NOIR OF THE WEEK 11-2-09
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Joseph Stefano from the novel by Robert Bloch
Cinematographer: John L. Russell
Lead actors: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Vera Miles
Supporting actors: Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, John Anderson, Vaughn Taylor, Lurene Tuttle, Frank Albertson, Pat Hitchcock, Mort Mills
The general question about Hitchcock and noir remains an open one. Watching Psycho again the other night, I was reacquainted with Hitch’s sly subversion of genre expectations and stylistic cues, and found myself looking at the issue from two directions at once—the first in one that is characteristic for me, and perhaps all-too-familiar to you (ye olde Noir-o-Meter). The second is, I think, a more novel and possibly even more fruitful approach to understanding Psycho’s oddly passive-aggressive relationship to noir.
First, the noir-o-meter. Psycho grades out at 107 out of 200 (5.4 out of 10) in the method, putting it in the noir region, but just over the line and in the “dark grey” area. Character elements rate highest (6.0), with visual/setting elements at 5.9, and plot/screenwriting elements trailing at 4.3.
Let’s see how the individual elements rank here.
Homme fatal/femme fatale or peril-inducing characters (10/15). Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is a monster, a very sick boy, markedly different from, say, Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. Interesting that Hitch was drawn to two variations of the same psychotic impulse. Norman’s pitiable condition only ranks as an 8 on the scale, though, as he is a covert monster. The other 2 points are for the latent femme fatale elements found in Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), whose impulse to steal $40K might stem from wanting to shack up in a respectable way with Sam Loomis (John Gavin), but her “abilities” at making use of her eye candy are far from lily-white.
Morally ambiguous characters (2/5). Marion is the only problematic one here, and her peregrinations are worth an extra point, I think. Norman is clearly not morally responsible for his actions, so ambiguity is simply not an appropriate lens for him.
Alienated protagonist (4/5). Marion and Sam are stymied by the circumstances in which they find themselves; Norman is about as alienated as its possible to be and still function.
A dupe or a fall guy (0/5). Is Arbogast a dupe? I don’t think so. No one can expect to find a murderous psychotic cross-dresser at the top of the stairs in an old house, unless noir conventions are being subverted into a whole new film genre.
Violence relative to character development/interacton (8/10). Relative to character disintegration might be a better term for it here.
Characters trapped by past events (9/10). One of noir’s old standbys, and we see Sam and Marion stymied by his past, Norman turned into a ticking time bomb by his.
Degree of character triangulation (4/10). Almost totally indirect in nature. The three most direct triangles are Marion-Caroline (Pat Hitchcock)-Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson); Marion-Cassidy-George Lowry (Vaughn Taylor), and Arbogast (Martin Balsam)-Lila (Vera Miles)-Sam Loomis. Each of these is most used for plot advancement, though the sleazy performance of Frank Albertson nicely sets up the heist scenario—his Tom Cassidy is the type of jerk that anyone would want to rob.
Black and white cinematography (10/10). As Robert Osborne noted, the film would lose its noir edge if it were not in B&W. And its relationship to TV noir, which is a further compression of the claustrophobic strategies in noir, is something that we’ll examine at greater length below.
Low-angle shooting/expressionistic techniques (2/5). This isn’t all that pronounced. Hitch does use some interesting angles on Norman, especially when he’s being interrogated by Arbogast and Sam.
A sense of fatalism, either spoken or visual (11/20). Marion’s anxiety as she makes her escape creates tension, but Hitch is careful in slowly working images of dead things (the stuffed birds in the hotel office) into the visual flow, content with a more low-key kind of foreshadowing. The “spoken” fatalism is primarily conveyed in Bernard Herrmann’s superbly agitated score.
Use of extreme mise-en-scene (claustrophobic/barren) (7/10). Psycho shows strong affinities with 50s “desert noir” before going off into a different direction. Hitch loves his “birds-eye” camera angles, and while he has Russell shoot “flat” like a TV show in many setups, it’s usually to set up a specific narrative shock or point of transition.
Use of mise-en-scene to portray alienation (3/5). Two words: Bates Motel.
Odd camera angles/visual effects sequences (4/5). Two words: shower scene.
An urban setting [degree of emphasis] (2/10). Except for the opening in Phoenix, Psycho plays out in small towns and lonesome, expansive vistas.
Exotic/remote/barren location setting (5/5). See the “desert noir” discussion above.
Night club and/or gambling setting (0/5). The closest we get to a bar is the reference to being in one by Marion’s boss and obnoxious client Tom Cassidy.
A convoluted story line (3/5). Pretty linear in the first half, much more clotted in the second. Like two vastly different segments of a TV show…
Use of flashbacks (0/10). No.
A murder or heist at the center of the story (5/5). Yes to both, and yes to the former happening at almost exactly the center of the story.
A betrayal or double-cross (0/5). No.
Story told from the perspective of the criminals (3/5). In the first half of the film, yes.
False accusation or fear of same (0/5). No.
Sexual relationships vs. plot development (6/10). Not overly emphasized, but the deep cause of Norman’s homicide comes from a particularly regressive view of sexual relationships. As in “a boy’s best friend is his mother.” Anyone wonder if Norman Bates was an incest victim?
A spoken narrative (2/5). Marion’s imaginary conversations, usually the expression of her guilty feelings, qualify here.
Hard-boiled dialogue/repartee (0/5). No. Closest thing to it is John Anderson as California Charlie, the man who’s non-plussed to have a customer high-pressure the salesman.
Bleak (noir) vs. bland (gris) conclusion (8/10). Norman’s reversion into his mother’s personality is a chilling final scene. Trust me, no one wants to end up like this…
So the “noir-o-meter” gives Psycho enough to slip over the line into noir despite the fact that Hitch, as per usual, is seriously tweaking our expectations. The audacity of killing off his protagonist halfway through the film completely undercuts the usual narrative progression, and remains unsettling even today, as we re-watch the film for the umpteenth time.
But the fact that Marion’s showy death scene comes at almost exactly halfway through the action leads to that other thought, which is the relationship of Psycho to TV noir. Hitchcock had been involved in television for nearly five years when it came time to make Psycho, and he deliberately crafted it using personnel from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, most notably bypassing his regular cinematographer Robert Burks in favor of John L. Russell, the primary lensman of the TV series. And Psycho is a deliberate reversion to black-and-white, which still dominated the TV airwaves and was being used to great effect in the ongoing waves of TV noir/crime/suspense series that proliferated in the late 50s.
Let’s take a moment to think of Psycho as a two-part episode of an hour-long suspense series, where Marion’s murder is the spectacular, cliff-hanging conclusion to the first part, with the attempt to discover her fate being part two. Does that account for the odd structuring in which the protagonist disappears almost exactly halfway through the action? How problematic is the second half as a so-called “stand-alone” episode—would it need to be reworked in order to remind the audience of who had been murdered, and why? A few flashback references to Marion while Sam is writing his letter (which would be the opening of a “part two” TV noir) might suffice in re-establishing the story, or there could be a more elaborate shuffling of time. There are a number of possibilities, which I throw open for those so inclined to explore as part of their comments…
Regardless of the plausibility of “Psycho the two-part TV noir” idea, it’s clear that Hitchcock was influenced by the advent of TV noir when he shaped the material for filming. It is another watershed moment in the trailing edge of noir, where we are introduced to horrors that tear open the “noir curtain” in ways that change the landscape in irreversible ways.