THREE GUYS AND… A MOVIE
series created by Marvin Mercer and Nick Stephenson
“PSYCHO” (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
written by Nick Stephenson
“Psycho” is such a famous film I face a very powerful temptation to speak about that fame, to embellish and build-up and comment on it. However, I find it very likely that you’ve read many such introductions and already know how well-known this film is. So I would quite simply like to tell you, it’s worth your time.
How anyone might claim otherwise is beyond me. In even the most objective sense, you have only to spend an hour and fifty minutes of your life watching it and if you must justify this, divorce yourself from subjective viewing and appreciate the objective truth that this film has not only inspired so many other artists and films but has left an indelible mark on the collective conscious and still resonates with new audiences more than fifty years after its premiere. You are looking at something of historical significance.
But this sort of writing is a bit stuffy and shifts focus from the film to its fame, and the film would be a marvel if it was a just-restored, never-watched treasure. The direction of the narrative is bold not just for its time but for all time, as we can see even today the sort of mid-narrative reversal pulled off here is still rare and retains the capacity to shock and upset audiences. The technical mastery never upsets the verisimilitude but services it, immerses us deeper: the dizzying, surreal image of the investigator falling back down the staircase does not call attention to itself but creates and even elevates our sense of being upended, the swift edits in the shower scene create a sense of visual stabbing, the camera often moving steadily, seamlessly through scenery.
Often, I enjoy likening this film to a grandfather clock: reputable, historic, efficient, and clearly the work of a dedicated, careful, considerate craftsman, whom took the time to hone it, polish it, engineer it for efficiency, appeal, aesthetic beauty, and to be enjoyed. The film is not the most emotionally engaging, but it is a thing of beauty. Its rich black and white cinematography is dripping with atmosphere, evoking dread, discomfort, turning so simple a thing as a policeman’s sunglasses into two giant, menacing black orbs. I do not know what inspired the choice, it may have been simple intuition, but I cannot imagine the film any other way and though I would be hard pressed to explain why, it is my feeling it would not have been nearly so effective in color.
Anthony Perkins in the role of Norman Bates has rarely been equaled by the many, many, many cinematic serial killers who proceeded him. In fact, it is easy to see how many performances have gone for similar effect, imitating his glinting expression, his use of dead-calm, but one must remember Mr. Perkins had no such role model. He and Alfred Hitchcock molded Norman from nothing. All the twitches, pauses, stutters, nervous glances, moments of sudden gathered pride are completely natural-seeming. Perkins appears to be behaving, never acting. He’s so genuine and unforced, that even though we come to learn what a horrible monster he is, such is his realness he remains sympathetic, fascinating. His castmates are fine in their roles, but Perkins naturalism and mastery of his character is as exceptional as the coolly confident camerawork and it is this harmonious interwoven relationship of great naturalistic acting and amazingly controlled filmmaking that makes the movie as effective as it is.
The film makes commanding use of sound, a tool in the filmmaking arsenal often left overlooked or under-utilized. Not only the atmospheric, unforgettable score which is of course famed for its screeching strings during violent acts but left me more chilled by the lonely reoccurring tune that plays over images of the Bates house. But the use of amplified sound effects, and the masterful use of silence. None of “Psycho’s” big dramatic moments or terse conversations would work without its moments of deepest quiet. I will never forget Norman cleaning the murder scene, how few noises there are, how long the camera holds on his actions, making me feel uneasy and afraid even as so little seemed to happen. The film reveals Alfred Hitchcock as a man who knew exactly what he was doing and executed his vision to a T. I recommend it to everyone – a seminal film viewing that you owe to yourself.
“Psycho” is a famous American movie made by a famous British director, Alfred Hitchcock. It is an influential film, typically classified by the genres “horror” or “thriller”. Recognized film authorities including filmmakers, scholars, critics, historians and enthusiasts cite it as a cultural milestone and strongly advocate humans view it and appreciate it. To disagree with assessment of this movie is to have the minority opinion and this is essentially pointless. Objectively, the facts support that this film is influential and effective. The odds of a human watching it and agreeing of its excellence are probable.
Human horror films traditionally have single entities that are responsible for the violence (physical, psychological, emotional, etc) committed against the protagonists. These entities are representative of specific human fears. “Psycho” was noteworthy in American cinema because the entity of evil in this picture is a common man, whereas prior to this, even in other media such as literature, horror icons were typically some variation of a monster, unreal things.
Many techniques are used to make this horror picture feel grounded in reality and the commonplace, with touches of supernatural atmosphere dotted sporadically. For one, the film is shot in black and white, to achieve a look that is low budget and yet harkening back to the shadowy, dark imagery of films like “Nosferatu” – the scenery is ordinary, but filmed to look subtly menacing. The sets are very minimally furnished. The hotel rooms look intentionally cheap. Anhtony Perkin’s acting is naturalistic, focusing on tics and speech patterns as opposed to oration, dramatization. All of this feels very ordinary, setting the audience up to be more disturbed and frightened by the shift to violence.
I think by human standards, homo sapiens in general will find the acting of John Gavin and Vera Miles to be strained and amateurish, especially given that Janet Leigh and Perkins seem more believable and professional. These two have the added benefit of playing more dynamic and nuanced characters. It was interesting to me though that Hitchcock casted similar looking men to play Sam and Norman – tall, slender, dark haired. The differences are in their personalities and body language of course, but I see many instances of visual similarity not only in this film but many of Hitchcocks. Norman also looks rather birdlike, with wide raptor eyes, a slim face and a sharp, pointing nose. These instances of similar physiology play into the narrative of Norman trying to become his mother – duplications and mirrors abound.
The film was an event in its time. Theaters did not admit latecomers to screenings, the plot was kept tightly under wraps (the films promotion consisted of Hitchcock walking around the set and saying foreboding things), audiences were cautioned to keep the narrative surprises silent from the uninitiated. All of this gave the film more allure, more mystique, hyping its reputation and making it a rarefied commodity. Much of this is unrepeatable, as now most humans know the famous sequences, due to the prolific amount of parody and homage made of it.
I recommend this film to continue being studied for generations because of its cultural legacy, its informative use of film grammar as an excellent template for students of the craft, and the promising odds that it continues to please human audiences.
The true measure of a film’s unforgiveable horribleness is the extent to which it inspires imitations of equal or greater horribleness. I call this the Quentin Tarantino effect. “Psycho” has not only been parodied to an ineffectual point, guilty of spawning hundreds of terrible spoofs, cringe-worthy “homages”, and god-awfully unfunny ringtones that rob its so-called iconic moments of any seriousness or true meaning, but it has in its wake directly created innumerable lazy imitations, insufferable clichés, dull retreads and provided inspiration to a host of untalented hacks the world may otherwise have never suffered the misfortune of enduring. “Psycho” is to thank for “Psycho II” and for Rob Zombie, two irreversible crimes against culture, the mere beginning of the list we would read at the metaphorical hanging of this villainous plague on the film industry.
Because of “Psycho” I have had to eye-roll, moan, and groan at (and suppress nausea to) a legion of poorly drawn characterizations of the dorky but creepy serial killer. The seemingly ineffectual, gawky loony, with the cartoonishly widening smile, the deadpan creepy attitude, the intonation that models syllable-for-syllable Anthony Perkin’s intoning “We all go a little mad sometimes.” It has created and fostered a screenwriting fallback, an easy to reproduce caricature.
Poor characterization has always been a staple of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, more recognizable and defining than any other trademark be it overbearing mommy dearest, Bernard Hermann musical score or MacGuffins (see: global audiences mistaking laziness for intentional ambiguity). Marion is little more than a stone faced lady human having just learned lines and reciting them rote, as if reading them on the wall just past the frame. What can we say of this woman besides that she steals money and dies? She exhibits no personality. That anyone might find her execution shocking is shocking to me. She wasn’t a human I could get attached to. Like all Hitchcock persons, she was as sterile and lifeless as the stuffed birds in Bates’ parlor.
Sam may be the most banal of any Hitchcockian creature. So. Stoic. And. Plainvoiced. The mere memory of his person gives my eyelids cause to droop. Anyone who would dare to lecture me about the idea of the “everyman”: I would burn you and flay you with the heat waves my eyes emit when I am confronted with desperate pleas for the survival of mediocrity. The everyman is the laziest of human creative endeavors: the excuse by which they don’t have to write characters, don’t have to give any thought to actual persons who might find themselves reacting in specific ways to a given situation or might be colored by culture, time, upbringing, personality. The everyman is the absence of character, the lack of universality, the inability to connect or create. Sam cannot be projected onto, he repels my attention.
It’s a vicious cycle: “Psycho” ruined filmmaking by causing humans to imitate it religiously and humans ruined any integrity “Psycho” may have had through overexposure. There is no terror to be heard in rattling strings so familiar as to be as menacing as a fly’s beating wings.
The fervent fanbase created by this film is lazy to the point of having made a shot for shot remake. Such is the low bar set by “Psycho” a film running through motions, teaching filmmakers of today to reach no hire than to copy and paste… I recommend we submit to the awful truth that this film’s influence will endure. Sadly it is too ingrained in the minds of satisfied audiences and influential people. I am sorry to remind you that we live in a world where “Psycho” has an unassailable reputation, and has become and will remain a permanent fixture in our collective consciousness. There is nothing we can do.