Movie Reviews - 1960s postsSaturday October 15, 2016
Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (1960)
My main takeaway after watching “The Magnificent Seven” for only the second time in my life is that for all its faults Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen—as the leader, Chris, and his right-hand man, Vin—have fantastic chemistry, and what a shame they didn’t make another movie together. Then I read up on it and discovered why: They hated each other. Their chemistry onscreen may be cooler than cool, but it hid heat.
IMDb’s trivia on the movie is extensive but doesn’t bother to sort through the contradictions. Did Brynner own the rights to “Seven Samurai”? If so, why was Spencer Tracy considered for the lead? Why was Anthony Quinn?
Most answers are in the doc “Guns for Hire: The Making of ‘The Magnificent Seven’” (2000), which is also a good primer into the litigiousness, oneupsmanship and happy accidents of Hollywood moviemaking.
Starring Anthony Quinn
Apparently, by the mid-1950s, everyone in Hollywood had seen and loved Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” and everyone envisioned remaking it as a western. Brynner claimed to have bought the rights, but that distinction actually went to B-movie screenwriter Lou Morheim, who wanted to produce, and who got the rights for the princely sum of $250. Later, Brynner bought the rights from Morheim, and was looking to direct rather than star.
Here was the initial team:
Director: Yul Brynner
Star: Anthony Quinn
That package fell apart, and it became:
Director: Martin Ritt
Writer: Walter Bernstein
Star: Spencer Tracy
Independent producer Walter Mirisch then entered the picture, and he brought along John Sturgis, who had recently won acclaim for directing “Gunfight at the OK Coral” with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Sturgis tapped Walter Newman to write, then assembled the group of future stars—McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn—that made up the rest of the cast.
Newman, meanwhile, was the one who deviated from Kurosawa’s version, but Mexican censors didn’t help. A few years earlier, the Hollywood feature “Vera Cruz” had so upset Mexican audiences that they tore apart theaters; it led to the creation of a censor board, which watched over any production filmed in Mexico. They wanted to make sure Mexicans didn’t look bad in any Mexican-made movies. A good idea in theory. In practice? One censor objected to how dirty the peasants looked, so they were filmed in spotless whites even as the cool gringo gunslingers looked grimy. (Cf., McQueen’s stained hat.) Worse, the board objected to the very premise of the film: that these farmers needed outsiders to protect them. This wasn’t a big deal in Kurosawa’s version, since everyone was Japanese; but here it’s weak Mexicans and gringo heroes. Their solution? The three Mexican farmers seek guns rather than gunslingers. Even after encountering noble versions of the latter (Brynner, McQueen), the farmers don’t connect the dots. It’s up to Chris, the gringo, to do it for them.
In other words, because Mexican censors didn’t want Mexicans to look weak, they made them look stupid.
On to Brynner/McQueen.
Is there an unwritten rule on movie sets that you don’t upstage the star? If so, McQueen ignored it. From the beginning, he was doing things in the background—jiggling bullets, adjusting his hat, dipping his hat into streams they crossed on horseback—that upstaged, and upset, Brynner. More, he actually badmouthed his lead. He told the other actors how Chris’ horse, and even his gun, were bigger than theirs, and made them look silly. He fomented discord.
“The set was fraught with testosterone,” McQueen’s ex says in the doc. “Here were these young Turks, all on the brink, you know, and they were all trying to get attention on the screen. Especially Steve.”
I’ll say one thing: It worked. You notice him straight away. I’ll say another thing: It improves the movie. It’s like Brando picking up Edie’s glove and trying it on in the playground scene in “On the Waterfront.”
The best scene in the movie for me is the one where McQueen/Brynner take a horse-and-carriage hearse up to Boot Hill despite the local racists in town who don’t want an Indian buried there—and that’s the jiggling the bullets/adjusting the cap scene. The dialogue is terse as they keep an eye out for snipers:
Vin: New in town?
Vin: Where you from?
Chris: Dodge. You?
Vin: Tombstone. See any action up there?
Chris: Uh-uh. Tombstone?
Vin: Same. People all settled down like.
Chris: Same all over.
But the best dialogue may be no dialogue. Afterwards, the salesman who paid for the burial is impressed with Chris and asks him where he’s from. Brynner points a thumb back. He asks him where he’s going. Yep: a finger forward.
Samurai > Cowboys
So why doesn’t the movie work? Or why isn’t it close to “Samurai”’s stratosphere? A few thoughts:
- Chico, Horst Buchholz’s role, collapses two characters from “Samurai”: Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the comic-relief, would-be samurai, and Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura), the young, handsome romantic, and the two characters don’t work together. They particularly don’t work when the Mexican farmer is played by the German James Dean.
- Oh, about that: still too much Stella Adler-style emoting going on, from both Buchholz and Robert Vaughn, recently nominated for an Academy Award for “Young Philadelphians.” You guys are tearing me apart.
- The story is truncated. It doesn’t take the time, or have the silences, that Kurosawa’s version does. The villagers, in particular, are given short shrift. No equivalent of Rikichi, for example, so we have less of an idea what the heroes are fighting for.
- Guns ain’t swords. Guns are the great levelers. You can kill a superior gunman from behind, or from a distance, in a way you can’t with swords.
But this is the most important reason: Sturgis ain’t Kurosawa. There’s a tinny quality to the movie. It feels cheap, like something out of television. Kurosawa has depth in every frame; Sturgis’ stuff is two-dimensional in comparison. You can push over his sets and his characters.
Shimada (Takashi Shimura) is the leader of the samurai because he’s both psychologist and strategist. He actually plans how to survive the bandit assault. The bandits attack three times, the last in the rain, and four of the samurai die; but the bandits are slaughtered. The farmers win.
Chris? He’s cool, and a good draw, and he has the same moral center Shimada has, but that’s about it. The Hollywood version relies on less planning and fewer attacks: just two, and in the second one the Seven are betrayed, and have their guns taken from them, and are then slaughtered in the village square.
Kidding. The bandit leader (a delightful Eli Wallach) just lets them go. So they get stupidly caught and he stupidly lets them go. But then they stupidly return to stupidly save the day.
Even so, you’ve got the great Elmer Bernstein score, and you’ve Brynner and McQueen. They may have hated each other but they had personality. And as Jules said, personality goes a long way.
New in town?
Movie Review: Marnie (1964)
WARNING: SPOILERS, MAMA. MAMA, SPOILERS
Tippi Hedren had just come off “The Birds,” Sean Connery had just come off the first two Bond films, and Alfred Hitchock had just come off the most successful string of movies in his illustrious career: “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds.”
So I guess they were due.
Why doesn’t it work? Why is “Marnie” laughable and cringeworthy? And why have the readers of IMDb.com given this very, very bad movie a 7.2 rating?
Don’t they understand that the film is almost anti-Hitchcockian?
Most Hitchcock thrillers are about uncovering your own problem for reasons of survival. “Marnie” is about uncovering someone else’s problem for reasons of love.
The threat in the best Hitchcock movies is external: birds or hotel managers or international spies or our own damned voyeuristic curiosity as we spy on our neighbors. Here the threat is internal: the repressed memories of Marnie Edgar (Hedren).
Hitchcock’s most memorable protagonists are innocent men, or not-so-innocent men, trapped in something they don’t understand, who spend the movie running and punching their way out—not only to set themselves free but to see just what trapped them in the first place. Mark Rutland (Connery) isn’t trapped in anything. He has more knowledge than anyone. He’s not within it but outside it. And what he’s trying to see, into the mind of Marnie, isn’t exactly cinematic.
Do his motivations change? I’m curious. Marnie uses her looks and secretarial skills to get jobs at companies, which she then robs. Then she dyes her hair, goes to a new town, and starts all over again. But when she shows up at Rutland’s publishing house, Mark recognizes her from her previous gig (where he was a client), and hires her anyway.
What does he want at this point? To trap her? To sleep with her?
During a Saturday work sesssion, Marnie is frightened, almost made catatonic, by a thunderstorm, and Mark comforts her, then kisses her. Do his motivations change here? Does he care for her now that he’s seen how vulnerable she is? How soft her lips are?
Eventually he spills the beans. He knows who she is and what she is. And guess what? He wants to marry her! Marnie’s reaction to the first revelation is to act like a trapped animal. Her reaction to the marriage proposal is to act like a trapped animal. She almost grrrs. But she’s got no claws.
What’s making her act like this? Why is she stealing compulsively? Why doesn’t she want Mark to touch her? Why does she wig out during thunderstorms and whenever she sees the color red?
Complex questions with the same easy answer: repressed memory.
I wasn’t a fan of repressed memory stories when they turned up in later episodes of “M*A*S*H.” in the 1970s. The world and human beings are complex; but somehow if you just unlock what’s locked up inside our minds we'll be well again. It’s all too logical. It reduces human nature to a mathematical equation. You just need to know the numbers to the combination to set yourself free.
Marnie’s repressed memory happened on the seedy docks of Baltimore when she was five years old. Her mother, Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham), whom we’ve met in an early scene, and who warns her grown-up daughter about men, was once, of course, a prostitute. She used to rouse little Marnie from their shared bed whenever the “men in white suits” (sailors) came calling. But one sailor, played by Bruce Dern, goes out into the hallway to comfort Marnie during a thunderstorm. (That’s why she’s scared of thunderstorms.) Then he begins molesting her. (That’s why she’s frigid.) The mother sees what he’s doing, fights him, but breaks her leg in the process. (That’s why she limps.) It’s up to little Marnie to grab a fire poker and bash the dude’s head in. (That’s why she’s scared of blood-red.) See? It all fits together. All because of one bad night long, long ago, which she then represeed. But with Mark’s help, and with a lot of overacting and baby girl voices, Marnie finally remembers it all, and reconciles with her mother, and Marnie and Mark leave to assume normal, rich lives in Philadelphia.
Awful. Remember that five-minute bit at the end of “Psycho” where the psychiatrist goes on and on bout what’s wrong with Norman Bates? Like that, but for an entire movie.
Hedren isn’t used well here, either—she’s best playing flirty and self-satisfied rather than trapped animal—while a subplot with Mark’s deceased wife’s younger sister, Lil (a gorgeous Diane Baker), goes nowhere.
But because Hitchock’s name is at the helm, the film is being “rediscovered” by modern, Hitchcock-loving cineastes who are finding all sorts of reasons to like it.
Final reason they shouldn’t: Reconciles with the mother? Hitchcock?
One of the better shots in the film: Marnie (Tippi Hedren) waits in the ladies room to rob the Rutland Publishing House in Alfred Hitchcock's “Marnie” (1964)
Review: “The Birds” (1963)
This fall I took a class on Alfred Hitchcock at Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and for the final session, on “The Birds,” the professor asked a relatively simple question—a question that most of the characters in the movie ask: Why do the birds attack? Then, as he was wont to do, he began to answer his own question.
He talked up the scene in the diner where the mother of two children, a boy and a girl, quickly descends from questions to accusations to Salem Mass.-like pronouncements of witchery. “They said when you got here the whole thing started,” she says to Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren). “I think you’re the cause of all this! I think you’re evil! E-vil!”
But what if, the teacher posited, it wasn’t Melanie who was responsible? What if it was someone else? Then he diverged into a 10-minute synopsis of the 1950s sci-fi flick “Forbidden Planet” and the dark forces we can unknowingly unleash, then referred back to Melanie’s elder-generation doppelganger, Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), mother of Melanie’s love interest, Mitch (Rod Taylor), who has a tendency to look severely at any of her son’s girlfriends because she’s afraid of winding up alone. And what if, the teacher continued, the dark forces within Lydia, somehow...? He moved his hands forward, as if to propel his theory forward, but that’s about as far as he got. He admitted his ideas were inchoate.
Others piped in with their own theories—mostly dealing with a kind of cosmic comeuppance. Oh, we treat the birds so poorly. Oh, we put them in cages, and eat them, and use them in our own silly little games of romance. So they finally got fed up. For a moment, my classmates and I reminded me of all of the characters at the diner trying to fathom the unfathomable. We even had a doomsayer who proclaimed, tongue mostly in cheek, “It’s the end of the world!”
I added my own two cents, of course. I said I thought all of our theories were ultimately reductive. I said the brilliance of “The Birds” is that it gives us no explanation for why the birds attack. And since we’re not told why, we’re forced to wonder: Why not? Which is the scariest thought of all.
A cleverer man simply would’ve put a finger to his lips, said “Ssshhh,” and looked warily around.
That’s a key to “The Birds,” isn’t it? The silences. Not just the absence of a soundtrack, which amplifies the sound of the birds, their awful clucking and cooing, but the absence of talk, of human talk, in the face of an attack. Lydia sees Dan Fawcett with his eyes gouged out and speech is strangled from her. Melanie sees the line of fire roaring toward the gas pumps and speech is strangled from her. When the birds attack the house no one says shit, they just try to melt into the walls; and after the attacks, when the birds are still there, hanging out on wires or jungle gyms or trees or garage roofs—wherever they want. really—that’s when we really don’t say shit. Because we don’t want to upset the birds. Because it’s their world now. We survive at their sufferance.
Speech is strangled from us.
In structure, “The Birds” reminds me a bit of “Psycho,” Hitchcock’s previous film. It starts out about one thing but becomes about something else. Something seemingly harmless (a hotel manager, birds) hijacks the story.
Thank God. I love Tippi Hedren here—done up like so many of Hitchcock’s ice-cool blondes, but so much more playful, ready to act on the world rather than wait for the world to act on her—but it’s a slow slog at the beginning. Maybe because we’re waiting for the title characters to take over.
They’re there from the start. On a San Francisco street, Melanie, about to enter a bird shop (which Sir Alfred is about to walk out of), and just whistled at by some boys (she’s a good-looking bird, after all), notices, for a second, the odd activity of birds in the sky. Then she enters a place where birds are caged and humans are not and begins a romance, in classic, opposites-attract Hollywood fashion, with criminal defense attorney Mitch Brenner.
The first half hour of the film is her attempt to deliver on a frivolous practical joke. To do this she tracks down Mitch’s home address, then his Bodega Bay address, then buys two lovebirds and drives the hour north of San Francisco, where, among other machinations, she orders up an outboard motorboat, pilots it across Bodega Bay to the Brenner dock, steals inside with the caged lovebirds and a note, makes a getaway by boat, is followed by Mitch, who waits for her on the dock on the other side with a smile in his eyes and a witticism about to burble from his lips when ... bam! A seagull, smacks into Melanie’s forehead, drawing blood. Whatever witticisms he and she were about to engage in are gone.
It turns out Melanie is the second woman that Mitch’s charms have lured to town. The first is the school teacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleschette), who began a relationship with Mitch years earlier but couldn’t get past first base with the mother. Yet she stayed. To be near Mitch. Kinda creepy.
Now I’m not positing this as a reason for the bird attacks, but it is fascinating how most of the characters in the film seem to be frittering away their lives: Annie here, Melanie there. Mitch defends a man who shot his wife in the head six times because she changed the channel on the TV, and everyone jokes less about the kill than the overkill: “I mean, even twice would be overdoing it, don't you think?” An impartial observer might think, from this sample, that human beings don’t deserve dominion over the earth.
That bonk-bonk on the head occurs half an hour into the movie. As the romance heats up, and we learn more about Melanie (she’s a socialite who went all Anita Ekberg in a fountain in Rome but is trying to repair her life), we get some excellent foreshadowing—call it horror foreplay—from Sir Alfred:
- Annie sees a flock of birds fly by and asks, rhetorically, “Don’t they ever stop migrating?”
- The chickens aren’t eating the feed. That’s never happened.
- As Melanie and Mitch argue their way out of a good evening, we hear, in the background, much cluck-clucking. It’s not until Melanie departs in her that we see the culprits: dozens of birds on a telephone wire.
- That same evening, as Melanie and Annie drink brandy and make nice, a bird launches a kamikaze attack on Annie’s door.
Then it all comes fast and furious. The birds attack the children at a party, they fly down the chimney at the Brenner household, they kill Dan Fawcett and gouge out his eyes. Mrs. Brenner, shaken by the incident, worries about her daughter, Cathy (little Veronica Cartwright), at school, which is why Melanie heads over there, and why she’s waiting on the bench behind the jungle gym having a quiet smoke.
This is the “Psycho” shower scene all over again. Entire chapters have been written— deservedly—and here’s my poor addition: While Melanie looks off to the side, and while the children in the schoolhouse sing an Americanized version of a Scottish folk song (“Ristle-tee, rostle-tee/ Now, now, now”), one crow lands on the jungle gym behind her. While she lights a cigarette, here come two more, then four more. Then she gets lost in thought. It doesn’t hurt that Hedren is exquisite to look at. But after about 15 seconds she spots a crow flying in the sky, and, alarmed, follows its flight over, down, and onto the jungle gym ... which is now filled with hundreds of crows. It’s not only a shock to her, who didn’t know about the first crows, it’s a shock to us, who did, but who last saw only seven crows on the bars. Interestingly, her stunned, reaction shot is filmed against one of those fake backdrops Hitchcock liked to employ, even at this late date, because he didn’t like location shooting. Does he use it here on purpose? To add to the unreality of the situation?
More and more of the movie is silent now. Post-gas station attack, Mitch and Melanie find the diner group huddled in a corner, silent, afraid to disturb the birds, with amateur ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (a brilliant Ethel Griffies) so shamed she can’t even turn her face to the camera. On the way to Annie’s, Mitch, for the first time, shushes Melanie as they walk past the schoolhouse. Don’t disturb the birds. When they find Annie dead, his reaction is Cro-Magninian: he picks up a rock. But Melanie, quietly, almost silently, convinces him to put it down. Don’t disturb the birds. This sets us up for the final assault on the house.
Has any filmmaker ended movies more brilliantly than Hitchcock? Here, it’s not just that a stray bird pecks at Mitch as he prepares for evacuation, letting him know that the pecking order, the literal pecking order, has changed. It’s not just that the four humans—Mitch, Melanie, Lydia and Cathy—are crammed into Melanie’s sports car like birds in a cage, while the birds fly and land free. It’s not just that Cathy—idiotically!—brings along her caged lovebirds, letting us know that the whole bloody mess isn’t about the caged lovebirds, since the free birds obviously don’t care about the caged lovebirds.
No, what’s brilliant about the ending of “The Birds” is this: Once Mitch opens the door and sees all the birds, we hope for one thing: that our main characters will get away. And they do. We see them drive off. The car gets smaller and smaller in the distance, and the bird’s noise grows louder and louder, and the movie ends without a “The End,” without credits, without anything, really; and it slowly dawns on us that this ending, which is the ending we wanted, is the most horrifying ending of all. We want Mitch and Melanie to be safe because they matter to us; they’re our main characters, after all. But the reason they get away is because they don’t matter at all. The camera stays behind. With the birds. The viewpoint has shifted and the main characters in the drama have changed. We think that final scene is about Mitch and Melanie getting away but it’s really about the birds driving the humans out. And from above, a light, almost like God’s light, shines down, signaling a brand new day.
Review: “Psycho” (1960)
WARNING: ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S SPOILERS
When I was a budding and hugely unpublished short story writer in the early 1990s I thought it would be cool to write a story that begins in one direction—plot, themes, foreshadowing—and then something happens, boom, and it goes off in a completely different direction. I anticipated the same main character (someone like me, of course), but the story around this character changes, since that’s how life often feels. We think we’re going in one direction and then we’re not. We think we’re controlling the story but we’re not.
I didn’t know this had already been done, and better, 30 years earlier.
That’s the startling thing about “Psycho” when you first watch it. We all know Norman Bates and the famous shower scene, so we’re anticipating Norman Bates and the famous shower scene. But Norman (Anthony Perkins) doesn’t show up until a half-hour in, the shower scene until 45 minutes in. Up to that point the movie is Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh). She’s the main character, with her own plot, her own issues, her own themes. She’s involved with a man who can’t marry her because of the debt he carries; then another man flaps a seemingly phallic $40,000 in her face and she takes off with it. That’s the tension for the first half of the film. Will she get away with the money? Will she go back? Can she go back? Hey, this motel manager is self-deprecating and funny. Not bad-looking, either. Will she wind up with him? Oh, maybe she’ll learn from him. About the traps we spring on ourselves. Maybe she’ll redeem herself. Maybe this shower will cleanse her of her sins.
Hey, what’s that shadow in the background?
Wurt! Wurt! Wurt!
That’s the true horror of the movie, isn’t it? When Norman dumps her body in the trunk of her car and dumps the car in the bog out back, he’s not only burying her, he’s burying her story. Everything she worried about for the first half of the movie, and that we worried about with her, is now inconsequential. Now the story is his. Just as he subsumed Mother’s personality after he killed her, he subsumed Marion’s story after he killed her. There’s something primal in this. Kill someone and everything theirs becomes yours.
Do we want him to take over the movie? That’s a tough one. I went in knowing about Norman and the shower scene, so I knew Marion’s afternoon liaison and sudden theft and getaway and worry and buying a new-used car from good ol’ California Charlie were all irrelevant to the true story, so this shadow-play bored me a little. Even with Hitchcock, that glorious perv, giving us all those shots of Janet Leigh and her progressively dark underwear, I was bored. Stealing forty thousand? That’s it? It’s so small. Her plan seems perfectly addled, too. She right near the Mexican border but flees to mid-California. Does she think they’ll never be able to find her there? That the world will swallow her up? Even when the world literally swallows her up, they still find her.
But I don’t know if I’m bored with this storyline because of its smallness or because I know it’s a red herring. I’m curious what people who saw the film in 1960 thought.
(Bowsley Crowther, for one, reviewing for The New York Times in June 1960, seemed unimpressed with Marion’s storyline: “With a minimum of complication, it gets off to a black-and-white start with the arrival of a fugitive girl with a stolen bankroll right at an eerie motel,” he writes. “Well, perhaps it doesn't get her there too swiftly. That's another little thing about this film. It does seem slowly paced for Mr. Hitchcock and given over to a lot of small detail.”)
Throughout, Hitchcock plays with his familiar themes: the struggle between innocence and guilt; the power of watching and the powerlessness of being watched. The first shot is a voyeur’s delight: a pan of Phoenix, Arizona, on December 11, 2:43 PM. The camera closes in on a building, then a window, then it takes us past the drawn shades and lets us watch a good-looking, post-coital couple in conversation. He’s stripped to the waist, she’s in her underwear. We’re peeping toms, basically. Moviegoers are always peeping toms, of course, it’s just that Hitchcock doesn’t let us forget it—usually as a prelude to presenting a less palatable peeping tom on screen.
Here, for example, is our view of Marion as she’s deciding whether or not to steal the $40,000:
Now here’s Norman Bates’ view, through the Bates Motel peephole, as Marion decides whether or not to return the $40,000:
The only difference is we have a better view. Hitchcock even makes Norman look like our cameraman:
We all want to be innocent (rather than guilty) and powerful (rather than powerless) but are the two incompatible? Accruing power tends to cost innocence. Look at Marion. She grabs $40,000 but can’t stand the loss of innocence. She wears guilt poorly.
To be powerful is to be guilty ... and to yearn for innocence. That can be considered the theme of some of the greatest American movies ever made—“Citizen Kane,” The Godfather trilogy, “Lord of the Rings”—and it’s a theme here, with Norman, on a smaller scale, and with a psychotic twist.
Let’s start with the sequence where Marion checks in at the Bates Motel. At this point, Norman seems like a self-deprecating, semi-charming kind of guy, and, as she signs in with a fake name (“Marie Samuels”), he asks for her home address. “Oh, just your town will do,” he says. She hesitates; then, with inspiration from the newspaper sticking out of her purse, stammers, “Los Angeles.” For a moment his hand hesitates before the keys to the various cabins. Has he detected the lie, the guilt, in her voice? Is he deciding that L.A. is far enough away? Either way, he hands her the keys to cabin one, the cabin where he can watch her, the cabin where everything bad happens.
Later they have dinner, milk and sandwiches, during which she mistakenly suggests an institution for Mother, whom she’d heard berating Norman, and he kind of flips:
Have you ever seen one of the inside of those places? The laughing and the tears? And the cruel eyes studying you? My mother? There? But she’s harmless. She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.
At the end of the conversation, deciding she has to get out of the trap she put herself in, and forgetting her subterfuge, Marion tells Norman she’ll be driving back to Phoenix in the morning. She tells him her name is Crane. Then she leaves. We stay. Is this the first change in point-of-view in the film? I believe so. The movie is already becoming Norman’s. He goes over to the desk, looks at the register and sees “Marie Samuels, Los Angeles.” His look is almost triumphant. Then he walks back into the dark and shadows, among his stuffed birds, and lingers. After a beat, he sets the painting aside to peep into her cabin and see her undressing.
There’s a perverse morality and twisted logic as all of this plays out:
- She is guilty so she must be watched.
- He has watched so he must be guilty.
- Mother must take away (kill) the source of her son’s guilt.
- The son must take away (remove) the evidence of Mother’s guilt.
Norman wants the power of watching but can’t take the accompanying guilt. He wants both power and innocence. You could say that’s the source of his psychosis.
Even at the end of the movie, captured at last, sitting alone in a police holding cell—and thus guilty and powerless—he figures out a way to remain innocent and powerful.
By this point the mother (“Norma”) portion of his personality has completely trumped the real (“Norman”) part of his personality, and, as he sits alone in the holding cell, it’s her thoughts, her creepy voice, buzzing in his head. She defends giving up Norman to the police because she feels innocent of the crimes. Which she is. That’s the brilliance of it. He did everything. He used “her” to commit the crimes to remain innocent of the crimes (“She’s ill,” he tells Marion), and, once caught, he uses “her” to take refuge from the crimes (“He was always bad,” she thinks), since it was always his hand sticking in the blade and disposing of the bodies. He adopts whatever personality is necessary to remain innocent. One suspects that if they eventually charged Mother with the crimes, he would revert back to Norman.
That’s how he remains innocent. But how does he remain powerful? Isn’t he trapped in a place where their cruel eyes can watch him again? He even suspects this. “They’re probably watching me,” Mother’s voice says, as Norman’s eyes glance almost casually around. He’s a peeper and we always suspect others of our crimes.
But are the police watching him? We don’t know. We assume not. But we do know that someone’s watching him. We are. We’ve been watching him the whole time. We have the power of the watcher and the innocence of someone who’s not in control (beyond the ticket purchase) of what they’re watching. Hitchcock has already played with our innocence by associating it with a psychopath. In the final shot he takes away our power.
How can the watched regain control from the watcher? By watching back. Which is what Norman does. With the last line of the movie he turns his gaze on us:
They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know. They’ll say, “Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly.”
Oh man, does it work. By watching us, by letting us know that he knows we’re watching him, Norman regains power and we lose it. It’s frightening. It’s even more frightening because Hitchcock, for a fraction of a second, superimposes Mother’s death-skull over Norman’s smiling face, and he seems a kind of grim reaper, our grim reaper, which is further augmented by the final shot of Marion’s car being dragged from the bog—suggesting not only all of Norman’s crimes but all of our final resting places. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and mud to mud.
“Psycho” has its weak points. John Gavin is leaden, the front story so-so, the shot of Norman in drag almost Jim Carreyishly amusing. Plus the psychiatric explanation is overlong and overdone.
But the rest? This is a movie that changed cinema and our culture. Monsters aren’t the Universal variety—giant or disfigured or hairy—they’re the universal variety. They look like the boy next door. They look like anybody and their victims could be anyone: her, him, me, you. And it can come at any moment. When you’re walking up the stairs. When you’re taking a shower. You’re never safe. That’s the horror. They can get you any time. If this story has gained in power in the 50 years since Hitchcock and screenwriter Joe Stefano worked on it, if we’re still trapped in some sense by Norman Bates’ primal gaze, it may be because we haven’t yet worked up the courage to look back.