The third of my Persistence of Vision columns is about my relationship with a movie that, more than any other, got me interested in cinematic form and structure. (It also happens to turn 50 this month.) Here's the piece.
The full post:
We all go a little mad sometimes
How did Psycho come to infect my life?
I clearly remember my first viewing of Hitchcock’s great film – even the exact date, May 12, 1991. (It helps that I kept a diary at the time, but I would have remembered it anyway.) A day earlier, May 11, I had flipped through a movie guide at the Sehgal Bros bookstore in South Extension and read with a thrill the first sentence of the Psycho entry: “The Master’s most notorious film, a jet-black comedy set in the desolate Bates Motel, run by a nervous young man and his crotchety old ‘mother’.” I turned the sentence over in my mind for days afterward, it had such a rhythmic appeal.
Conventional wisdom had it that Psycho was a horror film, but it didn’t scare me in an immediate way, because I knew most of its secrets beforehand. Long before I first saw it (and long before I read that movie-guide entry), I had heard jokes about “mummification” from my own mummy – apparently, in the early 60s, her school-going brother had returned from a movie-hall and informed their startled mother that he wished to preserve her body and set it in the living room after she passed on. A learned classmate completed my education by giving me a shot-by-shot description of the final revelation of the embalmed corpse of “Mrs Bates” in the fruit cellar. (Sorry if I’ve spoilt the plot for you, but you really ought to know this; it’s primary-level stuff. Anyway, plot is the least important thing about this film.) Alas, my earliest ideas about the famous shower murder came from a perpetually inebriated male relative who recalled that it was a “hot” scene, and also insistently misremembered that it was the very first scene in the film. (But then, he also thought the four-hour Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor ended with the assassination of Caesar. Which, perhaps, it should have.)
On that first viewing, the surprise for me lay in other things: in the meticulous structuring, and how the first forty-five minutes weren’t about the sinister Bates Motel or knife-wielding cross-dressers but about a regular young woman, Marion (Janet Leigh), impulsively stealing money from her office to escape her drab life and join her boyfriend in another city. This superb segment was all about the little moments that highlighted Marion’s paranoia, and the entrancing, violin-based music score that accompanied her through her long car drive – a drive that ends when she accidentally “gets off the main road” late at night and arrives at the Bates Motel, where the friendly, eager-to-please Norman (Anthony Perkins) checks her into a cabin. He offers her sandwiches and conversation in the parlour, they talk, get to know each other.
My favourite sequence – then, as now – is this quiet, intimate conversation between Marion and Norman, just minutes before the violence of the shower killing. Later, after I had seen Hitchcock’s other films, I came to view this scene as a classic example of his knack for using sardonic black humour as a smokescreen, even a defence mechanism. The dialogue sometimes reaches a high pitch of intensity but the tension is immediately dispelled by a clever one-liner or a wry observation (“A boy’s best friend is his mother” / “Mother isn’t quite herself today”). Norman’s little monologue about his mother being left alone in the Gothic house if he were to abandon her (“the fire would go out, it would be cold and damp like a grave – if you love someone you can’t do that to them even if you hate them”) can, like most of the film’s dialogues, be read on at least two levels. Taken at face value, it’s poignant, but once you know what the actual condition of “Mrs Bates” is, the words “like a grave” become a dark joke – one of the many instances of this film’s ironic detachment. Instead of explicitly holding themes and ideas up (as many “serious” directors do) for discussion, Hitchcock incorporates them into the narrative framework of what is, first and foremost, a great genre work.
How do life experience and personality combine to make an individual respond in a particular way to a particular film? We’ll never know, but that won't keep us from psychoanalysing. I could mention that when I first saw Psycho I was an only child living with a single mother (an impeccably well-balanced woman, I should quickly add); or that I was unsocial, cripplingly shy, prone to loneliness and phases of mild depression; or that I already had a proclivity for morbid humour. Perhaps some of this explains something, perhaps it doesn’t. (Perhaps it helps account for the huge crush I developed on Anthony Perkins and my fascination with the way he stuttered over words like “falsity”, the momentary furrow on his brow suggesting that he’s grasping for another word just out of reach.)
Whatever the case, watching it when I did, Psycho touched something deep inside me. I found a sadness in it, in the words as well as in the images. I even found a warped romanticism in Norman’s response to the insinuation that he and his mother might have been looking for money to leave the Bates Motel and start a new life elsewhere. “I think if you saw the chance to get out you would unload this place,” says his accuser. “This place?” says Norman, his voice rising to a shrill pitch, “This place happens to be my only world. I grew up in that house up there. I had a very happy childhood.” He sounds defiant, desperate to convince. “My mother and I were more than happy.”
A little unsettled by my reaction to this “slasher” film, I sought out literature on it and discovered essays by writers like Danny Peary, George Toles and V F Perkins (no relation to Anthony!) who treated it not as a clever popcorn thriller but as a serious work of art that deserved careful examination. It was as if some of the thoughts that had been buzzing around in my head (like the fly that Norman’s “mother” can’t bring herself to kill), struggling to find expression, had been articulated by people whose analyses counted for something. Their writings encouraged me to take films, including popular films, seriously; to see that even a seemingly sensationalistic “genre” work could contain multitudes.
I’ve probably over-emphasised the film’s dialogue, but some of its most effective stretches are wordless, and I’ve seen it more than once with the sound turned off. (I wish the technology available to me would allow me to see it with only the background music on – that’s something I’d love to do.) Doing this, it’s easier to appreciate the many little visual links between one scene and another, or one character and another, or the use of gestures as motifs: how, for example, Norman’s holding up a hand and spreading its fingers out when he says he’d like to “curse” his mother is echoed in the shot of the dying Marion feebly reaching out for the shower curtain. Or the perfect matching of surreptitious expressions when they first meet. Fibbing about her name and place of residence, Marion casts a sidelong look at her bag with the stolen money in it; meanwhile, reaching for the key-holder, Norman makes an identical head movement as he selects the key to Cabin 1 – closest to the office, so he can spy on Marion through a hole in the wall. The film is full of these fascinating designs.
I hesitated to write about Psycho here because it’s one of the most discussed movies ever, and anything I said would be less than a drop in an ocean of analysis. But I couldn’t in good conscience leave it out of a column that’s about my road-trip as a movie-lover. Besides (and this struck me only when I was halfway through this piece), it turns 50 this month, which is a good pretext for homage. In many superficial ways – especially if you watch it purely as a thriller – it’s a creaky, dated film today. But to my eyes it has an ageless beauty, and many of its scenes and methods have become personal reference points, helping me think about some of the movies I watch, and even some of the books I read. I know that sounds like an unhealthy obsession, but well, we all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?