Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cukoo for Psycho

     I’m happy I never saw Psycho until I was in college, because as a child I would have hated it and never thought twice about it again.  Stick it right next to Citizen Kane as movies that everyone loves and I would never know why.  Fortunately, my penchant for rooting out gimme courses at William & Mary (Sports Literature, The History of Popular Music, you do what you have to do at a Public Ivy) led me to Film Study.  It’s a little like taking a course in physics, hearing that your favorite uncle had an affair, or reading about all the dirty pool played in politics; you never see things the same way afterwards.
     You see, Psycho isn’t one of top 3 movies of all-time because it’s such a frightening movie, despite the hype.  Honestly, I feel it’s more of a suspense/thriller than the mother of the modern horror genre; that I would leave to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Psycho’s true achievement is its depth due to the finest level of directing possible.  It is the masterpiece of one of the greatest directors in the history of film.  I’ll discuss some of the aspects of the film that I most enjoy.
Hitchcock’s Theme
     Throughout Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock shapes the film in a way to drive home a simple point: everyone, including you, is a blend of good and evil.  He wants to dispel the He-Man vs. Skeletor world society looks for, and his message is that we may all be far more similar to those we jeer than we realize.  While it is mostly attributed to slipping the bloody scenes past the censors, I understand this is a big reason the movie was shot in black and white.  The contrasting horizontal and vertical bars that deliver the opening credits would seem to play on this emphasis on black and white contrast.  
Moral Ambiguity
      In Psycho, the various characters are all a mixed bag, if not walking contradictions.  Marion is our heroine of sorts, yet she’s no Mary Bailey; she’s shamefully involved in an illicit relationship, can’t look at her dead mother’s portrait, and commits grand larceny.  She’s seen both in white and, after her fateful decision, black braziers, furthering the duality message.  Norman covers up two murders with disturbing complicity, but he is also sympathetic with a childlike innocence.  
     Another powerful technique Hitch employs is imagery to suggest similarity between opposing characters as well as dualism within each character.  The four primary characters are set up as pairs: Marion and Lila (sisters); Norman and Sam.  This invites the viewer to consider how the same person may end up walking different paths in life, depending on circumstances.  Bizzaro Spock and Seinfeld understand what I’m talking about.  
     As for dualism within a person, take notice of how many times a character is seen with a reflection, be it by mirror or window.  This symbolizes the character’s two opposing personalities, and often takes place while that character is engaged in a duplicitous act.  Another way of displaying this same symbolism is by casting a shadow on only one side of a character’s face (Norman at the swamp).
First-Person POV Camera Angles
     Throughout the film, voyeurism is on full display: the birds “watching” down on the Norman and Marion office scene, the policeman staring down Marion through his shades during her flight, Arbogast the “private eye,” the shower drain, Mrs. Bates tormenting Norman by watching over him from the house, Norman removing a painting of The Rape of Lucretia to peer at Marion, “The laughing, and the tears, and those cruel eyes studying you,” the list goes on.  More interestingly though, is how often Hitchcock employes the camera angles to give the viewer the perception that they are witnessing the action as the characters themselves.  He went so far as to film the movie using a 50-mm lens on 35-mm cameras because this best replicates actual human vision.  The best examples of this occur while Marion leaves Phoenix: “we” see her boss recognize Marion in the car, “we” struggle behind the wheel of the car as bright headlights and pouring rain make the drive unbearable, “we” wake up in the car to see the policeman staring down at us.  We explain away and accept her actions, feel her paranoia, and want to get away, making us accomplices of sorts.  This is Hitch’s intent: This is you; all of these people could be you.


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