A film that sentimentalizes and softens what was clearly a very difficult situation, turning something that should be effective and honest into something that too…
It's quite easy for someone to enjoy film.
Loving film is completely different. For those who see films enjoy them, yet only those who can read film truly love it and understand it as an art form.
Hitchcock is probably the most well known director of all time. There is no absolute answer to what his crowning achievement is. A lot of critics prefer "Vertigo." Taste varies from one film lover to the other. "North by Northwest," "Notorious" (1946), "Vertigo," "Rear Window," "The Birds," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Strangers on a Train," "Rebecca," "Suspicion," "The 39 Steps" and "Psycho" (1960) are among his most loved.
The truth is there is no such thing as one ultimate Hitchcock masterpiece, there are only favorites.
Every month or so, I invite a close group of film professors, directors, editors, writers, and critics to my living room. We watch some of the greatest films together. The screenings always end with insightful conversations, debates and arguments. We cite critics like Pauline Kael and Robin Wood to back up our claims but to what end? Cinephiles tend to be stubborn. It's almost impossible to convince a real lover of film that this scene is better than that one or this director is more talented than the other, etc. At the end, all you get is a fueled argument that does not lead to any absolute conclusion.
I learn a great deal about film at these gatherings. During the past few weeks we watched about fifteen Hitchcock films. We studied them shot for shot. After the last screening, I asked the room full of film lovers about their favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. All of the above as well as others were mentioned and the room went into complete utter silence. "How strange" said a senior professor. "For the first time we're not arguing with one another."
Such is the case with the greatest of artists. We all have our favorite Shakespeare play or Mozart symphony. There is no need to argue for them and against the rest, for all are truly great in their own right. Hitchcock fans don't dispute one another; they simply nod in respect, for unlike lesser directors, he doesn't have one obvious masterpiece but an entire body of them. My favorite Hitchcock is "Psycho." However, I respect almost all of his films equally. To me watching "Psycho" is like listening to the best of Mozart or Beethoven. The way Hitchcock uses the conventions of films is beyond words.
Don't expect to feel that way from one viewing. The first time I saw "Psycho," all I could see was a horror film with a great twist and wonderful performances. I watched it a second time in my first film class, another time in a different film class, and several times after that. Today, I lost count of how many times I watched it, and how many times I studied it (there's a difference). As my understanding of film grew, so did my appreciation for the brilliance of Hitchcock's groundbreaking 1960 masterpiece, "Psycho."
I mentioned at the beginning that it is one thing to see a film and another to have the ability to read a film. Many fans of film claim to love the movies but fail to understand this concept. One learns how to read film by learning about the medium and everything that constitutes the making of a great picture. It is only through the understanding of film that true love for movies sparks giving the ability to read films. Take for example, Mozart's darkest opera "Don Giovanni." It is one thing to listen to it and admire the flow of his music; it is another thing to listen to it knowing that his father died shortly before it was conducted. With that knowledge in combination with the music itself one can feel Mozart's sorrow and grief. Through knowledge we open our hearts and emotions to the greatest works of literature, music, and film.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of "Psycho." Therefore as a tribute, I'll do my best to read this masterpiece and document it in written form. Hitchcock once said that he enjoys "playing the audience like a piano." With "Psycho" he manipulates our expectations. Today about everyone knows what happens during the shower scene and the truth about Norman's mother. (If you don't stop reading and do yourself a favor, watch the film) Still, even with that knowledge, the joy is in observing how Hitchcock manipulates his audience. He often used diversions to misguide the audience. A simple example of this is placing a growling dog to block the stairway in "Strangers on a Train." The dog is meant to distract the audience from guessing the surprise in the next scene. Hitchcock worked that way; he didn't only control his cast and crew but his audience as well. With "Psycho", the entire first act is a diversion.
I can only imagine the horror of sitting in a movie palace when "Psycho" first premiered. The audience must have felt excited having booked their tickets in advance and making it on time for the film. Hitchcock didn't allow late entrances. So there they are sitting, excited about the next Hitchcock masterpiece. The lights dim, the black and white "A Paramount Release" logo appears on the big screen, and then total darkness as the logo fades to solid black. Suddenly, the first wave of Bernard Herrmann's score fills the theater, the most horrifying music in film history. The black screen is split into stripes of grey during the opening credits. The audience doesn't know it yet but this split bares significance.
There's a dark side to every human being. We're not 100% good. Occasionally we slip into that dark side. If you're lucky and smart you can save yourself from letting the darkness overcome you. Here lies the true horror of "Psycho," the dark side of the psyche. Our main character is Marion. She's a young everyday working woman. Unfortunately she acts foolishly and tries to steal a lot of money from one of her customers. However, before meeting her fate -getting stabbed while cleaning off her sins in a shower - the guilt she feels deep down in her stomach pulls her out of the dark and back to normality. The film takes a turn there as we're introduced to a much worse case of - the split. Norman plunged into madness and embraced darkness long before Hitchcock introduces us to him. Hitchcock's choice to film in black and white was clearly not only to give the film a darker theme or to escape the sharp scissors of the censors; the black and white fits the theme of the picture.
"I enjoy playing the audience like a piano." - Alfred Hitchcock
The movie starts one afternoon, as the camera moves from the outside of a city through a window into an apartment. Note Hitchcock opens the film by panning through a large city (Phoenix Arizona), the choice is random, so is the date (Friday, December the Eleventh), as well as the time (Two Forty-Three P.M.) The camera then moves through a random window of one of the many buildings. Hitchcock strikes the first note on his piano. Through these random choices, Hitchcock subliminally tells the audience that this tale can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
We get our first glimpse of the main character. Or is she? She's a blond, which is a Hitchcock trademark, so she must be - at that moment so it seems. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is wearing a white bra and cuddles with her secret lover. Hitchcock picked that white bra at the beginning to signify her innocence. Later on, after she steals the money, we see Marion in a black bra, signifying her darker side. At one point, her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin) suddenly releases the arms so passionately holding on to the love of his life. This is the exchange of words that follows:
Sam: "I'm tired of sweating for people who aren't there. I sweat to pay off my father's debts, and he's in his grave. I sweat to pay my ex-wife alimony, and she's living on the other side of the world somewhere."
Marion: "I pay, too. They also pay who meet in hotel rooms."
Sam: "A couple of years and my debts will be paid off. If she remarries, the alimony stops."
Marion: "I haven't even been married once yet."
Sam: "Yeah, but when you do, you'll swing."
Marion: "Oh, Sam, let's get married."
Sam: "Yeah. And live with me in a storeroom behind a hardware store in Fairvale? We'll have lots of laughs. I'll tell you what. When I send my ex-wife her alimony, you can lick the stamps."
Marion: "I'll lick the stamps"
Through this dialogue we learn that they can't get married for financial reasons, but what Hitchcock is doing on a deeper level is somewhat justifying the heroine's future actions. That way we don't despise Marion for committing theft. Instead, we understand her troubles and feel for her. In other words, she has a reason for stealing the money.
Another example of Hitchcock trying to justify her theft is evident in the next scene. We meet Mr. Cassidy, a man who sprays his money everywhere to "buy happiness." We don't regard Marion as a villain because the man she steals from is portrayed as a very rich disgusting beast who doesn't know how to hold his tongue. He speaks his mind with no manners whatsoever flirting with Marion and embarrassing the boss ("where's that bottle you said was in your desk?"). After the theft, no real harm is done, at least not enough to make Marion a villain. We simply see her dark side.
Again, this is expressed visually when we see her staring at the open envelope wearing her black bra. The $40,000 in the envelope serves as the 'MacGuffin' of the film. The term 'MacGuffin' refers to an object that bares much importance to the characters but to the audience it's only a vehicle to drive the plot to the next level. A 'MacGuffin' is dropped once it serves its purpose.
Between the first justification scene and the second one, there's the famous shot of Hitchcock's trademark cameo. He stands outside a sidewalk, when the camera leaves the frame following the entrance of our main character. This is simply a visual signature. Hitchcock was well known at the time, not just by the name stamped on the previous "North by Northwest" posters but by introducing the episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" on television. The same crew that worked for the TV series worked with him to deliver his small budget project to the big screen. Anyway, his appearance is a visual signature and a reminder that things will turn ugly. It's Hitchcock.
"Psycho" revolutionized cinema, both technically and in terms of content. A perfect film to study various uses of editing, the rhythm in "Psycho" can be observed in how Hitchcock handles the passage of time very efficiently. When Marion leaves the room, we realize that it's still that same day. She goes to work, collects some money she's supposed to put into the bank and goes back home. All that happens in one particular afternoon, and the time frame doesn't change.
Janet Leigh's performance shines in the next scenes. We return to her room. There is no need for dialogue; we know what she's thinking when her desperate eyes land on the envelope. Like the greatest of silent performers, Leigh expresses more through facial reactions than words. Few actresses can pull this off, she does. After she decides to run away with the money, the editing becomes more and more interesting.
Hitchcock uses a medium shot of the main character, Marion Crane, as she drives away from her hometown. The shot shows her face, part of the steering wheel, and the background, which includes the sky. The shot then changes from that particular medium shot to what is regarded as an eye-line matching shot, in which we as the audience see the highway through her eyes. This is the second time Hitchcock uses this shot (the first being her staring at the envelope repeatedly). The minute she steps into her car, the narration starts.
The narration serves as the voice in her head. At first, we hear what she suspects Sam will react like upon seeing her with the money. Hitchcock just slipped us into her shoes. He doesn't only establish her as the main character, he confirms it. We see what she sees (eye-line matching shots), we feel what she feels (the urge to steal the open envelope full of cash), and now Hitchcock makes her share her thoughts with us. She bites her finger in a traffic light stop. After that we get the eye-line matching shot. People cross the street in a hurry. Their hurry is nothing compared to that of Marion, especially when her eyes meet those of her employer's. We get a close up shot of her smiling at him. Her boss smiles back, then stops realizing she's supposed to be sick at home or on her way to a bank. He looks back at her, only this time more suspiciously. Enter Herrmann's score, the plot thickens.
At first Marion's expression suggests fear. Then we get a couple of night shots with bright lights striking our eyes. Her facial expression is more relaxed now. The following morning, Hitchcock is generous enough to provide a beautiful deep focus shot. On the lower left corner of the screen the trunk of Marion's car, behind it, a police officer's car, on the right, the long endless highway and in the background empty hills. It's a feast to the eye. The officer walks up to the car, we see Marion sleeping in her. A few knocks on the window later, she wakes up in a hurry. We see the same look in her eyes as when she saw her employer crossing the street. The next shot serves as both an eye-line matching shot and a close-up of the expressionless police officer. By now, like Marion, the viewer suspects she's been caught. It turns out, he's just checking if something's wrong. Marion acts "like something is wrong" and so he asks for her driver's license. As soon as he leaves and Marion drives off, the horrifying orchestra starts again.
We get a few rear-view mirror shots as she tries to lose the officer till he takes a turn and leaves her alone. Shortly after, Marion trades her car for another one. Both the viewer and Marion see that the police officer is back. He studies her from across the street like a suspicious stalker. Hitchcock's fear of cops tightens the tension. More importantly, we are introduced to the third suspicious character, the car salesman, the first being the boss, and the second, the police officer. Marion is doing a terrible job of getting away with crime. After all, she's no professional, just an everyday woman.
We rarely get to see scenes like that in thrillers; scenes that serve little purpose to the story but are there to put us on the edge of our seats driving the plot forwards. These short scenes are a rarity and a treasure. Hitchcock is simply playing piano with the audiences' nerves. By now the viewer is in the midst of a getaway thriller. Keep in mind that all these tiny scenes are a distraction of the bigger picture. After, the high-pressured car salesman scenes, we move forward to more medium shots of the steering wheel, Marion, and the fading city in the background. This time, she bites on her lower lip as we hear the narration or an imagination of a conversation between the suspicious police officer and the doubtful salesman. Hitchcock knew that people generally do most of their thinking when they're alone. Like before we sleep or when we drive alone in an empty highway. These scenes are very psychological in that for the briefest of moments the viewer becomes Marion.
Gradually, her facial expression changes from scared to confident. Scared when imagining the discovery of her crime in a narrated conversation between her boss and her co-worker (played by the excellent Patricia Hitchcock) and confident when we hear Mr. Cassidy cursing her. A creepy smirk curves her lips. Marion still wants to go through it.
The viewer notices that the bright sky turn darker and darker, and eventually it starts to rain. Marion pulls over to sleep it off at some motel, the Bates motel. The first half of the movie takes place in two days, a continuous moment-to-moment spectrum of events. The pace and movement through time changes afterwards and is well defined through editing.
Marion pulls up in the rain to the Bates motel and sees the moving silhouette of an old woman in the upstairs window of the mansion. Hitchcock often features familiar landmarks in his films. In "Psycho", he creates one with the Bates mansion. The gothic mansion stands on top of a haunting hill like "it's hiding from the world." The Bates mansion is now one of the most famous film sets around the world, the presence of the mansion is so powerful, it's like a main character. Anyway, Marion honks the horn of her new car. Seconds later, Norman appears on the stairs in front of the haunting mansion up the hill. He then runs towards the motel to serve his only customer of the night. What follows are some of the most humorous Hitchcock moments of all time. (*Humorous only on repeated viewings of the film)
Norman Bates - cinema's most famous villain. Anthony Perkins pulls it off right from the start. They check in and we are first introduced to Norman. Perkins plays the role in an oddly chilling loose and naturalistic manner. Marion signs as 'Marie Samuels'. Again, the alias signature is pathetic as it's proof of her not doing a good job of hiding her real identity. Marie is too close to her real name, Samuels is her boyfriend's name. Norman asks her to write her home address as well. She looks at the newspaper that reads 'Los Angeles Times' and chooses that city rather than Arizona. "Los Angeles" she says. Meanwhile Norman chooses something else, a key to the room she'll be spending the night in. Unlike the three suspicious men prior to that scene, Norman doesn't suspect a thing. Why? - Because he's hiding something himself. Norman picks room number one. "Cabin 1. It's closer in case you want anything" Both character's suspicious actions cancel each other out. A perfect scene as only the audience is aware of the humor in their interaction.
Consciously the first time viewer is not aware of it, but what Hitchcock is doing is something no filmmaker dared to pull off before. He's slowly switching main characters through the only characteristic both Marion and Norman share. Hitchcock often referred to "Psycho" as pure film. The change of viewer's attention and leading characters through the overlapping personality trait in a single scene is indeed an example of pure cinema. Of all my years as a film critic, I've never seen anything quite like this, except maybe in the scene that follows.
Norman shows Marion to her room. "Boy, it's stuffy in here."- A tongue-in-cheek remark. Norman goes on with a tour of the cabin. "Well, the mattress is soft and there's hangers in the closet and stationery with Bates Motel printed on it in case you wanna make your friends back home feel envious. And the..." he switches the light of the bathroom on and struggles with the word. "Over there." Marion helps him out: "The bathroom." The awkward moment between them suggests that we should pay attention to any scene that'll take place in the..over there.
Norman insists that they have dinner together. "Nothing special, just sandwiches and milk. But I'd like it very much if you'd come up to the house" Another diversion by Hitchcock. Norman offers his hospitality. Contrary to what the viewer knows at the moment, Norman has a stuffed body up there. The last thing he'd want is for it to be discovered. The young man leaves, Marion wraps the money in newspaper. "NO I TELL YOU NO!," an angry old woman shouts from the mansion. Marion stops her unpacking to eavesdrop.
Angry Old Woman: "I won't have you bringing strange young girls in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds!"
Norman: "Mother, please!"
We now know the angry old lady is his mother.
Mother: "And then what, after supper? Music? Whispers?"
Norman: "Mother, she's just a stranger. She's hungry and it's raining out."
Mother: "Mother, she's just a stranger. As if men don't desire strangers. As if....(shuddering) I refuse to speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me!"
What follows is a dim and haunting wide-shot of the house in complete obscurity with creepy tree branches on both sides and dark clouds lingering in the sky. Like a house on a haunted hill, the cinematography is simply breathtaking and needs to be seen to be believed. Only one light shines, the window of the room where the shadow of an old woman roamed earlier.
Mother: "You understand, boy? Go on. Go tell her she'll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food or my son! Or do I have to tell her cause you don't have the guts? Huh, boy? You have the guts, boy?"
A radio actress by the name of Virginia Gregg perfected that spine-chilling voice of mother. In fact, it is done so well, there's no way the audience would suspect she's just Norman fulfilling his disorder. Not only that but the fact that mother offers to go tell the visitor herself only personifies her leaving the viewer with no hints to guess the twisted reality.
A few seconds later, my all time favorite two-shot arises. Holding a tray with the milk and sandwich, Norman stands to the left in front of a window. Marion is on the right in front of the door. Both are standing outside in front of the cabin. "I've caused you some trouble", Marion says implying that she heard their conversation. To which he replies: "No...mother...my mother...what is the phrase? She isn't quite herself today."
Freeze the frame at that precise moment and observe the richness of the shot. Visually this shot speaks volumes of Hitchcock's famous wit. In crisp clarity we see the reflection of Norman's face on the outside window. Indeed "she isn't quite herself today," the answer is there visually. This may either be a coincidence or a stroke of genius. I like to think it's the latter, for the blinds are half drawn providing the possibility of the reflection. It had to be intentional.
They move to the parlor because "eating in an office is just too officious." Marion's eyes study the furniture of the room. Stuffed birds make up most of the furniture. Hitchcock often used birds as symbols. Most famously in "The Birds" where at the beginning of the picture we witness birds trapped in their cages. By the end of the film it's the other way around with humans trapped in a house and the birds outside.
The purpose of stuffed birds in "Psycho" has been interpreted several times. Norman explains that stuffing birds is his hobby; we later learn that he stuffed his own mother. One of the birds is an owl waving her wings symbolizing the furious side of his split personality (or his mother side); the calm crow is his calmer side (Norman side), or maybe they're just there to disturb the viewer and place them in an uncomfortable surrounding.
After learning more about Norman's taxidermy hobby, the conversation takes us deeper into his personality. Taxidermy is supposed to "pass the time not fill it" I can imagine the work, stuffing birds, and his own mother over and over using expensive chemicals. Poor Norman. One of the most disturbing lines follows expressing the oddness of this disturbed character: "Well, a boy's best friend is his mother." Moments later, Norman asks Marion where she's heading. "I didn't mean to pry", he utters apologetically. Another humorous line, for Norman does pry in the scene that follows, not verbally though; he does it physically through a peephole.
During the course of this scene, the viewer is exposed to Psycho's finest moment, a priceless exchange of dialogue. Through their connection we slowly remove our feet from Marion's shoes and step into Norman's shoes. The focus now is on Norman and his mother. After, Norman expressing the courses of his daily life with no friends and him putting up with his mother, Marion suggests he send her to a madhouse. A medium shot of Norman changes to a close up, not through a cut but by him moving forward to face the lens. He snaps at her. "We all go a little mad sometimes."
At the end of the scene we learn that Marion changes her mind and decides to return the money the next morning. In other words, the getaway plot is no longer. The scene ends. Hitchcock just brought an end to his story; in the next scene he brings an end to his protagonist.
Norman takes a peak through the peephole and watches Marion undress. He then walks out of his office, up the stairs to the mansion. Once inside, he takes a step up the stairs and suddenly changes his mind and goes to the kitchen. As the audience, we know that Mrs. Bates is upstairs. It's a simple scene the purpose of which is to distract the viewer from outguessing the master.
Meanwhile Marion calculates how much cash she'll have to return out of her own pockets. ($700) After tearing the note to pieces she looks around and can't find a bin and so she flushes it down the toilette. This was the first time the flushing of a toilette was seen on screen. The audience must have felt shocked at the sight. Yet it's only a warm up to the major shock that follows. Hitchcock once said that the toilet shot is a "vital component to the plot." My guess is it foreshadows the shower scene. After the brutal murder, we get a close-up of Marion's blood flushing down the bathtub hole.
In probably the most famous, and well edited scene in all of cinema, also known as the shower scene, Hitchcock uses editing and sound as cinematic manipulation to create a carefully thought out horrific murder scene. Perfection is the result. In less than one minute, we witness a combination of 78 shots, in relation to the sound of a knife slashing against skin. We never actually see the knife enter the woman's flesh, yet we're convince we do through the sight of stabbing (hand motion), sound effects, the musical score (horrible animalistic screeching), and of course the careful editing. Celluloid cuts replace flesh cuts. When Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that "Psycho" belongs to filmmakers, he wasn't joking.
By exposing the audience to forty-five seconds of nonstop violence without actually showing any, Hitchcock leaves it up to our imagination. (Truffaut) Imagination has no limits which is why the scene is timeless and just as shocking half a century later. The shock is not only the sudden bombardment of cuts but the fact that he killed off his leading lady. We looked through her eyes, listened to her thoughts and witnessed her actions only to see her naked body slashed to an ugly death. With more than an hour to go, anything is possible. The viewer waits for the sound of Hitchcock's next note on his piano.
Norman hurries in to clean up his "mother's" mess. So not only do we witness the death of the leading lady, we watch Norman wipe the blood off the walls, the floor, the bathtub, and the sink after washing his bloody hands. After that, he wraps Marion's dead body in the torn curtain. This mirrors the scene of Marion wrapping the newspaper around the $39,300 in cash. He then gathers her stuff puts it in the trunk of her car, along with the wrapped body and the wrapped "MacGuffin."
The car slowly sinks into the darkness of the swamp. For a moment it stops. Here's Hitchcock playing with his audience again. Even though we just witnessed our hero chopped and wrapped like a piece of meat, we somehow want the car to fully sink. It does. Fade to black.
Fade into the inside of a hardware store, Sam's working place. One of the customers studies a can of poison "Let's say see what they say about this one. They tell you what its ingredients are and how it's guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it's painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless." The viewer agrees. Afterall, the customer is always right. Enter Lila, Marion's sister.
She's worried and asks about the whereabouts of her sister. Sam is clueless. He tells his eavesdropping co-worker to go have his lunch. The co-worker leaves. Yet, the scene remains a three-shot with the entrance of a private investigator, Arbogast. All three ask questions, and eventually they're all up to date. They realize that they're all on the same side. Arbogast wants to find the missing money, Lila wants her sister, and Sam wants his girlfriend back. A new story unfolds.
As the story takes a different turn, so does the editing. The first half of the picture was edited to look like the events took place within two days. After, watching the story of the first half end, George Tomasini, the editor of the movie, speeds up the pace. In the scene that follows, Arbogast starts checking different hotels for any information on a missing Marion. The scene is a montage of a sequence of shots showing Arbogast in different hotels, which suggests the passage of time. Finally, Arbogast reaches the Bates motel.
Arbogast investigates right away. He makes the purpose of his visit clear and shows Norman a picture of Marion. Naturally, Norman is scared and tries to end their conversation as soon as humanly possible. "Well, no one's stopped here for a couple of weeks." Arbogast insists he take a look at the picture before "committing" himself. This is acting at its best. At first, Norman is relaxed offering his candy. Gradually as the pressure build up, Perkins's performance intensifies. Arbogast catches a lie when Norman mentions a couple visiting "last week" and asks to take a look at the register. Perkins chews faster and harder on the candy (the candy was his idea). Norman takes another look at the picture and admits she was here but he didn't recognize the picture at first because her hair was all wet. The showering of questions heightens the pressure and Perkins drives his performance into iconic status. We get it all complete with facial tics and stuttering words.
Being the great private detective that he is, Arbogast gets a more complete story by cornering Norman with questions. Moments later he spots the shadowy old woman in the upstairs mansion window. More of Norman's lies are fished out and Arbogast takes another direction. He pressures Norman with the "let's assume" method. To which, Norman mistakenly slips the words "Let's put it this way. She may have fooled me but she didn't fool my mother." Now, Arbogast wants to meet the mother. To Norman that's crossing the line, and so he asks him to leave.
A phone call later, the private-eye returns to the motel to fulfill his satisfaction. The sequence leading up to his murder mirrors that of Marion since both enter Norman's patrol prior to their deaths. We also get the stuffed birds shots, only for some reason Hitchcock reverses them with the crow shot first and the owl afterwards. Nevertheless, the viewer is put in the same uncomfortable mood.
Arbogast goes up to the mansion, and step by step climbs the stairway. Hitchcock manages to pull off another shocking scene with a sudden jump-out-of-your seat appearance of mother stabbing the detective once he reaches the top. Blood splatters on his face, and we follow the fall with the camera fixed on Arbogast's face. The same use of screeching noise is set by Herrmann. Once he lands, Mrs. Bates continues the stabbing, the detective screams in horror and the scene fades to black.
The Arbogast scene is the second and last onscreen kill. Today, Hitchcock is often credited with creating the slasher sub-genre. Unfortunately, this triggered a chain of terrible motion pictures with the exception of the original "Halloween." Most of the slasher pictures of the 70's, 80's, 90's and 00's overdo it with frequent kills every other scene instead of building up the murder scenes with character development. Therefore, we end up with a bunch of characters we don't much care for getting chopped to pieces. In "Psycho" it was never about the violence, it was always about the tension leading up to the violence.
Fade in, Sam and Lila sit worried in a smoky room "Sam he said an hour or less." Sam: "Yeah, It's been three." As I said before the pace is much faster in the second half. Hitchcock directs this half like it's a sequel requiring different editing methods. Likewise, time passes faster at Norman's place. A medium shot of Norman standing in front of the clear black swamp. He's already done cleaning the mess. Sam arrives and looks for "Arbogast." He calls his name a few times with no luck.
The medium shot becomes a close up, again not through a cut but by Sam walking up to the lens. He curves his hands around his mouth and gives it his all. The call for Arbogast echoes into the next and same shot of Norman in front of the swamp. We move closer to him. As his head turn to the right facing the camera, the camera pans to the left towards him. A very well executed shot is the result as we end with a close up on a chilling expression on Norman's shadowy face. He's looking at his motel.
A transition directs us to a deep shot of the storeroom. Lila is sitting at the center all the way in a lighted room in the back. The store itself is dark. She hears a car approaching stands up and runs through the dark store. We end up with a silhouette of her head in a close up. Without moving the camera, and with careful lighting, a simple scene becomes a memorable one. The movement is inside the frame as Lila breaks the depth of field of the shot. Previously Hitchcock created a close-up out of a medium shot, this time the task is difficult and much more impressive as he turns a deep focus shot into a close-up, without any cuts.
In a two-shot, the dark figures of Sam and Lila decide to see the deputy sheriff, Al Chambers. A transition leads to the deputy walking down the stairs. The camera slightly pans to the left and the camera is fixed on a four-shot (Sam, Lila, Mrs. Chambers, and Mr. Chamber). As Sam updates the sheriff with the story, we switch to a three-shot. Only this time they aren't standing next to each other. The side of Al Chambers face is in the foreground and his wife, on the left, is in the background. When Sam mentions Norman's mother the facial expression of Mrs. Chambers transforms to a look of panic and wonder. This shot is used to show the emotional reaction between the sheriff and his wife. After that we switch to a three-shot of Sam in the foreground, Lila in the middle-ground, and Mrs. Chambers in the background.
Finally after constant switching from the two-shot to the three shot and gradually to one-shots, we end up with a low-angle shot of the sheriff and the spine-chilling line: "Well, if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates, who's that woman buried out in Green Lawn Cemetery?" Hitchcock is involving the audience, moving us closer, building to more intimacy between the viewer and the characters. I like to call it the 4,3,2,1 scene.
The last line makes one question the existence of mother. Hitchcock is misguiding the audience. I bet a lot of the viewers were predicting a ghost story. The haunted mansion would fit that storyline, or maybe mother and Norman killed someone and made it look like mother died. The audience is in the dark.
Norman delicately walks up the stairway. He walks to mother's room, and the camera slowly pans up closer to the door and eventually the long shot ends with an overhead view of Norman carrying his mother to the fruit cellar. This beautifully photographed shot meant to hide the face of Norman's mother is an example of how Hitchcock uses cinematography to guide our eyes in whichever direction he pleases supporting the story.
Next, Sam and Lila decide to search every inch of the motel. To do so, they split up. Sam is to distract and keep Norman occupied while Lila goes up the mansion to get to the old woman. Two things happening at once builds the tension as the relation between both incidents eventually merge into the famous Norman in his wig scene.
Inside the office, Sam shoots accusations at Norman. He's not as smooth as Arbogast which leads to trouble. They say an animal is most dangerous when cornered. The second time Norman is put in that situation, he breaks loose by striking Sam's head with a souvenir. Meanwhile Lila after touring the house looks through a window and sees Norman running towards her from the Bates Motel. Space is all that was needed to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Moments later, Lila is hiding in the cellar room. She sees mother facing the wall in her rocking chair. A tap in the back later, the truth surfaces- mother is a corpse. Lila screams and hits a hanging light-bulb. Shadows dance. Enter Norman smiling like a creep with a kitchen knife high up in the air. More importantly the screeching noise makes another visit; the two previous times the audience listened to that horrible noise they witnessed murder scenes. Subconsciously the audience thinks it'll happen again, only Sam comes to the rescue. The wig falls off Norman's head.
The final scene is the famous psychiatry explanation. Like Roger Ebert, this scene always bothered me, for like the opening narration in "Dark City," the full explanation underestimates the intelligence of the viewer. In his Great Movie essay, Roger provides a perfect cut: "If I were bold enough to reedit Hitchcock's film, I would include only the doctor's first explanation of Norman's dual personality: 'Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half existed to begin with. And now, the other half has taken over, probably for all time.' Then I would cut out everything else the psychiatrist says, and cut to the shots of Norman wrapped in the blanket while his mother's voice speaks ('It's sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son...'). Those edits, I submit, would have made 'Psycho' very nearly perfect." (Ebert)
Even though the scene is not necessary, it's not that much of a burden and doesn't ruin the entire picture like the spoiler filled opening of "Dark City." In the first half, we became so intimate with Marion, Hitchcock let us into her thoughts. In the final scene Norman, now the main character, shares his thoughts with the audience. Only his thoughts are those of his mother confirming the schizophrenic split personality disorder.
"They're probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I'm not even gonna swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They'll see. They'll see and they'll know, and they'll say, 'Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly.'" A disturbing smile curves his face and a hint of mother's skeleton appears as the transition escorts us the Marion's car getting pulled out of the swamp. A perfect bloodcurdling last shot. The End.
Wael Khairy tweets at @waelkhairy88. His website is The Cinephile Fix..
A special edition of Thumbnails detailing the recent sexual harassment cases in the entertainment and tech industries...
A Great Movie is hidden somewhere within "Blade Runner" and "Blade Runner 2049."
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A column on the lack of diversity in this year's potential Oscar nominees.