Thursday, August 28, 2008

psycho, by alfred hitchcock

This week, Film Club continued our investigation into early serial killer pictures by looking at Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (from 1960, as was our last pick, Peeping Tom). I'm making the assumption that anyone who reads this blog for the film writing already knows the major surprises in Psycho, but if you don't, you should be forewarned that this essay-let discusses most of them, so you might want to check out now.

The first forty-odd minutes of Psycho stand as one of the all-time great acts of directorial misdirection. We're introduced to Marion Crane, a nice-enough woman from Arizona, who is carrying on a relationship with Sam Loomis, a strapping young divorcee from California.

Both of them suffer from some degree of financial hardship—Marion is employed as a low-wage clerical worker, and Sam runs a hardware store but is saddled with some pretty punitive-sounding alimony payments. Consequently, they're forced to stay apart: neither one appears to have the wherewithal to up and quit their job and relocate to where the other one lives. That is, until one day some loaded Arizonan comes in waving a huge wad of cash:

Long story short: Marion, entrusted to take this wad to a safety-deposit box, instead decides to go on the run to California, planning to use the funds as a means of achieving her escape velocity. So far, this is all relatively standard fare for a romantic melodrama of the era—although what it's all doing in a movie called Psycho isn't exactly clear, at least not until the second night when she's on the road.

Marion opts to stay at the creepy-looking Bates Motel, whereupon, as you probably know, she is promptly stabbed to death in the shower.

Now, the "shower scene" is one of the most famous scenes in all of film history: even if you have never seen Psycho, odds are that you know that Psycho features a scene where someone gets stabbed in the shower with a giant knife (you can even probably imitate a short chunk of Bernard Hermann's memorable score). The scene is famous enough that we might forget just how much it flouts narrative convention: what has happened here is that Hitchcock has essentially set up a movie which, nearly an hour into it, has killed off its own protagonist. I see a lot of movies, and I'm hard-pressed to come up with another protagonist-centered movie that takes a similar chance. (Pulp Fiction kills off Vincent Vega in its second act, but has rearranged chronology so that he's back for the third. A very special and possibly nonexistent Film Club prize will go to the first person who can identify Pulp Fiction's more blatant lift from Psycho.)

Anyway. With Marion gone, the narrative leaves us in the hands of Norman Bates, the main proprietor of the motel. We follow him through the process of cleaning up the murder, disposing of the corpse, etc. There's something very odd that happens here, and Hitchcock highlights it through one profoundly troubling sequence. It comes when Bates tries to get rid of Marion's car by pushing it into the swamp. It sinks about halfway and then stops:

And then we're granted one of the great "oh fuck" reaction shots in all of cinema history:

What's remarkable about this moment is that the audience, too, thinks "oh fuck." We have somehow, through the magic of narrative psychology, bought into Norman's own wants and desires. In effect, Norman has become the film's new protagonist, the key figure of audience identification. This has an unsettling effect even if we only think he's an accomplice to his mother's murder—which is what the film, at this stage, wants us to believe—and that creepiness grows exponentially after the first viewing, because we know, in fact, that Norman is the one doing the murders. It's a nasty trick, making us realize just how easily we can identify with a murderer, and it's also vintage Hitchcock—at least as early as Strangers on a Train Hitchcock is probing the various ways in which even the most genteel-appearing people are fascinated by and attracted to ghastly violence. (1958's Vertigo also presents a variation on this theme, in the way that it radically deconstructs the folksy, likeable persona of one of the most folksy and likeable actors of all time, Jimmy Stewart.)

Ultimately, however, both Vertigo and Psycho back away from the darkest ramifications of their own nightmarish logic(s). Psycho tricks us into uncomfortably identifying with its central killer, but it chooses not sustain this discomfort. It balks at having a serial killer as the protagonist (making Peeping Tom the more daring film), and instead has to resort to bringing back Sam and introducing two new characters, Marion's sister Lila and a private investigator, Arbogast.

In a way, it could be said that the film's reluctance to stick with Norman as the new protagonist creates something of a "protagonist vacuum," into which the film's remaining characters temporarily step. For a while, we follow Arbogast on his investigations...

But then he comes to a bad end, too:

Inasmuch as Arbogast had become the protagonist for a while, this is essentially the same trick the movie used when it did away with Marion, although it functions less well the second time, for three main reasons: 1) we care less about Arbogast, having followed him for less time and having less sense of his motivations and character, 2) the film doesn't toggle back to Norman as the protagonist, but rather back to Sam and Lila, and 3) perhaps most simply of all, any shock repeated in a film is less shocking the second time.

So, in the end, this is Psycho's flaw: in its third act, when the tension should be ratcheting up to a great finale, we're instead left swamped in a bunch of talky scenes with a bunch of, well, nobodies:

This perhaps explains why, although Psycho is such a seminal film (all the great slasher franchises owe something to it), its most notable narrative moment has been copied so infrequently. (Of course, trying to keep a central protagonist alive for the whole run of a horror movie can sometimes post its own sort of challenge: see my write-up of Aswang (Film Club XVII) for a reminder about those perils.)

Next week: the latter half of Psycho becomes something of a missing-persons drama, so we'll take a look at a similarly-minded picture, The Vanishing (the 1988 Dutch original, not the 1993 American remake). Stay tuned~

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