Psycho (1960)

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 11/02/09 02:11:58

"In The Hands Of The Master."
5 stars (Awesome)

A fairly regular complaint thrown out by film critics is that a film is clearly "manipulative". That criticism always has to be tempered by the reflection that every film is manipulative, but we should never see the director's hands in action, pulling the strings, or forcing the audience and characters along a particular route. Psycho, however, is one film where its impact absolutely depends on the fact that we know Hitchcock is playing us all like puppets and he does so brilliantly.

For instance, we all know the fate of poor Marion Crane, because even if you haven't seen Psycho, you know what happens in it anyway, such is its fame in popular culture. Marion, sadly, is doomed from the minute we see her. Not so much because she's having pre-marital sex (with a divorcee, no less), but because Hitchcock gives her no other choice. Once she decides to run off with her boss's money to help solver her lover's debts, there's no turning back. The road she's on is literally a straight one. There's no crossroads, no junctions, no decisions whether to turn left or right. Her journey is always to go straight to the Bates' Motel, to Norman and his disturbed mother. Even when she's trading her car in for another to avoid detection, any chance she has of escape or of turning back is eliminated by the suspicious traffic cop watching her from across the street, boxing her in, barring her way out, unknowingly forcing her ever onwards to that fateful shower. Hitchcock doesn't shoot Psycho in widescreen, it's a cramped and confined film, with Hitchcock moving his characters as coldly as chess pieces, sacrificing some along the way for a bigger gain by the end.

Such a move is at the mid-point of the film where our protagonist violently switches from Marion to Norman. No longer are we following the story of someone who has absconded with a huge amount of cash, we're watching someone cover up a murder, and Hitchcock makes us gleefully complicit in it. We're the only other ones who know what's happened and if Norman is caught, the film is over. The longer Norman gets away with it, the more guilt we have by association, so the more we secretly take pleasure in Norman wriggling away from the net closing around him. Such is Hitchcock's mastery at pulling the strings that, up until that point, we all but forget this film must be called Psycho for a very good reason. Is it that quietly menacing traffic cop? Marion's lover? Or is Hitchcock pulling the wool over our eyes and it's Marion herself we need to keep a nervous eye on?

The main reason, I think, that Hitchcock can get away with such blatant manipulation of characters and audience sympathy is because the more you watch Psycho, the more you realise just how damn funny the film is. Pitch-black humour, but funny nonetheless. Think about it, we spend half the film with one character, half the film with another who's covering up her murder and who is ultimately revealed as the killer who dresses up in his mother's clothes. And then think about all the times we overhear Norman in screaming matches with his mother - that's Norman, arguing with himself and putting on his mother's voice. This is some seriously funny shit, and it's the biggest practical joke that Hitchcock ever pulled - making us terrified of this guy.

A great deal of the humour courses through Perkin's performance, one of the most spellbinding performances in American cinema. First of all, you notice just how nervy, socially inept, and jittery he is. Then on further rewatches, you start to pick up the sexual torment and frustration of the character, how horny he seems around Marion. Then, lastly, you realise just how comical this performance is (and I don't just mean that very last scene of his - Hitchcock sending you out with a nervous laugh and a jolt of fear at the same time). It's there in how he describes the smell of damp as "creepy", the way he chews his gum so furiously when a prying PI discovers Marion's false name in the motel register and the way he frowns at Marion and grumbles "not really" when she innocently observes that he must know a lot about birds. It's a performance that reveals new layers every time you watch him.

It's why one of my favourite scenes in the film is the scene where he and Marion share a late supper in the parlour. It's quietly disturbing enough with the pair of them surrounded by stuffed birds, but it's laced with tension as Norman rambles on and on. As he reveals that he can be unusually perceptive (noting that Marion is fleeing something), awkward, naively charming, the overriding perception is that he's an emotionally disturbed young man, with maternal problems (not the first time we've heard this, either. Marion suggests to Sam Loomis, her lover, that they turn the photo of his mother to the wall if they live together and her co-worker at the bank reveals that her mother gave her a sedative the day before her wedding. Mothers, it seems, are all cut from the same domineering, disapproving ilk). I love watching this scene, simply because so much can be gained trying to spot when Norman is in control and when Mother is just below the surface, fighting to get out.

I always like to try and work out just when it is exactly that Norman decides that Marion will be killed. After their supper when he spies upon her half-naked body? Is that the tipping point for Mrs Bates? Or what much earlier, when Norman shows Marion around her room? Notice how he can't bring himself to say the word "bathroom" to her. Simple shyness, or does he know even then what's going to happen?

It's not just Perkins' show, however. Leigh is also superb, not so much the icy blonde that Hitchcock adored, but a much more strong and capable woman, which makes her fate all the more shocking as Hitchcock shows that his characters don't have to be weak willed to be pushed exactly where he wants them. Hitchcock is clearly having a ball directing Perkins and Leigh, and his disinterest in the other characters such as John Gavin's Loomis and Vera Miles' distressed sister, Leyla, shows. Their scenes are, although not quite boring, certainly done with an unfussy haste to get back to the more interesting characters. Hitchcock has no interest in the good guys here, not when he's got Norman to play with. The exception would be Martin Balsam's Arbogast - but even with him, he's only nominally a good guy. He's a snoop, a pryer, a voyeur - and he gets exactly what's coming to him, in the second of the film's murders and it's always worth remembering that there's only two killings in the entire film.

And there's the proof that Hitchcock did it so much better with so little. 50 years on and both scenes still have the power to completely shred the nerves and send the more sensitive scurrying for cover, all aided by Hermann's intense, shrieking score. The same goes for the discovery of Mrs Bates in the fruit cellar and Norman's dramatic unmasking - although it's a scene that again gets funnier each time you see it, without ever watering down the nightmarish, terrifying, primal thrill of it.

And that, I think, is the reason that Hitchcock's Psycho still thrills, terrifies and amuses to the day, while Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake was a stillborn disaster. Van Sant read the script and saw it as a horror, while Hitchcock read it and let a big smile slowly spread across his blubbery features.

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