An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PSYCHO liveblog

Few movies as famous as Hitchcock's Psycho are also as good. It was one of those rare moments of cultural harmony, as with The Beatles' mature albums and The Simpsons' 1990s run, when a ginormous, game-changing masscult phenomenon was also an artistic masterpiece. J. Hoberman gets at some of the context of that phenomenon in this piece from earlier today, which also reprints Andrew Sarris' original 1960 rave review. The occasion? Psycho turns 50 today. Younger than my parents, but older than Barack Obama.

I watched Psycho a million times on VHS as a kid, but it's been many years since I sat down and watched the whole thing—though I've certainly read many words about it in the intervening years. For this liveblog I won't be going for profundity, since, as Kim Morgan noted today, Psycho is pretty much the most over-analyzed film ever made and there's really nothing new to say about it. So this is just for giggles, the fun of re-encountering a childhood favorite that I happen to know will hold up.

00:53: Wait, Janet Leigh actually gets an "and" in the opening credits??? I guess that wasn't yet thriller-code for "certain death" in 1960. Actually, was this the first instance of an "and" for a star in the credits? I'm too lazy to look this up, but it seems plausible.

01:34: Hm, Saul Bass credited as "pictorial consultant," in addition to his credit for the titles sequence. Uh. What exactly are the duties of a pictorial consultant?

02:19: Couldn't have told you this was supposed to be set in Phoenix, AZ. Of course, this was shot on the backlot with Hitchcock's TV crew, so we don't exactly get the sparkling location photography some of his '50s films had. And do we really need to know that it's "FRIDAY, DECEMBER THE ELEVENTH"? At "TWO FORTY-THREE P.M."?

06:07: This is probably my first time watching the film in the 1.85 ratio. The shots look pretty tight...maybe too tight. I assume this was shot open matte? Has there been any AR controversy over Psycho like there has over Touch of Evil? Could be I'm just being oversensitive.

07:06: Department of stuff I didn't realize was fucked up when I was a kid: "My mother gave them to me the day of my wedding. Teddy was furious when he found out I was taking tranquilizers!" This secretary is awesome, though. If time travel were possible I'd expect to see her on the new season of Mad Men.

09:13: The rich, cowboy-behatted real-estate buyer is the real villain of this film. Seriously, Norman and his mother don't say anything as vile as this guy's "buying off unhappiness" bit. Plus, he cheats on his taxes.

12:22: Love the constant cutting to the envelope full of money in this otherwise banal Janet-Leigh-gets-her-shit-together scene. All it needs is a hissing sound effect to be the snake in the garden.

17:14: As great as Bernard Herrmann's score is, I feel like at times it's more distracting than tension-producing. Although that is probably just the perspective of someone who's seen the movie a hundred times.

24:18: This voice-over dialogue-from-the-future in the car: JL's imagination, or Hitch cluing the audience in to info she's not privy to? Pretty neat trick either way; surprising it's never really been used again.

25:40: In Vertigo, we got Jimmy Stewart driving around San Francisco from the perspective of the driver. In Psycho, we get Janet Leigh driving around California highways from the perspective of the road.

28:12: Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.

29:52: Ha, Norman being unable to say "bathroom" is a great bit of psychosexual weirdness.

30:47: Norman's actually pretty charming at first, in a dorky way. Who wouldn't take him up on his offer of sandwiches and milk?

42:49: I think the key to Perkins' performance is that he looks more like a weird guy you went to high school with than someone who had any business toplining a Hollywood movie in 1960. And his weird, halting, naturalistic line readings, like "fals...fals...falsity." And how he switches between haunted solemnity and forced levity. Just a great, great, great performance and a really inspired bit of casting.

42:49: Just throwing this out there: Noel Black's Pretty Poison (1968) is a great, underseen movie that brilliantly capitalizes on post-Psycho audience expectations of Anthony Perkins. He co-stars with the luscious Tuesday Weld at her Tuesday Weldiest. Netflix that shit, yo.

43:42: That whole sandwich-eating scene is so riveting. I've always loved the dialogue in that scene—not just the (deservedly) famous bits like "a boy's best friend is his mother" and "we all go a little mad sometimes," but Norman's little speeches about taxidermy and mental institutions (which, duh, I now realize he has obviously spent time in). I don't know if this dialogue originates in Robert Bloch's source novel (which I haven't read but am curious about) or Joseph Stefano's screenplay; either way, it's a reminder that Hitch isn't solely responsible for the movie's enduring awesomeness.

44:19: The close-up of Norman's eye and the peephole: surely one of the most beautiful shots Hitchcock ever composed. If you stare at it for a few seconds it starts to look almost abstract. And surely 1.85 is the correct ratio for this shot.

44:19: The fact that Gus Van Sant literalized the peeping scene by having Vince Vaughn visibly jerk off represents everything wrong with the remake—with his remake specifically and with the idea of a Psycho remake. Just...no.

49:55: Supposedly the shower scene has 50 cuts and 77 different camera angles. Those numbers seem impossibly high to me, but the scene plays so beautifully that I'll credit them. The spiraling zoom out from her eyeball to her shock-suspended, sideways face is, I'd posit, the scariest image in the film. It's the picture of cold, hard death. No punches pulled. And I like how Hitch's pan from the bathroom to the big house outside includes a stopover to show the envelope of money again. Like, here's why you're dead, you poor sap.

59:55: Norman cleaning up the crime scene is a solid 10 minutes without a single word—in its own modest way, nearly as impressive a feat of "pure cinema" as the shower scene that precedes it.

Stopping for now due to tiredness and headache. Poor Vera Miles, I'm ignoring her part of the movie just like everyone else does.

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