30 August 2009

Psycho

Novel by Robert Bloch, New York: Simon & Shuster. 1959.
Film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Script by Joseph Stefano.
109 mins, 1960.
Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates
Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane
Vera Miles plays Lila Crane
Martin Balsam plays Milton Arbogast
Country of finance: USA
Nationality of director: UK
Location of story: Arizona
Filming location: California, Arizona.

Synopsis

Norman Bates poisoned his widowed mother when she was forty, when she took a lover, had her embalmed and buried, and then two months later dug her up and kept her around the house. This left her a little bit immobile, and so he had to move for her. So he dressed as her, and as such carried out her will. Especially her will to protect her son from strange women, and to that end it was sometimes required that she must kill them.

Marion Crane stole $40,000 from her employer, and ran away. She stayed in the Bates Motel. Norman spied on her as she undressed. ‘Mother’ then killed her. Norman then sank her and her car in a nearby swamp without finding the money.

The detective who comes after her is killed by ‘Mother’ when he enters the house. Eventually Norman is arrested and the police psychologist declares that he is a transvestite.

Curiosities

Hitchcock in his determination that audiences would not anticipate the climax cheated from the point of view of gender impersonation. Anthony Perkins does not play ‘Mother’ for the first two killings. In the famous shower killing scene, 'mother' is played by Margo Epper, a stuntwoman; and in the knifing at the top of the stairs scene she is played by another stuntwoman who goes by the name of Mitzi. Mitzi is petite and completely unlike Anthony.

The voice overs by “mother’ are even more rococo. First hired was Paul Jasmin, an aspirant actor who had developed, as a joke, a practice of phoning well-known actors as 'Eunice Ayers'. Hitchcock also hired actresses Jeanette Nolan and Virginia Gregg to record the same lines. The version on the sound track is a splicing together of the three voices. From word to word it jumps from one to the other.

Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974, and Silence of the Lambs, 1991, Psycho is sort of, loosely, based on rumours of Ed Gein.

In Robert Bloch's novel Norman is in his forties, short and fat. However in the film, Anthony Perkins is still in his twenties, which changed the nature of Norman.

The first US film ever to show a toilet being flushed.

The film is in black & white because a) Hitchcock thought that it would be too gory in colour, b) he wanted to make it for under $1m c) he was making a superior version of the cheap b/w B-movies that did so well in the 1950s.

Some people have speculated about the licence plate on Marion’s second car: NFB-418. NFB =National Film Board of Canada, and 418 is the area code of Quebec City where Hitchcock had made I Confess, 1953. However there is no Canadian money or content in the film.

In the opening scene, Marion wears a white bra. After she steals the money, she wears a black bra.

The white Ford sedan is the same car used in Leave It to Beaver, 1957.

The house was built by cannibalizing several stock unit sections. The tower is from the house in Harvey, 1950.

It is Vera Miles, not Janet Leigh, in the shower scene in the trailer.

Parallels with Orson Well’s Touch of Evil, 1958.
An extended show-off dolly shot as a opening.
Janet Leigh is harrassed by a transvestite (an uncredited Mercedes McCambridge as a man) in a cheap motel in the US South West.
Both hotel managers are badly dressed, nervous, stammers, uncomfortable with women.
For more see the article by John Hall.

Is Norman a transvestite?

The MPAA censors objected to the use of the term "transvestite" to describe Norman Bates in the final wrap-up. They insisted it be removed, until writer Joseph Stefano used a dictionary to prove to them it was a clinical psychology term with no sexual connotation. They thought he was trying to get one over on them and place a vulgarity in the picture.

The psychiatrist at the end claims that Norman was a transvestite. Purely technically, as he sometimes dressed as his mother, then he must have been. But he wore her dress over his male clothes, and has no existential need to crossdress as an end in itself. In previous decades the term ‘pseudo transvestite’ was used for persons who cross dress e.g. to commit a crime, to appear on stage etc. Norman is more of a pseudo transvestite than an existential transvestite.

He is not like any other transvestite that you may have met.

Other transvestites in Hitchcock’s films.
Murder, 1930. Handel Fane, a trapeze artist who also does female roles on stage, is the killer.
To Catch a Thief, 1954. Danielle Foucard imitates a retired jewel thief so that he will be blamed.

Conclusion

Psycho joins a puritanical view of sex with psychopathology. This illiberal view was continued in giallo and slasher films in great number.

Psycho was effectively the first slasher film, a genre that generally retained gender ambiguity (see Clover’s book).

Bell-Metereau sees Psycho as the start of a new era, particularly in contrast to Some Like It Hot of the previous year. The Dame role, dressing as an older woman, Charleys’ Aunt and Old Mother Riley, a tradition that goes back to medieval morality plays and is found in Shakespeare, Music Hall and Pantomime, is usually taken to be good-natured (if you ignore the misogyny) but has had a dark side all along (think of Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three ,1925 and 1930, Lionel Barrymore in The Devil Doll 1936). Psycho is the iconic Dame and murder film, and much better made than most of the other films that came in its wake.

We can admire Psycho as a film, but the gates that it opened, not just the murderous Dame characters, but also the psychotic transy killers who came afterwards, added an undesirable colour to the public perception of trans persons.

There are transgendered killers. I have featured some of them on my other blog. But there are far too many in movies compared to a) the number of trans characters in movies b) the numbers of real killers who are transgendered.

Sequels and Remakes

There are three sequels: Psycho II, Psycho III, Psycho IV: The Beginning. In these Anthony Perkins does get to play ‘mother’ as well as Norman.

Psycho was remade shot-by-shot from Joseph Stephano’s script, copying the camera angles of the originals, with the same errors, and in colour, by Gus Van Sant in 1998.
  • Rebecca Louise Bell-Metereau. Hollywood Androgyny. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Second Edition 1993: 129-132.
  • Stephen Rebello. Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. New York: Dembner Books. 1990.
  • Carol J.Clover. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • John W. Hall. “Touch of Psycho”. Bright Lights Film Journal. September 1995. www.brightlightsfilm.com/14/psycho.html.
  • Richard Scheib. “Psycho”. The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review. 1998. www.moria.co.nz/horror/psycho.htm.
  • “Psycho (1960 film)”. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psycho_%281960_film%29

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