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Nathaniel

Psycho

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This new topic is inspired by the Vertigo thread, and especially by Ryan's rascally comment that "there's not too much going on in Psycho." Them's fightin' words! For me, Psycho is a terrifying look at evil. It asks the provocative question: are we more than our skulls?

On the face of it, the first half is pretty standard noir (larcenous woman on the lam), but the tone is strange, foreboding. The documentary-like opening shot (complete with title card affirming place, date and time) draws us in curiously. The mundane bank scenes are crucial in establishing the illusion of realism. The encounters with the cop and the used car salesman keep the paranoia level high. The long parlor exchange between Marion and Norman (shot in isolating close-ups) forces us to identify with both characters. When the knife comes down we are left feeling completely vulnerable. We reason that if the heroine can be killed before the film is half over, then anything can happen. In fact, the whole structure of Psycho is peculiar. After each murder the plot restarts itself, which led one critic to remark that the film can be divided musically into three "movements."

Hitchcock's greatest achievement in Psycho, cinematically speaking, is the way he manipulates us into participating in the sinful narrative. He lingers for an unusually long time on seemingly unimportant scenes: Marion carefully considering how she will hide the stolen money; Norman mopping up the bathroom and transporting the body to the swamp. I believe this was done in order to "implicate" the audience, or at least fool us into sympathizing with criminals. We secretly want Marion—a thief and an adulterer—to get away with the money, just as we secretly want Norman to successfully cover up his mother's crime. In order for the final scenes to work, Norman's charm must convince (Anthony Perkins is brilliant at conveying Norman's emotional fragility). How else will we be forced to confront the "monster" within ourselves?

Many have found fault with the psychiatrist's monologue at the end, but I like it. It's long and expositional, but it deepens the horror of what we just saw. Through his speech we find out that Norman in fact murdered his mother and her lover as a child. This deepens the film's meaning because it acknowledges the existence of evil as an autonomous force. The film goes beyond psychosis to suggest that at some point—exactly when or how it doesn't say—Norman submitted to this evil and allowed it to take him over completely. Who or what "possesses" Norman at the end, staring back at us through skin and bone? Is it "mother" or something else?

Unlike The Birds, which is Hitchcock's most deliberately obscure film (no clear explanations are given for the apocalyptic events), Psycho can be reasonably explained. But it can't ever be definitively explained because you can't definitively explain evil. It laughs in the face of psychiatry, just as "mother" laughs at having fooled everybody into thinking her harmless.

It's debatable, but I think we can find evidence of Hitchcock's faith in his consciousness of evil. We may not recognize it at first, but in Psycho we are dealing directly with the diabolical. And that description doesn't even begin to cover just how masterfully directed and hypnotically weird the whole thing is. Apart from being one of the most disturbing films of all time, it's also, on a purely experiential level, one of the most "fun."

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I believe this was done in order to "implicate" the audience, or at least fool us into sympathizing with criminals. We secretly want Marion—a thief and an adulterer—to get away with the money, just as we secretly want Norman to successfully cover up his mother's crime.

I cannot agree, if only because this is so foreign to my experience with PSYCHO. I'm very engaged with these characters (though aside from Marion Crane and Norman Bates, PSYCHO's characters are dullsville), but I have no desire to see them get away with crime. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Regarding PSYCHO's treatment of evil, I don't think PSYCHO offers a particularly complex or insightful examination of the notion. The viewer has to do most of the work; examining the nature and/or origin of evil isn't one of PSYCHO's priorities.

Edited by Ryan H.

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I believe this was done in order to "implicate" the audience, or at least fool us into sympathizing with criminals. We secretly want Marion—a thief and an adulterer—to get away with the money, just as we secretly want Norman to successfully cover up his mother's crime.

I cannot agree, if only because this is so foreign to my experience with PSYCHO. I'm very engaged with these characters (though aside from Marion Crane and Norman Bates, PSYCHO's characters in PSYCHO are dullsville), but I have no desire to see them get away with crime. Quite the opposite, in fact.

How unusual. On the whole I'd say that Psycho is one of the most universal films its effect on audiences. Reading a variety of film reviews (both cursory and scholarly) you'll find that they all more or less compliment each other. Of course, a whole host of readings (moral, psychological, spiritual) can be derived from it, but people's experience of the film is basically the same. I'm curious, Ryan, when did you first see Psycho? I think I was eleven—young enough to be impressionable but old enough to comprehend the basic nuances plot. My appreciation has only ever increased since then.

Regarding PSYCHO's treatment of evil, I don't think PSYCHO offers a particularly complex or insightful examination of the notion. The viewer has to do most of the work; examining the nature and/or origin of evil isn't one of PSYCHO's priorities.

I actually agree with this. I consciously bring a Christian perspective to Psycho, but it's not a Christian film. Its priority is to immerse you in a series of highly explicit encounters, leaving you pleasurably exhausted and vaguely disturbed. If you are an engaged viewer, you won't have to do much work at all; the film works on you. But putting all the pieces together and coming up with a coherent interpretation takes work, as it so often does with great films. That's certainly true of Vertigo (although I appreciate your personal rapport with that film).

Speaking of Vertigo, Psycho carries over a few of its themes, most obviously the transference of personality (Madeleine "takes over" Judy just as "mother" takes over Norman), although Psycho's treatment is scarier and more psychologically intense.

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Persona   

Great way to start a thread, Nathaniel. Nice stuff.

Bizarre article.

When they say rereleased, are they talking about a new R2 or a new 35mm release?

Edited by Persona

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Great way to start a thread, Nathaniel. Nice stuff.

Thanks, dawg. I'd like to see if anyone else is game for a discussion on The Birds. There are days when I think it's Hitchcock's best. In thematic complexity, scene construction—everything.

And man, this new Psycho book sounds interesting. Graysmith sure has a knack for obsessing over weird crimes, doesn't he? I'll have to put aside my Black Dahlia book for this one.

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Great way to start a thread, Nathaniel. Nice stuff.

Thanks, dawg. I'd like to see if anyone else is game for a discussion on The Birds. There are days when I think it's Hitchcock's best. In thematic complexity, scene construction—everything.

I'd be up for it, but I won't be kind. tongue.gif

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Darren H   

I'd be up for a discussion of The Birds, which I haven't seen for years. It and the other Tippi Hedron film, Marnie (which I also haven't seen for years), have been on my to-watch list for a couple months now. They seem to be experiencing something of a critical revival.

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I'd be up for a discussion of The Birds, which I haven't seen for years. It and the other Tippi Hedron film, Marnie (which I also haven't seen for years), have been on my to-watch list for a couple months now. They seem to be experiencing something of a critical revival.

Neither really deserve one. As far as I'm concerned, the world of cinema would be no poorer for their absence. That said, I'm up for discussing them. Even though they both rank as mediocre Hitch outings, they still have their interesting aspects. For the same reason, I would be up for discussing FRENZY, another so-so Hitch outing that has received something of a critical reappraisal in recent years.

Edited by Ryan H.

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Darren H   

The late, great critic Robin Wood: "If you don't like Marnie you don't really like Hitchcock. I would go further and say if you don't love Marnie, you don't love the cinema."

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The late, great critic Robin Wood: "If you don't like Marnie you don't really like Hitchcock. I would go further and say if you don't love Marnie, you don't love the cinema."

Ah, hyperbole.

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The late, great critic Robin Wood: "If you don't like Marnie you don't really like Hitchcock. I would go further and say if you don't love Marnie, you don't love the cinema."

You know, Wood was on to something. At first, it's easy to laugh at the soap opera clichés, the Freudian excesses, the women's magazine layouts. But then you realize Hitch is using those things to highly expressive ends.

Edited by Nathaniel

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NBooth   

The Hitchcock/Tuffaut tapes are now online. The IFC 'blog takes a look at the section on Psycho:

Francois Truffaut: I read the novel, "Psycho," which I thought was, frankly, very poor. In fact, worse than bad. In fact, I am surprised it was even written at all. It's so absurd and even almost dishonest, since there are constant descriptions of Norman sitting down next to his mother and talking to her. And this convention works very well in cinema and not at all in a novel. Isn't that your opinion?"

Alfred Hitchcock: Sure. Well I probably -- you see, when I look for an idea sometimes I read the novel right through and sometimes I don't. I don't think I ever read that thing.

FT: Someone gave you a reading of it?

AH: Yes. Or I might have read it very quickly once, that's all. And never looked at it again.

FT: But what attracted you to this one then?

AH: I think the murder in the bathtub coming out of the blue.

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What a film. I found myself most engaged by the first two-thirds of the film.

I agree with Nathaniel about how the film 'implicates' the viewer in the crimes that are being committed (much the same way, I might add, that Hitchcock makes the audience 'voyeurs' in Rear Window).

That sequence in the car before Lila drives up to the Bates Motel . . . what a scene.

I'm learning to appreciate the small moments in Hitchcock films, and disregard all that's frankly ridiculous (that ending monologue by the psychiatrist . . . come on!)

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Watched this again last week. On the surface, Psycho may seem like a prolonged nihilistic black joke. But once you begin to think of "mother" not as a "she" or a "he" but as an "it," the film begins to take on a spiritual aspect.

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NBooth   
37 minutes ago, Nathaniel said:

Watched this again last week. On the surface, Psycho may seem like a prolonged nihilistic black joke. But once you begin to think of "mother" not as a "she" or a "he" but as an "it," the film begins to take on a spiritual aspect.

Weirdly enough, I've just come off a month-long Psycho binge which included watching every season of Bates Motel as well as all of the sequels to the original movie, reading the book, and--just last week!--rewatching the original. As I commented on Facebook, Hitchcock improves on the novel in just about every way except that silly monologue at the end, which is still pretty silly in the book but somehow isn't quite as silly.

As far as Mother goes, I think the only way to make any sense at all out of the whole thing is to treat her as an "it"--not necessarily a spiritual reality, but as something sinister lurking just outside whatever it is that makes up reality. When the sequels tried to make sense out of the psychosis they just wind up becoming more incoherent (Bates Motel is different since it's largely from Norma's perspective, and as such the psychosis becomes a melodramatic symbol for adolescence). From my understanding, Bloch wrote the novel after thinking about how little we can know about our neighbors, even in small communities ("we're all in our own private traps"). If we could really understand Norman, then he would be containable--which is what the psychoanalyst tries to do. By ending, however, with Norma/n (as Bloch does), Hitchcock unsettles that easy containment. Or something.

By the way, I was surprised--though not very surprised--to discover that Mary (the book's name for Marion) dies two chapters into the novel. The whole first half-hour of the movie is, thus, entirely on Hitchcock and his screenwriters.

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Attica   
14 hours ago, NBooth said:

 

By the way, I was surprised--though not very surprised--to discover that Mary (the book's name for Marion) dies two chapters into the novel. The whole first half-hour of the movie is, thus, entirely on Hitchcock and his screenwriters.

I think this choice kind of shows some of the genius of Hitch.  He played the film like his typical suspense film and then gave a twist that made the film come completely unhinged  (even while he was still in complete control of course.)  Then things are set up just nicely for the rug to be further pulled from under us.  He's made the audiences perception unhinged with less sure footing and then gives us a madman.  For us there has always been a cultural awareness of a least a sense of what happens in that film, but for it's original audience it would have been a complete shocker.  It would have been mind blowing.

14 hours ago, NBooth said:

Hitchcock improves on the novel in just about every way except that silly monologue at the end, which is still pretty silly in the book but somehow isn't quite as silly.

I kind of think it's supposed to be silly though.  I think it's an example of Hitch wringing his hands in gleeful abandon.  He's scared and unnerved us and now he's taking it a step further in making it both unnerving and having a sense of his wry/twisted humour.  The guys utterly loony.

 

14 hours ago, NBooth said:

I think the only way to make any sense at all out of the whole thing is to treat her as an "it"--not necessarily a spiritual reality, but as something sinister lurking just outside whatever it is that makes up reality.

Possibly.  I think the whole point is that our conception of reality (at least in our interactions with the film) has become totally unraveled just like his.  Hitch has unravelled it for us somewhat already.  Then his given us this next thing that cannot be made sense of.  Then add to that the whole cross dressing bit, which at that time would have been more strange to the perceptions than it is now.

But at the end the film does tip it's toes into the realm of the horror film.  It's giving us the sense that our views of reality are a lot more fragile than we would want to think.  So with that sense of "chaos" there is something sinister outside of reality that we can't put our fingers on.  But we know that if reality is distorted in ways that give us such a lunatic, that it can't be good.

 

13 hours ago, Ryan H. said:

the Birds, which I now regard as second only to Vertigo in the Hitchcock canon.

I would probably agree.  Vertigo is a film that has a lot going on, but the Birds is more accessible to me.  It reaches me on more of a gut level.

Hitch is considered to be a horror director by some because of his persona and the T.V. show, but really Psycho and the Birds are his only forays into the horror genre and the Birds is the film where he basically stays in the genre the whole way through.  It's a film that is freaky at the time, but which has a deeper concept that when one thinks it through is utterly horrifying.  Something has gone wrong at the core of nature.  Order has become chaos.

It's not something strange lurking just outside whatever makes up reality, as NBooth had said about Psycho, but now reality itself has gone strange, and yet the film gives me an essence of something outside of reality.  As if there is a spiritual essence of something that the film is touching on, a deeper understanding that it is leading to that I just can't quite grasp.  Almost as if the chaos of things going so wrong in turn speaks of the essence of being that is at the core of a world which is deeply right, even if there are elements of it that can go astray.  It never goes completely off like those birds do... or something like that.  

In other words, the Birds somehow touches on the essence of something that is primal to existence, and the "being" of the world, and thus is deeply disturbing on philosophical level, but also points to something deeper and profound on a theological and mystical level... or something like that.

Edited by Attica

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Darren H   
22 hours ago, Ryan H. said:

How a handful of years can change a person!

I'm cringing at the remarks I made in regards to The Birds, which I now regard as second only to Vertigo in the Hitchcock canon.

If it's any consolation, I was cringing for you at the time. ;)

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