Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Psychotic Breaks

This post is a contribution to the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series at The Film Experience. This post, inevitably, spoils the whole film.

Psycho is so commonly, and easily, reduced to the "shower scene", with perhaps a mention that she wouldn't hurt a fly. It's hard to forget, for anyone, that it's actually one of the almighty Alfred Hitchcock's most masterful pieces, so finely constructed that I still won't accept the final rambling 'explanation' as a mistake so much as something I still don't understand the function of. Legend dulls the shock of the shower scene, but it still has a tensing effect, a supremely nervy quality, that will surely last forever. But the film as a whole, too, is decidedly not one of sustained menace, but continues to play with genre after its sudden switch from following a woman on the run to a horror film. Sam (John Gavin) and Lila (Vera Miles) hanging around waiting for Arboghast (Martin Balsam) appears remarkably film noir.

What I loved this time around about Psycho - this must be at least my fifth viewing, and one of my earliest cinema memories is naughtily stumbling upon the spectre of the looming Bates' house on late-night TV - were the little flourishes of unexpected emotions that are slipped into otherwise tense, straightforward scenes.


Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is generally skittish and tense during her impromptu flight with $40,000, and in this scene, as she drives along the highway in the darkness, imagined voice-overs of the people she's running from - police, her employer, her sister - play on the soundtrack. Hitchcock hands the reigns to Leigh, the camera still on her face. Her lips purse, her brow furrows - and then, unexpectedly, her lips curl up into a perverse, proud little smile. Leigh finally gives a possible hint for why Marion's seemingly uncharacteristic move to steal the money might have happened - maybe she just is a little bad.


Another weird little smile, a similar concoction of perversity and pride. Arboghast has been digging into Norman (Anthony Perkins), taking his story apart, and, though it nearly undoes him right there and then, something in Norman - or in his 'mother' - can't resist a wicked little joke.
"Let's put it this way - she might have fooled me... but she didn't fool my mother."
Well I laughed, Norman. I laughed.


Let's go a little gay for a moment. Another little flash of unusual emotion that's more amusing than anything else:
Sometimes, when she talks to me like that, I feel I'd like to go up there... and curse her, and... and leave her forever!
The queer coding in Norman is, of course, blindingly obvious, but this little moment seems more pronounced in how it isn't feminine but queer. Notably, it's Norman separating himself from his 'mother', whether that means her when she was actually alive or merely the part of his brain that operates as 'mother' - this is a Norman identifying as a separate person, not a transvestite but a gay male. Maybe a lot to read into one small moment, but the nuances in Perkins' performance are so complex it more than allows it.

My favourite shot, though, is emotionally extreme for a slightly different reason.


Arboghast examines the guest book and Norman leans over from the end of the counter to look closer, the desperation and panic that's setting in reflected in the extreme angles the camera ends up seeing him from. The camera tracks the movement of Perkins' head but doesn't tilt from its horizontal axis - an ingenious interplay between actor and director to emphasize the escalating emotion of the scene. And the shadows created by the lighting look so gorgeous in black-and-white - the last film Hitchcock made in black-and-white, and probably his final masterpiece.

3 comments:

NATHANIEL R said...

wonderful choice.

this film always makes me think Tony Perkins needs more love as an actor.

okinawaassault said...

I like his hand gestures too. If Norman was a little more sane, he'll grow up to be like that old neighbor who...wouldn't hurt a fly.

Squasher88 said...

I love that hand gesture too! It was one of the shots I was thinking of choosing. It's so unexpected. He perks up, pauses and you expect something more aggressive than "curses" and then he restrains himself again.