Posted November 19, 2017 by D. K. Holm
Mrs. Bates got a bum rap.
For almost 60 years she has been held accountable for the psychology of her son Norman. She is the shrew, the harridan who demands loyalty and service, the nightmare of American motherhood out of something by Philip Wylie and Generation of Vipers. Poor, sensitive Norman …
But note that there are only three witnesses to the life and interactions of Mrs. Bates: Norman himself (mostly communicated to us through his impersonation of her), and the town sheriff and his wife. In fact, you could come up with an alternative biography of Norman – lonely, bored, his father gone, and dependent on his mother for support, a need that Mrs. Bates may have found burdensome and perhaps a little … weird. She finds a lover partially as a flight from Norman, and after the man convinces her to buy the motel (according to Norman), he poisons the duo (in bed!) and disguises his part in the crime. As the psychiatrist announces plausibly at the film’s end, guilt and shame drove Norman to deny the truth of his crime by bringing her back to a form of life in an Ed Gein inspired flourish of bad makeup and vocal mannerisms. The “mean” Mrs. Bates is simply the dissociated part of Norman yelling at himself for taking away his true love. Mrs. Bates can be judged the real – or at least the first – victim of the psycho, the way Ophelia is the true heart of Hamlet, according to the analysis by Harold Jenkins in his Arden edition of the play.
There is also the matter of Hitchcock’s general view of mothers in his cinema. There is only one real evil mother, in Notorious. The rest are all different from each other, and in fact there is more variety to motherhood in Hitchcock’s work than any other major director, say Ford, where they are all the same from film to film, or Hawks, in which there are none (or at least few, and mostly irrelevant). By that track record, Mrs. Bates is probably a normal American woman.
Such ruminations are inspired by 78/52 (in some cases subtitled The Psycho Shower Scene), a superb new documentary about one of the most powerful moments in cinema history. The documentary is an act of true criticism, and you leave the theater thinking that you have never really seen Psycho.
The best filmmakers attract the best film writers and historians and from Robin Wood and Raymond Durgnat down to Murray Pomerance Hitchcock has inspired scores of analysts and biographers enough to bend the middle of a bookshelf or three. 78/52 is an act of profound celebration and criticism but draws very little from this astounding record. Aside from David Thomson, who can be relied upon to disseminate misinformation (in this case that the Lumiere Brothers’s film about the train in the station drove audiences, from the theater an old saw for which there is no evidence), and Stephen Rebello, who wrote a book about the making of the film, the “talking heads” are mostly editors, other film directors, and the odd performer.
And what talk! Peter Bogdanovich notes how women were diminished in films in the transition from the ’40s to the ’50s. Mick Garris reminds us that Hitchcock wore a suit to work, and that Psycho is not a film that wears a tuxedo (being set in a grimy, striving world). Mr. Rebello reminds us that the world of 1959 seemed to be falling apart or widening its gaps: Lucy divorced Desi, the first Playboy club opened, and birth control pills were introduced. The subjects that come up are brilliantly edited and organized, going from the background of the world into which Psycho emerged, to the role of Marion in the film and how various images foretell her death, such as the slashing wipers on the windshield and the shower head seen in the background of her apartment as she packs to leave. The original scene as it appears in the Robert Block novel is shared. Other subjects include: bathrooms in Hitchcock, going back to The Lodger; the identity of the painting that hides Norman’s peep hole (the biblical story Susannah and the Elders,); the theme of eyes; how the “fly’s eye viewer” of the hotel scene at the beginning is rhymed at the end with “Mother” saying that “they” will see that she “wouldn’t even hurt a fly,” to the theme of mothers in Hitchcock and American media, then down to the shower scene itself, beginning with Marion doing her accounting, the brightness and whiteness of the bathroom, the conversation between Norman and Marion, Herrmann’s music (too bad he is not in the movie via archival footage), how they made the sound effects of the stabbing (a casaba melon and a prime rib), the difference in the reaction to Psycho from the reaction to Michael Powell’s vaguely similar Peeping Tom, how the last shot of North by Northwest, which features the visual pun of a Freudian sex symbol, leads directly to the opening post coital shot of Psycho. Other topics include shot mirroring and composition in the shower sequence (the spraying water crashing one direction in contrast to the thrusts of the knife), and literally much more.
Among the talking heads, all sitting in a simulation of the motel room with its rose-laced wallpaper, are Jamie Lee Curtis, Tere Carrubba, Hitchcock’s granddaughter, Guillermo del Toro, Amy E. Duddleston, editor of the Van Sant remake, Danny and Mali Elfman, Bret Easton Ellis, historian Bill Krohn, director Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), Neil Marshall (The Descent), Walter Murch, Oz Perkins, the son of, and a horror film director himself, Marli Renfro, one of the body doubles for Janet Leigh, Eli Roth, Australian director Richard Stanley (Hardware), and Elijah Wood and two of his pals who sit in awe of the acting.
The film is thorough, but there are some parts left out of the chronicle, and Alexandre O. Philippe, the maker of nerd docs such as The People vs. George Lucas and Doc of the Dead, has indicated that he may do a sequel. Among the ideas a sequel could include are the curious connections between Psycho and the previous year’s Orson Welles feature Touch of Evil (desert motel, Janet Leigh), and though the movie includes a catalog of later shower scene parodies and hommages, a sequel could also include the eerie precursor to the shower scene in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (Lewton and Hitchcock often had lunch together). In addition, there is a lot more to Janet Leigh-Marion Crane to explore. For example, a shot of Marion leaving the motel office is replicated almost exactly with a similar shot of “Mother” leaving the bathroom post bloodbath. And then there is Marion’s curious minimizing of her existence when people question her – “Only my share [of unhappiness],” and other comments.
Psycho is really more a film soleil than a slasher film, in its bright settings and example of a heist gone awry, but it remains one of the greatest and most disturbing films ever made. Let’s hope that next time around Mrs. Bates gets a fair shake.