Note: This second Halloween entry in the classic Allan Fish Bonanza Encore series is the twenty-third in the series overall to post over the past weeks at WitD.
by Allan Fish
(USA 1960 109m) DVD1/2
A boy’s best friend is his mother
p Alfred Hitchcock d Alfred Hitchcock (and Saul Bass) w Joseph Stefano novel Robert Bloch ph John L.Russell ed George Tomasini m Bernard Herrmann art Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy tit Saul Bass
Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), John Gavin (Sam Loomis), Janet Leigh (Marion Crane), Simon Oakland (Dr Richmond), Martin Balsam (Milton Arbogast), John McIntire (Sheriff Al Chambers), Patricia Hitchcock (Caroline), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs Chambers), Frank Albertson (Tom Cassidy),
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a stand alone in his filmography. It’s not the cruellest or most cynical film he ever made, which would probably be either his often repulsive Frenzy or his earlier British film Sabotage (blowing a small boy up on a bus, it doesn’t get much more cynical than that!) but Psycho is Hitch’s last masterpiece, an unsettling last hurrah. Unsettling in that it is deliberately shot cheaply (as befits it being shot quickly by a crew from his TV series) and that it killed off its nominal star but a third of the way in.
The action begins in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday 11th December at 2.43pm, where secretary Marion Crane is enjoying a lunchtime love-making session with her boyfriend before returning to work. There she is asked by one of her boss’s clients to deposit $40,000 for him into the bank on the way home. Rather than deposit the money, she absconds with it to go off to meet her lover. She trades her car, somewhat hurriedly and suspiciously, and gets caught up in a rainstorm, forcing her to miss her turn-off on the freeway and wind up at a desolate motel, where she decides to spend the night.
Right from when she takes the cash (the same amount Kathie Moffett took from Whit Sterling in Out of the Past, coincidentally) we become suspicious of Marion. Here there was cynicism to relish, and my favourite moment is the lip curl that crawls across Leigh’s face when she relishes how this will be seen by her boss and friends. Her flirtation has turned to amoral tease; she’s getting off on the thrill. Janet Leigh always had, even in her ingénue days of the late forties, the sort of figure to make grown men walk into trees. Yet for all Marion’s use of this and teasing of her boss, his client and Norman (through his peephole) in the film and the audience out of it, Marion is fated to die in that shower in chalet number one and there’s nothing we can do about it. Though the shower scene was always going to be chaste (ne’er a nipple was seen, as DVD freeze frame has proved, she was wearing a flesh coloured bikini), Hitchcock actually wanted the opening love scene to be done topless by Leigh, but realised he would never get it past the censors as he might have done in France (besides, one can’t have seen Janet Leigh going for it, though considering her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis’ penchant for it, who knows). It’s still shocking, as indeed is the later murder of Arbogast, the P.I., and only then do we realise we’ve been lead up the garden path by Hitch. The movie isn’t about Marion at all, rather in the same way Antonioni lead us to believe the almost contemporary L’Avventura was about Lea Massari’s Anna. It’s rather about the unfortunate Norman Bates, and though he’s a serial killer it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him.
Hitchcock apparently hated the finished film, but it was Bernard Herrmann who convinced him of the film’s worth. It was his score that finally gave the film, if you excuse the pun, its cutting edge, a score to shiver the timbers off the hardiest of pirates; an all strings, screeching nightmare of a score, like electric shocks through the nervous system. It may not be as rich a score as his masterpiece Vertigo, but it’s no less impressive. Yet the film could not have worked but for the performances, two of which (from Martin Balsam and Janet Leigh as the differing victims) are superb and one of which (Perkins’ Norman) is beyond iconic. Poor Tony Perkins never got over the role, but it was enough in itself to guarantee him a place in the Hall of Fame. I mean, he’s so good, who would think of Norman as a killer? “He wouldn’t hurt a fly…