Monday, 12 April 2010

Psycho (1960)

Synopsis: Are you kidding?

Just saw this at the NFT as part of the 50th anniversary season. It was my first (and probably only) time seeing it on the big screen and it was well worth it. Ever since the first time I saw it many years ago, Psycho has been one of my desert island films. It is utterly perfect, without flaws of any kind (in my opinion).

The best thing about seeing Psycho on the big screen was that I noticed so many more nuances than I had previously remembered.

Both murder scenes are nowhere near as long as I remember either - such is their power that in my mind, poor old Arbogast is falling backwards down the stairs forever, but it's really over in a flash.

There is so much use of close up in Psycho. Especially the scenes when Marion is driving to Fairvale, we get her face and almost nothing else. When we see Norman and Marion dining together in his parlour, I don't think we get any medium or wide shots at all, it's all tightly packed close-ups. Our view of Norman is very interesting as we sometimes view him from a low angle to take in one of his stuffed birds up high on the wall, poised to swoop down on him or Marion or both of them. Of course the best close ups in the film are in the scenes with Marion and the highway patrolman. She's all starey-eyed guilty panic (especially when she's first awoken in her car - ace), he's all stoney-faced calm behind the shades. I suppose this is really well juxtaposed with Norman's initial conviviality and kindness. We are more frightened of the cop until 'you know what' happens.

However, the most terrifying close up I know of, perhaps only rival to Ben Gardner's head in Jaws, is that of 'Mother' at the end of the film. I still cannot watch the scene in the fruit cellar to its full conclusion, the bare light bulb swinging to alter the shadows across her face still frightens me.

As Hitchcock used each scene so sparingly (and only to drive the plot forward), it's interesting that we still manage to get insight into Marion's motivations, her fears and her morals (or lack thereof). One moment that leapt out to me for the first time ever was in one of these driving scenes.

It's night and Marion is driving along the highway imagining the conversation between the man she stole the money from and her boss. Playing this over in her mind she finally allows herself the faintest of smiles, so different to her previous anxiety and panic. It's just as this smile starts to show on her face, and it's a smug, devilish smile full of self-satisfaction, that it also starts to rain. This, we've no need to remind ourselves, is the heavy rain that eventually takes Marion off the highway and towards the Bates Motel. I sat there, looking up at Janet Leigh's face, knowing full well what was in store for her and thought, yes - the gods are angry with you and you are about to be punished. Incredible and terrifying. Compare this smile with the final shot of Norman at the end, as he lowers his head and stares straight at us, 'Mother' faintly coming through, it is Marion's earlier smile echoed perfectly.

Another very unusual shot that I'd previously missed is later on when Arbogast is pointing out Marion's fake name in the hotel register. As Norman keeps slipping up and eventually confesses that Marion did stay in the motel, he leans over to view the name. He twists his neck around and we get a screen full of his stretched, exposed throat (busy chewing nervously on Kandy Korn). What is Hitch telling us here? That with these small but important cock-ups Norman is making himself vulnerable? Here is his neck, ready for the chopping block or noose? It's certainly a very unusual angle.

This viewing was also the first time that I'd really understood how Marion disturbs the balance of her own world, but more importantly sets off an imbalance that will destroy Norman's world too. For the first time I saw Marion as the destructive force and Norman as the defendant of his private universe, so desperate to keep the bizarre status quo that he will stop at nothing to do so - a pure psychopath. I think it was Roger Ebert who wrote about how Hitchcock does an amazing switcheroo with our loyalties, and that as soon as Marion is dead, it's Norman that we feel for. I would love to have seen Psycho not knowing the story at all, as this would have strengthened this sense. All we would know is that poor Norman is under Mother's thumb and is acting for her. It makes more sense that way.

No doubt I've always 'got' the message that Marion turns into a bad, or at best a morally ambiguous person (we get that much from her clothing and underwear especially changing from white to black after the theft of the money) but what really came across this time was how her actions (lead on by her love for Sam) set off the chain of events that eventually lead to her death.

The other thing I really enjoyed (yes, enjoyed) about the cinema size Psycho, was the photography. The use of black and white strips away frivolity and diversion and gets us almost to look more directly. There are a couple of really cracking shots after Marion's death, when Norman is in cleaning mode - we see him in the bathroom with the bright white bath tiles behind him. He is in the far left of the frame, the other two thirds empty but with Marion's body just below the shot. This emptiness emphasises so succinctly the horror of what is just out of sight, and the juxtaposition of the shiny white tiles with the bloody mess below is left largely to our already overworked imagination.

Arbogast's death also has some ace camera angles. The bird's eye view of him coming up to the landing echoing the stuffed birds of earlier on. This shot (utilizing the whole frame) also allows us to see both Arbogast climbing the stairs (top left) and Mother's bedroom door opening (bottom right), with the centre of the screen as the obvious meeting place and starting point of the murder. The tension that this creates is almost unbearable.

So much has been written about Psycho, how it was made for so little money just after the success of North by Northwest, how shocking it was to kill off the leading lady so quickly, the incredible Bernard Herrmann really is a proper masterpiece and seeing it on the big screen made it even more important for me.

See also: You know, that other one, what Gus Van Sant did.

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