Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Before I saw Psycho, I knew more or less what was going to happen and what the twist would be. It’s hard to find anyone with any interest in seeing Psycho for the first time who hasn’t had much the same experience. It’s not even worth a “spoilers!” to tell a potential viewer that Janet Leigh will be killed while showering, or that “Mrs. Bates” is in fact her son Norman, dressed up in her clothing and stabbing the guests. What they don’t tell the prospective viewer, though, is that much more happens after Leigh bites the dust; her lover (John Gavin) and her sister (Miles) show up at the Bates Motel with a private inspector named Arbogast (Martin Balsam) in tow, intent on finding out what happened to Marion. Arbogast was a new character for me, and so in a way the second act gave me some of the sense of seeing this film for the first time while I was seeing it for the first time. Even if I couldn’t really appreciate the fear factor of Mrs. Bates’ shadow through the shower curtain, I could certainly tag along a little as the plot shifts to the private detective.
Like any good horror film, Psycho should leave certain key images on the inside of your eyelids when you’re trying to go to sleep that night. And I’m sure that whenever you saw Psycho for the first time, you too had certain images on a loop; maybe you fixated on the shower scene, or that brilliant overlay of a skull over Anthony Perkins’ features at the end, or maybe it’s the Bates house itself, with its one light on upstairs, which you can’t help but unsee. For me, it’s the image above. Arbogast, convinced he’s going to get the truth of the disappearance of Marion Crane from Mrs. Bates, decides to go upstairs into the house and confront her personally. He is certainly confronted. As he creeps upstairs, finally reaching the landing, the camera suddenly shoots up and Mrs. Bates very quickly – like a cockroach in suddenness and speed, adding an eeriness to the scene which it hardly needs to be scary but which sure is helpful – opens the door, walks out of her bedroom, and commences stabbing Arbogast to death. The movement is more terrifying than the stabbing; oddly enough, I was a little relieved when Arbogast was killed. It made it easier for the tension to leave my shoulders knowing that there was at least some closure.
This is just about the only shot in the movie which looks down on someone from above in this manner. Norman (Perkins) keeps his motel full of bird-related imagery. Cabin #1 has prints of waterfowl and songbirds on the walls. His parlor is full of taxidermy birds, including, most notably, an owl swooping down and filling the left half of the frame while he sits on the right. In this murder scene we get much the same sense of hutning, a bird’s eye view of what’s going on below and, as the camera closes in on Arbogast’s bloody head and chest after a few good stabs, the same sense of swooping down on prey. Weirdly enough, from the point of view which follows this shot, it is our claws, the viewer’s claws, which have done the damage. Our voyeurism is part and parcel of Arbogast’s murder just as it was a piece of Marion’s murder in the shower, naked and wet and defenseless as she was. We are immune to someone coming along and stabbing us the way Mrs. Bates does to Arbogast, and so we godlike viewers can sit back and munch our popcorn with gaping mouths. Perhaps we’re horrified, but we are very, very safe.
Hitchcock likes this overhead shot for when his viewers get to be omniscient, to have a sudden and potentially terrible knowledge of what’s just happened. The best example has got to be the famous “key shot” in Notorious, where we go from the top of the stairs in a great mansion down to Ingrid Bergman’s hand, where she holds a key, in about forty seconds without a single cut. In Rear Window, we get to look down on Jimmy Stewart falling from his window and rebreaking his legs. In Vertigo, there’s the horrible sight of Kim Novak spreadeagled on the roof of the mission. That’s hardly unique – crane shots, because they put you up where God sits and watches the movie, frequently provide some novel insight – but Hitchcock saves up his ammo relentlessly and waits for the appropriate moment to pull the trigger. Too much of any kind of shot can inure a moviegoer to its effectiveness, and in each (attempted) killing, we see Mrs. Bates from a different angle. Like the trigger-happy train robber from The Great Train Robbery, Mrs. Bates appears, face in totally in shadow, and stabs Marion from our perspective. (There is a sort of vampirism that creeps into the film in this way. After the viewer has been “stabbed” by Mrs. Bates, it appears that the viewer is responsible for pushing worsening Arbogast’s wounds and pushing him down a flight of stairs.) At the end of the film, with a face screaming “Yippee-ki-yay!” under the wig, we can see Norman from a distance of feet away, only a step above our shared perspective with Vera Miles. Every time we see Norman-as-Mother, it’s a different enough perspective to keep us on edge. Heck, even our perspectives of Norman himself continue to change. The winner for frequency is probably a profile view of his slouching lanky body, hands in pockets and smiling good-naturedly at someone, although the winner for creepiness is definitely that aforementioned head-on shot of Norman, covered with a blanket, sitting in a chair in front of a totally blank wall and smiling that evil smile with his thick eyebrows forming a brick wall above his too-white eyes.
One appreciates Perkins’ work in this movie for several reasons, although to me his posture is at least as important as that falsely naive smile or the stammering. One of the most underrated aspects of any actor’s craft is his/her body language, and Perkins is brilliant at making that spindly form of his do whatever is necessary. Mrs. Bates stands and walks so differently from Norman. Norman has a little hitch in his step, a casualness in the way he moves. As Mrs. Bates, his movements are stiff and robotic. The stabbing itself has the perfect angular motion which any geometry student could measure with a protractor and draw out with a compass. In that still up top, even if we cannot believe that Mrs. Bates is capable of such swift movement or, indeed, if we know that Mrs. Bates has been dead for years, it’s hard to sync our knowledge of Norman’s movement with Mrs. Bates’.