Thursday, June 7, 2012

Better than the Book: Psycho

The first words of Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) are “Norman Bates.”  Compare to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where Norman Bates doesn’t appear as a character—isn’t even mentioned—until 27 minutes in.  Mary Crane (Marion in the film) doesn’t appear until chapter 2.  Her sister Lila, Sam Loomis, the Sheriff, Arbogast the investigator, none of these characters appear for a long time.  Just who’s the protagonist here?

For Bloch, it’s probably safe to say it’s Bates.  We get the greatest insight into his psyche.  Bloch includes all sorts of details about his life that never make it into Hitchcock’s movie.  But what Hitchcock selects works, and while there’s not much gained by pairing down Bates’ psychosis, there’s absolutely nothing lost.  We don’t miss the fact that he’s into the occult, for example. 

 The real advantage the movie has over the book derives in the medium itself.  The book has to lie to us.  For the story to work, it has no choice.  The book’s written in the third person, but each chapter gets into the head of one of the characters.  By far the majority of chapters give us the thoughts of Norman Bates, in any one of his personalities.  So each chapter is a limited third person.  Despite this, we get sentences that are effectively first person.  The effect here is that it’s hard to tell when the narrator is being reliable.  That’s not a problem for a first person book.  Since we get no other perspective, the narrator’s lies are just like anybody else’s.  It’s our own folly if we believe them. But in a third person book, the lies are less fair to the audience.

 Here’s what I’m talking about:  In the first chapter, Norman’s reading a book and drifting in and out of sleep.  Then, he hears footsteps.  “Actually, he was aware of the footsteps without even hearing them; long familiarity aided his senses whenever Mother came into the room.  He didn’t even have to look up to know she was there.”  The scene goes on to give us Mother’s locations as she moves throughout the room.  These are patent lies told to us by the narrator.  And the narrator, remember, isn’t Norman Bates.  If the book were written entirely from his perspective, then there would be no lie, because he at least, would be experiencing Mother’s movements in his mind.  But Mother is moving around, while Norman and she talk. 

 This scene could not possibly be shot for a movie without giving away the main twist of the story—that Norman is Mother.  The movie includes only one scene where we see Norman and his mother interacting, as he takes her from her bedroom to the cellar.  The camera never shows us either face, so we don’t see who’s talking.  This is as close to the “lie” of the book’s narrator as the movie will get.  The camera starts low but cranes up to an overhead shot that avoids both the corpse and Norman’s faces.  Other times, we hear them talking from outside the house, but see nothing. The other time, when we see Mother acting as “she” kills Marion, the “lie” we get is the unrealistic lighting that obscures “her” face in the bathroom.  Here’s how the book treats that:

 Mother’s face comes “peering through the curtains, hanging in midair like a mask.  A head-scarf concealed the hair and the glassy eyes stared inhumanly, but it wasn’t a mask, it couldn’t be.  The skin had been powdered dead-white and two hectic spots of rouge centered on the cheekbones.  It wasn’t a mask.  It was the face of a crazy old woman." 

 This is a tough one.  Is it a lie?  The face is made up; Norman’s wearing a disguise.  The chapter is from Mary Crane’s perspective, so we’re essentially getting what she sees.  She might think, for that brief moment before she no longer has thoughts, that it’s an old woman.  Still, it’s third person, so it’s hard to excuse the lie of the information.  The film gives us the only other example of the “lie” in this scene as well.  Norman’s face is completely in shadow, unnaturally so.  Though shadows do the same to other characters throughout the film, this is really the only time it’s blatantly unnatural.  Marion would have been able to see the face in the light of the bathroom, so we should too. 

This is a lie!
 So why is the movie better?  Aside from the two examples I’ve noted, most of the “narrator’s lies” are dispensed with in the process of making it visual.  But also, I think, the movie benefits from the nearly total focus on the plot instead of the characters.  Where Bloch gives us a couple of pages here and there to get to know Sam Loomis and Lila Crane, Hitchcock doesn’t bother.  As a director, Hitchcock was almost solely focused on the visuals, and this movie demonstrates that.  He knows we’re not interested in Loomis’ witty observations about life in a small town or Lila’s frustrations with local law enforcement.  Once Mary Crane dies, all we want to know is who killed her.  The characters are merely a way to get to the exposition.  Hitchcock, who can give us intense and worthwhile character studies (I’m thinking of Vertigo), knows that Psycho’s strength isn’t anybody but the audience’s expectations.  He’s foiled them by killing Crane off and demonstrating that the stolen money’s irrelevant.  While the book also disposes of Crane early on, by beginning with Bates Bloch has already told us she’s not important. 

 Other elements stand out in this film.  I think the dialogue, written by Joseph Stefano (who also came up with the structural shift that focused the first half hour of the movie on Marion instead of Norman, a shift which enabled them to get around the narrative lies so prominent in the book) often gets overlooked.  That first scene with Marion and Sam is fantastic.  And when you meet Norman Bates, the script really shines with the subtle clues that something’s wrong with him, the first being the fact that he won’t say the word bathroom.  And the creepiest line in film history, which isn’t in the book:  “Well a boy’s best friend is his mother.”

We all go a little mad sometimes.
So what is the heart of psycho?  It’s the director’s relationship with the audience.  It’s confounding expectations, and in doing so, more or less creating a genre.  Very few movies take this sort of left turn half-way through.  I’m thinking of the Tarrantino/Rodriguez movie From Dusk til Dawn.  But the genre being created isn’t the left-turn.  It’s the identity twist.  It’s the genre where we’d really place The Sixth Sense and Fight Club and The Usual Suspects, and it reached its point of absurdity in Identity, where virtually all the characters were in fact separate identities in one character.  It was made fun of by Adaptation, and it’s sort of lost favor.  It’s the twist where the main character isn’t who you think.  It hasn’t been done this well again, and it won’t likely be.  

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