Sunday, October 31, 2010

31 days, 31 faves: Psycho (1960)

So here we are, the last of the 31 days of my favorite films, and it should come as no surprise that I've left this particular film for last. I give you - Psycho (1960)

When I was a little girl growing up (in a minister's house no less), one thing scared me more than anything else. And no, it wasn't the fear of hellfire and brimstone.
It was my grandparent's fruit cellar. It was the stuff nightmares are made of.

Of course now I realize it wasn't scary at all, but back then I seemed to have some sort of major aversion to going into the basement, let alone that fruit cellar to get the odd jar of canned beets or what have you. Where did this fear come from? Why did I go all wacky when asked to procure some tomatoes from the scariest place on the planet?

I'm convinced my family set me down one dark and stormy night and force-fed me Psycho on television. Of course I have no idea if it was ever shown on network TV way back then. Seems unlikely, but I'm not ruling it out.
Psycho has the scariest fruit cellar ever, right? I mean, not many have mummified mommies down there, at least I doubt it.

I profess: Psycho, to me, is really just a piece of pure film making genius. Perfection and terror wrapped up into one tight package. It's the go-to movie for me at any time, in particular at Halloween. I love to turn down the lights and turn on the black and white wizardry from Alfred Hitchcock. I adore so many of Hitch's movies, but this one stands high on a pedestal for me.

The element of surprise when the main character gets offed just a half hour in is great in and of itself, but the character of Norman Bates is by far the most intriguing part of this film. I've had a long-standing love of the guy since the first time I watched Psycho.

I've always hesitated to do a review on Psycho, because there's not much can be said that hasn't been elaborated on for the last 50 years or so about Norman Bates and Psycho in general, and nothing I say will be any more enlightening anyway, so I'll just leave it at that, and tell you what you most likely already know...

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) are nearing the end of a leisurely long lunch hour in bed, discussing pertinent things like whether or not they should stop sneaking around in cheap hotels and if Sam will ever be able to pay off his debts and escape the wrath of his greedy ex-wife. (Why they had to sneak around is beyond me, really. I mean, he's divorced, right? What the hell?)

Marion rushes off to go back to work, where she discovers her employer has just made a very important real estate deal. When the buyer pulls out $40,000 cash to seal the deal, Marion's boss tells her to take the wad of bills to the bank, that he doesn't even want money like that in the office. Marion, stressing with a headache, asks her boss to go home early after making the deposit and he agrees.

Soon, we witness Marion at her home, packing up a suitcase and seemingly getting ready for a trip. She folds the 40 grand up in a newspaper and tucks it in her purse. It's obvious that dough isn't headed for the bank any time soon. As Bernard Herrmann's incredible score keeps time, Marion gets in her car and heads down the road. On her way out of town, she's stopped at a stoplight and her employer walks by in front of her car, smiling at first then throwing her a puzzled look.

Paranoid, Marion goes over various scenarios in her head as she speeds out of town. Hoping to drive to Fairvale and meet up with Sam, she daydreams about him paying off his debts and whisking her off to happy matrimony. At the same time though, she envisions her employer's confusion and worry when she doesn't show up for work.

Tired, she pulls off the road and sleeps in the car, only to be awakened by a police officer knocking on the car window. Attempting to rush off, the cop stops her and asks for her license. Though she may not realize it, she is incredibly suspicious the entire time she talks to the policeman, giving him cause to tail her for a bit after he allows her to leave. She stops at a used car lot and "high-pressures" the salesman into allowing her to trade up her car for another with almost no questions asked. As she drives away, she notes the policeman pulled over and is talking to the used car salesman.

Driving on, it starts to pour down rain, making it nearly impossible for Marion to see. She finally sees a neon sign for a motel and pulls over.
Of course it is the Bates Motel. (Wouldn't it have been a real break for Marion if there would have been a Motel 6 or something, instead of one of these mom & pop places you never can be sure of?)

Noticing no one tending the office but seeing a light on in the house on the hill, she honks the horn and soon someone is seen emerging from the house and running down the steps.

Yes folks, it's Norman. Love of my life.

Anyhoo.... Norman introduces himself to our lovely criminal, telling her she must have gotten off the highway to end up at the Bates Motel.

He sets her up in cabin #1, and has her sign in at the register, where Marion uses an alias, and pretends to be from L.A. When she mentions her hunger, he invites her up to the house for sandwiches and tells her he'll be back down to get her (with his trusty umbrella, natch).

As Marion waits, she hears a noisy confrontation between Norman and an older-sounding woman that he ends up calling mother. Mother voices her opinion about Norman bringing sluts up to the house or some such thing, and when he returns he's got a tray of food. He apologizes for his mother's tone and they retreat to the parlor to eat, where Marion gets a bit creeped out by all the stuffed birds all over the place. Norman explains that taxidermy is his hobby, but it fills a lot of his time.

Clue #1 that something isn't quite right: Marion asks if he has any friends to pass the time with, and Norman replies that "A boy's best friend is his mother." Um...okaaaaay. He tries to make excuses for Mother, saying she isn't always like that, but since his father died and then a boyfriend not too long ago, Mother hasn't really been herself and is in fact mentally ill. When Marion suggests he puts her "somewhere" we see a glimpse of possible instability from our motel manager as well. He cocks off with a speech about how everyone always offers advice, suggesting to put them "somewhere" and that it's not all that bad, that sometimes she just goes a little mad. "We all go a little mad sometimes...."

Visibly shaken, Marion quickly apologizes and makes haste to end the conversation. She contends that she is tired and wants to get some sleep, and Norman tries to smooth things over by telling her he'll bring her some breakfast in the morning.

It is here, at this moment in the film, that I first fell in love with Norman Bates. I suppose it is a somewhat pitiful love, as I just want to give the guy a hug and tell him everything's going to be alright - that he needs to just break the apron strings and get away from Mommie Dearest.

Norman immediately sees his slip-up. The fact that he allowed someone to get into his head and make him admit his misgivings about the relationship he has with his mother probably sends him off. He tries to cover his mistake, making it seem like he was just letting off some steam - venting if you will. But it's hard to deny that he's off-kilter.
I still contend the guy just needed a little love, dammit. Good looking guy like that holed up away from society by a beast of a parental unit. Sad.

Anyway, by the time Marion leaves, she has decided to head back to Phoenix and make things right - it's clear that her little chat with Norman has made her realize how good she already has it and that going any further with this charade would only be detrimental in the long run. However, when she pretty much tells Norman exactly that, she slips up by admitting her real name and the fact that she was not actually from Los Angeles. But things end on a not-so-awful note and Marion retreats to her room.

Soon we understand why Norman has given Marion cabin 1.
He takes a picture off the wall and ta-dah! - a peephole!
He watches Marion in her room, but as she's preparing to take a shower her stops and leaves the motel. Not much for waiting for the good stuff I guess.

As Marion steps into the shower we have three of the most iconic moments in horror. As Hitchcock uses his 70 some camera shots and Herrmann's strings fiercely set the scene, we see a shadow behind the curtain, finally whipping it open and stabbing Marion countless times with a large knife. She grasps at the shower wall and then the curtain, pulling it down with her weight as she falls half out of the tub, dead. Her assailant leaves and the camera watches as blood runs down the drain, focusing next on Marion's eye, open and staring.

The camera shifts to the house on the hill, where we hear Norman's voice shouting "Oh god Mother, blood! Blood!" He hurries down to the motel, where he finds Marion's body lying in the bathroom. Shocked, he turns away in dread. Moments later, he knows what must be done and goes off to get the mop and bucket. He removes the body, wrapping it in the wasted shower curtain, mops the floor, packs up Marion's suitcase, and stashes all the evidence (including the body and the $40,000 wrapped in the newspaper) into the trunk of Marion's car. He then takes the car and drives it to the swamp, pushing it in. For a nervous moment, the car stops. But lucky for Norman it lurches forward and disappears under the muck.

Several days later Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) shows up at Sam's hardware store in Fairvale, questioning him on her sister's whereabouts. Arriving at the scene at the same time is Milton (yeah, really) Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a private investigator hired to find Marion. After much debate it is determined that neither Sam nor Lila have any idea where Marion is, so Arbogast decides to check into motels in the area.

He finally makes it to the Bates Motel, where Norman seems perfectly at ease in his deception. Claiming no one has been to the motel in weeks, he looks at a picture of Marion and tells Arbogast she hasn't been there. But after a bit of questioning, he slips up and has to admit that yes, she had been there. Suspicion abounds now, as he starts the shifty eye guilt look and Arbogast knows something more has happened. Norman tells him he's welcome to check all the rooms, and when he leads him out of the office, Arbogast sneaks a peek to the house on the hill. Norman admits his mother lives up there but is an invalid and is unable to talk to him.

I have to say, Perkins is so utterly awesome in this part. His agitated demeanor and nervous disposition comes through with flying colors. On the surface he seems passive, yet he's wound so tight on the inside it's impossible for it not to break through every once in awhile. His scenes with Balsam where he is questioned regarding Marion's whereabouts are as powerful as the ones he has with Leigh when he admits Mother might not be in the right state of mind. Great stuff.

Arbogast reports back to Lila that Marion was indeed at the Bates Motel, and that he's not completely satisfied, believing Mrs. Bates may have some information. He tells Lila and Sam to stay put and he heads off to the house to try to speak to Norman's mother.
Arbogast goes back to the motel and goes to the house. He enters and looks around, unable to find Norman or his mother. He heads up the stairs and upon reaching the landing is attacked by someone in a dress with gray hair. He falls all the way down the steps and the attacker follows, finishing the job by stabbing Arbogast to death.

Lila and Sam begin to get worried when Arbogast doesn't return. Sam heads out to the motel where he calls out for Arbogast but is unable to find him. He sees a woman sitting in the window of the old house, but when he pounds on the door there is no answer. From a secluded location, Norman watches, malice in his eyes. In that simple scene, we can see who Norman Bates really is. And it's terrifying. It is my favorite moment of the film.

When Sam returns and tells her there is no sign of Arbogast, he and Lila go to speak with Sheriff Chambers (John McIntire), who informs them that there is no Mother Bates, that she's been dead over ten years. So if both Arbogast and Sam saw an old woman sitting in the window at the house - who the hell is it?

Over at the Bates residence, we hear Norman and his mother arguing about the fact that she should be hiding in the fruit cellar to avoid detection, that someone is bound to come back and discover what she's done. The old woman fights with him, swearing she will not go to the cellar.
Norman pleads with her, but when she refuses he carries her down there himself.

Lila and Sam, still not satisfied, head to the motel themselves. They pose as husband and wife so they can look around. Sneaking into cabin 1, they search the room until they find a small scrap of paper by the toilet that has a figure of $40,000 on it. Knowing that would be too wild a coincidence, they plot to question the old woman about it. Sam keeps Norman busy while Lila slips up to the house.

Soon though, Norman becomes suspicious when Sam (stupidly) suggests that Norman may have stolen the 40 grand to get out of his current distressing situation. He struggles with Sam and after hitting him over the head, knocking him out, he dashes up to the house in pursuit of Lila.

Lila meanwhile, goes upstairs to the room in question, looking to find Bates' mother. All she finds is a perfectly preserved room, full of possessions and personal items. However, there is an impression of a body in the mattress, proving that someone has recently been there. Continuing her search, she hides in the basement stairwell when she hears Norman enter the house. He heads upstairs, she heads down.

In the basement, she makes her way to the fruit cellar and sees an old woman sitting alone in a rocking chair, her face turned away from the door. As Lila speaks to her, calling out her name, she turns the chair only to discover a mummified corpse staring back at her.

At the same moment, Norman bursts into the room, dressed like his mother in a dress and wig and brandishing a butcher knife. As he starts after Lila, Sam appears and forcibly restrains Norman, pushing him to the ground.

At the courthouse, Norman is being questioned (off camera) by his psychiatrist as Sam, Lila, and the Sheriff sit by and wait. When the shrink comes back into the room he explains that Norman no longer exists right now, that he got the whole story from his mother. His mother is the dominant personality and may be that way forever. When Norman's mother took a lover, he went insane with jealousy and killed them both. Soon after though, he felt guilty and after stealing her body he preserved it, then lived with her as if she'd never died. When the Norman side of the personality broke though and showed some interest in a woman (as in Marion), the mother half got pissed and killed her - and Arbogast as well for meddling.

We cut to Norman/Mother sitting in a holding cell, not speaking, just thinking to himself.
And after noting that the last scene is Marion's car being pulled out of the swamp, I give you those last lines from Norman, in his mother's voice:

"It's sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son, but I couldn't allow them to believe that I would commit murder. They'll put him away now, as I should have years ago. He was always bad, and in the end, he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man, as if I could do anything except just sit and stare, like one of his stuffed birds. Well, they know I can't even move a finger, and I won't. I'll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do suspect me. [pause] They're probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I'm not even gonna swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They'll see. They'll see and they'll know, and they'll say, 'Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly.' "



TheGirlWhoLovesHorror said...

Perfect combination of a crazy story and one insanely talented director - pure screen magic was born!

Jinx said...

Just wanted to say how much I've loved this series of posts. Your choices have been wonderful and I've thoroughly enjoyed reading all of them.

Christine Hadden said...

Horror Girl - Indeed Psycho, to me, is a perfect film. I don't think there's any question, and you're right - magic is a great word for it.

Jinx - Thank you so much for reading all my gibberish! It was quite an undertaking doing a review every day and about halfway in I wondered what on earth I was thinking committing myself to that! LOL.
But thanks for taking the time and for the nice words! ;o)

Oriel said...

Loved your 31 days - 31 Faves... impressive seasonal dedication and great reviews. Also congrats on getting a mention in the Guardian Guide on Saturday!

Christine Hadden said...

Oriel - wow, thanks for letting me know about that Guardian mention, I wouldn't have known about it if you didn't tell me!
And thanks for reading ;o)

PZ said...


You may have seen that famous root cellar scene on one of the many, many "About Hitchcock" specials that ran on network TV in the 70s. I know that's when I first saw it (and it scared the crap out of my 8-year-old self)