Friday, April 20, 2007

"Psycho" (1960)

Note: This piece was written for Halloween, 2006.

Here’s the thing about what you’re about to read, assuming that you don’t hate pieces that begin “Here’s the thing about what you’re about to read” and go on to something else instead. This is where I tell you that something you know about PSYCHO is dead wrong. I’m writing it, but I don’t know if I believe it or not.

Well, hell, it’s Halloween and if you can’t make a complete fool of yourself at Halloween, when can you? Oh yeah, St. Patrick’s Day. Okay, if you can’t make a complete fool of yourself at Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day, when can you?

Here’s the bit of revealed wisdom about PSYCHO, and I mean revealed repeatedly, in just about every critical essay ever written about the film: the least involving, most boring, most unnecessary scene in the entire movie is the penultimate one in which Simon Oakland, as psychiatrist Dr. Fred Richmond (you never knew the character had a name, did you?) tells the cops, Lila, and Sam that all is not well with Norman’s inner child.

Wait a minute—you have seen the film, haven’t you? If not, don’t read further, even if you can’t resist pieces in which the fourth paragraph admonishes you “don’t read further.” Beyond this point are spoilers. And I promise that I won’t use that gag again, the one in which I repeat at the end of the sentence what I wrote at the beginning, even if you tell me that you love it when I repeat at the end of the sentence what I wrote at the beginning.

Anyway, that scene in the movie is universally reviled as being unnecessary because it spells out in agonizing detail what the audience has already figured out, i.e., that Norman is a member-for-life of the Ed Gein Fan Club.

But I would like to suggest that in 1960, when the film was new and the world was still able to keep the mask of sanity in place, audiences may not have known as much about what ailed the kid as we do now, and that we know more about it today because Norman introduced us on a pop culture level to this type and degree of mental aberration. Putting oneself into the mind set of obviously historical characters is hard enough and yet still easier, in some ways, than recapturing the thinking of characters who were contemporary when the film was made but have retreated into history since. Norman looks, talks, and acts enough like us now that we see him as a 21st. century man, but he is far from that.

Okay, now we come to my particular hobby horse, the theory that appeals to me greatly while at the same time lacking in rational believability. For this it’s best that you watch the scene, but I’ll try to describe the relevant action.

Richmond enters the room in which his audience is gathered. He comes in from the left and crosses to a central position in the room. Over his right shoulder we see a picture on the wall and, above that, a light fixture. The fixture has two prongs for the light bulbs, reaching out to left and right from a sort of metal centerpiece.

Oakland doesn’t move around much because Richmond wants to remain in the center of our, and his listeners’ attention. He occasionally takes a step or two toward the camera to speak directly to Lila (Vera Miles) or to react to something Sam (John Gavin) says, but before he returns to his original spot in the room, he moves a little closer to the light, allowing us to see more of it. Then he will take a step toward us and resume talking.

His explanation of Norman’s peculiarities is loaded with psychobabble, but whenever he has a point to make that he thinks is particularly telling—“So he began to think and speak for her,” “After the murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep,” “These were crimes of passion, not profit”—the lamp on the wall appears directly over his head, sometimes even forming glowing horns.

Here’s what I see: a cartoon in which someone is expounding an idea he thinks explains the ways of the world, with a light bulb coming on over his head to let us know how bright he thinks he is.

It’s as if Hitchcock, whose earliest job in films was providing illustrations to adorn the dialogue title cards in silent movies, is winking at us, letting us know that he thinks all this psychiatric gobble-de-gook is just whistling in the graveyard to hide our fear of the boogie man.

As Richmond snaps a cigarette out of a pack to light up and take a bow, Hitch cuts to the outside of the room and follows a policeman carrying down the hall a blanket for the chilled Norman. We cut to the inside of the room where Norman, as Mother, sits before a blank wall. As Richmond delivered his monologue in front of a wall with a couple of items on it—one of which served to ridicule everything he had to say—Mother delivers her monologue in front of a wall that is blank, as empty as a serial killer’s conscience, as spotless as a freshly cleaned bath tub.

There it is. Do I really believe Hitchcock intended the scene with the doctor to be read this way? I wish, but no. I think it’s there to explain to the unworldly what the hell has been going on. But do I think Hitch was aware of the cartoon cliché regarding the light bulb over the head? Sure I do. Maybe he set and blocked the scene the way he did because unconsciously he wanted to suggest that Dr. Richmond was just too content living in his jargon of earthly delights.

You can’t have too many ways of looking at a film as rich as PSYCHO. And it is Halloween. Trick or treat.

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