Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Becoming a Psycho Movie Buff

               Developing an interest in classic movies during my formative years in the 1970’s-80’s, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when my fascination with cinema began, beyond the yearly showings of The Wizard of Oz or some major event like Gone With the Wind or The Ten Commandments being aired to huge ratings, but one movie is probably responsible for pulling me in more than any other.  I’m not sure when I first heard about Psycho, but the film’s history and initial and long-term impact on movies has proved to be a lifelong intrigue for me, from somehow restraining myself at 12 from watching the movie because I was deemed too young by mom, although I was old enough to be left alone with a t.v. the night it was on, and ruing the missed opportunity (no VHS tapes or recorders for most households in the late 1970’s), to (shortly thereafter) sneaking in a hallway after bedtime to watch part of the shower scene for the first time during the AFI tribute to Hitchcock, to reading through a shot-by-shot book in the local university’s library which essentially “told” the entire film in picture form, to asking parents or any adult I knew who saw the film in 1960 what it was like (my dad was the most frightened by Arbogast’s murder), to finally seeing the film and feeling a sense of déjà vu but no disappointment, as Psycho is one of the most perfectly crafted and executed films. 

Working largely with his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television crew, Hitchcock was at the peak of his abilities following the one-two punch of Vertigo and North by Northwest. Word has it he also possibly had a score to settle regarding his “Master of Suspense” title, after Henri-Georges Clouzot raised hackles of his own with some nerve-tingling output, specifically 1955’s Les Diaboliques and its use of the bathroom as the most ominous locale anywhere. Although Psycho contains moments of sly humor and Hitchcock claimed it was “a fun picture” and he firmly set tongue-in-cheek during publicity for the movie (including a Hall of Fame trailer with Hitch slyly showing us around the Bates premises) his main intent was on flooring the audience with showcase suspense sequences and, aided by Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violins and Anthony Perkins’ brave (as in image-breaking) fully committed performance, he succeeded past all expectations, with audiences’ perceptions as to what to expect from a movie forever left as shattered as Perkins’ formerly endearing boyishness once Janet Leigh stepped into that shower and took cinema into a more modern era with her- after Psycho, all bets were off concerning the narrative of a film and what outcome it provided key characters therein.

Although the success of Psycho opened the floodgates for progressively more explicit violence in movies, as the forefather to subsequent films of the slasher ilk and holding the reputation by many as the scariest movie of them all, it contains only two or three segments that could fall in the “terrifying” category. However, Hitchcock manages to maintain a tone of stark tension throughout the second half of the film, as after the shower attack and subsequent “clean-up” activity, from scene-to-scene a first time viewer is on edge wondering when the killer will come out of nowhere again, aided by that equally violent Herrmann score (and, after reading for years Marion is killed off 20 minutes or so into the movie, I feel compelled to stress that counting the shower clean-up neatly places Psycho into two “Acts”). Rarely has a movie witnessed such a shift in tone, from the engrossing but relatively sedate first half of the movie detailing Marion Crane’s theft of $40,000 and flight from Phoenix, to the untold horrors centering on the Bates Motel and its shy young proprietor, Norman. Hitchcock, working with a first-class Joseph Stefano script, sagely sets a calm matter-of-fact tone while the majority Marion’s storyline unfolds, with a few hints of suspense (such as her encounter with the police officer) to ensure the public they hadn’t walked into some other director’s film. This comfortable set-up of course pays off spectacularly once the movie does its legendary 180 spin with the protagonists, replacing Marion with Norman for the audience’s main identification point. Filmmakers have been trying to do this type of switch-a-roo ever since, but no one ever managed to get quite the shock value Hitchcock manages to cleverly gain.

As Marion Crane, the heroine anchoring the first half of the movie, Leigh does an outstanding job of gaining the audience’s sympathy and holding their interest, making her untimely demise even more shocking and hard to except. Leigh was discovered by Norma Shearer (via a photo of Leigh Shearer spotted) and groomed via the slick MGM star-making system, but she possessed a unique aptitude for screen acting early on that she maintains in her best roles. Check Leigh out in 1948’s Act of Violence or her fine playing with another screen natural, Robert Mitchum in the same year’s Holiday Affair for a nice showcase of how intelligent and focused a young ingénue can be with the right opportunities. In Psycho Leigh obviously has her career role and she knows what to do with it, skillfully depicting Marion’s mindset regarding the moral conflict she faces both before and after absconding with the cash and, in a wonderful later scene with Norman wherein each discuss the “traps” they’ve fallen into, providing a natural, carefully modulated approach to her dialogue that helps make the scene one of the best-acted and least-dated of its era. As for possibly the most famous scene in any movie, Leigh dies as convincingly as anyone I can remember onscreen, and is as unforgettable as the scene itself.  

Although Perkins is also forever linked to this scene, as has been frequently mentioned he was in New York working on Greenwillow when this iconic moment, probably his most renowned career reference point, was shot. The son of veteran character actor Osgood Perkins (see 1932’s Scarface) Perkins entered films after trekking across the country to land a small debut role opposite Jean Simmons in George Cukor’s 1953 The Actress, before breaking through in 1956 with an artful, emotionally charged performance as Josh, a conflicted Quaker youth (fighting or not in the Civil War provides the conflict) in William Wyler’s memorable Friendly Persuasion. After an Oscar nomination Perkins became the hottest young male star in the business, abet with hit-and-miss results concerning his output leading up to Psycho, with fine work in Fear Strikes Out being countered by something like his miscasting in the largely regrettable Green Mansions.

Perkins’ nervous earnestness and thoughtful approach to his roles had been well-established by 1960, therefore allowing both audiences and the film industry to be sent reeling once yet another (seemingly) “nice boy” portrayal by Perkins turned out to be possibly the darkest young man ever seen on screen. The trade-off was clear, maybe even at the time: film immortality as Norman Bates at the cost of forgoing any chance of a career as a straight-laced, handsome movie star, if Perkins even wanted that (as it turned out, he headed to Europe for much of his 60’s output, before giving another great performance as a troubled youth in 1968’s cult classic Pretty Poison, opposite an equally-adept Tuesday Weld, as the girl providing him even more trouble). Although in some post-Psycho films Perkins famous ticks sometimes come off as mannered, he is masterful in detailing all of Norman’s complexities, whether they be endearing or terrifying. Perkins’ alternated between stage and film work for the rest of his career, gaining a nice professional boost with the success of the well-crafted 1982 Psycho sequel, wherein Perkins’ showed he’d developed a sly humor in regards to portraying Norman’s neurotic behavior.

Concerning the rest of the cast, Vera Miles is appropriately tough and somber as Marion’s no-nonsense sister Lila, who’s determine to uncover the mystery surrounding Marion’s disappearance. Miles had been groomed by Hitchcock for stardom, but after strong work in 1956’s The Wrong Man, pregnancy prevented her from starring in Vertigo, so the rest wasn’t history concerning Mile’s career as a top Hitchcock blonde. Ironically, playing the “lesser” role of Lila to finish her contract with Hitchcock did give Miles a measure of lasting fame as a major factor in the film’s mesmerizing basement finale, wherein Lila finally meets and introduces the audience to Mrs. Bates, then lets out a scream in perfect sync with Herrmann’s screeching violins. As Sam Loomis, Marion’s boyfriend who aids Lila, John Gavin isn’t too animated, but he’s so classically handsome in a Greek-God manner you can see why someone would steal $40,000 in 1960 dollars in a desperate attempt to hook up with him permanently.

Martin Balsam provides possibly the most stellar supporting work this side of Mrs. Bates as Arbogast, signaling with his smart, direct and focused portrayal what a great decade laid in store for him as a top character actor in offerings such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Carpetbaggers, and his Oscar-winner, A Thousand Clowns. In smaller roles, John McIntire and Lurene Tuttle are amusingly folksy as the small-town sheriff and his wife who offer Lila and Sam some critical information, Simon Oakland smoothly provides the wrap-up explanation for audiences still reeling from revelations unlike any they’d yet seen onscreen (and watch for Ted Knight as a guard in this sequence) and, as she memorably did in her larger role in Strangers on a Train, Patricia Hitchcock comes through for dad once again by offering a welcome light touch early on as Marion’s cohort in the office, Caroline. Patricia has commented she would only be cast by her father if she was exactly right for a part; luckily, two of those roles came in works that rank at or near the top of the Hitchcock cannon.

Although critics, who were made to watch the film with general audiences instead of in the comfort of a screening room, generally were less-than-generous towards the film that firmly stamped the “Master of Suspense” moniker on Hitchcock forever after, the success of the low-budget thriller was unprecedented, as Psycho racked up 1960 grosses second only to the mammoth Ben-Hur. Hitchcock’s clever publicizing of the film went beyond the trailer, with the best promotional gimmick involving theaters refusing to allow anyone into a showing of the film once it started, in order to keep audiences from seeing any of the shocks out-of-sequence. Waiting to get into the next screening of Psycho could have only added to the already pronounced anticipation to see the much-buzzed about production, and the incredible audience reaction to the film even led to some awards attention (those disgruntled critics and their bruised egos be damned), with Leigh scoring a Golden Globe, and both her and Hitchcock placing among Psycho’s four Oscar nominations. The film’s seismic impact on movies and American culture proved impossible to top for Hitchcock, who gained a measure of success with his memorable 1963 follow-up, The Birds, but floundered for much of the rest of the decade, until his penultimate film, 1972’s Frenzy showed Hitchcock’s perverse sense of humor in the macabre genre, brought up-to-date with R-rated explicitness, was still fully intact. As for Psycho, the movie’s reputation as the premier modern-day horror film and one of the key Hitchcock films has only grown in stature over the last 60 years, resulting in the film today owning its rightful place among the greatest films ever made, and a lot less people in showers everywhere.


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