Talking Pictures

Just another weblog


Posted by keith1942 on June 24, 2009

The opening scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho

This sequence features Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, and John Gavin as Sam Loomis. It runs for just over five minutes, from the end of the credits to Marion’s exit from the hotel room.

As 1999 is the year of Hitchcock’s centenary this film is an appro­priate choice. I would argue that it is the best film he directed: better than Vertigo, with its romantic pessimism; and better than The Birds with its apocalyptic nightmare. Psycho embraces the qualities that make Hitchcock films memorable; refracts its soci­ety and times in an especially rich manner; and has established itself as one of the major icons of the late C20th. (Hence the shot for shot remake).

As a teacher I like opening sequences, the students can study them without pre-empting the movie – it may even catch their attention. This one is preceded by Saul Bass’s brilliant titles and Bernard Herrmann’s disturbing overture. The sequence reads like a compendium of Hollywood conventions; the different shots, camera movements, edits and narrative set-ups. But it also opens this film in a richly promising and inviting manner. The sexual

and economic transgressions are there, as is the voyeurism, and the heavy hand of matri­archy and patriarchy. We have absent father’s leaving a burden for the son, and morally disapproving mothers repressing their daughters. The actual relationship between the couple engaged in illicit sexual­ity will shortly be counter-posed by the scene in the estate office where a rich and powerful father boasts of conspicuous con­sumption around his daughter’s licensed sexuality. In this opening scene Marion remarks she has stolen a lunch-hour; she will shortly be goaded to steal $40,000.

The film’s play with taboos and transgressions was powerfully disconcerting in 1960, when bludgeoned by Hitchcock’s marketing tactics; we watched our screen identities topple one by one. Hitchcock’s personal input into the film is rather conservative socially, as usual. Marion Crane is punished for her breach of sexual and economic taboos: but she is also punished as a pow­erful woman who acts, rather than just being acted upon. Her furtive lovemaking in this opening scene sets her on the path to her gruesome fate. But the film goes beyond that. A friend (Michael Walker) remarked on Hitchcock that his greatness was in part due to his openness to all sorts of currents and feelings. This openness relates to the col­lective nature of filmmaking: the many and complex layers flow in part from the imput of talented collaborators.

The social relations hinted at in this opening sequence include, not only straight sexuality, but those of family and class, hemmed in by the economic, the law, and, of course, the “American dream”. Our journey, begun in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday December 11th at 2.43 p.m., takes in a series of murders that involve retribution on the family and major social taboos, possibly including incest and necrophilia. In a sense it does not matter that much if Hitchcock is the great artist, or a funnel for varied voices. As an auteur his films have undoubted style and thematic power. As a producer he selects undoubted talent to contribute to different facets of the film. As a popular artist he reflects and comments on major social cur­rents and feelings.

In the years that followed this film a rebellion against the laws of the fami­ly, the father, the economic system, and the values of “traditional Americanism” swept over the USA. I judge the 1960s as the most significant decade of the second half of this C20th. And Psycho is the perfect harbinger, with its eruptions from the seemingly placid surface of the 1950s. The US screen of that decade produced all the repressions that launched Marion’s [and the viewers’] voyage into a very different world.

The longevity of Psycho testifies to how relevant Norman Bates seems to the imaginings of subsequent decades. The opening shot of this first sequence tracks in on a secret; the film ends as we fade from Norman/mother to another secret dragged out of the mire. The discovery of the last [?] body would seem to offer some closure. The continuation of sequels, prequels and remakes indicate that our sense of closure is misplaced.


Production details: Universal Pictures, 1960. Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from a novel by Robert Bloch. Titles designed by Saul Bass; [he also worked on the shower scene]. Cinematography by John L. Russell. Editing by George Tomasini. Music by Bernard Herrmann. Sound by Walden 0. Watson and William Russell. Production designed by Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy and George Milo.

Originally written for Hall Place Studios’ Hi-Lo Newsletter for a series on ‘favourite scenes from films’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: