Well folks, it’s time for another installment of Cinematic Century, and another brutal grudge match between two of my favorite directors of all time. It’s absolutely mind-blowing that both 1959 and 1960 would feature films directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, let alone having those four films be four of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Both of these directors were at the top of their game, churning out some of their most defining films, ushering in the bizarre decade that is the 1960’s. And last week I decided to give the slight edge to Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, which meant no disrespect to North By Northwest. It was a regular Sophie’s Choice. And, I’ve been given a very similar conundrum this week. Because once again I have a title bout between one of Hitchcock’s greatest films and one of Wilder’s. Honestly, at first I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal. I’ve loved Psycho from the first time I saw it as a child. It’s a film that helped foster a love of film, and it’s probably the Hitchcock movie I’ve seen the most in my life, including one time with a live accompanied score by the Colorado Symphony. But, to do my due diligence, I decided to check out one of the few Wilder films I’d never actually seen before, and popped in the Apartment before writing this article. And damned if I didn’t love it. It’s a wonderful movie, furthering Wilder’s attack on the withering Production Code, and featuring stellar performances from Jack Lemmon and Shirley McLaine. But, Psycho still edged it out. The Apartment is a great film, and I definitely recommend checking it out if you’ve never seen it before, but there’s no denying the power of Psycho. Which is also no slight on The Magnificent Seven or Village of the Damned, two other films from 1960 that I can’t speak highly enough of. But, there’s no point denying my gut instinct. Psycho is just that amazing.
And, as is so often the case, it was an absolute nightmare behind the scenes. Psycho began life as a novel by Robert Bloch, very loosely based off the life of murderer and necrophile Ed Gein, and it became a bit of a storm when it was released. Hitchcock came into contact with the book, and decided he’d turn it into a film, no matter what. And, it turned out that that would be a bit of a struggle. Despite the success of North By Northwest the studio was still concerned about Hitchcock, worrying that the failure of Vertigo would carry on. Plus, he was asking to make a film about a cross-dressing serial killer in which the lead role would be killed off in the first act. A bit of a hard sell. But, Hitchcock was able to convince them to let him make the film. On some contingencies. He wasn’t allowed to have nearly the budget that he’d had before, causing him to be a little more creative with the production. He staffed Psycho with crew from his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and convinced his cast to work for much cheaper than they normally would. So, he worked cheap, fast, and with a crew who had largely never worked in film before, and managed to get the film done on his terms. He continued to push the already beleaguered Production Code, putting in as much murder, sex, and toilets as he wanted, Code be damned. And, he got away with it all. Hitchcock then prepared to release the film, stirring up an inordinate amount of intrigue. He had people buy up copies of the book so that no one could read it and learn the twist. He had his principle cast refuse to do much press for the film, keeping it all as mysterious as possible, and making himself the center piece of the promotion of the film. And, he made it strictly clear, and widely known, that people were not allowed to come into the film late, because there was a shocking twist in it. And it payed off. The public loved the film, and it became a smash success. Which didn’t do much to earn Hitchcock the respect his films deserved at the time, seemingly confirming the wrap that he was a populist director of titillation and little more, giving him a few more years before Francois Truffaut admitted his deep love for Hitchcock, letting him finally get the admiration that he deserved all along. And he also got to make one of the scariest, most suspenseful films of all time.
Psycho starts off following a young woman named Marion Crane. She works at a real-estate firm in Phoenix, Arizona, and is trying to find a way to make a real life with her boyfriend Sam Loomis. Sam is divorced, and saddled with quite a few debts after taking on his father’s business in California, and all of that seems to be standing in his way to making an honest woman out of Marion. She seems resigned that some miracle is going to have to happen for her and Sam to be able to get together, which is when a miracle arrives in her life. A wealthy man arrives at her office to put down a $40,000 payment on a piece of property in town, and Marion has been entrusted to deliver it to the banks. However, as she’s driving to the bank, she starts to think, and decides that this is the help she needs to start her life. So, she gets it in her head to steal the money, and drive straight to California to start a new life with Sam, damn the consequences. She heads straight out of Phoenix, after awkwardly running into her boss, and starts the trek to California. It’s too much to handle in a single day though, and she ends up sleeping on the side of the road, which earns her some suspicion from a local police officer. To try and shake the officer after their tense chat, she buys a whole new car, and speeds off to California, trying to get to Sam as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the day gets away from her, and she’s once again forced to pull over for the night. But, instead of just sleeping on the side of the road again, she pulls off at a completely vacant motel. The Bates Motel. Marion then meets the proprietor of the Motel, Norman Bates, and rents a room for the night. She and Norman get chatting, and she realizes that he lives in the small home behind the motel with his domineering mother, living a live of miserable solitude with no one but her in his life. And, after talking with Norman for a bit, Marion decides that what she’s doing is crazy. She makes up her mind to return to Phoenix and give the money back, and hops in the shower before going to bed.
But, as Marion is showering, a figure enters her room, pulls the curtain back, and stabs her to death. Marion dies in the bathroom as Norman comes running into the room, apparently having found his mother covered in blood. This isn’t the first time that Mrs. Bates has killed someone, and Norman decides to hide Marion’s body, luggage, and car in a swamp behind the motel, hoping that no one will ever find out what happened. Unfortunately for Norman, a week later people are starting to worry about Marion. Her employer is furious about the money, and has keyed Marion’s sister Lila in on the mystery. So, Lila takes it upon herself to begin investigating, and heads straight to Sam Loomis, figuring Marion ran off with him. But, Sam has no idea where Marion is, and didn’t even know about the money. The two then begin trying to figure out what has happened when they’re approached by a private investigator named Arbogast who has been hired by the rich man to find Marion and his money. He’s managed to track down Sam as well, and tells them that he’s willing to let them know when he finds Marion. They agree, and Arbogast begins searching all the local motels, since Marion actually made it remarkably close to Sam’s town. And, after quite a few attempts, he finally comes across the Bates Motel. Norman is obviously cagey and suspicious about Arbogast’s questions, but it’s clear that Marion did stay there, her signature in Norman’s ledger proving it. However, Norman swears he didn’t see anything, and refuses to let Arbogast meet with his mother. So, Arbogast makes a call to Sam, filling him in on everything, and then heads up to the house to speak with Mrs. Bates anyway. But, when he starts climbing the stairs to her bedroom he’s attacked, falling down the stairs before being stabbed to death. Norman then arrives, and tosses Arbogast into the swamp.
A few days later, after having not heard from Arbogast again, Sam and Lila begin to get worried. They go visit the local sheriff nearest to the Bates Motel in the hopes of getting some more information, and end up finding some distressing information. Mrs. Bates has been dead for years, after killing herself. They assure Sam and Lila that Norman is living there alone, despite what Arbogast reported to them. So, smelling something fishy, Sam and Lila decide to pose as a married couple, and go stay at the Bates Motel to dig up some answers. When they arrive Norman is thrilled to see new customers, and Sam starts chatting with him while Lila claims to go lie down for a rest, and in actuality goes to snoop around the Bates home. She gets inside, and finds the place deserted. She does find Mrs. Bates’ room, preserved perfectly, along with Norman’s disturbingly adolescent room, but no trace of Marion, Arbogast, or Mrs. Bates. She continues to snoop while Sam gets a little too irritated with Norman, and tips his hand that they’re up to something. Norman becomes terrified that they’re going to figure out what’s going on, and cold-cocks Sam, knocking him unconscious. Norman then races into the home, causing Lila to go hide in the fruit cellar. And, while in the cellar she comes across the desiccated corpse of Mrs. Bates, dressed up and wearing a wig. And, while freaking out about that, Norman comes running into the room, wearing one of his mother’s dresses, a wig, and brandishing a knife. He attempts to kill Lila, but Sam arrives and subdues him. The film then ends by having a psychologist diagnose Norman to the police, Sam, and Lila. Apparently Norman Bates has a split-personality disorder, and has actually created a murderous identity as Mrs. Bates. So, when people arrived at the Motel, the jealous mother side of him would take over and kill them, leaving Norman to come to his senses and dispose of the evidence. And, it now seems like the Mother personality has taken completely over, leaving Norman Bates out of control of his won body.
Every now and then I feature movies on this project that make me feel a little weird to talk about critically. I mean, Psycho is great. I don’t think there are many people who are debating that. It’s a movie that has gone down as probably Hitchcock’s most recognizable film, not necessarily his best, but the film that most people associate with his career. It’s one of the most famous horror films, and just films period, in the entirety of the medium. And it’s easy to see why. It’s still one of the most affecting and suspenseful films I’ve ever seen, despite this being probably my twentieth viewing of the film. It’s just so universally effective, managing to tell a relatively simple story in a way that’s instantly captivating. Yeah, at the time of its release it was surrounded by Hitchcock’s weird publicity stunts and the shock of seeing a big actress like Janet Leigh just get killed off a third of the way through, but the reason that it has stuck around in the public consciousness after all of these years is the fact that it’s just an amazing movie. It’s tense and claustrophobic, partly thanks to the fact that they didn’t have the budget for many sets, but it works brilliantly. This is a perfect example of rolling with the punches and making the best art you can with the available resources. Hitchcock had a much smaller budget and was working with a crew that was used to television, but he didn’t settle for making a movie that felt like it was an episode of his television show. He used all of his artistry and managed to make a film that was terrifying, simplistic, and instantly iconic. Everything about this film has gone down in history and is instantly recognizable. The cast is amazing, the score is phenomenal, the cinematography is voyeuristic and unnerving, and the twist set the standard for all future thrillers that wanted to catch their audience off guard.
The twist is probably one of the most famous things about Psycho. The idea that Hitchcock would cast someone as famous as Leigh, only to kill her before the plot really even got going was enough to blow the minds of audiences in 1960. But, over the years, the thing that I find most fascinating about Psycho isn’t the plot twist. We’ve all grown up with the knowledge of the twist, and the shock of her death doesn’t carry quite the same weight as it did at the time. Instead, what most impresses me is the fact that this film has a genre twist. The film opens up in a fairly traditionally Hitchcockian format. It’s the story about an average person who has the chance to do something criminal, and examines what that choice does to her. That’s a fairly standard plot for Hitchcock. It’s something of a morality play. And, while that plot is just ramping up, it encounters a serial killer story, already in progress, and that plot then takes the film over. We’re introduced to a protagonist, learn backstory, motivation, and get our own plot going, only to have that protagonist killed by someone, and then that person takes the movie over. And I frankly can’t think of many other films that are able to pull something like that off. It goes from a suspense film to a horror film so effortlessly and fluidly that it leaves me flabbergasted every time. The story of Norman Bates could be it’s own story, from beginning to end, and Marion Crane’s story could be its own thing from beginning to end. They would be completely different tones and styles. And yet, this movie takes these two separate plots, and smashes them together, then examining the aftermath of these types of stories intermingling. Because we’re all leading out own stories, and our lives intertwine in the strangest ways. It’s not always thievery and murder, but it could happen.
Psycho was written by Joseph Stefano, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and released by Paramount Pictures, 1960.
Categories: Cinematic Century
Indeed, I watched both films and they were equally great, but since I already have a biased preference for the horror genre, I would take Psycho any day 😀
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