Friday, June 18, 2010

Happy 50th You Psycho

This is the 50th anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock's cornerstone production 'Psycho' so, belatedly, I wanted to take a look at the movie.

The first thing I noticed was the poster. I'll admit I never really paid much attention to it. I was struck by just how risque it is, considering the year was 1960. Janet Leigh is practically nude -- (you can see her brassiere) -- and -- she doesn't seem to be embarrassed at all! This Perkins fella doesn't have his shirt on! And, just what exactly is he doing with his hands?!

It's easy to make fun of, but it was a different time. Hitchcock had battles with censors over images that wouldn't be noticed today: shots of toilets flushing and a flash of Janet Leigh's breast. 

Censors weren't the only ones who had their prudish nature bruised by 'Psycho'. Audiences were aghast. Reportedly, some people were so incensed they tripped over each other in a mad dash for the nearest exit. Some fainted in their seats.

I don't know. I can see the steadfastly puritanical running for the exits, but did people really faint? I wasn't there but that's what they say.

Famously, some women refused to take showers after seeing the movie. Of course, some people refused to swim in the ocean after 'Jaws' cinematic feeding frenzy, so perhaps times weren't that different way back in the 60s.

Looking at some of the stills from 'Psycho' I'm reminded just how good a director Hitchcock was.

He always started with good source material, an excellent script, and a score that enhanced the action, but was equally adroit when it came to camera technique and visuals.

To me, this image is the most iconic from the film. Most like the shower scene better however, while it may be more memorable, the movie is about the instability of Norman Bates' mind, not Marion Crane being stabbed. This shot visually delineates Bates' character.

The house dominates him. He is pensive. His hands do not rest by his sides and might be balled into fists. The shoulders are uneven (his left held higher than the right), and they are both held high, reflecting tension.

He is the only object in full silhouette, further diminishing his identity. He has no features so even the tree in the corner has more importance. He is blacked out -- a stark void against a bright sky.

He fails to express his identity even in the most commonplace things, choosing to stand to the side instead of the middle of the stairs, as if to yield the right-of-way should someone happen to want to pass, even though nobody is there.

This is a tremendous shot. The shower curtain is parallel to the line of tiles on the left. The inclusion of the curtain serves to shrink the frame, focusing attention on Leigh. If the curtain were at an angle it would wreck the squareness of the tiles and of the frame and be a distraction.

Leigh's arm is the darkest part of the image. To me, this has the effect of making her outstretched hand seem closer than it would if the lighting were even. It's almost as if she is reaching through the screen into the darkened theater seeking help from someone, anyone, in the audience.

If Leigh had held her arm higher there would be no shadow and the effect would be lost.

It's a fleeting and subtle psychological element that would only register on an unconscious level, however, Hitchcock was known for storyboarding all aspects of a shoot before production, so it's conceivable he designed lighting and camera placement to achieve this specific result.

The arm also cuts the frame neatly in half at a diagonal. This serves to further restrict the part of the frame Leigh's body occupies and focus attention there.

Lastly, but possibly most important, Leigh's face occupies the lower right part of the frame -- a point of interest as defined by the 'Rule of Thirds' or 'Golden Ratio' in visual compositions and architecture. (Also expressed in the 'Fibonacci Spiral').

This shot is so well designed it works effectively as a still and reflects Hitchcock's attention to detail and sense of aesthetics.

I happened on this funny tidbit in Wikipedia:

Psycho initially received mixed reviews, but outstanding box office returns prompted a re-review which was overwhelmingly positive and led to four Academy Award nominations.

Perhaps the strangest observance of Psycho's 50th birthday comes from the Royal Society of Chemistry:

The 50th anniversary this year of the shooting of Hitchcock's film Psycho will be employed to demonstrate how a one-minute shower will help conserve water and the environment.

The Royal Society of Chemistry is seeking a lookalike of Janet Leigh, who played the part of Norman Bates' shower victim in the celebrated horror movie.

They're serious:

RSC chief executive Dr Richard Pike said today: "Our video will also compare the amount of water that is being used by some people taking notoriously long showers, and will spell out and quantify, through laboratory analysis, the kind of substances that are washed down the plughole by prolonged soaping and repeated application of gels and shampoos.

Hitch would be proud.

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