b.) how little the story and characters actually matter. Which I think is pretty securely the point of the film, and also perhaps related to the genre madness it precipitated. But let's not say things about history we can't evidently back up.

Golem: Marion isn't your typical slasher victim, but her plot plays out a lot like the predictably-doomed protagonists you see in film noir (or just '40s thrillers). PSYCHO's spin is that we get to see the effect her fate has on the world. Going in and expecting the film to be about Marion, that's how I watched it after her death. The film dwells on her murderer, her sister, and her boyfriend dealing with the impact of her theft and death. It reminds me a little of CITIZEN KANE, but only at a high-up abstract level, given that KANE is much more character-centric. (I got the whole story from... his sled.)

Or you might say PSYCHO has trouble picking a main character, which is the fun of the movie. After Marion's death, we spend a quiet minute with Norman, watch Arbogast as he takes over the film, and finally rest on dividing our attention between Lila and Sam. Norman Bates has an interesting character in him, but he doesn't get the screentime necessary to take the picture over from Marion. Instead, the film bounces from character to character, which keeps events moving at a nice clip without disorienting me.

The funny bit is that it's all pinned together by the $40,000, which Norman never notices.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Black and white is really throwing my aesthetics radar. But, to leverage that to my advantage, I could say that PSYCHO looks very little like DOUBLE INDEMNITY. We see many of the sets at multiple times of day - which feels like a dumb observation - separating light and color from location and reinforcing how much time is passed in the same place. Our main locale is the Bates Motel, subdivided between the office, the units, and the caretakers' house, and we watch as characters walk from one to the next. This establishes a clear space for the film, mundane and static, just the opposite of DOUBLE I's character portraits amidst disintegrating darkness.

The narrative lingers at the Motel as if chained on a leash, given only a small playground to watch whatever characters or events cross by. There's a voyeurism inherent to the constant character shifts, a pronounced dehumanization that separates the drama from the people inhabiting it. It isn't Marion that drives Norman to be a peeping tom - the hole in the wall was already there. He just lucks into catching some skin. And it isn't her deeds or her nature that drive him to murder, but the simple fact that she is there. The lurking camera plants the viewer in Norman's isolation, but not in his mind - we aren't asked to sympathize with his perspective any more than with his antagonizers. That dissociation is compounded through the destabilizing camera, its exaggerated and unexpected angles, zooms, and cranes mimicking the splintering effects of psychosis, creating, dare I say, a very different kind of "psychodrama".

Golem: Marion initially spends her time in the city, surrounded by people. The film's opening shots gaze upon Phoenix, a giant city and a far cry from the solitary motel 15 miles outside of Fairvale. When she's got something to hide, she sleeps on an empty highway, squirms under the gaze of a creepy police officer (who eyes up her car from the outside, trying to gaze into Marion herself), and stops at an empty motel. When she cuts herself off from the world, she finds Norman Bates, the town hermit.

Which is to say, the city becomes friendly, open, and orderly, while the rural becomes scary and shady. There, you find a monument to solitude: a big house with no one to live in it. Norman hides his psychoses in it in the same way Marion tries to hide her one moment of madness by avoiding people.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: PSYCHO is surprisingly funny. Much of that is accomplished through suspense gags like the car sinking, and much of it is accomplished through Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. He hits all the right stutters and awkward pauses as Norman cobbles together the worst lies imaginable under interrogation from Arbogast. It's not laugh-out-loud funny but it's that kind of giddy amusement you get in the best fumbling klutz performances. Norman is never anything except completely likable. It's fun just to watch him sit in a jail cell!

Golem: Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) would be another fun performance if I didn't need a shower after he hits on Marion. He finds a way to take over any shot he's in. Marion walks into her boss' office to ask him a question, and this happens. His deep, boisterous voice is crucial, and he says his lines slowly and deliberately. He's a great counterpart to the delicate George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), too.

I don't know if this is a Hitchcock thing, but everyone seems so lively. Caroline (Pat Hitchcock) kills me when she rattles off her dull list of calls, along with the way she says "flirting": "He was fliirrting with you!"

Honorable mention goes to Lila Crane (Vera Miles) for getting fed up with BS, having a good sense of intuition (40,000 means your sister was here... well, okay!), and sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. She drags Sam Loomis (John Gavin) by the ear for the second half of the film, and it's great. Her forthright-to-a-fault personality makes her the perfect character to uncover Mrs. Bates, contrasting her with the anything-but-forthright Norman.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: Well, virtually every single shot in PSYCHO would qualify for this category, with nearly a half-dozen frames that rank among the most famous in filmdom (although tbch I am not yet onboard with the most iconic, perhaps for the same reason it takes a handful of album listens to recontextualize and appreciate overplayed singles).

So with that said, there were two really weird shots that caught my eye. The first comes during Arbogast's interview with Norman after the disappearance of Marion. Norman is standing across the office desk from Arbogast, creating a sort of deliberate distance from the record book. When Arbogast points to a name, Norman cranes his neck and we get a lengthy close-up of his adam's apple, filling the entire screen. This is not a movie of weird insane close-ups, and the shot feels like a flick on the nose to pay attention.

The second grabbed me with its technique, because I'm getting kinda film geeky. Late in the film, when Norman rushes to grab his mother from her bedroom and carry her to the basement, we see a shot from the hallway pointing at her bedroom door. Before Norman comes out, the camera pulls up and away, angling downward, moving in one continuous motion from pointed at the door at eye level to pointed straight down at the staircase from ten feet up. I imagine this was done with a crane, but it must've also involved some disassembling of the house. Very cool movie magic.

Golem: After Norman cleans up Marion's room, the camera often rests on her hidden $40,000 in the foreground with Norman in the background. This happens three times:
  1. when he rushes in after the murder
  2. when he closes the door and shuts off the light before deciding to grab cleaning supplies
  3. when he brings in the cleaning supplies
Each time, the camera sticks behind the newspaper and pivots to show Norman as he walks between the doorway outside and the bathroom doorway. These shots lend irony and tension. Irony, because Norman has no idea what's in the newspaper, and tension, because he goes so long without noticing the newspaper. He almost misses it, and he only notices it when he does a double-check of the room after clearing everything out.

The $40,000 also sticks Marion to the Bates Motel, setting in motion the private eye who finds the motel. We watch Norman scurry around the room, trying to remove all traces of Marion, while the money just sits there. Even though it's all but forgotten in the second half of the film - a maguffin that's named only because it has to be - that money ties the two halves together.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: Once upon a time, a friend and I were naively skeptical of the claim that opening credits should present the thesis of a movie. I believe the filmic expression we were indulging on that particular night was TOTAL RECALL, and as a result I will always remember its streaky red titles. As the years wear on I'm increasingly deferent to that little hint as a launching point for thematic analysis. (It probably helps that I've moved from watching predominantly Arnold movies to predominantly genre classics). PSYCHO has some of the most idiosyncratic credits you'll find, not least of all because of the magnetic score (the one that predicated Danny Elfman's entire career):

I suck at music terminology, but is that higher pitched melody that comes in around 0:14 a counterpoint? The way the song alternates thrusts between that shrill line and the deeper pitch echoes the fracturing of the titles, the split motif that dominates the entire film. It's the Mrs. Bates taking over Norman's mind intermittently, the weird cuts interrupting our perspective. Since this is the most transparently Freudian movie I've ever seen, I won't go into the id/superego stuff. More interesting is tracking all the dramatic story and visual splits, from the split titles to the split plot to Norman's split personality to split shots, like the one with Lila descending the stairs to the basement and Norman going up to the bedrooms.

So let's talk about the plot split. Boy is there a lot to love about such a simple decision. Because it isn't a twist, or at least it isn't a plot twist. I mean, we can get down in the trenches and fight a semantics war on hackneyed terminology, but as far as I'm concerned, a twist is an unexpected story event that - very key point here - re-contextualizes the preceding story. Revealing Mrs. Bates death is a twist: suddenly every scene she's in needs a second look to figure out what the hell a mummy would be up to and if there's anything Brendan Fraser can do about it. To the contrary, Marion's straightforward crime tale is utterly independent - at least narratively - from its premature conclusion. She may as well have slipped in the shower and broken her neck for all it says about her character and her world. The death is a hard break, there to give way for a new story: essentially, Marion's flight was the cold open. That Marion isn't actually the protagonist and this isn't her story is a metatextual reveal, and very much a post-modern twist: the audience is invited to re-evaluate their own relationship with the first half of the film and their expectations of narrative media.

Golem: The film manages the viewer's perspective in order to maintain the split Yourself mentions. In Marion's plot, the film has a central perspective. We always know what's on her mind, and sometimes we even hear her thoughts literally. The camera never strays from her side until Norman comes into the picture. Of course we're ill at ease when Norman peeps on Marion, but it's all the more unsettling because we're divorced from Marion's perspective for the first time in the film.

But PSYCHO doesn't take up Norman's perspective as a replacement. Our hearts are in our throats when Marion's car almost fails to sink, so it feels like we sit behind Norman's eyes, but he's eerily silent to us. Later, as he wriggles under investigation, we definitely part from him while collecting information from Arbogast, Lila, and Sam. Norman would never suffer the Sheriff's observation that Mrs. Bates was dead, for instance.

But of course, Norman knows that his mother is dead. Which brings us to the point of the film: Norman is locked out of his own mind. Marion's plot, aside from being a pretty sweet trick, also lends a counterpoint to Norman's lack of center.

Note to future self on watching PSYCHO:
Yourself: There's nothing that can be neatly summed up about my initial experience of PSYCHO. Most fascinating to me is its insistence on form, on providing a unique and compelling film experience without relying on traditional mores of act structure and character arcs. It is Hitchcock envisioning a purer cinema, one which spurns literary posturing in favor of technique and delivery; a statement about interactivity so bold and pointed that it still feels against the grain. And that connects with me a lot as a viewer, as someone who has always been a little wary around the truism "good movies are about characters".

Golem: PSYCHO is a great roller coaster, with catchy cinematography and fun characters. When the sheriff says AR-BO-GAST, say it with him.

Come back next week as Greg and Greg kick off the Halloween season with the god of ghouls himself, Vincent Price starring in THE HAUNTED PALACE.

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