Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Oedipus Wrecks

Films: Psycho, Peeping Tom
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop (Psycho); DVD from personal collection on middlin’-sized living room television (Peeping Tom).

So now that I’ve reached 20% done on this cinematic expedition, it’s come time for me to finally watch something by the great master of suspense cinema, Alfred Hitchcock. I’m generally a fan of the maxim “Go big or go home,” so Psycho it is. There’s no question that Psycho is one of the great films in suspense/horror history. It’s been spoofed, made homage to, copied, and parodied, but it’s never been duplicated. It is certainly Hitchcock’s most famous film, although not anywhere near his best in my opinion. Regardless, it’s a landmark cinematic event, and a first viewing of this film is always something special. It’s also a film that really trades on its shock ending. Consider the rest of this entry under a spoiler warning—if you’ve never seen Psycho, you should stop reading now, because the shock ending is worth it.

Now that we’ve gotten rid of those who haven’t seen this movie, we can talk a bit more freely. If you think for a minute about what you can recall from Psycho, you’ll probably think of two to four scenes—the money scenes, as it were. These are the shower scene, the death of the detective on the stairs, the reveal at the end, and the final sequence in the asylum. Because of this, it’s easy to overlook just how damn good this film is everywhere else. There’s a lot to notice here, and a lot that’s worth considering even without those four critical sequences, and the fact that there is so much here worth seeing shows just how good a filmmaker Hitchcock really was.

The film starts like typical Hitchcock. A young woman named Marion (Janet Leigh) embezzles $40,000 from her employer. It may not sound like much, but this is 40 grand in 1960 dollars—roughly a quarter million in today’s money. She takes the money so that she can pay off the debts of her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin). She drives out of Phoenix on her way to California to share the new wealth and (she hopes) start a new life with him. Along the way, she trades in her car for a new vehicle, and eventually stops at the Bates Motel for the night.

Here she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who is quiet, awkward, and under the thumb of his domineering, disturbed mother. Norman displays his collection of taxidermy birds to Marion, and he’s obviously taken with her. But then, while she is taking a shower, Marion is brutally slain by Mrs. Bates in one of the most famous sequences ever filmed. The rest of the film is the search for the missing Miss Crane, lead by her sister (Vera Miles), the boyfriend, and private investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), who also meets the knife point of Mrs. Bates in another, not-quite-as-famous-but-just-as-great scene on the staircase.

Of course, the biggest moment in Psycho beyond the shower sequence is the reveal—Mrs. Bates is long dead, and is another of Norman’s taxidermy projects. Norman himself is the killer, dressed up as mother and wielding a massive kitchen knife. It’s a great shock moment, one that is memorable permanently after being seen only once, and it’s what really makes the film.

The genius of this film, though, is that throughout, up until the very end when we discover precisely why the film is called what it is, our sympathies rest almost entirely with Norman. When he ditches Marion’s body by sinking her car into a nearby mudhole, there’s a tense moment when it stops sinking. The first time I saw the film, I can remember wanting the car to sink to protect Norman; he seems like such a nice guy.

The ending, though, pulls the rug out from under us. Norman isn’t a nice guy—he’s massively disturbed and scary, and the trick that Hitchcock has managed is to get us to sympathize with a complete lunatic.

There are subtle things at work here. Marion, in the opening scene where she is getting dressed after a little afternoon horizontal boogie with her boyfriend, is wearing a white bra and carries a white purse. Later, after she has stolen the money (and is thus bad), her bra is black, as is her purse; her actions dictate the color of her wardrobe. The misdirection is also brilliant. Marion Crane is the focus of every scene up to that point in the film. The few times she isn’t on camera, we’re seeing things from her point of view (the first shots of the Bates house in the rain, for instance), or she is the focus of the scene (Norman spying on her through the hole in the wall). To have her ripped from the film less than halfway through is a risky move, but it’s also startling and brilliant.

I can’t imagine this film in color. The black and white is so good and so moody that it’s really the only way the film should be viewed. The music is also perfect for the film, consisting entire of stringed instruments throughout, especially in that critical shower scene.

That scene is worth an extra look, incidentally. It shows nothing and implies everything. There is no noticeable nudity, and we never seen the knife actually enter flesh. We see no wounds, and the only real blood is running down the drain or on Marion’s hands. And yet, it is so well done that we feel like we’ve seen everything. This scene is a dissertation on direction, style, and editing.

While Psycho is a great film, I’m a bigger fan of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. That seems strange to say, but it’s absolutely true. While Hitchcock makes his audience sympathize with a deranged, homicidal maniac, Powell takes it one step further. In Peeping Tom, we know in the first ten minutes that the character Mark (Karlheinz Bohm) is the killer. We watch through the lens of Mark’s camera as he kills a prostitute, films it, and then we watch with him as he looks at the tape.

We learn a little bit about him from here. He works as a focus puller for a film studio and does some cheesecake photography on the side. He also owns the building he lives in, and takes in boarders. Specifically, he rents to young Helen Stevens (Anna Massey) and her blind mother (Maxine Audley). Mark avoids them pretty assiduously until Helen’s birthday when she introduces herself to him.

Mark is immediately taken with her, and she with him, in no small part because he is so shy and awkward. Helen asks to see some of Mark's films as a birthday present, and he lets her in on one of his terrible secrets. His father, who left him the house he owns, was a psychologist whose main research was on the subject of fear. To investigate fear, he experimented on Mark, doing everything he could to terrify the boy and test his reactions. He shows her some of his home movies, including his mother’s funeral and the best gift his father ever gave him: his movie camera.

Helen, it turns out, has written a children’s book about a magical camera and wants Mark to take the photographs for her. He doesn’t want to, because everything he photographs he eventually kills, and he has started to care very much for her. In one very telling scene, he plans to go out with Helen, but first must deal with setting aside his camera, almost as if he is being unfaithful to his mechanical eye.

There are a couple more murders, including one of a young woman (Moira Shearer, from Powell/Pressburger classic The Red Shoes) who is acting on the movie Mark is working on. We learn a little more about Mark’s method of killing when he threatens Helen’s mother, and ultimately, we learn the entire truth at film’s end. The reality of his murder method is so fascinating and so bizarre, that I don’t even want to put it under a spoiler warning—it needs to be experienced.

The genius of this film is that, like Psycho from the same year, we are made to sympathize with a serial murderer. In Psycho, though, we are misled. Here, we know from the very beginning that Mark is the killer. However, Bohm plays Mark so sympathetically that the audience can’t help but feel something for him and, like Helen, want everything to come out well for him eventually.

Even more, all of the murders are filmed from Mark’s perspective. Essentially, the audience is made complicit in the killings, since we experience them voyeuristically through the eye of Mark’s camera. These murders are made to look like we have committed them as much as Mark has. While we may not approve, we are, in terms of the way the camera is used, just as guilty as he is.

It is this fact, the sympathetic killer who makes us a part of his killings, that caused the universally unfavorable reaction to the film upon its release. Actually, that’s understated. The outcry against Peeping Tom was so great that it destroyed Powell’s career and he eventually emigrated to Australia, giving up the film business almost entirely. It wasn’t until a good 20 years later when other filmmakers like Martin Scorsese cited the film as a major influence that it was given another chance.

As it turns out, Powell was simply ahead of his time by a dozen years or so. Had he produced the film in 1970, it would have been hailed as visionary, and by 1976, it would have been tame and almost trite.

It’s hardly a perfect film. It’s never explained, for instance, why Mark, who claims to have been born in the house he lives in, has a German accent. But this is a detail that can be overlooked. It’s a strong, powerful film that can still manage a shock, particularly at the ending. Bohm’s portrayal of Mark is tremendous, and Anna Massey is great. She’s oddly attractive—there’s nothing about her that screams beauty queen, but she’s perky and cute, and impossible not to like here.

Anyway, I like this film more than I like Psycho only because Powell went further than Hitchcock did. Both deal with mild-mannered killers with Oedipal issues (Norman with his mother, Mark with his father). Hitch went far afield and was applauded; Powell went further and it cost him everything. Damn shame. More people should know this movie.

Why to watch Psycho: Hitchcock’s first real foray into horror.
Why not to watch: Bad sequel, worse sequel, unmentionable prequel, stupid remake.

Why to watch Peeping Tom: You owe it to Michael Powell’s reputation.
Why not to watch: Mark’s unexplainable accent.


  1. Outstanding insight. I had never previously caight on to the accessory color matching the guilt or innocence of Marion Crane. It's hard to imagin the need for a spoiler alert by for "Psycho". Knowing it as well as I do, I try to honestly ask myself if I could have figured it out now if I were to see it again. With the savvy of today's audiences, I think that seeing it with fresh eyes, the silhouette of Ma Bates, alone, would lead the seasoned viewer to the right conclusion.

    Accents have always been the bane of film making. Remember when accents were not as important as they are today, with greater availability of international talent. Any Brit could be passed of as German Officer without any worry that the accent would not match. Even Robert Duvall played a German Officer with no attempt at an apology for his southern accent, which I must admit he did a fair job of hiding in "The Eagle Has Landed". Peckinpah's "Cross of Iron" (a big favorite of mine) a film about the German Army with a sackful of accents. (two British, a Swiss and some guy from Nebraska).

  2. You're right about the accents. Sometimes it seems like the directors/studio system just doesn't care. As reference, Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (or Prince of Feebs, as I call it), Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October...but Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's actually causes pain.

    Cross of Iron is underrated.

  3. I noted the exact same thing about Norman and the sinking car. You want the car to sink... then you realize you're rooting for the dude to get away with covering up a murder. That's impressive writing right there.

    More than anything, though, I'm in agreement that Psycho is not Hitchcock's best film. It's certainly very good, but best? No. Unique, pioneering, innovative, yes.

    It's really very sad that Powell's career was so destroyed with Peeping Tom, and as you rightly say, for no other reason than he was ahead of his time.

    1. I still can't believe just how audacious Peeping Tom is for its time. I also love that it was sort of resurrected in Strange Days in what the killer does to the victims.

      Psycho really is good, but my heart will always belong to North by Northwest when it comes to Hitchcock.

  4. When I took my screenwriting class, the teacher focused on Psycho, which is incredibly tight, and filled with symbolic imagery throughout. It may not be Hitchcock's best, but the film is nearly perfect in telling the story it wants to tell.

    And yes, I just read this review 4+ years after you posted it.

    1. It is a hell of a good film and it works for a number of important reasons. Like Peeping Tom, it's incredibly audacious. Hitchcock kills off the main character half way through the film and leaves us with no one to root for but Norman.

      If you haven't seen Peeping Tom, I recommend finding a copy. It's daring for its time and really well made and it deals with some of the same themes as Psycho.

  5. "Why not to watch: Mark’s unexplainable accent" -- Funny, i thought the odd accent added to the creepiness factor and the possibility that his father could have been a Nazi scientist. I realize that none of this was explained, though I wouldn't be surprised if that was Mark's "backstory".

    1. I kind of see that, but we're basically supposed to think that he's a native Londoner.

      And, sometimes I struggle for a reason not to see (and sometimes for a reason to actually see something).

  6. On your accent point, I thought Boehm's accent highly reminiscent of Peter Lorre's, giving the film a reference to M, another movie with an oddly sympathetic homicidal maniac. Of course, M was in German but you get my point I hope.

    1. I do, and it may be a subtle homage. Still, it's odd for a character who claims to be a native Londoner to sound like he grew up in Frankfurt. Also, as I said above, sometimes I need to get picky for a reason not to see a film.

  7. This is such a great double feature and amazing that they came out in the same year. I have a small preference for Psycho simply beacause I still do not undertand Mark's madness, but both are excellent movies. I suspect nobody in 1960 were ready for a sympathetic madman.

    1. I like Peeping Tom more because it's a lot more audacious. It makes the audience complicit in the crimes by giving us the voyeuristic perspective of the murders, and it still manages to have that crazy reveal at the end.