Make your own free website on Tripod.com
film essential
Psycho

HOME

lists...
my favorite directors
my viewing log
who is this cinephile?
essays
related links
contact me
movie reviews
movie of the week
my dvd collection
best of
a mere top 26
cinematic ramblings
all the films i've seen

Psycho
 
Alfred Hitchcock I 1960 I USA
 
 

The infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho has with the passing of time become one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history. When Psycho was released, it shocked cinema audiences to the point that some of them never wanted to take a shower again or go to a road motel, for that matter. However, it is evident that Hitchcock could not have easily foretold that this was going to occur, and during the making of the movie, he never could've imagined that Psycho would become one of the greatest and most suspense-filled thrillers of all time. Psycho completely changed the way movies were seen, as well as totally revolutionising the horror genre. With its uncompromising scenes of violence, it was thought to be a very controversial movie upon its release. The immense impact it caused was as stunning as it was odd because Psycho was a film that took a lot of risk, as many things that were included in it had never been seen before on the silver screen. Hitchcock completely ruptured the strict rules of the Hays Code, a committee of censorship that decided what could be and could not be seen onscreen. Not only did the film start with a steamy after-sex scene that suggested countless things; it deliberately (and self-consciously) showed scenes of immense violence. Also, it was the first movie to feature a toilet being flushed and its scenes with partial nudity turned out to be very notorious amongst the public. With Psycho, Hitchcock crossed the boundaries. Not that he was ashamed of that or anything.

Despite all this, Psycho ended up being a gigantic critical and commercial success as well as winning several Academy Award nominations along the way, and gradually became one of cinema's most beloved gems, a film for the ages that dazed and enthralled and, surprisingly, is still able to.

 

To tell you the truth, it's not very difficult to see why all this happened, because Psycho truly is a work of genius. The sheer brilliance of it is as impressive as it is bewildering, but then again, what more could you expect from the Master of Suspense? Every single shot is so carefully taken and layered with such vast significance and symbolism that it's a marvel to behold. Hitch makes use of all the weapons in his armoury to spectacular effect; the music, the photography, the acting, the lighting, the visual style and his usual nasty surprises are all given a magnificent approach in the film.

 

The plot, full of mystery and intrigue, was adapted from a book by Robert Bloch of the same name, which at the same time was based upon the real life killings of Ed Gein. It has been rumoured that Hitchcock once bought as many copies of the book as he could so that people wouldnt be able to know the surprise ending of the movie although this has not been confirmed. The story begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who, after stealing 40,000 dollars from her boss, escapes from town in her car afraid that he will find out. Having been on the road for various days, she decides to stay in a motel, where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a young man whose seemingly shy appearance is not all what it seems. There, she discovers that in a nearby eerie-looking house resides his ill wheelchair-bound mother whom he is uncommonly dependant on. That very night, however, Mother Bates savagely murders Marion while having a shower. Meanwhile, unaware of her destiny, her sister and her boyfriend go on a search to find her...

 

The plot then wraps the audience in a web of inscrutability and enigmatic twists and turns, which grabs the viewer by the throat and never lets go. Hitchcock, oh so ingeniously and magically and with his usual malevolence and charm, creates moments of truly sustained brilliance. The technical and visual fineness of the shower scene shows yet again why Hitchcock is regarded as one of the greatest directors of the 20th century. Seven days of hard work and a frantic editing containing series of rapid cuts was what gave birth to one of the most unforgettable moments in film history, a scene that was actually shy of forty-five seconds. The tension is excellently kept throughout the entire film, and there's this permanent and unsettling sense of anticipation for something to occur which makes it all the more amazing.

 

There are countless ingredients that make Psycho a classic, but one of the motives I adore it so much is because it is diabolically clever - there's not getting around it. Killing off the (apparent) main character was an incredibly wise decision made by Hitchcock, and it surprised moviegoers to a very large extent. However, while Hitchcock is most of the time vastly credited for this, it was mainly Bloch's idea, as he did the very same thing in the original novel (Marion Crane gets murdered in the shower too, but what's different is that she gets her head lopped off - ouch!) Nonetheless, it is not just the mere concept of getting rid of her when the audience least expects it; it's the thoughtful execution of it which makes it work. Besides showing Marion Crane as an ultimately sympathetic character, Hitchcock depicts her as a flawed and susceptible woman; she's puzzled, concerned about her life and her boyfriend, a shadow of doubt continuously hanging above her. The audience therefore instantly relates to her and feels for her in ways we could never have imagined thus, when she's killed, we actually feel sorry for her.

And it is after that precise moment where another example of brilliance is shown; the film's narrative switches from the main character to Norman Bates.

Also, the twist at the end was found to be much unexpected and came out of the blue. I, for one, had it not been ruined for me by AFI's Top 100 Thrillers of All Time, would never have predicted it. It's that clever.

What Hitchcock so masterfully and delicately does is behave like a magician. It is evident that he's an individual who likes to bewitch and enchant his public. Out of his hat he grabs the things we could least predict to observe while at the same time doing interminable magic tricks that make the audience go "whoa!" Astutely and carefully he chooses the scenes he wants us to see first and does so, in order to make the next scare or killing even more horrifying. For instance, just when we think we've seen it all in the shower scene, Detective Arbogast is then killed in a terrible manner, and it is the brutality, suddenness and unpredictability of it all, which will most likely make first time viewers jump even today.

 

As a whole, Psycho is a visually captivating film. The cinematography is incredible: the black and white surround the film with a rather mystical look, and there are several camera shots and movements which will most likely makes you swoon as a result of their uncommon grace. One of my true favourites, beside the shower sequence, has to be when Norman Bates is looking through the peephole located behind the picture on the wall, silently contemplating Marion, who, beside not knowing that she's being watched, is undressing, ready for her (last) shower.  Apart from giving us a neat close up of his ever-observing eye, it also manages to immediately provide the viewer with his spiteful intentions; we just know that he's going to kill her. Hitchcock does not give us any cheesy dialogue or anything, as he simply plunges us into Norman's mind, whispering to us what he's going to do next. The very same thing could be said about the moment in which Marion is packing and the money lies on her bed; we know that she's going to take it and run away with it. It goes without saying, but nonetheless it needs to be said again: the shower scene is marvellous and showcases Hitchcock's love for visuality. See for yourself and judge it whichever way you want, but I guarantee that it's as shocking as it is impressive. And Bernard Herrman's score is one of the pivotal things that makes it work.

Reflections also play a significant part in the picture. It probably will go unnoticed upon first viewing, but when one watches a film many times and pays close attention to detail, few details are overlooked. Movies often invoke mirrors to indicate when characters might be guarding underhanded motives, or divided loyalties, or ambivalent emotions. Mirrors are usually portrayed in movies as tellers of what someone may not want to tell -  they tell us what some people know yet wish to hide. Just listen closely to a character who is reflected in a mirror: he or she may not be telling the whole story, factually or emotionally. He or she is probably lying. Psycho's use of reflections is simply great! Various times are the characters juxtaposed with a mirror: for example, when Marion and Norman first meet and Marion checks into the Bates Motel under a fake name, the mirror images suggest that they may both be involved in duplications (and they indeed are, although one does not know about the other and vice versa).

 

Double-identities also are a crucial element to the film, and it is all very well realised by Hitchcock, who has used that motif in numerous other films of his, such as North by Northwest and Vertigo to name a couple. Norman Bates is both a child-like, wretched and seemingly defenceless creature who does not have a place in this world. Yet what we don't know, until we find out at the climax, is that he's also a cross dresser; well, not exactly, he's a schizophrenic loony with a double personality. He's his own mother, a powerful, reigning figure who controls him (or rather, used to control him, as it is her presence that still haunts him and has come onto him) and an isolated, lonely, miserable alien whose impotence (both literal and figurative) prevents him from going out, socialising with those of the opposite sex or even saying the word "bathroom". As he himself cleverly puts it, "You know what I think? I think that we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch." He's segregated from the outside world. He's in a situation where both sides of his mind wont let him do the things he'd like to do (or ought to do), he's confined to the pains of life, and it is in killing (which he mostly does absent-mindedly) where he finds pleasure. Norman Bates is a genuinely complex character. It is because of his happy-go-lucky way of living and his philosophies on life that he gains the viewers sympathy with admirable ease. Yet, there's a contrast to that as well. It is the darkness that lurks within his soul, his internal pain and disturbing behaviour which make him one of the most frightening villains in film history. And, let's not forget, it is Anthony Perkins' portrayal of this mad man that makes the personage so unforgettable.

 

One can instantly sum it all up: Psycho is the work of a major artist. I still have my doubts, however: it is hard to determine whether or not Vertigo surpasses it in terms of superiority, but for me, Psycho is the epitome of Hitchcock's films. A milestone in film history, Psycho nowadays still proves to be as relevant as it did forty three years ago, and continues to be enduringly appealing. While perhaps Hitchcock never thought it would improve with age, I can certainly affirm that it does; every single time that I see it, there is something new about it. Truly one of the most influential, daring and shocking films ever made, Psycho is a frightening, engaging and incredibly effective horror film. It never has failed to truly mesmerise me, and during the pass of time its brilliance has endured and never diminished, and most likely never will.

[95]

Reviewed by The Third M?n, 2003