“It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance…They were aroused by pure film.”
-Alfred Hitchcock on ‘Psycho’
My first time watching Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ was as a teenager at a friend’s house. My friend’s parents had planned the evening’s events, and had invited me and a couple other kids over. They arranged chairs theater style, popped some popcorn, and set up a projector they owned to cast the light of the film across their gigantic living room wall (they had high ceilings; I always wanted those.) To be honest, I thought the whole setup was cheesy as hell, and I was not in the mood to watch anything, let alone an ‘OLD’ movie. The other kids and I took our seats, and I sighed (‘god I’m sleepy’.)
The parents pressed play, the projector hummed, and I watched what would instantly become one of my most beloved movies.
One of the genius touches of ‘Psycho’ is the unorthodox plot structure. As the story begins, we watch as our lead protagonist, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), steals $40,000 (MacGuffin!) so that she and her lover can marry (he has alimony payments after a divorce.) In an unforgettable sequence, she manically evades the police, and finds herself at the infamous Bates Motel. She meets the nervously charismatic Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and rents a room. Following a revealing (disturbing) conversation with Norman, she retires to her room and comes to the realization that she must return the stolen money. She turns on the shower to wash herself clean (of dirt, or sin, perhaps?)
This is where it gets good. Hitch kills the main protagonist off. The girl we spent the first half of the movie watching and sympathizing with is now dead. In film, this was unheard of at the time and it blew people away. The entire first half of the movie is a red herring in service to the shock of the shower scene. He uses tropes and camerawork to exploit our expectations. It’s a beautiful deception. At this point in the movie, Hitch has the us thinking ‘What the hell happens now?’
Then, something amazing happens. Our perspective shifts from the corpse of Ms. Crane to the deeply troubled Mr. Bates. He cleans up the bloody mess his mother made, stuffs Ms. Crane into the trunk of a car, and pushes it into a sludgy swamp to be hidden forever. This is a despicable act. The car begins to sink into the muck, when suddenly, it stops, leaving the top of the car exposed. We gasp. “Oh god, keep sinking, or he’ll get caught!” Within five minutes, not only has our perspective shifted from Ms. Crane to Mr. Bates; our allegiance and sympathy have as well. To me, this is master storytelling.
"People will say…’The subject was horrible, the people were small, there were no characters in it.’ I know all of this, but I also know that the construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences…to react and become emotional."
I do have one issue with the story: The penultimate scene where a psychiatrist explains to police officers (and the audience) what Norman’s condition is. He might as well be looking straight into camera. I believe this scene is completely unnecessary. Norman’s condition is illustrated perfectly by what Hitchcock shows in the climactic basement scene. Ambiguity is not always a bad thing.
Hitchcock’s goal was always to pull an emotional (sometimes physical) response out of his audience. He never relied on plot to do this. He used his camera and sounds to evoke these responses. This is cinema, after all. Cinema is about putting the audience inside a moment. Images, sounds, rhythm, proximity, movement. Cinema is unique in that it can provide all this at once, with immediacy and life. It takes us to another place.
Take the famous shower scene. It is such an effective scene because of the editing, suggestive imagery, sounds and, of course, the fantastic Bernard Herrmann score. It’s not Janet Leigh’s acting that makes the scene riveting; it’s the combination of techniques Hitch is using behind the camera. It’s pure cinema that makes this scene great.
In the scene where Norman climbs the stairs to carry his mother down to the basement, the camera shows the staircase looking down from a very high angle. As Norman enters the room and speaks with his mother, Hitch does not cut to inside the room, as most directors would. Rather, he stays suspended high above the stairs, leaving us to merely listen in on the conversation. Norman emerges from the room, carrying his mother, whose face is hidden from view due to the high angle of the camera. He never cuts to inside the room, because had he, he would have had to hide the face of Mrs. Bates in a much more obvious way, so as not to reveal her secret. He knew the audience would become suspicious of this, and potentially foresee the big reveal before it arrived. Therefore, he left the camera outside the room so it didn’t appear that he was hiding anything. Brilliant.
Hitchcock used these techniques like tools. He was a master craftsman who constructed monuments of film brick by brick.
I hadn’t seen ‘Psycho’ as a child, but Norman Bates was familiar to me. I’m not sure why. It just might be that Anthony Perkins put on an iconic performance that left an indelible mark on pop culture. Yup, that must be it.
In the first third of the movie, Perkins is likable, awkward and charming. He’s so fun to watch. More of his troubling past is revealed gradually over the course of the movie, and Perkins’ performance adjusts accordingly. As the other characters begin to question Norman’s stories, he grows increasingly defensive, paranoid, and erratic. It all culminates in the basement, where his insanity is revealed. It’s a fantastic arc executed perfectly by a great actor.
The other actors put on only average performances (with the exception of the great Leigh), but they all work because of how precisely Hitchcock captures them. However, Perkins steals the show in a big way. The prolonged glare he shoots at the audience at the end of the film creeps me the hell out to this day.
I was completely captivated by ‘Psycho’ the first time I saw it, and it gets better the more I watch. The more tricks of the trade I uncover beneath the surface, the deeper my appreciation gets. It’s a hugely rewarding process. The best part is, no matter how deep I delve into the innards of Hitchcock’s filmmaking, the emotion of his films becomes no less potent.
Hitchcock is one of the great auteurs because he injects his personality into his films with complete honesty. He was a very easy-going man, and disliked conflict and negativity very much. He didn’t enjoy being frightened, and what frightened him most was the police. In ‘Psycho’, he shares his fears with us, and in doing so, we make a connection with him and his psyche.