Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Mr Hitchcock, you cheated

I'm reviewing a concert this weekend that includes a suite of Bernard Herrmann's music for Psycho, and it occurred to me that maybe I ought to see the movie Psycho, since I never had. I've read much about it, of course, so I was approaching it in exactly the opposite frame of mind from that which Hitchcock intended the original audience to have. Any discussion of the long-term impact of plot spoilers should include a consideration of Psycho. [And if you somehow haven't had this movie's plot spoiled, you'd better stop reading this right now.]

It certainly affected my viewing. I was quite astonished at how effective much of the movie was; I was not expecting it to be anywhere near so good, especially as there were some specific things in it that were unexpectedly bad. The plot tension is well kept up, entirely vitiating one of what I'd expected to be my two main beefs with the movie, that it's really two movies insufficiently connected: one the story of Marion stealing the money (it's sometimes said that she embezzles it; I don't think that's quite the right term), and the other the hunt for her after she goes missing and the unmasking of her killer. The problem is that her death is not a Shakespearean tragedy; it doesn't follow from her own nemesis, and is purely the accidental result of her landing in a motel with a homicidal maniac innkeeper. The reasons this didn't bother me were threefold: 1) that it's at least possible that Norman's "decision" (if that's the word) to murder her arises from her behavior towards him which in turn is a result of her being on the run; 2) the pace of the movie pushes forward well enough to prevent the viewer dwelling on the problem; 3) I already knew it was going to happen anyway. So in that way having the movie spoiled first helped.

The thing I liked best in the movie, which I wasn't expecting, was the early scenes involving Marion driving to California. These depict what it was actually like to travel on US highways fifty years ago - before most of the interstates were built - something I can myself barely remember. And the way in which the story conveys that Marion has actually stolen the money, as opposed to just thinking about it, was subtle and sophisticated.

The other beef, though, bothered me a lot, and that is the surprise ending: that Norman is really his mother in disguise. I mean, that she's really him in disguise. You know, when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back, with its surprise ending - "Luke, I am your father" - my reaction was Luke's: "Noooo!" When I saw the movie a second time - about 25 years after I saw it the first time, which demonstrates how little I cared about this - I was even more convinced that Vader is lying. Nothing in the earlier conversations between Vader and the Emperor makes sense unless Vader and Luke's father are different people. I felt something similar here: the plot would make more sense if Norman is not the person dressing up as his mother. For instance, the events preceding the murder of Arbogast. As Arbogast returns to the motel, Norman is walking down the motel breezeway away from the house. Presumably he ducks around the back of the building and runs up to the house - as Lila does later - while Arbogast is poking around the motel office, but it doesn't really make any sense that he would do this without knowing exactly where Arbogast will be walking to and how long he will take to get there.

This common cinematic convention of hiding the true explanation of events by having it make less sense than false explanations is, however, trumped by a genuine cheat, and this I've learned and confirmed from books about the movie. The way Hitchcock keeps you from guessing that "Mother" is really Norman in disguise is this: Norman is played by Tony Perkins, but "Mother" isn't. Except for the final appearance after the secret has already been blown, the previous appearances of the shadowy stabbing figure in the dress and hairbun are played by somebody else. And the voice when Norman and "Mother" are having their unseen arguments? That's not Perkins either. And the reason Hitchcock used other actors was that he was afraid the audience would recognize Perkins' figure or voice, even disguised. Yes, well, that's the point, isn't it, you moron?

In other words, the innocent audience is right to suspect that "Mother" isn't Norman, because she isn't. Perkins is Norman, and "Mother" isn't Perkins. To then tell them that she is him is the rawest form of cheat, worse than anything M. Night Shyamalan has done, and that's the worst condemnation I can think of. Mr Hitchcock, you cheated.

But maybe he should have. Perkins does a good job as Norman, but in his one appearance, brightly lit in the cellar doorway, as "Mother", waving his knife around with a maniacal grimace on his face, he looks ridiculous. It's the worst bit of acting in the film, made worse by the cry of "Norma Bates!" (was that really Mother's name?), which isn't coming from Perkins' mouth either. It's a good thing that Bernard Herrmann convinced Hitchcock to let him use his "stabbing" musical motif a third time here, because otherwise it would have been a completely dud moment. It's even worse than Arbogast's fall downstairs. It may have sounded like a clever idea to film this bit with the viewpoint centered on the falling man, but it's too obviously a matte paste job, and for special effects deserves the Anti-Oscar.

Other things that bothered me that I hadn't known about before seeing it:

*The stolen money is something of a McGuffin, isn't it? Sam thinks that Norman killed Marion for it, but though Norman buried the money with the body, it was clearly inadvertent: he hadn't known the money was wrapped up in the newspaper he tossed in the car trunk.

*The plot line of tracing the fugitive Marion, her concern over which dictates much of her actions, peters out awkwardly. Her trading in her car serves no plot function, because the same highway patrolman who thought her suspicious is standing there the whole time she's at the dealership, so he has her new license plate number. Did he later call in her ID and find out she was a wanted fugitive, and did this have anything to do with why Lila and Arbogast separately show up at Sam's store? (Presumably Marion had kept Sam's existence a secret from both Lila and her employer, who presumably hired Arbogast, though we're never told this, so they must have found out about Sam somehow.)

*If, as the sheriff says, the death of Norman's mother ten years previously was well-known around town, then why didn't Sam, who lives in that town, know it? (Not to mention that if Norman had been making a regular habit of telling guests about his mother, word of his delusion would have gotten out long before now.)

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