Monday, July 06, 2020
10:00 AM |
The Film Meme No. 72
[72nd of 100].
It sometimes amuses and astounds me to think that Alfred Hitchcock -- who would have a late career surge in epic mysteries tendered in bright colors, such as Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, The Birds
, and Marnie
-- would be best remembered today by the oddball in this lot: a spare, low budget, black-and-white film, the unsavoury themes of which had the master filmmaker forego lavish studio production in favor of a small television crew, just to make sure it got made the way he wanted it. But who am I kidding? Hitchcock was at the peak of his powers in 1954–1964, and he knew how to make it work, paring away the non-essentials of the Robert Bloch novel the film is based on, doing extensive storyboarding, highlighting a minor character, and for one of the film's narrative twists, playing the most audacious switcheroo in terms of point-of-view. In the process, with his camera roping us in, he makes us confront the themes of guilt and culpability, and not just as things removed from us to be safely observed on the screen, but as things we, the audience, find ourselves actively participating in. Consider, for example, Norman Bates' clean-up after the famous shower scene. Before this, we have been with Marion Crane since the very beginning, and we are privy to her indiscretions, her boredom, her sudden decision to steal her employer's money and skip out of town -- money which she has carefully wrapped in newspaper sheets. Haunted by her act and bothered by the rain, she pulls her car into the Bates Motel, and gets a room. She gets invited to a small dinner by the charming, if shy, proprietor manning the front desk, and the conversation they have is both genial and personal, but ends in a bit of sour note. She retires to her room, dresses down to take a shower -- a sort of redemption act because she has decided to go back, face the music, and come clean. Before she steps into that fatal shower, the camera lingers on how she has placed that newspaper-wrapped bundle on the bedside table in her motel room, disguising itself as a perfectly ordinary thing in plain view, a perfect hiding place. And then she's dead, knifed by a shadowy womanly figure -- does this still require spoiler warnings given the scene's iconic status? The camera lingers forever on her dead body, and as we hear the shower water drain in the bath tub, the camera pulls back, leaves the bathroom, carrying us along with it, and then reenters her bedroom, finally resting on a close-up of the money bundled in that newspaper. Hitchcock plays a wicked game here. We are horrified by the murder, but now we are thinking: what will happen to the cash? The body is not yet cold, but how quickly we have shifted our concerns, our greed getting the better of us -- and we are really no worse than Marion Crane given the chance to steal $40,000 and succumbing to the temptation. But that's not the end of our disturbing shifting concerns. The movie continues to play with us, to manipulate us -- and now we're somehow on Norman Bates' side. As people investigate circles around him, we root for him to get away from being implicated in the disappearance [and the murder]. It all comes to fore when Norman cleans up the room, and has placed Marion's body in the trunk of her car together with all of her things -- including the money all bundled up in that newspaper, which Norman does not quite know exist except as trash that needs disposal. He drives up the car to a swamp, and then attempts to sink it. It slowly does, but at a crucial point, the sinking pauses, the car's rear end still sticking out -- and then we see worry flicker on Norman's face: it says, "Oh no, the evidence is still plain enough to be discovered!" We in the audience, having thoroughly shifted allegiance to Norman, think that as well. And then it sinks completely, and Norman sighs in relief, and so do we. But we are far more worse, because we are also thinking, "Oh no, what a waste of $40,000!" That moral ambiguity this 1960 film arouses in us makes it a great film, and a vastly disturbing one, because it indicts us more than it heaps judgement on its characters. It has not lost any of its raw powers even after sixty years -- the young, contemporary audiences I see it sometimes with still reel from its shock, its twists, its gripping staging, its moral manipulations. It is pure horror movie, not content with just parading a monster, but also holding up a mirror and telling us we can be monsters ourselves. What's the film?
For the introduction to this meme, read here
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
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