The Apartment (Directed by Billy Wilder)
The Nominees: The Alamo, Elmer Gantry, Sons and Lovers, The Sundowners
Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
My Nominees: The Apartment (Billy Wilder), Two Women (Vittorio de Sica)
There are only six comedies in the 80-year history of the academy awards that have won an Oscar for Best Picture: It Happened One Night, You Can't Take It With You, Going My Way, The Apartment, Tom Jones and Annie Hall. There are probably others that would qualify but most are diluted by music or heavy melodrama, and these are the six that I count. One of those six was the product of Billy Wilder who had been denied an Oscar the previous year for his comic spectacular Some Like It Hot and was honored with a Best Picture win for his follow-up film, The Apartment, a dark serio-comic look at the romantic adventures of a hapless office middle-man.
There is sadness and charm to The Apartment, the story of a man (Jack Lemmon) who is doomed to spend his entire career standing in line for a promotion. He wants it so badly that he rents out his apartment to upper-level execs so they can have a safe house in which to conduct their extramarital affairs. I can never discredit this film because it is so beautifully made, Jack Lemmon plays a sad-sack to perfection and finds a perfect romance with an elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine), who is the boss' current fling.
Yet as much as I love the film, I wouldn't want to spend an evening watching it over my choice for Best Picture because of all the films released in this decade, no movie has a larger impact than Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Of all of his films, only the respectable but unworthy Rebecca from 1940 was named Best Picture. I have tried to figure out why the academy wanted to pass on Psycho, and I think the reason may be that it wasn't slick, it wasn't one of his more sophisticated efforts. Compared with the work he had been doing, this one seemed more like a B picture.
If you follow the chronology of Hitchcock's work, Psycho seems like a step backwards. It comes right after North by Northwest and Vertigo, two more sophisticated, big-budget efforts that were shot in color. He doesn't start with an idea and lead the audience through with his usual hero, rather he breaks the pattern by leading us down one path and then taking a sharp left turn into another. For this film, he went back to black and white. Long sections of the film pass with no dialogue. The movie is more violent than most of Hitchcock's other works and the subject matter is closer to Gothic horror than suspense.
For those reasons, if you ask anyone to name a Hitchcock film, this is the one they are likely to remember. I think this movie works on a buried personal level. I think it taps certain levels of fear that we all have: the fear of how easy it is to become a criminal, the fear how easy it would be to become prey to a psychotic, the fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the fear of being dogged by a curious policeman. Watching the film, we also find how easy it is to become a voyeur. We know that “mother” has committed unspeakable crimes and that Norman has covered them up but we find ourselves concerned for him as the outside world gets closer and closer to his misdeed. It is not that we could murder someone, but we identify with how easy it is to get caught. He plays with us by showing a brutal murder and then immediately spending the next 15 minutes with Norman cleaning up the bloody mess. He does exactly what we would do and, in the end, our eyes search the room trying to see if he forgot anything. Then the payoff: He puts the body in the trunk and pushes it into the lake but halfway the car stops sinking and we fear that he will be caught.
Hitchcock’s brilliance here is that he plays with our expectations. The heroine, Marion Crane, is stuck in a dead-end job and steals $40,000 from her boss’ client and leaves town to help out her debt-ridden boyfriend. Then, getting off the road in a storm, she meets Norman Bates, an odd little fellow with a twitchy manner and a kid’s smile. Talking to him she realizes that they aren’t that different. He tells her that he is stuck in a trap, having to take care of his invalid mother who berates him fiercely. He tells Marion his story while having dinner in his parlor decorated with his stuffed birds that loom over the proceedings as if ready to swoop down (and it is odd that the whims of fate have found a fugitive named Marion Crane in the same room with a man whose hobby is stuffing birds).
Our expectation is that Norman and Marion will help each other escape their private traps (perhaps a rehash of Strangers on a Train). When Marion is killed in the shower, it throws off the pattern and the rest of the film is anybody’s guess. There are more surprises to come and they keep coming as the outside world swoops around Norman’s private island like a bird threatening to pull the lid off his secret.
Hitchcock plays with our expectations in another way too. All of the characters are guilty of one sin or another (a few of them pay the price). There is no hero: Not Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, she is a thief who is sleeping with a married man; Not Arbogast (Martin Balsam); the nosy police detective; not Lila and Sam who go looking for Marion under the guise of a married couple; Certainly not Norman. The characters in Psycho are guilty of one thing or another, do things they shouldn’t do and go places that they shouldn’t go.
One of the biggest changes from Hitchcock's other films is that he didn’t work with his regular film crew and instead chose to work with the crew from his television show. George Tomisini’s brilliant editing suggests more than it shows. Look at his work in the shower scene in which we never see the knife pierce flesh and he cuts so much and so often that we almost miss the fact that "mother" is out the door. There are moments of suggestion that leaves the audience to think for itself - did anyone notice that the killer managed to get into Marion's hotel room through the window that Norman earlier left open?
I also love John Russell’s use of black and white photography which suggests the terror lurking just under the surface. Look at the birds in Norman’s parlor with the shadows behind them they look poised to strike. There are shots and camera angles that are set up to conceal crucial details. Example: There is a brilliant unbroken shot during the scene in which Norman moves mother to the fruit cellar as the camera slowly moves up the stairs then up the high ceiling and twists 180 degrees. in an effort to hide mother's face as Norman carries her down the stairs.
Bernard Hermann’s legendary score gives us the chilling knife-edged screech rather than just a bombastic orchestral overkill. The music gives us one of the biggest red herrings in the entire film - the music over the opening credits would lead us to believe that we're in for a fun mystery by giving us a suspense-type music that subconsciously reminds us of the opening theme from North by Northwest. It leads the viewer to think that this will be reminiscent of that earlier film, but take note that none of the music after Marion’s death sounds anything like it.
Then there's the set decoration by George Milo (who later worked with Hitchcock on The Birds) which creates the Bates house as a large, Gothic manor, hulking on the outside but cramped on the inside. We see mother's garish bedroom with this over-sized bed, enormous wardrobe and multi-angled mirrors. Compare that with Norman's room which is tiny, cramped like a servant's quarters or the lodging of a gnome. It is a child's room with a corner bed and a record player (A bit of trivia: the record on his record player is Beethoven's 3rd Symphony "Eroica" which the composer famously dedicated to Napoleon, another man trapped on a private island). The house is small, tight without much visible comfort. And then, of course . . . there's the fruit cellar.
The script by Joseph Stephano contains wonderful little touches, suggestions and forecasts that we miss the first time around. I love the scene that immediately follows the clean-up of Marion’s murder in which a woman stands in a store asking if insect poison is painless. I like the touches in Norman’s dialogue as he talks about taxidermy “I hate the look of beasts when they’ve been stuffed” then we see what it has done to his mother.
Hitchcock orchestrates every facet of Psycho like music, he pulls the strings, hides clues in plain sights, slips in red herrings and uses his canvas to present a story that keeps us guessing. This is truely the work of a master in control of his work.
The only real flaw in Psycho comes near the end, after Norman has been arrested. A psychiatrist wanders around a room full of onlookers and goes into a tiresome analysis of Norman’s psychosis. It is unnecessary. He goes on to explain what the viewer has already figured out. Get on with it, already.
Despite that flaw, Psycho remains a superior work that would fix for the rest of the century the way horror movies were made. Before Psycho, most horror movies were simply a meeting of one literary creature with another (Frankenstein Meets Dracula or Godzilla and Kong flattening their respective terrains). Psycho changed all that, bringing the genre a little closer to ground-level, working with inner terrors (it was made at the height of Cold War paranoia).
For better and for worse it established the genre of slasher movies and ushered in the subversive terrors found in The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby and The Silence of the Lambs. But none have the impact or touch the central core that Hitchcock’s movie has, none have found a way to tap into our fears of murder, crime, private traps or the terror of what lurks just beyond the shower curtain.