Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Psycho (1960)

I hope you'll forgive me, but I will discuss plot aspects on this one... If you have never seen "Psycho" and know nothing about it, please go away. You are one of the few who is in for a treat whenever you'll get the chance to watch it.
It's really hard to a modern audience to assess the impact "Psycho" might have had when it was first released. Since its premiere 50 years ago it has become a popular culture icon, its most famous scene copied or parodied (my favourite parody is in "The Simpsons" when Maggie hits Homer with a hammer) and the plotline is in the public domain. I went to a screening recently and unsurprising there was little reaction from the audience when we got to the shower scene. How can it be otherwise? EVERYONE knows that Marion Crane is going to get slashed.

But "Psycho" is much more than someone being murdered while taking a shower. To be fair I always thought the scene the let down of the film, but having seen it on the big screen (well, NFT1, which is about as big as it gets nowadays) I changed my mind. What's noticible on a small screen (some of the technical tricks behind it) suddenly disappeared from sight - I never noticed that the knife never actually touches Janet Leigh. Like the shower scene, another aspect of "Psycho" that has been turned into a cliché is Bernard Herrmann's string-only score. I love it and even Hitch himself admited that 33% of the success of the film was due to the music. But from homages ("Halloween") to pastiches, it's hard to see how original and brilliant that score really is. Someone who studied Herrmann's scores once told me that there is even a little off note when John Gavin disappoints Janet Leigh by something he says. Herrmann was a genius and that shows here.

Going back to the audience at my screening, there was a reaction to the second murder - although a great scene in its own right, it's not known unless you have seen the film already. It's not famous and because of that is unexpected, and unexpectedly scored - Bernard Herrmann's score almost made me jump. As such, it takes you out of your comfort zone which was Hitchcock's idea in the first place. That is the closest we can now hope to be where the director wanted us. And the same thing applies to the scene in the cellar towards the end. Again is not that well known. I remember jumping first time I ever saw the film. Totally caught me unaware.

From the opening scene Hitchcock manipulates his audience, drawing attention to the fact of the financial situation of the main characters (Janet Leigh and John Gavin) is the only obstacle to their happiness. Not your typical Hitchcock blonde, Janet Leigh's Marion Crane - not aloof, not out to get her man, not unreachable - she's also a very real character (and a very good performance). When faced with temptation she gives in. The camera keeps focusing on the money, emphasising its importance. However, poor Marion didn't think things through and she suddenly fully realises of the consequences of her action and decides to undo them. But then we get to where Hitch wanted us. Suddenly, we are revealled that the money and Marion herself, have been nothing but pure McGuffin. Norman, his mother and their motel (and what happens there) is all he had ever been interested in. And Norman is Anthony Perkins, in what became a curse of a role of which he could never release himself. He is excellent - hurt, shy, soft-spoken, a bit of a geek, an all-around nice guy with a possessive mother. The dinner scene with Janet Leigh at the motel is amazing, and don't think I ever had noticed it until now.

There are of course, some problems with the film - the most obvious being the final explanation, almost in Agatha Christie style. It is such an obvious cut from what happened before that it feels clunky - less the actual content but the manner which is presented, almost as an after-thought. John Gavin and Vera Miles don't really do much - he seems to only be there as The Hunk, and she is there to scream.

Something that I believe may surprise people is how overtly sexual it is. The film starts with Janet Leigh and John Gavin in a hotel room, just after having had sex. Behind Norman Bates' behaviour, we later find out, was his repressed desire. Sex again.

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