The films of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as some choice details revealed in recent biographies, are ample proof the director was more than familiar with the dark side of the human psyche, which is why I find it curious that in certain movies he was willing to settle for pat solutions that seem to shed light on every nook and cranny of a character’s personality, as if one’s neuroses could be deconstructed, interpreted, and, once revealed, give the character a sudden, almost magical, new lease on life.
This is not always the case, of course. The conclusions of two of his best films, Vertigo and The Birds, are deeply unsettling because they don’t attempt to explain everything. No explanation is given for why the birds have suddenly begun a free-for-all on humanity. And poor James Stewart, while cured of his acrophobia by the end of Vertigo, finds himself in a worse state than he was before Kim Novak entered his life.
However, in two other films, Spellbound and Marnie, the main characters are miraculously cured of their nightmares and phobias once their fears are deciphered. And at the end of Psycho, the world, in all its terrifying instability, is made right again once the psychiatrist’s nearly five minute explanation ties up all the loose ends.
William Goldman, the screenwriter, once faulted the great director for believing the praise of some high-minded critics who attempted to find a deeper meaning in his films. And Hitchcock, according to Goldman, tried to prove them right by making movies that might fit one’s definition of a serious film.
The MacGuffin to end all MacGuffins
That said, with the exception of its ending, Psycho is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best. It’s got the MacGuffin to end all MacGuffins–a dandy bit of misdirection that manages to sustain our interest for forty-seven minutes until we get to what the story is really about.
Anthony Perkins’ twitchy performance is unsettling and brilliant. When he is in the back room of his office with Janet Leigh, surrounded by those stuffed birds and the painting of a woman about to be raped, he has a monologue that grows to a disquieting pitch. It calls to mind Joseph Cotten’s frightening rant at the dinner table in another Hitchcock classic, Shadow of a Doubt.
A subliminal coda
And leave it to Hitch to end the film on a slyly subliminal note. The penultimate shot is that of Norman Bates staring into the camera before it dissolves to a shot of a car being dragged out of the swamp. Just before Norman’s image disappears, Hitch superimposes the mummified face of Mother over Norman’s face. Keep an eye on the mouth–that skeletal grin is unmistakable.
It’s happening at the cemetery
This Friday, July 25, you can catch Psycho at the Sunnyside Cemetery, on Willow Street. Lola’s Outdoor Retro Cinema and Long Beach Cinematheque have teamed up to present a series of summer screenings at the historic graveyard. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.
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