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Posts Tagged ‘Vera Miles’

A couple of years ago I signed up for an online course on narrative structure and plotting, with the idea of redrafting the results of my most recent dabbling with NaNoWriMo. Well, needless to say it was not a great success; the successful and published author running the thing tore it to pieces, thought all the things which I liked and made it distinctive were horribly ill-conceived, and basically assured me it was No Good. I haven’t written any substantial fiction since, to be honest, because what I came away with was a deep sense that I do not have any affinity for narrative structure.

We discussed this (narrative structure, not my own hopelessness) now-and-then on the course and one of the stories which came up fairly often was the movie version of Psycho, directed (but of course) by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1960. One of the things this film is notorious for is the way in which it cheerfully takes a knife to many of the established tenets of narrative form – it’ll be quite hard to talk about this in detail without spoiling the plot, but surely everyone knows more-or-less what Psycho is about by now, don’t they?

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Janet Leigh (the only performer to appear in three films on the AFI’s Hundred Best Movies list, and also Night of the Lepus) plays Marion Crane, a Phoenix office worker who is unhappy with her lot in life. All her pleasure comes from her illicit liaison with a small-time businessman from California, and they can’t marry due to his sizeable debts. However, when unusual events at work leave her momentarily holding $40,000 of someone else’s money, she thinks she spies an opportunity to make a change in her life, and hits the road with her ill-gotten gains…

It is perhaps indicative of what makes Psycho so unusual that one can summarise the opening twenty or thirty minutes of plot in considerable detail without really giving away what the film is actually about. Certainly, this was one of the things that my structure tutor took grave exception to – a competently-shaped narrative indicates from the very beginning exactly what kind of story it is going to be, thus setting up audience expectations. (A good example of this would be the opening of Predator, which opens with a shot of a spacecraft approaching Earth before launching into what looks like a straightforward jungle action movie.) It occurs to me this is very similar to the concept of musical key – the first note played establishing the parameters of everything that is to follow.

If we’re going to stick with this musical metaphor, then Psycho is an unbalanced, atonal work, because what initially looks like it’s going to be some sort of torrid melodrama suddenly transforms into a vicious horror movie with virtually no warning being given (although the fact that Leigh, the apparent protagonist, has the ‘and’ slot in the credits  could be construed as giving the game away). The transition has the potential to be joltingly odd and alienating for the audience, especially as it accompanies a shift in the focus of the film from one character being central to another, and it’s a mark of Hitchcock’s skill that this is as deftly handled as it is.

And this is not a transition which is derived from Robert Bloch’s original novel, either, which is fascinatingly different from the film in many ways. Most notably, it adheres much more closely to the ‘establishing key’ theory that my tutor was so fond of – Norman Bates and his mother appear in the opening chapters of the book, much earlier than they do in the movie (although this is partly due to the nature of film as a medium: showing us a scene from Norman’s point of view gives Bloch many more options for misdirection than is the case in a more objective movie scene). The novel is also much more upfront about being a horror story, with the viewer being invited to assume at one point that Mother is actually some sort of undead creature conjured up by Norman (more misdirection by the author, though I suppose on some level it’s symbolically true).

Psycho‘s weirdness goes beyond this, of course, partly tying into the darker aspects of the storyline – the two most fully-developed, arguably most sympathetic characters are both morally highly suspect, while the putative ‘good guys’, Sam and Lila, are almost minor characters, scarcely more than two-dimensional figures. The degree to which the film invites you to identify with the dark side is significant: Norman is a voyeur, and so implicitly is Hitchcock’s camera, from the opening where it lazily swoops over downtown Phoenix until finally selecting a window through which to peer.

Hitchcock’s skill is, of course, consummate, but also essential to the success of the undertaking is Bernard Herrmann’s score – not just the manic strings underscoring the title sequence and recurring throughout the early section of the film, but the slower, more ominous cues later on. Is it perfect? Well, certainly not to a modern audience – at the screening I recently attended there was some sniggering at a key revelation during the climax, and a lot of amusement at the rather talky closing scene where Simon Oakland comes on and theatrically explains to the audience just what’s been happening.

However, the success of this film is, of course, considerable – both financially and in terms of its influence. None of the various sequels and remakes are particularly distinguished, to be true, but the film itself is genuinely iconic in terms of both its visuals – the brooding Bates house, for example – and specific sequences – most obviously the plumbing-based interlude. It’s possible that its artistic success may in fact be due to the fact it plays fast and loose with traditional structure, thus alienating and unsettling the audience, and if so then this can only work because Psycho is, at heart, essentially a horror movie, where this is the intended effect. The fact that it’s the great horror movie that no-one really thinks of as a horror movie says more about sniffy attitudes to the genre than Psycho itself.

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