My Year in Film Studies (Part Three)
For those who missed it, here's part two.
Psycho (USA, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
My rationale for moving onto Alfred Hitchcock next is multi-fold. First, despite what might be viewed by a modern youthful audience as his decrepitude, Hitch's films are instantly accessible, requiring little or no explanations or apologies for their age. Secondly, at this point in the course I wanted to begin to introduce some of the fundamental elements of filmmaking to the students, stuff like mis-en-scene, editing, deep focus, montage and set design, and there are few filmmakers whose work lends itself to this sort of technical discussion better than Hitch. An entire lesson could easily be built around the shower scene alone, such is the man's technical virtuousity. Furthermore, I wanted to continue to look at narrative films that take on the confines of a genre and then play with them, and Psycho is an excellent choice here, being the father of the modern slasher flick and at the same time often a subverter of said genre. Also, Hitchcock's preoccupation with those twin American obsessions, sex and violence, play themselves out best in Psycho, where sexual desire and violence are inextricably linked in an orgasm of Freudian perversity. This is not to say I don't have problems with Hitchcock's ouevre, and some of those problems would come out later when we studied Vertigo, his most fascinating and personally revealing film, but for now I was willing to stash those reservations on the back burner.
So, on to the work at hand. Psycho is, as mentioned, often referred to (sometimes reductively) as the original slasher film. But it is so much more. Shooting the film at the same time as he was producing his very popular TV series, Hitchcock conceived of the film as a cheap exploitation flick and ispired by the look of these films and the grainy feel of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on his TV set, the director returned to black and white cinematography. Yet, beneath it's b-movie veneer is a masterfully crafted horror film, a movie meticulously conceived and delivered. However, Psycho also exposes some serious cracks in the Hitchcock veneer, early indications of the sort of problems that would afflict much of his work for the next fifteen years that wound down his career. More on that later.
Before I discuss what makes Psycho smarter than your average bear, I need to post the requisite SPOILER ALERT for anyone who has yet to see the film. I cannot examine what distinguishes Psycho without getting into some serious discussion of plot, so caveat emptor, mes amis. I will get to the film's technical accomplishments soon enough, so let us instead look at the narrative genius. First off, what kind of madman kills his leading actress, and the only "name" in the cast, before the film is half over? Well, a madman who is subverting the genre he is exploring, that's who. Also, the film's dual narrative is a cleverly mirror act, with the first act duelling with the second. In the first act we follow a deeply troubled Marion Crane (a dead sexy Janet Leigh), who, caught up in the throes of an illicit relationship with the good looking but very broke Sam Loomis (John Saxon) decides to abscond with $40,000 so the young lovers can have a fresh start free of debt and obligations. Her getaway eventually leads her to The Bates Motel and Norman Bates, played to twitchy perfection by the man whose performance defines much of what is memorable about this film, Anthony Perkins. It is here that her story ends, in the famous shower scene, and Norman's takes over. And the narrative mirroring begins as Norman now is the hunted and haunted figure in distress who must try to hide his tracks. The dualism of the narrative shows most clearly in that both characters are committing illicit acts and attempting to hide the evidence. But once Marion arrives at his hotel and Norman's sexual urges are first triggered, then perverted, by an implied Oedipal relationship with his mother, he is lead to violence. And as Norman becomes the violator and Marion the violated, the story's point of view trips on through the Freudian looking glass.
Interestingly, Hitchock plays with the conventions of the genre by knocking off his beautiful movie star lead, the figure we've invested 45 minutes and lot of our emotionals in, only to replace her with an insectile, tic-ridden, oedipal weirdo. And he expects us to, no questions asked, simply pick up and shift our allegiance? Is he nuts? Thing is, and here is the genius at play, it works. The master manipulator knows how to shape and craft sound and image so that we will do just as we are told. The masterful technician uses all the tricks in his bag, including crafty point of view shots, fascinating camera set ups, detailed set design, and a combination of playful and taut editing, to lure us away from Marion and into the world of Norman. And this despite witnessing Marion's horrific murder at the apparent hands of Norman's diabolical mother in one of the most famous 30 second sequences in cinematic history, a scene of such technical brilliance that audiences are certain that they have seen things--like knives penetrating flesh and bright red rivers of blood--that closer inspection proves that they did not. The first two acts of Psycho show Hitchcock at his manipulative, Skinner-ian best.
But what to make of the flaccid and tedious final act?
Once Norman dispatches Arbogast (Martin Balsam), and focuses on the investigation of Marion's absence by her lover Sam and Marion's sister (Vera Miles), the film loses all energy. Much of the fault lies at Saxon's wooden feet, as he emits a dull and asexual vibe, and for that much fault must lie at the feet of Hitchcock who oversaw the casting of all his films. Could he not see beyond Saxon's chiselled surface appeal to the lack of thespian skills beneath? On top of that, we have the sticks out like a bad smell-ness of the movie's penultimate scene, where a determined Simon Oakland plays a police detective expert on the sort of sexual deviance that marks the character of Norman Bates, and he seems intent on hitting every note of that aspect of the story's denouement on its over-obvious head. This is a scene that seems inserted to speak to the most oblivious in the audience who didn't pick on the half dozen leaden clues to Norman's Oedipal motivations and taxidermian inclinations. Recast Saxon, and dump this scene, and Psycho is a film I would recommend unreservedly, as it works in a number of ways, particularly in the film studies setting.
Evaluating the results
Psycho definitely works as an examination of how to work within and without genre conventions, how to subvert audience expectations and get away with it, and as a lesson (hell, a whole unit) on the many aspects of Hitch's cinematic technique.
Initial post edited to add: The film, as I suspected it would, went over well, up until the 3rd act tailspin anyways. It received an average rating of just under 4/5, and was in the middle of the ratings pack (10th highest of the 20 films rated.) Psycho was the most popular of the three Hitchcock films we watched (Vertigo and Rear Window being the other two).
As mentioned numerous time, the film's final act is a near-disaster. But it was instructive in that it pointed out the importance of casting. Further, that poorly written second to last scene is a teachable moment as well, I suppose. But I'd just prefer to excise it if I could.
What would I do differently?
Since I'm planning on using North by Northwest instead of Jerry Maguire to kick off the year, I would prune Psycho back and focus on the film's opening two acts, and skim over most of the final act. Yes, it's instructional to mull over what went wrong, but simply put, I don't need this much Hitchcock in the course.
Overall Grade: B
Up Next: 2001: A Space Odyssey.