A CLASSIC TERROR THRILLER
BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK
Text by: José Manuel Serrano Esparza
Presented for the first time in 1960, Psycho is undoubtedly the horror and thrill chef d´oeuvre in all the cinematographic production of the brilliant Bristish film director Alfred Hitchcock.
It´s based on a novel by Robert Bloch.
The movie plot develops in Phoenix (Arizona) and the daily initial sequencies and the very characters get the spectator be relaxed and not by a long shot imagines the horror approaching.
Nevertheless, the brilliant titles design and the names of the casting actors and actresses, director, producer, etc (everything a work by Saul Bass) appearing split on the screen and disappearing with the accompanying of the animically frightening score by Bernard Hermann, are subtle hints that begin to prepare the spectators for a trip towards the psychological terror.
"Psycho" starts with a panoramic shot of a city, whose name appears followed by a precise data and an exact moment in time, while the camera goes from one side to the other, aleatorily showing us roofs, flat blocks and a lot of windows.
Suddenly, the camera objective focuses on an apparently arbitrary window. It might be any place, any date, any time and any room: it could be we ourselves.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a secretary staying inside a motel room in a lunch rendezvous with his lover Sam Loomis (john Gavin). Their romance doesn´t work because Marion lives with her sister Lila (Vera Miles) and apart from it she and Sam can´t get married cause Sam is economically in a hot spot, since he has to pay for the debts of his demised father and his ex wife´s alimony.
Hitchcock is successful in attaining that the spectator takes side and affection in favour of marion. She is a woman trapped by her circumstances, frustrations and fears.
Mr Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), Marion´s boss, introduces her a client who trustfully gives her 40, 000 $ to deposit in a safe.
Then, we watch Marion in her bedroom. It is manifest that in a fit, she has planned to steal the money to begin a new life and she´s doing her packing, but despite it, the spectator fondness to this greatly timid and deceiving herself woman, remains undamaged.
The thriller magician persuasively involves us in the very special context in which this woman is: she has utterly lost the power of rational autocontrol and we discover the relative easiness with which an ordinary person can lose all the logical self-control and be immersed in a nearly neurotic state.
Marion flees Phoenix by car until she gets tired and parks his car by the road, where she falls deeply asleep till the next morning, when a policeman approaches the car and awakens her.
Later, she changes her vehicle for one used, trying to avoid being identified, and when the night comes, we see how marion approaches to a ramshackle motel, with a sullen Victorian style house beside it.
It´s curious to confirm that during this frantic trip, Hitchcock has made the spectator feel a remarkable increase in his affection for Marion and a clear fear and impatience regarding the policeman, the car salesman, the rain splashing her windscreen and generally speaking towards everything that can interpose in her way.
On getting out of the car, Marion sees an old lady sitting by an upper story window of the house.
The motel, run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a timid taxidermist, contains a number of birds stuffed by Norman along with many photographs of other different birds.
Initially, he is a character inspiring the spectator compassion, because he´s so sensitive, vulnerable and absorbed by the devotion and self-sacrifice to her mother.
On the other hand, the Victorian decoration of the house, enhances an atmosphere of sexual repression since his childhood: the hall statue of a black Cupid, the picture of an idealized maiden enjoying herself on top of the stairs, the bedroom statue of a nude goddess, etc.
Norman´s very bedroom, located in the attic, synthesizes the odd confusion between the childish and the adult: toys, a disarranged and untidy bed, a record with Beethoven´s ´Heroic´ Third Symphony, etc. They are mere superficial clues of very concealed mysteries concerning the horrible childhood and adolescence of Norman Bates, completely subjugated and nullified by her mother for decades.
Marion registers with the false name of Marie Samuels and Norman, shyly shows her his room and offers something to eat. While Norman is in the kitchen making some food, marion hears a shrill argument between Norman and the old woman turning out to be her mother. And when Norman brings Marion a tray with food, he suggests her to have lunch in her office, saying that it is better because his mother ´is unwell that day´.
There´s a revealing dialogue about traps for animals between Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in the motel lobby, in which Norman Bates reveals very subtly his state of permanent anguish making impossible the development of his personality. He´s submerged into an actual psychologic hell.
Notwithstanding, the concept of continuity between the normal and the abnormal has been being introduced.
Again in her motel room, Marion decides to return the stolen money and starts having a shower before going away. Her movements are almost ritual and her face reflects the relief she feels because she is going to manage to wash his crime. She has just recovered her ability to take decisions and her rationality and she believes in her potential salvation.
It is now when happens the terrifying shower scene in which a dark figure (the very Norman Bates who sometimes adopts the personality of his mother) enters the bathroom and repeatedly stabs Marion, slaughtering her in the middle of an orgy of blood, yells and dantesque background music, enhanced by Hitchcock´s mise-en-scène with close-ups of the water, the blood flowing in spiral around the drain and an eye of the victim.
This horrendous murder, initially unexplainable and without any profit intention, takes the spectator completely unaware, clearly establishing a before and an after in the film.
All of a sudden, the audience loses their affinity referent and Hitchcock, very sagaciously, diverts the epicentre of our attention towards the character of Norman Bates, whom we see going into Marion´s room, becoming horrified (now with his own masculine personality) on finding the body, which together with the rest of belongings he gets into Marion´s car, that he makes disappear sinking it in a nearby marsh.
When Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a private eye, arrives at the motel, he interrogates Norman. In the beginning, this denies having had guests recently, but finally admits that a woman booked a room to spend the previous night.
Something doesn´t satisfy the private investigator and he tries to examine Bates home, being also brutally killed by stabs on the ornate stairs (once more with a brilliant Hitchcock revealing Psycho´s great secret through the juxtaposition of a prolonged shot from a very high angle and a subjective vision of the attacking woman, with the knife in her hand, by means of an eye level close-up).
It is then when, as a consequence of the lack of news and the disappearance of Arbogast, Sam and Lila decide to investigate on their own.
And little by little, the denoument goes on developing without shrinking of the thrill or the danger of more impending crimes murders that may happen any time.
Sam and Lila find out that Norman Bates mother died long ago . The official version is that Norman found dead his mother and her lover on the bed (actually, it was the very Norman Bates who killed them) a lot of years back and it´s Lila who discovers Mrs Bates (Norman´s mother) corpse in the macabre cellar of the house, where she suffers an onslaught by an old woman with a horrible laughter. The mystery is at last unveiled: the murderer is Norman Bates (whose brain holds a double mother/son personality), dressed with her mother clothes.
Hitchcock searches deep into the study of the double generative potentiality by the human mind of both the accolading and the utmost execrable.
In fact, at the end of the film, with Norman Bates already under arrest in a cell, we attend to an utterly static scene but with an enormous mental violence. Norman is sitting alone ina straightbacked chair against a bare wall, the blanket draped around his shoulders. The camera approaches us closer as we hear the voice of his mother, generated inside his mind. This final monologue by Norman Bates (with his mother´s voice and personality) is particularly dantesque:
´ It is 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 stupid stuffed birds. Well, they know I can´t move a finger. And I won´t. I´ll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do suspect me.
They´re probably watching me. Well, let them see what kind of person I am.
(A fly has landed upon his hand, which rests on his lap).
I´m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They´ll see me and they´ll know and they´ll say ... (as he slowly raises his eyes to meet ours, smirking). Why, she wouldn´t even harm a fly!
And at the end, appears the final shot of Marion´s car being hauled from the quicksand.
Meanwhile, the timid Norman Bates isn´t in a hurry. He will kill again.
© Copyright Text: José Manuel Serrano Esparza