Monday, January 11, 2016

Psycho! *violins screech*

One of the best things to do right before staying in a hotel on a business trip is to read Robert Bloch's Psycho.


What I wrote above depends on what you consider to be fun.  Like obsessively checking the shower.

However, I'll also say that it freaks the heck out of your seatmate, thus sparing you the inane chatter that some people deem necessary during flights, and it's a wonderfully entertaining book.

Unlike most other books made into movies, I'd actually recommend seeing Hitchcock's Psycho first.  Yes, you'll already know the twist, but it's extremely fun to figure out how Bloch does his reveal versus Hitchcock.  And while the novel is a great, slim horror story, reading it highlights the brilliance of Hitchcock's directorial acumen.  Hitchcock took a good, but at times pulpy story, and turned it into a masterpiece.

In Bloch's novel, Mary Crane impulsively steals forty thousand dollars from her employer, by driving off with it instead of depositing it at the bank as she was instructed to do.  She heads north to meet her fianc√©, Sam Loomis, who inherited a heapload of debt from his father's hardware store and has been delaying their marriage until after all the mortgages have been paid off.  He's sweet, but Mary starts wondering if they should still be together.  After all, they met on a cruise, and haven't seen each other since getting engaged.  And how is she going to explain the money to Sam?  A dead relative?  Winning the lottery?  What seemed to be such a simple crime starts to spiral out of control

But Mary is tired, and she knows she made a wrong turn a while back.  Why not find somewhere to stay for the night.  Coming up on the side of the highway is a motel--the Bates Motel, although the sign isn't on.  Why isn't it on?

We spend a lot of time in Norman's head in the book, which is completely fascinating and makes a great counterpoint to the film, where, often, the only indication we have of Norman Bates' emotions is that twitch in Anthony Perkins' jaw.  He's afraid of Mother, but loves her fiercely.  He loathes her control and yet craves her praise.  One major difference in the novel is that Norman Bates is fat.  This completely works in the novel, but may have worked against the success of the movie.  This is not an anti-fat argument, I assure you.  In fact, it just goes to show how deadly the deceit of our eyes can be.

Think about it.  In the book, Norman's body is a source of repulsion to him and to Mother.  She sees him as a lazy, no-good, unmotivated lump of flesh who never did anything for himself.  Although being physically large, Norman is mentally weak in the face of his mother's wrath.  He is a deviation from the norm (ha! pun!) and therefore a source of disappointment to Mother.  He'll never be good enough.  Yet, to visitors to the hotel, his shape makes him non-threatening.  It's not as if he's some sort of buff gangster type, with a busted lip and a cauliflower ear.  He seems shy and sweet.  Wouldn't hurt a fly.

When Mary is eating sandwiches with him up at the house, she pities him and realizes, with wonder, that he is afraid to touch her or be close to her in any way because she's a woman!  She recognizes that he's under his mother's thumb and tries to coax him out.  She's fallen victim to one of our cultural stereotypes: the gentle, sweet fat person.  The fat, funny sidekick.  Although humans would like to be able to sort by phenotype and drop everyone into boxes by a physical trait, we are undeniably complex creatures, and our souls have nothing to do with our looks.  To Mary, Norman is no threat because she sees him as weak and timid.  There's no attraction, just pity.

In the film, Norman Bates is considerably more conventionally attractive.  In fact, I'd say that he was one of the first film characters I recognized as being insanely handsome.  Yep.  I had a crush on Anthony Perkins, which is a bit of a riot!  I really think he should have won an Oscar for his performance as the skittish, jumpy, finely-chiseled Norman Bates.  A handsome man in the middle of nowhere, tending to an invalid mother and wearing some really godawful sweaters.  As this slender, tall, almost delicate version of Norman, he also seems non-threatening in a bookish, introverted sort of way.  And Perkins' looks are used to deliberately manipulate the audience.  We realize that there is menace here, but look at him!  Such a good-looking man!  Hitchcock plays us by making us start to feel sorry for pretty Norman Bates, having to clean up after Mother.

In any case, I'm no film scholar, but I can pick out where the story has been substantially enhanced by Hitchcock's direction, lighting, and camera angles.  For example, the famous shot of Arbogast falling down the stairs induces this sense of vertigo in the viewer.  Bloch doesn't even detail what happens to Arbogast: we see the action mainly from Norman, Sam, and Lila Crane's points of view.

Finally, there's the ending, which in the novel is a bit hokey and overdone, particularly with the emphasis being on the clothes straining to fit and the over-application of makeup.  I've always found Dr. Richmond's explanation of Bates' diagnosis and motives for the crimes to be particularly compelling in the film version.  In the book--eh, not so much.  Again, what a difference an actor makes.

Ultimately, this is well worth your time.  It won't take you long to read, but you'll be running over comparisons between the film and the novel for a long time to come, and realizing that even though he was not a nice person, Alfred Hitchcock could make films that would just blow your mind.

2 comments:

  1. Did you see the movie about Hitchcock making Psycho? Very interesting and Anthony Hopkins made an excellent Hitchcock. Oddly, I have never seen the film or read the novel, though I have read some of Bloch's short stories. He was in Australia for a science fiction convention many years ago and I got to meet him. A very nice man, very funny and good to talk to, since he just sat around between panels and chatted with his fans. One time, he turned to the most silent member of the group as he was heading off and said, "You talk too much!" He wrote a couple of episodes of the original Star Trek, did you know?

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  2. He sounds delightful! It seems that horror writers are generally very funny and personable, which isn't what you'd think.

    I've not seen Hitchcock. I think Anthony Hopkins can play anyone very well :) If you do decide to see the movie, I would definitely do it before reading the book. It's really extraordinary how closely Hitchcock follows the novel but also makes it entirely HIS.

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