Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thoughts on Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock's most iconic (and possibly best) movie, Psycho was released exactly 50 years ago today.  It is arguably the first "slasher" movie--but none of its successors have had anything close to its cultural impact, which is not to deny the merit of some of them.  (Halloween, perhaps the best of the rest, capitalized on the original by casting Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh's daughter, in the lead.)  The Reagan-era sequels could not dim (or touch) the power of Hitchcock's film--largely bolstered by the estimable talent of Anthony Perkins--and the much-reviled 1998 "remake" by Gus Van Sant, which followed the original script almost word for word and the original storyboard almost shot for shot, is much much better (and more instructive in the changes in US culture) than most viewers and reviewers gave it credit for, and, as Patricia Hitchcock said at the time, it was precisely the kind of experiment her father would have attempted (he did in fact make The Man Who Knew Too Much twice).

In the homocentric manner that many straight film fans hate, I would like to make a modest, brief argument for Psycho being a "gay film."  Male homosexuality was not a theme foreign to Hitchcock.  Films like Rope and North by Northwest flirted with the subject in the 1950s, the decade in which such references were most taboo in America; Rope even obsessed over it.  Psycho alludes to some of the overt cold-war, quasi-Freudian stereotypes of the homosexual--an overbearing mother who dominates and frightens her boy, a man who likes to wear dresses and pretend he's a woman, and the "sad young man" conveyed in Anthony Perkins' understated performance.  Also the hard-to-miss fact that the film evades the subject of "romance" (heterosexual or homosexual, while rather bluntly addressing the subject of "sex") puts it outside the mainstream of American movies of the time--even in the horror genre, even among Hitchcock's other work.

The opening scene of John Gavin stripped to the waist in a cheap hotel room is one that, despite its patently heterosexual context, lets the camera indulge in the spectacle of the actor's considerable masculine beauty.  The scene portrays the aftermath of sex--worse, illicit sex, since Gavin's character is still married to somebody else.  Gavin literally embodies the ideal masculinity of the period, square jawed, tall, beefily athletic, an image more famously embodied in the fifties by Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, ironically two closeted gay actors.  This image is brought into stark contrast with (later in the film) the oddly birdlike, quiet, gawky diffidence of Anthony Perkins--a markedly different kind of American male, one seldom seen in the movies of the decade, especially not in a leading role.  Later, Gavin's character is "paired" with his girlfriend's sister (played by Vera Miles), with no real hint of romantic interest on either one's part (Van Sant's film is instructive on this point).  Perkins is often shot by himself, isolated, or surrounded by inanimate objects--stuffed birds, academic paintings on biblical subjects, and the empty immensity of the dark Victorian house he lives in.

Alfred Hitchcock was born in the Victorian era, two years before the stately old queen died.  His life spanned the end of Victorianism and the beginning of the end of postmodernism.  The Stick-Eastlake architecture of the Bates' house is in pointed contrast to the boxy functionality of the seedy post-war "motor-hotel" it looms darkly over.  Victoria's disapproving gloom towers above the image of mobile, transient, promiscuous, gawdy "free love":  that this was the established stereotype of motels at the time we know because of Nabokov's Lolita five years earlier.  The film is full of contrasts like this--the performance styles of Gavin and Perkins, as mentioned, but also the jarring abstract expressionism of Saul Bass's opening title sequence and the plodding expository monologue delivered by Simon Oakland, closing the movie on a weirdly anticlimactic note.  In fact, the whole movie appears in retrospect to be an experiment in anticlimax.  The protagonist dies 45 minutes into the film.  The young couple who meet (decidedly un-cute) later in the film never kiss, their only bodily contact occurring as they clasp each other while recoiling in horror at their various discoveries of the truth--an allegory of the Western world in the twentieth century?  A title that exploits the American public's fascination with psychoanalysis at the time (in a decade when shock therapy and lobotomy were still "cures" for homosexuality and other forms of "mental illness"), while the character of the psychologist makes his first and only appearance when the film is almost over. 

Psycho ... or The Birds or North by Northwest or Strangers on a Train ... is my very favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie.  (Sorry to be so indefinite--but the man was a genius.)  Its influence is still felt in American Psycho and on The Simpsons, in the bleak sexuality of AMC's Mad Men and in countless shower scenes in countless erotic thrillers.  Between 1963 and 1971, I visited Universal City Studios in Hollywood three times.  The only constant was the facade of the "Psycho house" still perched on the hill that Perkins descends in horror when he sees the blood of his eroto-phobic mother's latest victim.

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