Thursday, April 15, 2010

Film as Film: A look at Hitchcock’s Psycho

Psycho is one of the few films loved by audiences and critics alike. It is a shocker, a thriller, but also an arthouse film. More has been written about Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock than just about any other film or filmmaker. However, this has been a fairly recent trend (outside of France). In its day, 1960, Psycho, although (or perhaps because of) making millions at the box office, did not fare well with the critics. Peter John Dyer in Sight and Sound (autumn 1960) wrote: ‘…it is a very minor work. Hitchcock is not a serious director (except in his worst films)…[Psycho has] an unacceptable basic premise.’

Nevertheless, critics of the younger generation were to hail Hitchcock and his films as the work of a genius. The French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema said of Psycho: ‘Every scene is a lesson in direction by its precision, its sharpness, its efficiency, but also its beauty.’ The film-maker Francois Truffaut, formally a critic on Cahiers du Cinema, published a book consisting of lengthy interviews with Hitchcock. Truffaut tried hard to make out that Hitchcock’s films are more than ‘mere’ thrillers, and that they should be treated and examined as works of art. He probably succeeded: Hitchcock’s work as a whole is now admired for the themes running through them, its sense of humour, pacing, beauty, etc. Even his ‘bad’ films are interesting for their thematic links to others.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Psycho is how the film manipulates the audience so that they do not know what is coming next. The first scene establishes audience identification with the characters. Marion and Sam are nice, ordinary people, who, like everyone, have their problems. The scene in the bank with Marion and the business tycoon reinforces this: he is bragging about his money, saying about unhappiness ‘I buy it off’. We have just heard how Marion cannot afford to get married, and now there is this slimy character saying how much money he has. The audience feels sorry for Marion and her situation.

Even when Marion steals the money, the audience still sides with her because she cannot even afford to get married, and the man she has stolen it from can afford a $40,000 wedding present for his eighteen-year old daughter. In the scene where the policeman questions Marion (when she is in her car), again the audience is made to feel sorry for her, as he is an over-bearing, menacing looking person. His sunglasses protect him from being seen as a person at all. The camera angle points upward to suggest his power and Marion’s helplessness. Hitchcock himself was afraid of authority.

The scenes with Marion in her car, driving through the night, are filmed with the camera looking straight at her. She is looking at us. The soundtrack of the shot is extremely subjective: we hear Marion’s thoughts about what her employers and friends might be saying about her.

Although we have not really identified with Marion’s lover, Sam (perhaps he is a bad actor), we do identify with Norman Bates, the owner of the motel where Marion stops. He is shy and polite, makes jokes and is friendly towards Marion. He makes her some sandwiches and they talk in Norman’s ‘parlour’. This is a strange scene, and a casual chat between strangers does not usually involve talk of taxidermy, entrapment, madness and mothers. By the end of the conversation Marion has decided to go back home and home and give the money back she stole.

Of course, the biggest coup of the film is to have the ‘heroine’ killed after only forty-five minutes of screen time. Having identified with Marion Crane and her situation, we then see her knifed to death in the shower. It is a powerful, shocking scene and after it the audience is in total confusion as to what will happen next. Traditionally, of course, the hero/heroine of a film live happily ever after. In Psycho there is no happy ending. It’s hard to look at Psycho objectively now and to realise just how shocking it was in its day. It’s interesting to compare Psycho with Billy Wilder’s equally cynical black and white film of the same year, The Apartment. But Psycho constantly brings the audience into the light only to throw them out again into the darkness.

After Marion’s murder we still symphasise with Norman. After all, it was his mother who killed her, not him. We even admire Norman for covering up for his mother and protecting her. We feel sorry for him having to look after her, and he has no friends. When Marion’s car doesn’t sink straight away in the swamp, it is a tense moment for both Norman and the audience. We want the car to sink. After all, he has cleaned up everything so efficiently.

But the rest of the film is not as effective as what has proceeded. The characters of Lila and Sam are sketchy and we care little for them. Private detective Arbogast is a smug and unlikeable person. It is with Norman whom we will identify, symphasise and pity for the rest of the film.

Throughout Psycho, Hitchcock uses many subjective tracking shots (for example when Lila is walking towards the Bates house on the hill). This again emphasises audience identification, almost participation. Donald Spoto has said ‘Hitchcock directs the audience more than he directs the actors… The characters on the screen are finally one character, and that character is each individual viewer…’ A reason for Psycho’s success is the way it draws in the audience, forcing them to look at themselves.

Another way Hitchcock does this is through the use of mirrors. Although mirrors has often been used stylistically in films (Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai is an extreme example), Hitchcock’s use of them is extremely effective. An obvious interpretation of mirrors in Psycho is that they mirror Norman Bate’s split personality. There are mirrors throughout the film, which is just one of the themes that makes Psycho such a balanced and perfectly constructed film, even though it is depicting chaos, murder, disorder and insanity.

When Marion crane is getting changed after she has decided to steal the money, there is a mirror in her room; there is another one when she through her money in the ladies room at the garage; in the Bates motel there is a mirror in the office; there is one in Marion’s room and another in Norman’s mothers room in the house.

The amount of mirrors may not seem out of the ordinary: of course, in every day life there are mirrors wherever we go. But in Psycho, Hitchcock’s use of composition and character placement within the frame suggests strong reasons and meanings of the mirrors. Characters are mainly placed in profile to the camera and the mirror, so that the viewer sees only half of the characters’ true self and half of their own reflection.

Mirrors tell a physical truth; they make us see ourselves as we are. A more complex interpretation of the mirrors is that we are seeing ourselves in Psycho, perhaps sides we would not or should not see. Each person has more than one side to their personality: we all act differently to different people at different times. Donald Spoto believes that the characters in the film ‘represent different aspects of the viewer’s mind.’ The mirrors reflect the characters and as the viewer has become so subjective towards the characters (mainly Marion and Norman), their reflection could well be ours. However, mirrors only superficially provide the truth.

Light and dark is another important and complex theme in the film. Firstly, light and dark can be looked at in terms of the film’s images – its use of lighting, day and night, also its use of colour. Secondly is the way the film examines the dark recesses of the human mind and its capacity for evil. However, Psycho is an extremely visual film. This may sound obvious as film is a visual medium, but few films are purely cinematic. Psycho communicates its terror, evil and darkness through its images.

Its contrasts between light and dark (which could also mean good and evil, sanity and insanity – again these all emphasise the split in Norman Bates, and Psycho is a film of extremes) are extremely effective. For example, the opening shot is an objective shot of a city skyline (we’ve seen it in a thousand films). It is sunny. The camera chooses a building, then a window, and then goes through the window and into darkness. The viewer is being transported from light into dark from the opening shot.

In the room the camera has ‘chosen’ (it almost like a random choice, deciding to change these peoples lives here and now) Marion is wearing a white bra. After she’s decided to steal the money, her bra is black. It is Hitchcock explaining character in purely cinematic terms, which is why I find Psycho so impressive: it tells its story in images.

Some more examples: the black sunglasses of the policeman makes him seem menacing and evil. When Marion is driving in the rain it gets darker and darker. It is pitch black, and then: the neon glow of the Bates motel sign. When Marion is changing in her motel room, Norman looks through the hole in the room. It is dark all around the hole, which has a piercing white light. This light reflects onto Norman’s dark face as he puts the painting back on the wall. The white starkness is a contrast to the outside, to Marion’s black bra and to the parlour where he has been peeping. The shower scene is shocking because of its whiteness and cleanliness: how could anything nasty happen here?

Some of the most interesting uses of light and dark can be seen in the shots following the private detective’s murder. The shot immediately after his murder is of Lila and Sam sitting down at either end of the screen (they are in fact both looking out of the screen). The light comes from one side, is extreme and covers half of Lila. Sam is also in partial darkness. There is smoke in the air. As well as emphasising the contrasts of the film (Norman has just murdered), it shows the characters confusion, helplessness and isolation. They have been waiting for a phone call from Arbogast and are wondering what could have happened to him.

When Sam goes to the Bates motel and tells Lila to wait, she is seen in complete blackness. Behind her, gardening forks can be seen in silhouette against some windows which are dimly lit. The forks are fanned out, as if about to attack Lila. It is a malevolent composition. When Sam comes back with nothing to report, he is seen talking with Lila in profile (reminiscent of the mirrors) and in total silhouette. This emphasises the characters being both figuratively and literally ‘in the dark’. This kind of lighting brings to mind Welles’ Citizen Kane, but I think in Psycho it has a far more menacing, brooding, effective and meaningful presence. It not only explains Sam and Lila’s situation, but also Norman’s personality, which permeates much of the film and its images.

The strong contrasts of light and dark may also refer to the darkness and emptiness of modern life. Psycho has an uncanny physicality about it: building, objects, film, editing are all felt. There is a feeling of waste and emptiness. The way money should solve everything when so few people have it. The way a human life can be cut away so easily and randomly. Psycho is saying man is not in control of his destiny.

Perhaps the most effective use of lighting occurs in the scene where Lila goes down to the cellar and sees Norman’s mother. Lila taps the mother on the shoulder and the body turns around to reveal a bare skull. As Lila screams she swings back her arm and knocks the naked light bulb suspended in the air. Norman comes in (dressed as mother) to kill Lila. Sam stops him. The light bulb is swinging to and fro. The room changes shape due to the changes in light and dark. This is the climax to what has been seen throughout the film: contrasts in light and dark.

In a grosteque parody of life, light can even be seen shining in and out of the skull’s eye sockets, like moving eyeballs. After such extremes, the second to last shot is of Norman in a neutral gray, flat, prison cell, alone and alienated. He has now been totally taken over by his mother’s personality. It is a haunting image.

Psycho, like all art, can be looked into and discussed endlessly. It can operate ‘simply’ as a thriller or horror movie, but it is thematically so dense, its images so powerful, that it demands to be examined as much more. Many critics may have read too much into it, but like any work of art, if it has any value, it can be interpreted in many different ways. We all bring along our own personal baggage when we enter the cinema.

Psycho has its faults. The characters of Sam and Lila are sketchy and unappealing. After Marion’s car has sunk into the swamp, critics have said the film falls apart (perhaps in terms of plot it does, but its themes and images continue to the final shot). However, the psychiatrist scene is something of a disappointment when looking at the film as a whole. The audience has just been taken to hell, and then the psychiatrist explains everything we have just experienced in rational thought. It is almost an anti-climax, but perhaps giving us a chance to breathe.

However, overall the film is astonishingly effective. It is so balanced a film because of the connections and themes that run through it. Apart from the ones mentioned, other themes may include birds, food, voyeurism, sex, money, relationships… These themes are, in the main, conveyed through visual means.

Much of the film is silent (i.e., no talking – obviously Bernard Herrman's music plays a huge part in its effectiveness), which should be what cinema is all about. In this respect it is a universal film. Nowadays films have too much talking. The scenes from where Norman looks through the hole in the wall at Marion, up to the far sinking in the swamp is about eighteen minutes long. There is no talking and it is one of the most impressive sequences in any film.

However, perhaps my two favourite shots occur towards the end of the film when Lila is searching the Bates house. There is a zoom into a pair of brass hands. It is pure Hitchcock, pure film: simple, direct, mysterious, scary and beautiful. The following shot is of Lila catching her double reflection in the mirror. It is a terrifying shot, for her and us.

In short, Psycho is film as film (as V F Perkins would say). Hitchcock himself only admired the technical aspects of the film. He was very pleased with himself when he said the audience were aroused by ‘pure film’.

Raymond Durgnat – The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock
V F Perkins – Film as Film
Stephen Rebello – Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho
Eric Rhode – A History of the Cinema from its Origins to 1970
Donald Spoto – The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of his Motion Pictures
Francois Truffaut – Hitchcock
Robin Wood – Hitchock’s films

• Psycho is 50 years old this year and being re-released at selected cinemas this week.

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