Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Psycho

It's time for The Film Experience's weekly 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot'. Taking part in this was a large part of the motivation behind starting this barely 24-hour old blog; and as the subject of the week is one of my very favourite films, it seems the perfect time to get on board. Watching it through again with this task in mind was interesting, as a lot of images suddenly jumped out at me that I'd barely even noticed before - not least the one I'm calling my favourite, for the time being at least:

This moment occurs when Marion (Janet Leigh) is checking into the Bates Motel under the name ‘Marie Samuels’. The newspaper sticking out of her bag is, of course, wrapped around the $40,000 she stole.
Why do I love this shot so much? Mostly it’s the composition – the way a light-colored Marion against the dark background of the curtain on one side of the screen contrasts with the dark handbag against the lighter backdrop of the wall on the other; it suggests the odd split between trustworthy, well-behaved Marion on the one hand, and her criminal act on the other. Together with Leigh’s surprisingly sharp profile, much less soft than you might expect based on her appearance in earlier films, the composition makes this shot beguiling but severe – not unlike the film itself.
The wry touch that makes it special, though, is the ‘OKAY’ on the newspaper Marion is looking at; reassurance stamped right on her guilty secret, framed almost like a thought bubble. On the run, signing in under an assumed name, close to her goal but a little out of her way, a little lost, she might be telling herself – don’t worry, you’ll be okay. This is all going to turn out okay. And the strange young man she’s taking to, who keeps giggling in an unnerving manner – he’s probably okay really. Later, she might even say okay to having something to eat with him.
There are a couple of other images that caught my eye, however:

Can I take a second to say how much I think Lila Crane (Vera Miles) rocks? She’s the flintiest heroine in all of Hitchcock’s films, maybe in all of American cinema before the eighties. She’s not necessarily the easiest character to warm to, certainly not as faceted and easy to empathise with as her doomed sister, but she’s an impressive bloodhound, unwilling to put up with bullshit in tracking down Marion, and seemingly not too impressed with the men she encounters along the way. She also keeps her nerve and her wits surprisingly well at the end of the film, considering all she sees, hears, and experiences as the audience’s vessel into the deepest recesses of the Bates psyche (the psychiatrist at the end is just adding the Cliff Notes to what she brings to light in the house).
She also gets the best line in the film – ‘I can handle a sick old woman’. It has different ironic resonance depending on whether you know the twist or don’t, building suspense either way, but it also nails her character in seven words – determined, all business, and more unprepared for the horrors she will face than she can imagine.
I love this shot of her in Sam’s store, rushing out to find out what news there is of Arbogast, and how threatening it seems in the dark – the hanging scythes, the rakes like hands on the left, the claustrophobia of all this stuff piled high in the dark. She rushes out of the light of the back room; as she approaches the camera, the audience expects her features to become visible in close-up, but she remains a silhouette. A perfect metaphor for the search for answers in this film – it only takes you deeper into darkness.
Another shot worth looking at is what I think is the creepiest shot of the movie. Everybody remembers Mother’s bed, with the groove in which her body has lain for years, but I feel far more unnerved by the bed Lila discovers in Norman’s childhood room. Hers is a plush-looking double bed, with a mattress thick enough for a body to sink into; his appears to have a functional metal frame and a thin mattress, not unlike an army bunk (with some interesting implications for how she treated him whilst she was alive).
The crumpled sheets suggest that he has been sleeping here his whole life, still a child in the nursery. In the house, as in Norman’s psyche, the boy has been forced into a tiny corner by the demanding, consuming Mother in her imperial bedroom. Sitting at the end of the bed is a glass-eyed, stuffed animal, reminiscent of his stuffed birds and standing in, like them, for his equally stuffed Mother, and all the glassy-eyed dead girls that followed.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to throw a little bonus love in the direction of Gus Van Sant’s remake. This shot is from the climax of the film, and illustrates as well as any the effectiveness of Van Sant’s reworking of the film’s aesthetic, not least in the use of colour. Check out the soft, maternal pink of Mother’s cardigan - why, she wouldn’t even hurt a fly! Lila (Julianne Moore), meanwhile, is a walking Saul Bass title sequence. And then there’s the birds; not only does this provide a morbid answer to where Norman gets his birds for taxidermy, but Mother appears to be sitting watching them like characters on a movie screen. The dead sitting watching the living as they flutter about, innocent of their inevitable appointment with a pale young man – just like the dead birds in Norman’s office watch Marion. An uneasy commentary on the viewers sitting out there, in the darkness of the auditorium? Or just really, viscerally unpleasant?

Tuesday, 29 March 2011