Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Better In Your Head?--PSYCHO

Robert Bloch

SPOILER ALERT, wow, I haven't done that in awhile.

Mary Crane is surrounded by avaricious men. Real estate wheelers and dealers stacking dollars in innumerable piles. A hardware store owner in perpetual debt who keeps promising to make a dishonest woman of her some day soon. When Mary's employer entrusts her with $40,000 of a client's money, she acts on impulse and drives off not to the bank, but towards the new and improved life such an influx of cash will eventually bring.

Once the storm clouds pass.

The drive to see her man Sam is fraught with second-guessing and scenarios of varying likelihood. Not soon enough, Mary realizes she's turned off the main highway. In need of some 3Z TLC, she stops at the hardly-bustling Bates Motel.

Norman Bates is surrounded by nettlesome women. His mother, holder of the world's shortest leash and sharpest tongue. And now this alluring, friendly woman willing to share nothing more than dinner with him.

A woman who has sent Norman's mother into a frothing rage.

Norman waddles through the middle of life, jumping at escape routes whenever he spots them--books on unsavory subjects, alcohol, taxidermy. He lives with his mother in a bleak, imposing house next to the motel, which is where he and Mary sup on cold cuts and coffee. She rather pities the jittery surplus of flesh sitting across from her stirring femininity, listening politely as he explains that his mother is far from well yet near-total in her power over him. When Mary suggests that relocation might be for the best of both mother and son, Norman loses his cool. Society is so quick to judge and punish the people it deems as "crazy," yet so slow to actually help them. Who, he wants to know, hasn't gone a little bit out of their mind every now and again?

In the safety of her room, Mary sees the sense in the sad man's outburst. Didn't she have her own temporary loss of sanity just that afternoon, when she let pent-up frustrations cloud her better judgment? She decides to spend the night at the motel, then drive back home to throw herself on the mercy of her boss (and the dude she jacked the fat envelope of cash from).

A peephole does not allow one to read the thoughts of another, but it does allow one to watch another's thoughts. The very sight of a disrobing Mary, combined with generous shots of liquor, is enough to overwhelm the balding fat-ass into unconsciousness. When Norman awakens, he hears the shower water running in Mary's room. He enters, to discover that mother made good on her threat.

Living near a swamp has more benefits than drawbacks.

After a week, people begin missing Mary Crane. Younger sister Lila visits Sam at his hardware store and insists that he help locate his girlfriend. The pair are joined by Milton Arbogast, a private investigator hired by the man whose forty grand Mary skipped state with. He followed Lila suspecting she of all people would know Mary's whereabouts, but soon he's satisfied that neither she nor Sam are in the loop.

The search leads Arbogast to the Bates Motel. He's able to match Mary's handwriting in the guest registry with an envelope he brought along, and begins pestering an unhelpful Norman for more information. Arbogast mentions the house, the woman he saw looking through a window, would she be of any help? Much wrangling ensues, until at last the not-cop convinces Norman that he can return with a warrant to search any damn where he pleases.

While Norman goes to "prepare" his mother, Arbogast calls Lila and reports the latest, promising to keep in touch. His failure to do so spurs Lila and Sam into action. They speak with the sheriff, who suspects that the PI is snowing them. How could he speak to Norman's mother when the lady's been dead for the past twenty years?

Lila can no longer sit idly by, and Sam now actually seems bothered. Together they book a room at the Bates Motel, making sure it's the same one Mary occupied during her aborted stay. One very intriguing piece of evidence later, Lila asks Sam to keep Norman occupied while she drives back into town to alert the sheriff.

Norman is not so naive as he may seem, though; after several drinks, he informs Sam that Lila did not go out for cigarettes, as she claimed. No, he saw her stop and take a detour at the house. What, who, would Lila be looking for? Norman cracks Sam upside the head with his liquor bottle and decides to find out.

Perhaps insufficiently creeped out by what she found in the upstairs rooms, Lila descends into the cellar and happens upon the mummified corpse of Mrs. Bates. Lila promptly loses her mind; Norman, sensing a kindred spirit, barges into the room, knife in hand. And wig on head. And granny dress around body.

Only to wind up subdued by Sam. Proof that women take forever to get dressed, even if they're men.

Norman escapes prison time by virtue of dissociative identity disorder, which Sam explains to Lila. 'Cause they're a couple now, and that's not even a little icky!

Robert Bloch's Psycho: no frills, yes chills. Blunt as an axe to the throat, pushing along with an unshowy agility.

In other words, an easy book to muck up.

Director-Alfred Hitchcock
Writer-Joseph Stefano

So good for, well, everybody that a glowing review in the New York Times convinced one of the greatest film directors ever to pick up a copy of Psycho and examine the fuss for himself. Duly intrigued, the man some called "Hitch" forked over $9,500 for the film rights and proceeded to shoot the prototypical slasher flick.

Bloch once estimated that the film script borrowed "ninety percent" of his work, and I can vouch. No need to repeat the plot, so I'll not. The devil haunts the details, but the angels bless the structure. A sublime understanding of distillation and dissemination separate the great adaptations from the rest of the pack. With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph Stefano put on a clinic.

Take the opening scene, putting us bedside with Marion Crane and her boyfriend Sam Loomis in a hotel room enjoying some pillow talk. Enjoying it until they're upright once more, anyway, ardor tamped out by the uncertainties of present and future--namely, Sam's struggles repaying his non-metaphorical debts. Bloch reveals Mary's anxieties about her relationship without much dialogue. Just good old-fashioned backstory narrative, a "getting to know this poor lass who's about to lose her head a couple of times." A movie can't do that, not unless it really wants to, and even then the earnestness virtually guarantees failure.

Despite changes in age and physique, Norman Bates remains a twisted, jittery mama's boy with an unnerving eagerness to please. I'll talk more about this in the next section.

The other major alteration is one of the more drastic of any book-to-movie: the shower scene. Infamous like Mobb Deep, legendary like D.I.T.C. and not easy like pimpin' per the Big Daddy Kane (a whole week of shooting!), everyone knows the shower scene in Psycho. Well, it's there in the book too, except rather than multiple stab wounds to the abdomen, Mary Crane is decapitated. Hitchcock loved him some decapitation (witness the use of strangulation across his films, a "metaphorical" head removal) but when presented with the perfect opportunity to show a "real" one…next section!

Paramount Studios wanted nothing to do with Hitchcock's follow-up to North By Northwest. A cheap psychological thriller from the man who made Rear Window? Hitchcock so believed in Psycho he told the bigwigs that he'd keep the budget under a million dollars by shooting in black-and-white with the crew of his hit Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, on Universal Studio sound stages since Paramount was so goddamn offended by the possibility of such trash in their vicinity.

Resist the urge to romanticize the past, especially that of an industry with a nasty tendency to romanticize the past. Major motion picture studios have never known their asshole from their uvula. When a master of cinema, the motherfucking God of framing shots, went to the heads of Paramount and announced the plans for his next film, those burlap-brained office-occupiers should have handed over blank checks with the least artificial smiles they could muster up.

Bloch's novel took superficial inspiration from the notorious case of Ed Gein. Hitchcock's film took the novel and squeezed, a python coiled around bound paper.

The differences are thus minimal, and vital. Firstly, obviously, is the portrayal of Norman Bates. Hitchcock found the ultimate mama's boy too unlikable on the page, too lacking in vulnerability. Audiences needed to feel something for Bates besides revulsion, and this would mean making him a less-obvious moonbug of a man. Thus, the casting of young, thin, downright handsome Anthony Perkins.

Reading Psycho allowed me to try a fun little challenge--give the story shades of color beyond the black, white and gray that Hitchcock provided. Seeing the silver gleam of a knife blade, the dark, clotted blood on the all-white shower, no problem. The floral wallpaper turned out especially bothersome in my imagination, and thank you Psycho for introducing me to the color "turkey-red."

Re-envisioning Norman Bates as a pudgy virgin actually presented little problem. I can especially see those pink, wet, bulging cheeks, those close-set eyes. I kinda dig Book Norman, sicko supreme. He coats his throat with firewater and wets his beak with fringe non-fiction.

Hitchcock would love my failure to see anyone but Janet Leigh as Marion. He realized instinctively that his tasteless little horror film would work smarter with an added emphasis on the doomed pretty blonde. So he switched the narrative focus in the beginning from Norman to Marion (we don't even get our first glimpse of him until close to a half-hour in), subtly switching it back to Norman as his descent into homicidal mania accelerates. But the man-boy is no untouchable victim. Sure, Norman provokes a measure of sympathy. Yes, Marion's sins--theft, impatience--deserve judgment. But not so harsh, and not meted out by him.

Sam explaining Norman's illness came across more natural. But Hitch wanted us to hear it from an expert directly. The psychiatrist speaks at length and in depth. The unsophisticated audiences common of the era needed to be explicitly told, and that's fine. But oh God it drags the movie down so much. Yet, the Mama Bates monologue immediately following works better on screen! Try and watch that without chills blasting your back like shotgun pellets!

From page one, Bloch puts us in the morass of the murderous mind, and the dread sensation never relents until the conclusion. Fear is something the film builds up to, in titillating increments, until the dull thud of Lila's heart as she searches the unnaturally immaculate Bates residence is virtually audible.

Writer Joseph Stefano avers that Alfred Hitchcock chose Psycho for adaptation thanks to "the murder in the shower." How differently would history judge Psycho had Hitchcock not changed that scene? Could he have artfully depicted the separation of head from body? Should the contents of Norman's books been made more obvious in the film? Should Lila's reaction have been as strong as it was in the novel?

No. To possibly all of that. Hitchcock intended to engage the audience without alienating them. He wanted moviegoers to exit the theater feeling a bit dirtier than when they entered, to feel like rushing home and drawing a restorative bath--not a shower.

So who does it better?

Both book and movie forced a low, slow breath from me at their respective conclusions. Both author and director enchanted me with their appreciation for the mischief of light and shadow, the elasticity of the human mind and the tricks it plays on the body below.

(What lurks underneath? Memories. The best and the worst of us stems from what we remember, how much we remember, and when we remember.)

Hitchcock went further by a few steps, sexualizing the act of murder, the reality of death itself--arms extended, hands grasping, legs weakening, eyelids drooping, release and collapse. He was possibly the only director of his time who could have taken Robert Bloch's novel and made it better. And that is exactly what he did.

Mary, Marion, meh.

The novel starts with a character reading a book, which is such a writer thing to do.

The reveal of Mrs. Bates' existence status, somehow, hits harder in the book. I could not explain why, precisely. Just does.

Jaws is basically Spielberg's Psycho. Based on an undemanding novel (although be clear, Robert Bloch is a far more skilled author than Peter Benchley), changed an entire population's opinion of something rather innocent, did beaucoup box office, and is studied by cinephiles to this day.

$40,000 in 1959--$320,000 in 2017.

Speaking of money…Bloch's publishing contract neglected to include a bonus or percentage of profits in the event that the movie rights were sold. Of the $9,500 Hitchcock spent to acquire those rights, Bloch only saw $5K.

Casaba melons bleed Bosco!

Coffee and cold cuts? Christ a'mighty.

 Do yourself a favor, and don't read up on Anthony Perkins's own mother issues.

Anybody with a copy--physical, digital--of the 2/11/1963 episode of I've Got a Secret needs to get at me.

Perhaps Hitchcock felt there wasn't room enough for two fat weirdoes on the set.

Because it's the most pointless film ever made. That's why I didn't review it.

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