Movie Reviews: Some Hitchcock Classics
This week was Alfred Hitchcock week at the Cleveland Cinemas chain of theaters. In honor of the Anthony Hopkins-starring Hitchcock, which opens this weekend, they showed four Hitch classics on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I skipped Dial M for Murder on Sunday (it showed at 10am—too early!—plus I just watched it a month ago, streaming on Netflix) and Rear Window on Monday (no way was I driving all the way out to Chagrin Falls on a weeknight), but I made both the Tuesday picture and the Wednesday one: Strangers on a Train, and Psycho, respectively.
I had only seen this movie once, several years ago. That made it particularly enjoyable as my memory of it was so vague that the suspense worked on me. I legitimately didn’t remember how it ended.
The story is a ticklingly clever one: two guys, Guy, a tennis pro, and Bruno, a smooth-talking man of privilege living off his parents, meet on a train. They each have a person in their lives that they believe they would do better without. Bruno suggests that they trade murders, thus eliminating themselves as suspects in the murder closer to them. Guy laughs like, “That’s a good one.” Next thing he knows, Bruno is calling him to say that he did his murder, and now it’s Guy’s turn to do his.
Like Psycho, Strangers on a Train has an undercurrent of sexual deviance. Not just in the comparison between Guy’s slutty wife Miriam (who I think gets a bad rap; she’s kind of awesome) and his prim and super-boring fiancée Ann, but also in the interplay between Guy and Bruno. Subtextual or textual, there is something between these two guys. What’s especially weird is that Farley Granger (Guy), who came out later in his life, plays the straighter of the two, while Robert Walker (Bruno), who in real life was married to Jennifer Jones, is the one who makes every play towards Guy. He ingratiates himself to Guy on the train, lounges seductively next to him, needles Guy about his relationships with Miriam and Anne. Bruno has a perverse relationship with his mother, who treats him like her pet. And after the murder, he begins popping up in Guy’s life, stepping out of dark alleys and appearing at parties and the country club. Guy keeps trying to hustle him out. He has a story with this guy, but he can’t let anybody know about it. He desperately wants to pretend that it doesn’t exist. The combination of flirtatious charm and menace in Walker’s performance really highlights that component of the narrative, especially for a modern audience.
The story is not as perfect as other Hitchcock films; there are weirdnesses. Consider me baffled as to why Guy’s girlfriend’s family counseled him not to cancel any of his matches or appearances in the initial days after his wife’s murder, that it would look suspicious. Hey guys, you know what actually looks suspicious? A guy who competes in a tennis match a day after his wife was murdered. But I guess 1950s-era celebrities didn’t have publicists who could release the “He thanks his fans for their condolences, but wishes to grieve privately at home,” message that inevitably appears now.
Also, I don’t think the movie really creates a compelling enough reason for Guy not to immediately go to the police. Yes, it would be his word against Bruno’s. But doesn’t it seem like the cops would see through Bruno’s lies in like, half an hour? All his weird behavior, all his smug entitlement. This guy is psychotic, but in plain sight, pretty much. Such an amazing performance by Robert Walker, incidentally; and unfortunately, his legacy performance, because he died very soon after this movie came out. (My other favorite performance in the movie is Hitch’s daughter Pat Hitchcock, who plays Anne’s blunt, spirited, and just plain weird sister.)
But if Guy went to the cops right away, it would be a completely different movie, or not a movie at all. There’s a reason people refer to the MacGuffins in Hitchcock’s work—it’s almost always there, and it’s not always on object. Sometimes the plot is driven through characters making specifically choices that are not logical, or which will not work in their favor. It happens, and we accept it, when everything else about the end product is so, so good.
This film I have seen many times, but I could tell by the reactions of the audience who shared it with me at the Cedar Lee that many of them had never seen it, or not seen it for a very long time. They jumped, they gasped, they enjoyed it as the cold-hearted slasher movie it basically is. The first one; maybe the best one. Slasher movie nonetheless. Lots of slashing happening.
And yet it rises out of that genre ghetto. There is so much more to it than the scaring and the killing. A lot of this is due to the complexities of the narrative. Everyone knows that the major trick Hitchcock played on audiences was dispatching of Janet Leigh in the first hour. Nobody in 1960 expected that the lead actress in the movie was going to die halfway through, and so it was shocking. But watching it again the other night, I was struck by how really revolutionary this narrative choice was.
After Marion dies, stabbed in her shower, after that iconic image of the blood and water seeping into the shower drain, the camera pans out back into her room, and specifically to the newspaper folded up on her nightstand. We, the audience, know, because we have seen her do it, that she wrapped up what was left of her ill-gotten $40K in that newspaper. The shot specifically reminds us of it, asks us to keep it in our heads for later. And later, when Norman Bates does his frenzied clean-up of the crime scene, we wonder whether he will find the money and what he’ll do with it. He misses the newspaper until the very last second, when he snatches it up and tosses it into the car trunk with Marion’s body. An hour we spent, watching Marion’s excitement and guilt pour off her (lovely performance by Janet Leigh) as she steals the money, drives endlessly away from her crime, is fidgetously conscious of the envelope, refolding it, stuffing it into this bag and that bag. It’s like Poe’s telltale heart, this money. And then it’s gone. It’s literally thrown away. Same with Marion herself: we watch her express the pain of her long-distance love affair with Sam, we watch her struggle with her decision to steal the money, and struggle again with her decision to go back and make amends. We watch her shower that guilt and anxiety off of her. She is starting over! She will face her demons! AND THEN SHE JUST DIES. That’s so messed up!
The pivot scene is the one where Marion shares a sandwich with Norman. We don’t know it at the time, but this is a narrative torch being passed. We get his backstory, we come to understand the strain of his existence. We feel sympathy for him! Anthony Perkins is so cute and square and vulnerable in this movie. I heard a critic talking about Psycho once, about how surreptitiously the movie pushes us onto Norman’s side after Marion’s murder. He seems so genuinely horrified to find her, and we watch his clean-up efforts for so long that we unconsciously begin to root for him to get it all. “Don’t miss that dribble of blood on the edge of the tub!” we’re all saying. This critic specifically mentioned the moment when, as Norman is watching Marion’s car (with her body in the trunk) sink into a creek, it stops sinking for a handful of seconds, its roof still unsubmerged. The shot cuts back to Norman, who freezes, then glances side-to-side to see if anyone is watching. We actually feel a seizure of panic for Norman at that moment. “He might not get away with it!” Still so messed up. So good.
Let me also spend a moment on what is maybe the most amazing shot in the movie. There’s this motif of birds throughout the movie, most notably stuffed birds mounted on the walls, seeming to lunge outward, which unsettle us while Norman talks to Marion in the motel parlor. We didn’t need The Birds to come out to communicate to us that Hitchcock finds birds predatory and frightening. And having planted that image (of those lunging birds) in our minds earlier, Hitchcock draws this amazing parallel between Bates and the birds in this one shot which happens when Arbogast first comes to the motel to question Norman. Norman has declared that he never saw Marion, even after seeing her picture, but Arbogast wants to see the check-in book, and, having a sample of her handwriting, Arbogast is not fooled by the alias she signed in with. “See here,” he says, and gestures to Norman to look at the name in the book. And Norman, who is on the other side of the check-in desk, practically, cranes his neck in this barely human way to look at the book, while the camera views him from below. He’s chewing neurotically on sunflower seeds (like a bird) and all we have to look at in this shot is his bobbing jaw and his chin jutted outward like a beak. (The scene is on Youtube here! Watch it and marvel at both its aptness and its weirdness.)
Having established, I hope, how much of a masterpiece I think this movie is, let me express one very common critical opinion: the last scene with the psychiatrist sucks. It really does. Not just because we don’t need such an in-depth explanation for Norman’s psychological problems—and I don’t expect 1960s audiences did, either; they could not have possibly been so sheltered and naïve as that—and not just because the explanation goes on forever (literally five minutes at least). What is really weird and off about that scene is that it doesn’t fit with the honest, emotionally rich story we’ve been treated to this whole movie, a story full of characters feeling pain and panic and fear. It suddenly turns everything into a bizarre educational video on the subject of psychosis circa 1960.
Marion’s sister Lila and her boyfriend Sam are both sitting there being subjected to this long explanation. And Lila pushes, “Did he murder her?” and the psychiatrist nitpicks and equivocates: “Yes—and no!” is his answer. Dude, that is her sister. SHE WANTS TO KNOW IF SHE IS DEAD.
And Lila and Sam sit there in silence for most of the rest of the recitation (presumably wrestling with their grief) until Sam, seemingly out of nowhere, asks why Norman was garbed as his mother. There’s some good old-fashioned homo panic in Sam’s question. He asks warily, like he doesn’t even really want to know, like he’s sitting here struggling with that aspect of what he just went through. Really not doing much justice to the fact that he just found out his girlfriend is dead.
Hitchcock, the movie, being as it is the story of Hitchcock the man making Psycho, will maybe touch on this final scene and what Hitch’s thought process was in including it. I hope so. I would love to hear some argument for and against. I can’t wait to see the new movie with Psycho so fresh in mind.