Bad Business

psycho2-1Drawing by Alfred Hitchcock.

PSYCHO of course was very good business, and intended as such. Inspired by the cheap and morbidly cheerful exploiters of William Castle, which were in turn inspired by Hitchcock’s TV show, Hitch wanted to make a film fast and cheap, promote the hell out of it, and make a killing. In parallel to this, he wanted an interesting artistic experience. Perhaps the gigantism of his last two productions, where everything was expensive — the stars, the sets, the locations — and everything took a long time, and was pursued with a considerable degree of perfectionism, made him ready for a change. PSYCHO was certainly a change. And Hitch made two million dollars from it, personally, in the first quarter of its release.

My parents had shunned the movie on its 1960 debut, despite the fact that NORTH BY NORTHWEST had been a spectacular success as their first date movie. So I thought it was time they caught up with it: after dining with the family, I hung back after the others left and watched it with this unprepared audience. Of course, in the intervening 49 years, they had encountered a few significant “spoilers,” but it was still as reasonable facsimile of watching the movie “fresh.”

After the trippy green MGM lion image that began NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Saul Bass turns the Paramount logo into a kind of woodcut-effect of horizontal b&w lines, leading into the animated slashes of the title sequence, which play like an abstract visualization of the screeching, spasmodic score.

Saul Bass’s titles and Bernard Herrmann’s score immediately grab the attention. Bass is so desperate for attention he plays a couple of tricks with both his credits: his “pictorial consultant” title remains onscreen for a beat longer than everyone else’s while his “titles” credit scoots off in the opposite direction to all the others. Cheeky.

(I give Gus van Sant points for staging the opening titles of his remake in green — that favourite Hitchcock hue.)

In fact, Bass’s insistence that he directed the shower scene may have had something to do with him not being asked back to work on later Hitchcocks. Or maybe the fact that he wasn’t asked back accounts for his making that (inflated, I think) claim. I believe he was sincere in his belief that he was responsible for that scene (and the other murder scene). Hitch doesn’t seem to have commented on the shower scene claim (he didn’t need to, with Janet Leigh supporting his cause), and tartly remarked that he had to reshoot part of the Arbogast killing because Bass made it feel like a sinister man climbing the stairs, rather than an innocent man climbing sinister stairs. Certainly Bass, as storyboard artist, had much to do with laying out the visual plan for these key scenes, and the unique credit accorded him for his work reflects his considerable contribution, but the drawing reproduced above shows that Hitchcock had plenty of ideas of his own.

Herrmann, by claiming that he rescued Hitch from a post-production funk during which the director was convinced he had failed and contemplated cutting the film to an hour for TV, may have sewn the seeds of his eventual falling-out with the master. Certainly John Michael Hayes had already discovered that Hitchcock disliked sharing credit with anyone, and the idea that Herrmann’s score rescued the movie, or was half of its success, may have displeased him.

Nevertheless, these guys do indeed contribute a colossal amount to the atmosphere of the movie. So does John L. Russell, who began his career with MOONRISE and MACBETH, but had laboured in B-movies and TV ever since. Hitchcock brought him in from his TV show, as part of the economy drive. Goodbye perfectionist Robert Burks (for now), hello expediency and speed. But the process nevertheless yielded indelible images, from the American Gothic Bates house rearing its back against the louring  sky, to the water droplet hanging from Janet Leigh’s eyelash, her dilated pupil fixed and staring past it.

Those little titles that introduce the film proper: “Phoenix, Arizona” chimes with the film’s incessant bird imagery (as will the heroine’s surname) while also establishing a semi-spurious factual tone. Of course, given that novelist Robert Bloch was inspired by the Ed Gein case, which is even freakier than his invented monstrosities, the documentary gesture is quite apt.  I read somewhere else, years ago, the observation that the film carefully establishes the date of the opening scene as “December 11th,” then weeks pass after Marion Crane’s disappearance, but nobody ever mentions Christmas.

Move in on a hotel window, and attempt, clumsily enough, to pass through it to the inside in a single shot. I think this is the one thing Gus Van Sant’s remake improves on, with its smooth CGI-assisted float from helicopter-eye-view cityscape to intimate interior. It’s exactly the kind of thing we can do better, and easier, now. Apparently this starting point was screenwriter Joseph Stefano’s idea. Stafano and Block both got movie careers out of this film, naturally enough, but they don’t seem to have exploited them too successfully. And despite Stefano getting on really well with Hitch (following the Master’s usual procedure: meeting at the office, talking about everything BUT the script), they never collaborated again. Why? (see Comments section)

“The score is two string quartets,” I say.

“Fighting?” asks Mum.

My mum expresses some enthusiasm for John Gavin, then admits he’s not too great an actor (maybe I should loan her A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE THOUGH). Janet Leigh may not be a typical Hitchcock heroine but they seemed to gel and it’s a shame he didn’t use her again. But I think with her and Perkins there’s a sense that their work here was so instantly iconic, any further collaboration would have been overshadowed in advance.

The Return of Chubby Bannister Pat Hitchcock! Who almost gets to share a frame with her pop. The usual disparaging kind of role, made slightly worse by the fact that Pat is now mature, and being mocked as a frump. One of the more surreal things in the Van Sant version is that the Pat substitute, Rita Wilson, is more conventionally glamorous than Anne Heche (whom I like), so that when she muses that the drunken rich guy was flirting with Heche, and it must be because he saw Rita’s wedding ring, the line is literally true, and therefore a pointless line. Whereas when Pat says the same thing it’s a cruel ironic joke about self-deception. Potentially, if we see the remake as a piece of conceptual art, the rendering pointless of lines and scenes through miscasting is a good way to go: there should be more of that.

Weird line about Pat taking tranquilizers on her honeymoon — more of a Victorian thing, from Hitch’s childhood, I think. Sir Richard Burton (not the actor) wrote deploringly of the custom of the  groom finding his bride self-etherized on the bridal bed, a note pinned to her nightie ~ “Mamma says you’re to do what you want.”

The dirty old man is very good, isn’t he? I think on previous viewings I missed the importance of the fact that this is undeclared cash, so he can’t call the cops. Marion can steal it and the only consequence would be losing her job and having to avoid the dirty old rich man, neither of which seem like altogether heartbreaking sacrifices.

My parents were impressed with the amount of bra-work in the movie. Was there a sponsorship deal? James Naremore, in Psycho (Filmguide), observes that the change from white to black bra is Hitch’s playful way of suggesting Marion’s fall from grace after she steals the swag. Naremore’s book is the best there is, although Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is essential and Raymond Durgnat’s A Long Hard Look at “Psycho” has much to commend it.

My one problem with Rebello — he seems to imply that Janet Leigh was required to manually stimulate John Gavin in the opening scene in order to get him to seem “passionate.” I slightly disbelieve this — at any rate, I would rather hear it in Janet’s words, in order to understand what exactly she told Rebello. Rebello gives us a third-hand version using veiled, sniggery language which just leaves me scratching my head.

One More Mile to Go.

The Adventure of the Highway Patrolman. If you see the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode entitled One More Mile to Go, you will see David Wayne (the killer in Losey’s M, a good casting choice for Bloch’s version of Norman Bates, the middle-aged schlub, had Hitch and Stefano not reinvented him as young and sweet) driving around with his murdered wife in the trunk, trying to reach a lake to dispose of her, continually hassled by a motorcycle cop giving him grief over a defective tail-light. The cop, the guilt, the body in the boot — it’s like a bunch of elements from PSYCHO misremembered in a dream. It’s also one of Hitch’s best episodes as director, since in milks a single suspense situation for all it’s worth.

We did a storyboarding exercise in class last year — a pro boarder from Denmark took a couple of pages of script from PSYCHO — the cop tapping on the window — and had several students breaks it down into shots. Interestingly, nobody identified the movie (!) and nobody came up with this shot —

— which is clearly the most effective in the scene. They lost the shock. Janet Leigh’s big eyes are very impressive here — think what Hitchcock could have done with Barbara Steele! Like shiny wrecking balls, those orbs.

Herrmann’s score, already showcased in the titles, gets to real work its magic in the driving stuff. In almost every Hitchcock TV episode, there comes a point where the protag starts either talking to himself aloud, or internally monologuing, often because the story comes from a piece of prose fiction and the screenwriter hasn’t found a better solution. Here, we get something more clever, Marion’s paranoid thoughts about what her boss and her sister and the guy she robbed will say. Stefano apparently wrote these speeches as full scenes, then agreed with Hitch that they’d work better as fantasies, because that way they characterize Marion too.

That’s some storm! I think the lighting makes the rainfall more opaque, so that it seems more dangerous than any real rainstorm. A welcoming motel sign! Better pull over. My parents know enough about the story to know this is bad. And the Bates Motel is indeed a Bad Business, since the highway moved away. Twelve rooms, twelve vacancies.

Hello, Norman. Hitch was able to pick up Anthony Perkins cheap, because Perkins owed Universal one film on an old contract — otherwise the low-budget thriller could never have afforded his services. Hitch actually dropped Perkins’ name in order to lure Stefano onto the film, suggesting that Bloch’s rather unappealing schizoid protagonist/antagonist would become, outwardly, a boy next door. With his intense round eyes under the dark, straight eyebrows, Perkins has an inherent talent for the unsettling stare — the only real similarity he bears to singer David Byrne, who once told the actor that their resemblance had been the bane of his life (hence “Psycho Killer”). Perkins is so bashful and sweet (Vince Vaughn CANNOT DO BASHFUL — he is DISGUSTING when he tries) that, although we notice his last-minute decision to select room 1 for Marion, we would not suspect at this stage that his decision has anything to do with a peephole looking through from the office…

Mrs Bates’ voice is heard. And it certainly isn’t Perkins’. A student asked me last week if Marion is crazy too, since she hears a woman’s voice. I don’t think that’s it. In another scene, WE hear the voice, when only Norman is around. It’s kind of like a shared delusion. Or a narrative cheat.

A standing set already on the Universal lot…

Norman brings dinner to Marion, since mother won’t have strangers in the house — “I suppose men don’t desire strangers!” Sandwiches — which look like unadorned white bread — and milk. The fatal glass of milk! Milk is even more sinister than eggs in Hitchcock’s films, and come to think of it, both foodstuffs are associated with the female of the species…

When Anne Heche hides the money in the newspaper, Van Sant and editor Amy Duddleston break the action into a series of jump cuts, unlike Hitch’s flowing single take. It’s neither better nor worse, just more modern — but isn’t it kind of breaking the rules of the exercise? What IS the exercise?

Compare frames from the Hitchcock and Van Sant films here — it’s notable that Hitch includes the corner of the bed, and we know that Norman is noticing this when he looks into the room. Then, when he looks back at Marion, there’s an intimation of seduction, which is all in his mind, but which we recognize. The shot of Marion absolutely reads as Norman’s POV, and it’s the beginning of the process by which he’s going to take over the next phase of the film.

In the remake, the bed is absent, and although we still get Norman’s thought, the medium shot of Marion looks like a simple reverse-shot, robbed of its power as POV. And Vince Vaughn doesn’t even look into the room. A shot-for-shot remake can still miss out on the whole point of something. Which may be the whole point of the remake, or at least it’s most interesting reason for existing.

Dinner in the office, with the stuffed birds. Hitchcock is in economy mode, keeping it static and letting the actors hold the scene, with repetitive shot/countershot coverage that keeps amping up, every minute or two, with an angle change that intensifies the mood. Stefano wrote this as a little play, a two-hander that could almost stand alone — without the backstory we already have for Marion it would be positively Pinteresque. Anyway, by the end of it, Marion has decided to return the loot, which is a pretty tragic irony. And Norman has discovered that she signed a false name on the hotel register, which makes him think… what? That she’s not a nice girl, presumably. This makes it OK, in his mind, to peep on her (except he was already planning on doing that, it seems) and presumably explains his later line “She might have fooled me but she didn’t fool mother.”

Toilet Alert! I think it’s the act of flushing which upset the censors. Were there really NO toilets in Hollywood movies before this? You can see the cistern of one in NO 17, and again in SECRET AGENT, where Peter Lorre goes berserk and nearly TP’s John Gielgud (now that would be a screen first). Hitchcock’s foregrounding of the lav in the famous trailer — the first time, I think, that he started treating his trailers like extensions of his TV show openings) strikes me as hilarious but puerile, almost unworthy of the Great Man. But Hitch’s sense of humour is irrepressible.

Hitch would make a great estate agent.

I didn’t think it was very funny,” laughed Saul Bass, when confronted with Hitch’s claim that PSYCHO was a black comedy. the grim little scene in the office deepens the characterization and intensifies the mood to the point where we’re forced to take things fairly seriously. I guess Hitch meant that the central set-up, of a man preserving his mother’s pickled corpse, and cavorting in her clothes, and carrying on conversations with her, had a comic side. I’m not sure my Mum agrees.

The shower scene — note that Janet appears to lock the bathroom door, yet the knife-wielding assassin will simply waltz in later. Maybe the door is fixed so it won’t lock? This makes Norman even more sinister and premeditative than we suspected. Or maybe it’s a joke. Anne Heche seems to turn a built-in key-handle type affair when she closes the door too.

Famously, the censorship committee sent the film back for recutting, saying some of them saw nudity during the murder. Hitchcock resubmitted the film, unaltered, and the ones who saw the nudity the first time thought it was gone, and the ones who hadn’t seen nudity the first time now thought it had suddenly appeared. I think there’s like one frame of nipple or something, but nothing in focus. Does out of focus count?

There may not be much more to say about this, but I want to clarify something in Durgnat’s PSYCHO book. I’m quoted as saying something about nudity in the murder scene which I didn’t say. Durgnat seems to have misunderstood the comment being about Janet Leigh’s breasts appearing in shot at the bottom of frame, which certainly doesn’t happen. I was talking about the aftermath of the murder, and this shot ~

The abstract shapes in the background are Marion’s breasts (absent in the remake), out of focus. Presumably Janet Leigh’s stand-in, a Playboy model. I thought it was sort of funny that Hitch got this past the censors, simply by directing their eyes elsewhere. The focus tells us it’s a shot of a hand. Rack focus, and it’s a shot of a rack. You just didn’t frames like this in 1960 movies.

Some interesting micro-detailed shot analysis here, but I dispute the guy’s interpretation of the torso-stabbing shot. To me, it’s clear that the knife IS penetrating the stomach, and therefor (one hopes), it’s an artificial stomach. A very good one, considering that in 1960 the manufacture of prosthetic rubber women had not reached the levels of technical perfection we routinely expect today. If it’s a fake tummy, then the shot probably isn’t in reverse, but the trail of droplets falling from the knife blade need not worry us — thrust a knife into a shower spray and water WILL fly off it.

Janet plays dead very convincingly indeed — eyedrops froze her pupils in a death-like stare, and she manages to remain unblinking even with a drop of water in one eyelash (lovingly placed there on Hitch’s orders, I assume). A cutaway to the shower head covers the moment, spotted by Alma alone, where Janet swallowed. But her eyelash CAN be seen flickering very slightly just ahead of the cut.

My parents are vaguely impressed that Hitchcock stages the whole sequence without any overt nudity, and without having to contrive his shots in a massively contorted way (no “trained furniture”) and then they’re more worried about the fate of the $40,000 than they are about the murder. “It’s our generation,” claims Mum. It’s fascinating to see Hitchcock’s strategies working so well on a small, reasonably unfamiliar audience.

Can we make sure Vince Vaughn never does THIS again? Some kind of face-clamp, perhaps.

Enter Vera Miles, re-enter John Gavin, and then enter Martin Balsam, in a scene which is, amusingly, a virtual remake of the Donald Calthrop’s entrance in BLACKMAIL. Here’s Donald:

Here’s Martin:

Both enter through glass doors, although Donald is opening a phone booth, as I recall. Both scenes are set in shops, and feature hushed couples discussing criminal matters, interrupted by an interloper who seems to know all about their private business. The self-plagiarism is appropriate to the scene, an amusing gag for me to uncover at this stage in Hitchcock Year, and proof of Hitchcock’s looong memory — I certainly don’t think the repetition is inadvertent. Ironic if Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, remade “shot for shot” by Van Sant, is already, in part, a shot-for-shot remake of BLACKMAIL.

I like Martin Balsam. I like the story of Eddie Izzard meeting him and complimenting him on his campy turn in THE ANDERSON TAPES, and Balsam being amazed that anybody noticed him, a mere character player, in that film. I even like Martin Balsam’s death. He arrived at his holiday hotel, told the desk clerk that this was his favourite place in the whole world, went to his room, lay down and died.

Martin’s conversation with a hotel clerk in this film is less pleasant, but equally final. Poor Norman Bates, the night man and the day man at the Bates Motel, must be getting very confused now that everybody’s hassling him for this money that he doesn’t know anything about. Another murder — my Mum screams, a little, at the shot of the door opening to release Mrs Bates. Gus Van Sant randomly cuts to a cow and a girl in a mask. I can’t decide if he’s breaking his own rules, or making something more interesting. Maybe he should have these random images all the way through the film, or not at all.

Balsam’s death scene is more surprising, in its presentation, than Leigh’s , because it hasn’t been so over-analysed, and because of the strange shot of Balsam sort of gliding downstairs backwards, and because the shot choices are so unpredictable — that high angle “God shot” when Mrs B attacks is there to stop us getting a clear look at the old bird, but it also works to disorient us.

Now Vera Miles has to drive the plot forward. John Gavin’s character really is a drip. But Vera shows real determination. The movie could just be over if she wasn’t so pushy. My parents are pleased to see the town sheriff, whom they remember from something or other (it turns out to be sixty-odd episodes of The Virginian), but he turns out to be no help, save to hint darkly at “that bad business” out at the Bates place, and to tell us that Mrs B is deceased.

Dig this image! Like a Catholic icon. My mother, a keen gardener, tells me that these tools are known as “scarifiers.” Seems appropriate.

The fruit cellar — introduced in that awesome twisting crane shot as Norman carries mom downstairs for safekeeping — leading to a slight reprise of the VERTIGO on-high view — the whole climax is staged totally differently in Van Sant’s version, which seems like an utter admission of defeat, really.

I remember replaying over and over Norman’s entrance in drag at the climax, because I’d read that you could hear him screaming “I am Norma Bates!” (an odd thing to say, admittedly), almost but not-quite swamped by Herrmann’s shrill strings on the soundtrack. I was listening to the wrong bit! The line can be heard, quite clearly, when John G wrestles him to the floor.

My Dad admires the swinging light-bulb effect, which takes him back to his days as an electrical engineer — his colleague used to swing a light bulb whenever anybody told a story that sounded a bit doubtful — he’d say “Just a minute,” then set the light swinging to and fro, then turn back and say, “You were saying?”

Of marginal relevance to PSYCHO, perhaps — my Dad once put in the wiring in a psychiatric hospital  (“someplace”). An odd sensation, being up a very tall ladder, while some in-patient had a fit of the screaming pazuzus down below… He met one chap who was getting released with a Certificate of Sanity. He thought, Wow, I don’t even have a Certificate of Sanity of my own.

The “old-fashioned expository scene” written by Stefano to supply all the information Bloch conveys in the novel via characters thoughts — a controversial bit of writing, to be sure. Kind of a pace-killer. I guess we do need the info, but maybe the scene could be shorter? You can see why filmmakers since then so often reach for the Madman’s Gallery — the collection of news clippings, photos, crazy drawings, designed to give a clue to the nut-job’s psychopathology. Fiona dates this trend back to THE HOWLING — blame/credit John Sayles and Joe Dante. It does beat having some windbag analyst huff up and down for five minutes.

And then everything is redeemed by Norman/Norma’s internal monologue, a new narrative device making an eleventh-hour appearance, but perhaps echoing Marion’s imaginary conversations in act 1. My Dad greatly admires John Russell’s lighting here — subtle modeling, and the impression of a white, clinical room, without actually any white. My Mum misses the neat-subliminal glimpse of Mrs Bates superimposed over Norman’s features as we dissolve to the car and the welcome return of Marion and the $40,ooo from the clammy embrace of the swamp…

A strange contradiction I just noticed — the shrink says he got the whole story from Norman’s mom, i.e. the part of his mind that thinks it’s her. But in the internal monologue, Norma blames her son for all the killings, which flatly contradicts the doc’s account. Further, Norma claims she can’t even move a muscle, although according to who you listen to, she’s either dead, or healthy as a horse but insane. Does Norma know she’s dead? Does Norman now believe himself to be his mother’s embalmed corpse? There’s that scene, earlier, where Norman says his mother couldn’t manage without him — “Her fire would go out…” Here he seems to have some intimation of the unfaceable truth.

My folks enjoyed PSYCHO, at last. “Bits of it were maybe dated, but it kept my interest,” said Mum.

Can’t end this without recalling an appearance by the late Mary Whitehouse, self-appointed guardian of the nation’s morals, on a BBC2 discussion show. She was always on about sex and violence on TV, was Mary, and this time she started in on the screening of PSYCHO II, the better-than-you’d-think belated sequel directed by Richard Franklin, a genuine Hitchock fan. “We saw a gang of youths, beating up an old lady,” ranted Whitehouse. The interviewer intervened: “I believe it was one person, not a gang, and Anthony Perkins couldn’t really be called a youth… and besides, I think really the scene was played for comic effect.”

Whitehouse’s reply does kind of sum up the madness of the censor’s mind, so I think it deserves to be quoted: “Do you really think that old lady, as she lay dying, said to herself, ‘It’s all right, this is only for comic effect?'”


45 Responses to “Bad Business”

  1. Christopher Says:

    I don’t like the groovy wood engraving lines on the Paramount log!..makes me think the print is bad every time I start to watch!
    The overlapping of of Norman’s face and his mothers at the end is still one of the most chilling scenes in film for me ever!
    What is it with Hitch and ladies underthings?..39 Steps,Vertigo,Psycho,finally comin’ off in Frenzy :o)..The Bras of Htichcock!

    go 4:30 to see Brook’s take on Psycho

  2. Hitch is definitely preoccupied with undies. There’s a good Frenzy story which I’ll save for a few weeks.

    The overlapping face in the Van Sant is markedly inferior to Hitch’s — it’s too CGI tricksy.

  3. The eye does not twitch! Apparently, Hitch’s wife saw a twitch in a rough cut, so he freeze frames and does an optical to finish the shot.

    I love the opening of this film. It really is the opposite of NxNW. There’s nothing glamorous about Phoenix. The hotel room is racy stuff. It’s her lunch hour. And then the long scene with the drunk fat guy. It’s all so simple and business like, and the way Janet Leigh is so cold, yet still bringing out all these reactions in the men around her. There’s some very complicated feelings about women here, obviously reaching the extreme with Bates.

    I’m sure someone had killed their leading lady in a movie before, but this was Hitchcock. Suspense was a given, but suspense only works up to the point of death. It must have been an amazing thing to see Hitch take it all the way through, when you were fully expecting something else.

    Perkins is so great. He’s such a great actor. THE TIN STAR is one of his best performances. And this one too. Janet, too. Some of the best acting in a Hitchcock movie, if you ask me.

    I don’t know why you’re bothering with the Gus Van Sant movie. It’s like a plane that can’t fly.

  4. I suspect the shot STARTS as a freeze frame and optical, and there’s a very smooth transition to a moving shot. The otherwise unnecessary cutaway to the shower head seems to be hiding another problem.

    But you’re right — the movement I saw is the water droplet in Janet’s eyelash falling.

    I don’t think Marion’s cold with Loomis, she just wants to get married, is all. In real life, Janet eloped with her boyfriend as a teen, because she wanted to have sex. And it would be improper to do that without marrying, so — elopement.

    Killing the leading lady at the end was acceptable, just about, but the real shock of the midpoint murder is the structural mayhem it wreaks.

    I like Perkins in The Trial and Catch 22 too.

    The Van Sant fascinates me because it’s such a transparently bad idea, unless he had something weird in mind. He tried to describe it in purely commercial terms, but is it a piece of modern art like Douglas Gordon’s 24hr Psycho? An exact remake designed to do something completely different? At any rate, there’s something interesting just in the madness of the idea, and the bits where it most obviously fails to fly are the bits that interest me most.

  5. Great post, though I must say I find the part about your parents more interesting than the film analysis.

    Psycho was the first Hitchcock film I saw, like it was for a lot of people and seeing it for the first time I realized that it was a really singular film, it was a director’s movie. In India, we call director’s movie big special-effects movies like Jurassic Park or period films or war movies where the average Indian thinks the actors are secondary to the art direction and special effects. Psycho was different because everything seemed deliberate and intentional. Every scene counted. Every cut mattered.

    That scene with the cop with the glares is a really scary shot. As is the used car scene where he stands across the street framed against the car. Very expressionistic shot.

    The scene with Simon Oakland is important in that we learn for the first time that Marion was one of many victims murdered by Norman. (However we can already infer that from the routine he does after the murder, the careful meticulous clean up job he does reveals great experience).

    The main thing that gets me in repeated viewings isn’t the comedy so much as much as the unbearable sadness in the movie. Marion Crane’s life then her death and the absolute squalor in which Norman lives in all these years. Hitchcock’s narrative marketing gimmicks succeeded in making Psycho really the most bleakest, pessimistic popular ckassic in American cinema.

  6. Christopher Says:

    Pretty Poison is one of my favorite Perkins films..Also I’m looking very forward to a DVD of The Fool Killer to finally make it out!

  7. Good stuff. Two comments:

    Stefano collaborated again with Hitchcock on the first draft of MARNIE. He is not credited, but it’s likely that some of his very Freudian ideas found their way into the final film.

    Van Sant makes the shrink’s explanation significantly worse than in the Hitchcock version by having Robert Forster rush through it. Philip Baker Hall is also in the Van Sant version as the Sheriff. Van Sant should have had Forster and Hall switch parts – Hall is such a great monologuist (SECRET HONOR) he might have made the shrink’s explanation work. He should have also had Anne Heche (Marion) and Juliane Moore (Lila) switch parts. Nothing could have been done about Vince Vaughn. However, as long as Van Sant was using so many people from BOOGIE NIGHTS (Hall, Moore, William H. Macy), he might as well have had Philip Seymour Hoffman – a real actor – play Norman.

    To Pangofilms – James Whale killed off a leading lady (the lovely Gloria Stuart) in the first reel of THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR (1933).

  8. Somehow I don’t think casting is the problem of the Van Sant movie. It’s immaterial even. It’s basically dealing with Psycho as a text, a screenplay which is staged as per the original production. The act of remaking is at issue there. The way to judge it is to decide whether it succeeded as a work of concept art or is interesting only as an attempt. For me it’s the latter. A far more interesting Psycho homage is in his Paranoid Park where Gabe Newins takes the shower and Van Sant is careful to capture the patterns from the falling water spilling from his hair. Narratively it’s different, no attacker but the same dread and emptiness of Marion lying on the bathroom floor is evoked in that scene.

  9. …so at least GVS’s Psycho led to something of value in his later work.

    I’d like his movie more if it were genuinely utterly faithful to the text — that would make all the things that don’t work into areas of interest. It would demonstrate something about Hitchcock’s talent, and the casting etc. In fact, those are the things I like in the movie — the miscasting (which actually seems willful), the anachronism. Doyle’s photography is so nice I’m prepared to allow the colour (for maximum redundancy the remake should have been in b&w). Since GVS is by no means foolish or untalented, I’m always obsessed with figuring out what the intent was with this movie.

    I just read about Stefano’s involvement with Marnie. He only completed half a draft though, so the Freudianism is either from the book (I think much of it is) or from Hitch and Jay Presson Allen. And possibly Evan Hunter. But yes, obviously Hitch was keen to work with JS again, and why not? Strange that it didn’t happen later. For a while, Stefano was busy, but things seem to have dried up fairly soon, otherwise how to explain his writing Eye of the Cat?

    Philip Seymour Hoffman — that would have been at least interesting, because it would be a reversion to Bloch’s concept. I guess swapping Vince Vaughn with Viggo Mortensen might work too. Is EVERYONE playing the wrong role? William H Macy is OK, but swap HIM with Forster, and then with Baker Hall, and I think it’d be better.

  10. Philip Baker Hall has a resemblance to John McIntire who played the sheriff in the original, the Mrs. is played by Jeannete Nolan(Lady to Orson’s MacBeth and famously incarnated the cop’s wife in The Big Heat). McIntire is the cop in charge of tracking down the heist team in The Asphalt Jungle who gives that big press conference in the end right before Sterling Hayden’s martyrdom.

    The shrink scene is meant to be over-the-top so no need to make it more convincing or whatnot. It’s Hitchcock’s parody of people trying to rationally explain the unfathomable to the terrified. In The Birds he parodies the hysterical, irrational explanations to the irrational. The final scene deliberately contradicts the prior moment. Where “Mother” says “she couldn’t hurt a fly”.

  11. More in-joke casting might have been nice. Since the remake is already shadowing another movie…

    The contradictions are interesting since mother seems to be blaming Norman for the crimes, but to the shrink she seemingly confessed all. Even in the final scene, she’s unsympathetic as hell, even though she’s right — Norman was responsible for everything, and no matter how badly brought up he was, he’s still responsible for his own actions. Except he’s insane, I guess.

    The most preposterous thing the shrink says is that Mrs Bates has taken over, permanently — as if any analyst or doctor could make a judgement like that!

  12. What the shrink might have meant was that he inferred from his conversations with “Mother” that that was the personality that was responsible for the murder. The last scene confirms the existence of the “Mother” persona but if she says “as if I could do anything except stand there as one of his stuffed birds” who did the stabbing and look how expert is Norman cleaning up his own crime scene. At the very least he was accessory to the murders commited by his split persona.

  13. Gus Van Sant did it for money, and he didn’t want to ruin the great old film. They offered it to him and he figured out a way to do it that would be fun and interesting to him. The cynical studio remaking it didn’t care what he did, because they were just going to sell it on the brand anyway. There’s no magic in it. The original is all magic.

    You’re right, though. The optical starts at the beginning. But it’s still an amazing, flawless shot. I didn’t see any twitch. Hard to believe that the censors were upset with the nudity when it’s such a violent, horrific scene. Seems so petty. I’m sure they were upset with the whole film, which seems bizarrely and intensely sexual from the first shot in the hotel room.

    Just glanced at the wiki page of it, I love that Hitch found some girl on the street he thought looked like Marion and photographed her wardrobe to make it more realistic. Not exactly what he did with Eva Marie Saint.

  14. Hitch’s research is underrated, his realist side. They photographed a real secretary and also her apartment.

    The shrink’s analysis makes sense with the narrative. Mrs Bates’ final speech doesn’t. So maybe what happened is, the Mrs Bates persona blamed Norman, and the shrink worked out from that the truth — that Norman peeped as himself, killed as mom, tidied up as himself.

    Or else Norman has entered a new phase at the end — he accepts that there were two personae inside Norman, but he now believes he is the stuffed mother. “I can’t move a muscle.”

  15. interesting discussion–kudos to C. Jerry for mentioning Whale’s KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR (a really fascinating film!)

  16. KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR, unfortunately unavailable on DVD. Anyone have a copy? I’d love to see it.

  17. I have an incredibly bad copy of it. Universal have sat on their obscurer Whales for decades now.

  18. This may be repeating a myth but is it the case that the remake was just a cynical method of retaining the copyright that was about to expire?

  19. There’s no way the copyright could have been expiring that soon, is there?

    But certainly Universal’s motivations were undoubtedly cynical, regardless.

  20. The Universal Whale I most want to see – THE ROAD BACK. And a really impossible dream – THE ROAD BACK: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (since the only version that apparently exists is the one that was notoriously mutilated and reshot by the studio).

  21. I have the studio cut. Have been kind of afraid to look at it. But I now have about a week’s worth of obscure Whales, so I better make a start. Maybe a James Whale week on Shadowplay?

  22. Gus did NOT “do it for the money.” he really wanted to make it as a conceptual art pice. The DVD featurs a “Making of” called “The Psycho Path” directed by Gus’ ex, D.J.

    Tony Perkins is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Back in 1969-70 the Gay Activists Alliance would meet on Thursday nights in the meeting room of church in Chelsea. Tony Perkins would come by on his bike and circle round and round and round the palce. When we called out to him to come inside and join us he’s take off like a flash.

    Among Gus’s additons my favoirte is the digitally inserted butterfly tattoo just about Vigo Mortenseon’s butt crack.

    And if THAT won’t get you to buy the DVD I don’t know what will!

  23. Poor Tony. I believe he saw a therapist to deal with a “phobia about touching women.” I don’t think it helped. What he had wasn’t curable because it wasn’t an illness, plus it doesn’t help if you can’t acknowledge what it is.

    If he’s not stuffing birds, he’s recording them, it seems.

    As Christopher said some time back, Pretty Poison is a terrific Perkins perf/film.

  24. Oh he acknowledged waht it was, alright. He jaust claimed he didn’t want it. And of course he did.

    If he had trouble touching anyone it was men. He and Sondheim had a go at it — when neither was prepared to have a relationhip, but what the hell.

    And he had no toruble touching Berry Berenson and having several sons with her. It was the extracurricular men-tocuhing that brought about his end, to AIDS.

    I love Pretty Poison too. He and Tuesday Weld teamed again in Frank Perry’s not at-all-bad version of Joan Didione’s Play It As It Lays — which sadly isn’t available on home video. In that film’s big scene Tony (playing a VERY unhappy gay man) commits suicide by talking a overdose of sleeping pills then laying down in Tuesday’s arms as she sings “You Belong To Me” to him a capella

  25. I’ve just sourced a copy of Play It as It Lays. They’re such a good team, Tony and Tuesday, and Perry is a fascinating filmmaker — I can’t wait.

  26. Vince Vauhan is the major drawback of Gus’ version. It’s a shame he didn’t cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose superb performance in 500 Days of Summer I just caught up with. Joe loves to play crazy/edgey.

  27. Gordon-Levitt could certainly play nervous and attractive. But I wonder with the GVS if all the casting isn’t just meant to increase the sense of wrongness. Nobody’s particularly well cast, though Mortensen and Macy come close. It’s like watching the Hitchcock film through a special filter that makes everything not work.

  28. I like him too. He has the right Tony Perkins quality. One thing that’s hard for audiences to appreciate is that Hitchcock was casting him against type. He was great playing sensitive good guy characters so Hitchcock took that and made it even more shocking.

    A better performance than Psycho is of course in Welles’ The Trial as Joseph K. Really amazing intense work and he has an amazing final scene where Welles deliberately subverts Kafka’s ethos of the book.

  29. Welles and Perkins really got on famously. They teamed again for Chabrol, bit not on another Welles project, sadly.

  30. Perkins turns up in The Orson Welles Story and is very amusing, quoting Welles’ take on Joseph K: “‘He’s guilty as hell!’ …I said, ‘I don’t think this is going to be a very popular interpretation of Kafka,’ and he said, well, I can’t tell you what he said…”

  31. You guys are wonderfully uncynical about the GVS film, but there’s a reason that Vince Vaughn is in it and that’s because he was the star. They were looking for someone they could finance this thing on, and he was available. Of course GVS says he didn’t do it for the money. It probably wasn’t that simple, but, come on, Nick Cage wouldn’t admit to doing National Treasure for the money, would he? As I said, GVS found a way to do this where he could live with himself. He’s a great, artistic director who can sometimes work in the studio system to make money, so he takes the opportunity when he can. But Hitch’s version can be talked about endless because it is good. GVS’ version, it seems, is only being talked about because it is bad.

  32. Well, if it were a regular bad remake, I wouldn’t spend much time on it. I’m interested in it because it’s WEIRD. And it’s tricky imputing motivations to a filmmaker. GVS may have made it partly to stay bankable, which is not quite the same thing as wanting to make money. The guy wants to keep making films.

    Vaughn’s fame obviously was a factor in his casting, as Perkins had been. And in a sense, VV was an “interesting” choice, since nobody could imagine him in the role. But he did turn out to be a dreadful choice — which may not matter if it’s conceptual art…

    I’m much more cynical about Finding Forrester than I am about Psycho.

  33. No. “Bankability” had nothing to do with that one. Universal asked Gus if there was anything they had he’d like to remake and HE said Psycho. Vince Vaughan’s participation came later.

    Finding Forrester was offered to him as a commerical package. And who could turn down the opportunity to direct Sean Connery? There’s a short on the DVD that Gus shot with the chir of the high school where the film was set and made. That’s the real film. After that he turned resolutely towards experiment and has hung to that mode ever since — even in Milk.

    I had a great time on Wednesday introducting a specil screenign of Mala Noche in Palm Springs. The city’s film festival has events all year round and this one was part of aseries devoted to debut features (on previous Wednesdays Knife in the Water and The 400 Blows were shown, and other critics spoke.)

    Hadn’t seen Mala Niche in years so I told the story of how the award I gave it put Gus on the map — a fact he has ceaselesly credited me with. Noticed a shot of roiling clouds — the first of many in the GVS oeuvre. Psycho has tons of them.

  34. Sean Connery — on the one hand, a decent and professional fellow and an asset to any film. On the other hand, apt to be grumpy. But not “difficult”, so I would think anybody would want to work with him, yes. A shame he’s retired, I wonder if anything could tempt him back.

  35. Thanks for the Yo Gabba Gabba link, David E – it’s my little girl’s (and my) favourite kids show.

    I’d completely forgotten that John McIntyre was in Psycho. His son Tim, who died tragically young, was an absolute rock solid dead ringer for Orson Welles, a fact that has always intrigued me. He gave an amazing performance in Kubrick producer James B Harris’s best film as director, the hilariously scabrous prison movie Fastwalking.

    I share David C’s fascination with GVS’s Psycho, a film that fails to work on so many levels that it can’t possibly be unintentional. The ‘subliminal’ frames are, alongside Vince Vaughn’s casting, possibly the most inexplicably weird element in the thing.

    Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho, on the other hand, is an unequivocally brilliant piece of work – watching the shower scene unfold agonizingly slowly, its architectural beauty becomes even more apparent (though I never spotted the fuzzy rack shot cited above).

  36. Subliminal frames: by herself, the girl in the mask would be too Lynchian, too deliberately “weird” — but with the addition of the blurry cow on a road in the rain, she acquires density and potency.

  37. Thanks, David – Yo Gabba Gabba attained a new level of meaning for me when I realised he’d taken his DJ name from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

  38. Wow. Gotta get back into kids’ TV, it seems.

  39. Harvey Chartrand Says:

    A television prelude to PSYCHO: THE MORNING OF THE BRIDE, a 1959 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Plot synopsis from IMDB: “Helen Brewster, a lonely woman (Barbara Bel Geddes), is anxious to marry her longtime fiancé Philip Pryor (Don Dubbins), whose mother (?) she’s never even met. Helen waited through his military service in the Korean War, the mother’s illness, all the while worried that her younger, wealthier fiancé will find someone who’s his equal. How long must the less educated woman wait to move from her small, furnished apartment to his family’s mansion – and why the delay?” The episode is included on the newly released DVD Alfred Hitchcock Presents Season 4. THE MORNING OF THE BRIDE starts off as a soap opera, and then becomes increasingly eerie. The episode is not directed by Hitchcock, but by Arthur Hiller (LOVE STORY, SILVER STREAK, THE IN-LAWS, NIGHTWING). Still, the PSYCHO-like plot similarities are a strange coincidence, as this episode aired the year before PSYCHO was released. And Pat Hitchcock makes a fleeting appearance in THE MORNING OF THE BRIDE, as she does in PSYCHO, once again playing the leading lady’s less attractive (but married) friend.

  40. Wow! Sounds like a must. Gotta love BBG.

    Hiller should be best remembered for The Hospital, a flawed but excellent Paddy Chayefsky script which he directs with real smoothness and skill.

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