Psycho After Six Decades

In preparation for my last post on horror noir, I recently re-watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Since 2020 marks the 60th(!) anniversary of the film’s release, I also couldn’t help but consider how the film holds up after all these years. Some thoughts:

A particular scene that has not aged gracefully is the one in which Marion overhears Norman’s mother berating him for wanting to invite the motel guest up to the house for dinner. Marion is listening through a closed motel window during a rainstorm, yet the conversation (which is riddled with stilted dialogue) inside the house up the hill sounds as if it is right in the next room. Hearing Norman’s mother speak is necessary for the misdirection the film deliberately creates, yet the execution of this scene is jarring in its lack of realism.

The famous shower scene has burned its way into public consciousness, but the subsequent scene (Norman’s cleanup of the gruesome murder) arguably has not garnered the appreciation it deserves. It forms a brilliant study in contrast: the shower scene (with its screeching string music and rapid cuts) plays loud and shocking, but the aftermath is muted and methodical. All that relative quiet is disquieting, as Norman (for nearly eight minutes) washes away the blood spill and diligently covers up the crime. As startling as Marion’s fatal knifing was, her postmortem fate presents more protracted horror to the viewer. Marion’s entire existence is erased as she’s wrapped in a shower-curtain shroud, set in a car-trunk coffin, and given an ignominious burial-at-swamp.

In another sense, though, the cleanup scene is clearly dated. Watching it from a current perspective, it’s hard not to consider the shoddiness of Norman’s efforts: his use of simple mop and running water to remove evidence of the murder would never pass the test of modern forensics. But it’s not just from a far distance that Norman’s negligence can be critiqued; a glaring lack of shrewdness is evident within the narrative of the film. A week and a half after the murder, Norman somehow has still failed to replace the shower curtain. Worse, he has not noticed the scrap of paper still floating unflushed in the bowl of the toilet (why the paper has not disintegrated long before Lila Crane discovers it there is another head-scratcher).

The private detective Arbogast certainly accentuates the film’s noir qualities (his echo of hard-boiled lingo is terrific: “You see,” he tells Norman,  “if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jelling.”). Nevertheless, his sleuthing proves curious: if Arbogast is presumably employed by Tom Cassidy to track down the $40,000 that was stolen from him, why would the detective feel obliged to call up Lila and fill her in on what he has learned about her sister? His ready updating of the case seems a mere plot contrivance, a means of leading Lila and Sam to investigate the Bates Motel themselves.

Suspension of disbelief is further challenged in the scene when Arbogast gets killed. The bloody slash running down his face makes for a wonderfully grim touch, but his backwards glide all the way down the staircase is too stylized–and, ultimately, silly (Arbogast acts as if the steps were a sequence of banana peels). An ungainly tumble down the staircase (assuming such a stunt could be pulled off in 1960) not only would have been more believable, but it also would have helped to preserve the film’s big mystery. Based on the way the death scene is filmed, the viewer has to wonder how Norman’s old invalid Mother could have flown so quickly down the flight of steps after the falling Arbogast.

In hindsight, Norman’s stuffed birds (and preserved Mother) are not the only disconcerting pieces of his collection. Viewers in 1960 might easily have overlooked them, but a more modern horror audience is more attuned to the presence of creepy dolls. A pair of them can be seen lying in the background as Lila explores Norman’s bedroom, and their unsettling nature extends beyond the question of what they are doing in a grown man’s bedroom in the first place.

Psycho might not have been a perfect film, and certain of its aspects do not hold up well in six-decade retrospect, but it remains an indisputable classic. The marketing of the film at the time of its release was also ingenious: Hitchcock’s insistence that late arrivals would not be admitted to theaters, and his efforts to keep the film’s surprises from being spoiled (which worked to lure moviegoers with the promise of thrilling mystery). No doubt the film would face a much tougher task if it premiered in the present day, when social media is such a dominant factor. Then again, it’s intriguing to imagine the tactics that a master like Hitchcock might have been able to employ if he had all the tools of the 2020 mediascape at his disposal.


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