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The Importance of being PSYCHO

March 18, 2013

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hitchcock with truffautIn his time Alfred Hitchcock was never accorded the respect as a filmmaker that we bestow on him today.  He was a genre director who simply shocked and scared us all.  He wasn’t a director to analyze or respect.  Few critics saw any redeeming qualities in his work.  One of his biggest fans and life-long friend was Francois Truffaut, who was not just a fan of Hitch’s, but of all cinema.  Truffaut was on a constant hunt to be entertained and find new ways to communicate story through celluloid.  Truffaut opened my eyes years ago in his book Hitchcock/Truffaut, to the importance of Hitchcock simply being Hitchcock.

Amongst Hitchcock’s vast catalog of Films and TV accomplishments a handful of films stand out as true classics; Notorious, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window, and of course PSYCHO.  Psycho was released in 1960 to a fan frenzy, and quite frankly, it changed cinema forever.  Below I list merely a few ways in which this disturbingly wonderful film changed everything.

1. Psycho changed how we went to the movies.  Up to this point it was generally accepted to walk into a theater at any point in a film.  If you missed the first half, you could stay in your seat and wait for it to replay.  Hitchcock put his foot down and declared that there would be no admittance after the film had begun.  All theater-goers needed to see this film from the start.

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2.  Psycho and Hitch ignored and even challenged the Hollywood formula by literally slashing through the cookie cutter conformity of the 50s. To this day, not many filmmakers would have the guts to do what Psycho did, which is a complete transformation 47 minutes in.  What began as a Crime/ Love on the Run story, suddenly through a single act of violence is transformed into a new kind of horror film.  That horrific act also serves as a catalyst within the story to shift the focus of the film from the suddenly deceased main character protagonist over to the murderous antagonist through an eerie series of dissolves and transitions as one dies and the other reveals his/her true voyeuristic murderous nature.

3. The depiction of Norman cast a terrifyingly realistic light on mental illness.  Up to this point a psychopath in film was often portrayed as a foaming at the mouth irrational lunatic with no control over his actions who would KILL KILL KILL!  Norman Bates presented a new type of killer.  He was methodical.  He was nice.  He was polite.  He was innocent.  Wait, what?  Yes, I argue that the last scene exonerated him.  He is the poster boy for an insanity plea.  He hears his dead mother. I rest my case.

As much as I love the film Psycho, Bates Motel  on A&E might be a massive mistake.  Exploiting Hollywood classics to make a buck is common practice, unfortunately for A&E though, most of Hitchcock’s material works because of what happens off-screen.  He was a master of suspense, which involved not what he blatantly showed us, rather what he didn’t show.  The allusions to Norman’s younger years through a few  brief statements about Mother, and the really freaky image of the fetal position-body-shaped  dent in the bed of the master bedroom were all I needed for my imagination to run wild.  I don’t necessarily want someone to tell me that this is how Norman grew up.  I think Norman’s childhood is best left to our bad dreams and imagination.  It is way more frightening that way.

Then again, who am I kidding.  I’m going to watch it.  But, I can’t help but wonder, would Truffaut find something redeeming about this exercise in story?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2013 10:01 am

    I enjoyed this analysis and background of “Psycho.” I watched it for the first time a few years ago. To be honest, I wasn’t actually frightened by the film’s premise of a lucid lunatic, but I did get really creeped out by the last scene: “Wouldn’t hurt a fly.” That was the worst moment of the whole movie to me!

    I enjoy Hitchcock’s style. This is from someone who went to watch the new “Wolfman” movie and couldn’t look at the screen sometimes! I think suspense horror is far creepier than the more slasher-type stuff.

    • March 19, 2013 10:14 am

      I completely agree. If you can draw your audience in so far that they begin to legitimately worry about a character and what is going on just off screen, then you have done your job as a storyteller. Hitch always used to use a bomb scene to illustrate suspense vs shock. He shows the audience that there is a bomb under a table in a restaurant, but not where the timer is at. Then his protagonist and antagonist talk at the table. We know the bomb is there, but not how much time is left. It could go off any second! Suspense. If they were just sitting there, the bad guy left, and the restaurant blew up, it would be shock. Both are highly charged emotional scenes for the audience, but I’d argue that the suspense lingers for a bit longer in the back of our minds.

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