Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Psycho still makes the cut

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, revived in a spectacular new print at the 1996 Cleveland International Film Festival with co-star Janet Leigh in attendance, is probably the esteemed director’s most famous film, but while it is now hailed as one of his best, the critics were not too enthused about Hitchcock’s low-budget excursion into the genre of horror at the time of its June 1960 release. Whether or not Psycho qualifies as a “horror” film is a matter open to debate, but the film’s macabre elements, and the violent way in which those elements were presented, was regarded as a step down for the portly English director who usually relied on subtlety and suggestion to convey the more unpleasant aspects of his films. While the justly famous “shower scene” is tasteful by today’s standards, in 1960, the amount of blood exposited by the victim was considered gratuitous. But Psycho still has as much to savor in 1996 as it did in 1960.

The most important characteristic of Psycho may be the superb black and white cinematography, the work of John L. Russell who handled the camera work on Hitchcock’s television anthology program. Brooding shadows are expertly captured by Russell’s lens, and his work was deservedly nominated for an Oscar. Although the scenes in which the protagonist, the notorious Norman Bates, dispenses death to his victims are strikingly photographed, Russell’s talents are also represented in less heralded moments, such as the scene in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) drives along the road at night while the voices of her co-workers, as well as her victim, are heard questioning her whereabouts and wondering what fate has befallen both Crane and the money she was responsible for depositing. Perhaps the film’s eeriest moment, especially for those who have seen the film before, is when Crane reaches what will be her final destination on a dark, rain splattered night. The wipers clear the rain from the windshield of her car, and suddenly the neon sign bearing the legend, “Bates Motel - Vacancy,” becomes visible.

While the look of the film is important, equal attention must be paid to its sound, particularly the music score by Bernard Herrmann. From the opening moments when the titles (expertly designed by Saul Bass) are slashed away, the composer masterfully conveys the sense of a knife eagerly ripping into human flesh. The Psycho score is music to carve meat by, and the film would suffer as horribly as Norman’s victims without it.

The actors could almost get lost in such an atmosphere but the fine cast performs its chores admirably. Not surprisingly, top honors must go to the late Anthony Perkins. His portrayal of Norman Bates, a character as prone to nervous jitters as he is to severing the nerves of his customers, has been frequently imitated, including by Perkins himself, and invests the film with a neurotic, psychological tone that lifts the film into a class it might not otherwise inhabit. Although she is best remembered for spilling blood, Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane is an effectively realized character, one who shares similarities with Norman. Both are on the run - she, literally, from her past, and Norman from the present and future - and both have secrets. Marion’s secret has to do with the contents of her purse which contains a stack of bills that don’t belong to her. Norman’s secret concerns the contents of his house, a spooky old hilltop mansion overlooking the Bates Motel in which Norman’s long dead mother continues to reside, barking orders and hurtling insults at her wayward son. The remaining cast is populated by some excellent performers: Vera Miles as Marion’s concerned sister, John McIntyre as the sheriff, and particularly Martin Balsam as the doomed private detective, all turn in impressive work, and even John Gavin, more mannequin than actor, is appropriately dull as Marion’s lover.

Hitchcock’s characteristic touches of black humor are very evident in Psycho, most notably in Norman’s hobby - taxidermy. Norman likes to stuff things. Birds. Mrs. Bates? Perhaps. The stuffed birds that adorn the walls of Norman’s office were prophetic, for the master of suspense would, in his next film, offer these members of the animal kingdom an opportunity to stuff themselves by snacking on human heads in 1963’s The Birds, Hitchcock’s last film of special merit. Birds have often been used by Hitchcock to symbolize good (In Foreign Correspondent, the kidnapped dignitary played by Albert Basserman, is extremely fond of birds, and, in one early scene, suggests that even on the eve of a world war, there is still hope for mankind when people still take time to feed them). In Psycho, those ever watchful yet dead eyes seem to represent Norman’s voyeurism, his only mode of sexual expression, not only before the murder of Marion Crane when he watches her undress through a peephole, but throughout the film. When not cutting loose with a kitchen knife, Norman is passive, watching, and seemingly waiting for the kill.

The film deteriorates a little at the end, not as badly as Mrs. Bates whose hollow-eyed corpse hogs a well deserved close-up at the film’s climax, but enough to prevent Psycho from achieving perfection. A lengthy denouement in which a psychologist (Simon Oakland) attempts to explain the motives behind Norman’s behavior is filled with a lot of sophomoric psychology that would be embarrassing if it wasn’t so dull. Rigor mortis sets in at this point, and the scene seems longer than the 108 minute running time of the entire picture. Fortunately, there is a payoff in the final moments when Anthony Perkins returns to the screen for a brief but brilliant moment as both mother and son.

Psycho is an important film, not only in Hitchcock’s filmography, but in film history. For Hitchcock, Psycho is unique and a source of controversy. After a string of big budget, colorful, and often glamorous films (To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest), Hitchcock opted to make Psycho on a minuscule budget, filming almost entirely on the back lot of Universal Studios, using the same crew that worked on his then current television series. (At one point, it is even rumored that the film, having shocked the original distributor, Paramount, almost became a two-part episode of that NBC program.)

Hitchcock was known to brag about his decision to film Psycho in black and white, but there have been those who maintain that Hitchcock had originally planned to shoot in color or, worse, film everything but the shower murder in black and white, then jar the audience with a Technicolor bloodbath, a tacky, unimaginative ploy unworthy of the great director. There is no evidence to support this long circulating rumor, and it is rarely considered except in passing. Not so the claim that Saul Bass, the gifted artist who frequently made contributions to Hitchcock’s films, including the design of the opening title sequences for Psycho and Vertigo, actually directed the much praised shower sequence for which Hitchcock has long taken bows. It continues to inspire denials from all but a small coterie of Bass friends and fans.

Psycho’s reverberations were felt throughout Hollywood. The film’s graphic, for 1960, depictions of violence broke a taboo or two, and after John Carpenter’s 1978 production of Halloween, which owed a debt to Hitchcock's style, Psycho was unjustly implicated in the wave of “splatter” films, such as the Friday the 13th series, that followed in the wake of Halloween’s box- office success. Earlier, in 1961, William Castle, often dubbed “the poor man’s Hitchcock,” offered a blatant rip-off of Psycho in the form of Homicidal, a creepy little thriller that was not bad of its kind, if not deserving of Time magazine’s ten best list, an honor denied Psycho one year earlier.

Finally, Psycho had a profound effect on the career of Anthony Perkins who never shook the image he acquired after portraying the king of cutlery in this legendary film. Perkins had played mentally unbalanced characters before (bipolar baseball star Jimmy Piersall in 1957’s Fear Strikes Out), but he rarely played anything but deranged characters afterward. In addition to reprising Norman in three sequels beginning in 1982, Perkins played many variations on the twitching, psychopathic Mr. Bates in unrelated films. His performance of a warped fashion photographer provided the primary entertainment value in Mahogany, a silly 1975 melodrama starring the insufferable Diana Ross. Perkins also hovered on the verge of hysteria as a demented man of the cloth stalking Kathleen Turner in Crimes of Passion, another of director Ken Russell’s cinematic eccentricities. Few of those films are likely to be singled out for a retrospective showing at the Cleveland International Film Festival, but the festival’s 1996 presentation of Psycho demonstrates that, thirty-six years after he first scared people out of the showers, there is still an appreciative audience for good ol’ Norman Bates.

© 1996 Brian W. Fairbanks


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