Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Psycho

If Psycho was first imagined as a work of literature it would make for a fine Gothic novel. That probably seems like a fairly trite observation, we immediately think of Gothic in its most obvious sense of being mysterious – and when the literary style emerged in the mid 1700s it was the subtle horror found in works like Matthew Lewis’ The Monk or Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. It’s more than visceral terror that makes Psycho such a perfect concept capable of being a Gothic novel – at the heart of Psycho is the eponymous psycho himself, Norman Bates. And in Norman Bates Perkins and Hitchcock create a perfect illustration of the Gothic antihero.

I love the very first shot of his house – Norman’s Manor, if you will.
It’s sort of begging you to take a picture, so naturally I acquiesced. It’s a tenet of the Gothic protagonist, for the most part. We need a house that’s far from the bustle of the town, desolate, difficult to find and abandoned. Norman’s Manor passes the inspection with flying colours, and it’s the house (and the surrounding swamp) that emphasises his Gothic tendencies. We can imagine him pacing the empty rooms, talking to his “Mother” but unable to leave his lair.

It sort of makes sense that it’s Marion who leads to his discovery, because in his very conversation with her he’s disclosing too much. They’re not exactly kindred spirits, but the connection there is palpable. That continuous sequence is the only time Norman eschews his most innate Gothic characteristics. H
That smile below is not my favourite shot (it’s a close second), and it’s one of the reasons I think Perkins’ is so brilliant here.
He avoids the easiest of inclinations to make Norman insincere. Even when he’s at his most sinister, as he misleads Arbogast there’s the obvious sense of him protecting his turf. It’s not quiet heroic; he is a murderer after all. But, like the true Gothic protagonist it’s difficult to judge him because he’s so much a product of his abode. Norman’s skewed because his surroundings are.

This shot underscores it best.
The mise-en-scene there makes Norman appear like a Heathcliff of sorts (without the love story). This is a man, so in tune with the “nature” of his surroundings. Just like you’d read Wuthering Heights and visualise Heathcliff on the moors at one with the world – Norman is in accordance with the desolation of the house, the hotel and the swamp nearby. That’s why he’s so adamant to keep up his charade, and that’s why he’s so threatened by that string of visitors.
But it's this one which easily wins for my favourite shot. Skewed mind and all, there’s something chillingly logical about how Norman is intent on protecting his territory. If we think closely on it, it’s part of his madness. Why does he kill? Who knows. But he can’t leave this place, it’s like he tells Sam later.

“This place? This place happens to be my only world. I grew up in that house up there; I had a very happy childhood. My mother and I were more than happy.”

It’s sort of the perfect encapsulation of Norman as a Gothic character (hero?). He’s indelibly linked to his house because its rich with memories, and secrets and sadness. So, he has no choice to stay there – alone – constantly looking out at the windows. 
Even the murders are superfluous, he’s waiting there for his mother – if he happens to happen upon someone, they die – but it’s not really at the root of his issues. Everything important is right there in that house, as it should be, that's why that final shot of him in the holding cell always makes me think. Norman (or Mother) isn't really cold - I'm sure the temperature is fine, but unlike at the Manor where he's at home with the freedom he has he can't function elsewhere. Not only does he lose control of his faculties, but he looks so terribly frail.
Like the truest of Gothic heroes he's defined by his Gothic abode, so away from his Manor Norman loses his potency...
Head on over to Nathaniel, who's the inspiration for this post with his Hit Me With Your Best Shot Series.


Amir said...

i like how our favourite shots are the same despite the fact that this film has countless number of shots one can pick from.
you've got good taste my friend ;)

Yojimbo_5 said...

Bwa-ha-ha. Got a review of Gus Van Sant's remake coming up...and a couple of your shots are in there. "Great minds..."

Anonymous said...

In your favourite shot, there's a mirror beside Sam while Norman is victoriously defensive. The same composition happens earlier, where there's glass beside Norman while talking to Marion. I'm overreading, but Norman's reflection makes him look more deprived. Fast forward, Sam tries to put Norman in the same position that Norman has put Marion. And other things.

Jose said...

Amir and you have brilliant taste obviously...

Anyway, I like you comparing Norman to Heathcliff. You're right, this is his kingdom and these people keep invading it. I love how comfortable he looks in the motel, particularly that scene where he talks about changing the sheets even if nobody stays there. Brilliant!

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

amir YAY!

yojimbo is it worth checking out? the remake, i mean?

paolo oooh, i like that reading (even though the actual favourite shot is him alone looking back), but that thing with the mirror is something i noticed, i really do feel badly for norman. i'm so weird.

jose i know, it's little things like that that make a bit sad that his inclinations are written off as just "psycho" perkins plays him such empathy.

TomS said...

Notice in the final closeup of Norman's face (occurring soon after the still you included).

As Norman gives a dememted smile, and just as the film dissolves to the swamp and the car being pulled out, a skull is seen ever so slightly superimposed over Norman's face....Mrs. Bates' face....

It is so subliminal most people don't see it unless they know it's there. One final bit of brilliance.