(Warning: story discussed in close detail)
It's been fifty years--half a century--since Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho first screened in theaters, and for the occasion there are plenty of articles written especially for the occasion. Jack Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal insists that Bernard Herrmann's slashing music score not only enhanced the infamous shower scene, but saved the film; J. Hoberman sketches the historical context in which the film appeared (it was released in roughly the same period as Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura), then reprints in whole Andrew Sarris' then freshly-minted appreciation:
“Psycho should be seen at least three times by any discerning film-goer, the first time for the sheer terror of the experience...the second time for the macabre comedy inherent in the conception of the film; and the third for all the hidden meanings and symbols lurking beneath the surface...”
But what keeps Hitchcock's movie in the mind? Mind you, I don't think it's his best--it doesn't have the doomed intensity of Vertigo, the apocalyptic metaphysics of The Birds--but it does tend to persist in one's memory, to somehow unsettle one's emotional equanimity no matter how at peace one is with the world.
I can't say the power resides in its the infamous shower scene, at least not any more. The scene remains admirable for the way Hitchcock manages to keep the action coherent, despite the swift editing (seventy different shots in forty-five seconds), and it's remarkable how much panic is added by Bernard Herrmann's music (people have likened the score to the screeching of birds, and insist Herrmann must have electronically incorporated their cries (he didn't; it's composed entirely from shrieking violins)). But we have watched that scene through countless imitations, parodies, homages, youtube excerpts, and its every shot, cut and scream has become painfully overfamiliar, a cadaver left out in the open for far too long.
Sullivan writes that Hitchcock never intended that scene to be scored, that Herrmann in fact wrote music for it without Hitchcock's permission. The sequence needs music, I submit; it is too fragmented, too formally radical (Seventy shots! Forty-five seconds!) to be accepted by the general public without accompaniment. Music pulls those seventy discrete shots together, takes the whole to a deeper, less reasoned level (another theory has it that Herrmann was inspired by marmosets, whose shrill cries of animal terror sound remarkably like Herrmann's violins). A heavily edited sequence usually works best with music, a principle Herrmann realized despite Hitchcock's intentions.
Contrast this with Hitchcock's attempt some six years later to top himself in Torn Curtain, where a man is slowly murdered. The sequence follows the man's painful progress around the room to the gas oven, the only aural accompaniment being his and his killers' groans, the eventual hiss of the oven. This works, I submit, because the murder is presented with less stylized fragmentation--fewer quick cuts requiring the scraping of loud violins to bind it, emulsify it. In the context of today's fashionable preference for hand-held camerawork, rapid-fire editing and amplified symphonic stereo (loud music to kill to!), it is if anything even more disturbing--the desperate silence, the impassive, unflinching gaze of the camera as the man's hands slowly relax their grip on life.
That said, there are a pair of shots in Psycho's shower scene that retain much of their power--the zoom into blood and water spinning down the shower drain dissolves into a slow spiral pulling out of Marion Crane's lifeless eye. Certainly (as someone put it) this refers to the spiraling camera moves that describe much of Vertigo, but here it's also as succinct and final a summation of the loss of a human life--the sum total of Marion's dreams and fears and hope for redemption, dribbling away, forever lost.
There is Arbogast's dreamlike climb up the stairs, as if the stairs were not quite there (they weren't; Hitchcock used front projection). There is Lila's desperate yet silent search of Mrs. Bates' and Norman's room (the book she picks up and opens--Robert Bloch in his novel mentions a 'pornographic image,' but Hitchcock's deft cut from book to Marion's face suggests something bizarre, yet not flinch-inducingly repulsive. Just what did she see?). There's Marion's descent to the fruit cellar and creeping approach towards Norman's mother (“Mrs. Bates?”)--basically any and all scenes of atmosphere and mounting dread. Remembered for the way he fractured time and space in the shower stall, the Hitchcock I remember best unified time and space, often by means of a single shot.
But to talk about shots and cuts, scenes and music, shower stalls and knives is to talk only about the props and décor of horror, not of its essence. The haunting, horrifying heart of this haunting, horrifying movie? Why dinner, of course--that simple scene of Norman talking to Marion while she takes her supper.
It starts out coyly. Marion, having overheard Mrs. Bates humiliate Norman over her (“Go tell her she'll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food, or my son!”) pushes her door ajar and invites Norman and his tray of food into her room; Norman with his boyish shyness hesitates. “It might be nicer--and warmer--in the office,” he says. In the office he tells her: “Eating in an office is just too officious. I have a parlor back here.”
Inside the parlor the teasing fall of veils continues, with Norman and Marion trading confidences under the gaze of impassive birds (who do those birds represent--Mrs. Bates? Norman's other girls? The forbidding, disapproving, predatory world outside?). At one point Norman speaks sharply, bitterly; at another Marion drops her guard and lets slip her true name and destination.
Here is the true horror: these two people have made a connection. They have seen into each others' worlds, recognized the pain and loneliness inside each other, grown to care for each other. The rest of the film proceeds to destroy that connection, trivialize it, ultimately serve it up as fodder for a psychiatrist's explanation, as remains to be found in a car trunk, pulled out of muck by a steel chain.
Horror has made great strides since this film; it has improved its makeup techniques, its prosthetics; it has developed digital effects to the point that one can show a man's head being sliced in half and the man will still move around, realistically jerking and bleeding for a number of minutes, before he falls over. This is basically pizza making, in my book--you roll out a disc of dough, spread tomato sauce all over, sprinkle toppings on it, and call it food. Likewise with movies--you roll out a mannequin, squirt tomato sauce all over, sprinkle guts and prosthetics, and call it horror (maybe enhance the whole experience digitally, with 3-D). It's an extremely limited view.
Hitchcock's final shot isn't just a reminder that there are some things in heaven and earth that are beyond explanation, it's a reminder of what is gone. You see Norman's fragile handsome face smiling, the shy charm you remember from that long-ago supper forever lost; all that's left is Mrs. Bates, and she is utterly, irredeemably insane.
First published in Businessworld, 7.1.10