Mother! Oh God! Mother!

Jenny Diski

  • Buy‘Psycho’ in the Shower: The History of Cinema’s Most Famous Scene by Philip Skerry
    Continuum, 316 pp, £12.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 8264 2769 4

‘This is where we came in’ is one of those idioms, like ‘dialling’ a phone number, which has long since become unhooked from its original practice, but lives on in speech habits like a ghost that has forgotten the why of its haunting duties. The phrase is used now to indicate a tiresome, repetitive argument, a rant, a bore. But throughout my childhood in the 1950s and into the 1970s, it retained its full meaning: it was time to leave the cinema – although, exceptionally, you might decide to stay and see the movie all over again – because you’d seen the whole programme through. It seems very extraordinary now, and I don’t know how anyone of my generation or older ever came to respect cinema as an art form, but back then almost everyone wandered into the movies whenever they happened to get there, or had finished their supper or lunch, and then left when they recognised the scene at which they’d arrived. Often, one person was more attentive than the other, and a nudge was involved: ‘This is where we came in.’ People popped up and down in their seats and shuffled along the rows, coming and going all though the B-movie, the advertisements, the newsreel and the main feature. No one dreamed of starting a novel on page 72, or dropping into the Old Vic mid-Hamlet (though perhaps music hall worked the same way; was that the origin of the movie habit?), and not even the smallest child would let anyone get away with starting their bedtime story halfway through, but the flicks were looped, both on the projector and in our minds. You went in, saw the end, and after you’d watched the beginning and a bit of the middle you figured out how and why it had happened that way. In the introduction to Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson claims that postmodernism proper dates from the later 1960s, but let me tell you that the dismantling of narrative was rampant in cinemas up and down the country for decades before that. Maybe, after all, it was an interesting way of learning about story structure, but even so, how odd that no one thought it a strange way to proceed.

I don’t think cinemas universally stopped continuous showings and went over to discrete programme times until the mid or even late 1970s, but the first time it happened in America and the UK was at the first screenings of Psycho in 1960. It wasn’t an entirely original idea: when Les Diaboliques went on show in France five years before, its director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, insisted on separate showings. Not unlike Les Diaboliques (which was quite as disturbing) in several ways, Psycho was a black and white, low-budget horror movie which for cheapness – in both senses – was filmed by a television crew, while being directed by the A-listed Alfred Hitchcock, by then responsible for huge and glossy Hollywood hits like Rebecca, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. He was at the end of his contract with Universal, who were either not taken with the subject or disappointed by Hitchcock’s projected style for the film, so he produced it with his own company, Shamley, and filmed it at the Universal lot. In lieu of a big budget and Hollywood marketing campaign, Hitchcock, a showman and entrepreneur as much as a directorial genius, came up with the brilliant PR wheeze (or remembered Clouzot’s) of refusing paying customers entrance to Psycho once the movie had started. For the first time people had to queue for tickets and wait in line until the previous showing had finished, which had the added advantage that they watched the previous audience come out, shivering and giggling. It was novel enough for the press to film the queues. To the resistant cinema-managers, Hitchcock said that this revolution in movie habits was necessary because having seen Janet Leigh’s starry name on the awning, people who arrived halfway through the movie would spend the rest of the film wondering where she was. I remember it clearly, although I wasn’t old enough to get in to see the X-rated Psycho when it came out. In the foyer of the nearby cinema, a slightly smaller than life cardboard Hitchcock (famous now for his personal introductions of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on the television: ‘Good Evening’) held a notice explaining that no one, but no one, was to be let in after the film started, ‘not even the president of the United States … not even the queen of England, God bless her’. If nothing else, Psycho was directly implicated in a completely new way to go to the cinema. It invented the concept of being late.

If you put the words ‘psycho AND hitchcock’ into the book search at, 1701 titles come up. Though it’s only a mere wall of shelving compared to the 49,144 titles you get for just ‘hitchcock’, it’s still quite a lot. You get 9908 hits if you put in The Golden Bowl, but most of them are different editions of the same book. So if you’re an academic wanting to write a book about Psycho, you really need an angle. Philip Skerry has come up with 60 angles: the 49 shots that make up the ‘shower scene’ proper, from Marion’s feet stepping into the bathtub to the moment when Norman is heard shouting ‘Mother! Oh God! Mother! Blood! Blood!’ back at the house, which Skerry extends to 60 shots by starting the scene from the moment the hapless Marion sits in Cabin 1 figuring what she owes, having determined to redeem herself by returning to Phoenix to give back the stolen money. That extended shower scene alone is the stated subject of the book. Of course, if the book were actually limited to the shower scene, however long it is (Skerry berates Raymond Durgnat, Hitchcock and Leigh for claiming it to be 70 or 78 shots long), it would be nonsensically lacking in context and a very short book. There is considerable padding. As it is, Skerry’s claim that ‘in one bold and brilliant stroke, Hitchcock had presented a scene so revolutionary in its subject and style that it for ever changed the way films were created and viewed’ is dubious, but not so much as his justification for the focus on that particular scene, based on a reading of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and another book about a single moment in a basketball game in 1977, The Punch: One Night, Two Lives and the Fight That Changed Basketball for Ever: ‘When I read those books, I realised that the “cinematic moment” of the shower scene of Psycho was both “watershed” and “dramatic”. It helped to tip cinema, culture and society in a decidedly violent and sexual direction in the last half of the 20th century.’ As, he might have added, had the rather longer historical moment of the Second World War, or the moment when the contraceptive pill became available. Or, when it comes to film, as did East of Eden (1955), Rebel without a Cause (1955), Night of the Hunter (also 1955, a busy year for Oedipal movies), or come to that the claustrophobic sexual repression of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) or Splendour in the Grass (1961). Or the Nouvelle Vague, and everything else in the middle of the 20th century that changed or evolved film. Still, people like a narrow focus, a book has to have an angle, and Skerry had been teaching a Hitchcock course for 15 years.

In his interview with Janet Leigh, Skerry tells her that Psycho is ‘the most written about film of all time’. She replies: ‘What I’m interested in is how your publisher would think that you’re going to find out something new about the shower scene.’ Although she had written a novel herself in 2002 (‘From the venerable star of Hitchcock’s Psycho comes a saccharine, painfully overwritten roman à clef spanning Hollywood’s golden heyday from the late 1930s to the early 1970s. Although it is designed to have film buffs guessing who’s who among the cast of studio bigwigs and film actors, this wooden kiss-and-tell disappoints,’ Publishers Weekly said), Ms Leigh underestimated the desire of people to write books. Skerry is alarmed by her reaction:

I was astonished and amused and a bit defensive because I was sure that she had lumped me within the critical industry that she didn’t understand. I realised that she was in a way right about my book. I vowed to myself that my book would be different – less jargony and abstruse. It would be about the shower scene, of course, but it would also be about me.

In principle, it’s a way to go. A long description of his first viewing with his best friend from school; after his interview with her, being overlooked but then remembered by Leigh while he was lunching at the Polo Lounge with the screenwriter Joseph Stefano; his regret at Leigh’s dying before she could read his book, all help to make up the pages, but Skerry isn’t really one to let go of jargon.

In the preface he explains how to read his book, not as most books are doomed to be read, from beginning to end, but differently and ‘in keeping with the multiplicity of voices that make up the text’. It gets quite scary: ‘The temporal structure of these chapters goes from the present-tense narrative of my research trip in Chapter 1 to the achronological, “cubist” structure of Chapter 3, which ranges in time from 1920 to 2002, with separate time lines for Hitchcock’s career as a director and for my own as a film viewer and film teacher and scholar.’ There are intervening interview chapters – ‘2, 4, 6, 8, 10’ – with Leigh, Stefano, Hilton Green and others, and these, we are told, we can ‘read either separately or as a group’. And it’s all very well and good, talking to the creators of the movie, but, he goes on, ‘the audience creates a film as much as the filmmakers. This idea of meaning created by the audience is a keystone of postmodernism. Chapter 13 features the voices of audience members who saw Psycho for the first time.’ While for the ‘critical and scholarly approach to the shower scene, I suggest reading Chapters 5, 7, 9 and 11. This last, my keystone chapter, is a close reading of the shower scene.’ He also advises those reading the latter chapters to do so with a monitor, a DVD player and a stack of the films he discusses.

Cubism, postmodernism, other voices and the Keystone Kops: so many good things in one volume. And, books being so cumbersome and difficult, shouldn’t we welcome the something for everyone approach that Skerry offers, with advance indications of who will like what? Ms Leigh, being, as Skerry said, unable to understand the critical industry, would certainly have benefitted, had she lived, from being told which were the scholarly and critical chapters she’d best skip. He explains, finally: ‘In her incisive analysis of Psycho, Linda Williams argues that the film should be considered “quintessentially postmodern”. In the same way, I should like to argue that my book about Psycho is also “quintessentially postmodern” [sic].’ I suppose that the scattered structure is the postmodernism he claims for his book, but if so that would make the pre-Psycho cinemagoer postmodern also, way back before it was even a twinkle in Fredric Jameson’s eye. I can’t see why, with equal consideration for his variegated readers, he couldn’t have put the interviews in one section, the movie buff chapters in another section, and the viewing reactions of ‘ordinary film fans to extraordinarily creative people’ in Part, say, Three. Or here’s another idea: why not just have a contents list (ah, there is one) and let his readers read the book they have bought or borrowed however they fancy? I think the answer must be those 1700-odd titles already published on the subject of Psycho.

I think Janet Leigh is right. There is very little new, after all those books, that Skerry finds to say about the shower scene. He offers a literal shot by shot description of it, along with some more general familiar references to patterns of doubling and mirrors in this and other Hitchcock movies. And he puts his foot down firmly here and there about some pretty trainspotting points. No, Hitchcock did not mistreat Leigh by insisting on cold water for the shower (though she and the others had already explained this and other things in a very full and rather good documentary directed by Laurent Bouzereau, available on the Universal Legacy DVD). No, they didn’t use melons for the knife-slashing sounds, but beef, which the sound man took home and roasted after the shoot. There was, Skerry insists several times, a hazy shot of Leigh’s or a body double’s nipple behind the shower curtain, and of the knife tip entering flesh, which both Leigh and Hitchcock denied. And Saul Bass merely storyboarded all the possible angles for the shower montage, at the request of Hitchcock; he did not, as he claimed, direct it. If you really care, you care, and all this might help you in a pub quiz – although people are so inclined to hang on to myths that you probably wouldn’t score with the correct answers.

Actually, the best anecdote is left out of the book. Hilton Green, Psycho’s assistant director, is interviewed by Skerry but explains in the documentary that he was charged with setting up the long scene where Marion arrives at the Bates Motel at night in a torrential downpour, and Norman comes down from the house to greet her. He was eager, this being his first job as assistant director on a real movie with the maestro, to arrange everything perfectly. He says he’d ‘rehearsed the rain’ and set the lights and walked the cameraman through the moves, and everything was just right when Hitchcock arrived to shoot the scene. They began but Hitchcock immediately called a halt. ‘Hilton,’ he said, ‘you haven’t done your job very well.’ Green was mortified; what could he have done wrong? Hitchcock pointed to the cloudless sky and the huge, full moon that was beaming down over the house on the hill. Green hadn’t checked which phase the moon would be in that night. The shoot took hours, and two key grips holding up a black cloth on poles followed the moon round all night, keeping it out of view.

Raymond Durgnat’s final book, A Long Hard Look at ‘Psycho’, published in 2002, is called ‘quirky’ by Skerry, but is far freer, funnier and more intriguing (for all his irascibility on the subject of ‘Brand X feminists’ and ‘Marxist film critics’) than Skerry’s ‘postmodern’ retreading of Psycho criticism. I can see why, however, someone would want to write yet another book about the movie, just as I want to write yet another article about it. It is, to me, as well as to Skerry, Durgnat and many others, everlastingly interesting, and even with all the books and the documentary, it’s not entirely clear why. I keep wanting to see it again, and when I do, I’m never bored and never fail to find it funny, clever and engaging. Of course, this only applies to the first half of the film. Once Norman Bates has cleaned up the bathroom mess his mother made and watched the car (with the registration A-N-L, which even the grown-up, psychoanalytically cautious Durgnat is willing to read as ‘anal’) sink into the slime, the film goes down the drain. Vera Miles and John Gavin, pale shadows of Leigh and Perkins, stand around fretfully or rush about enthusiastically like a budget version of the Famous Five, saying and being nothing very interesting; awkward puppets, whose job it is to edge the audience to more anxiety before the horror moment and the psychoanalytic(ish) dénouement. The second half of the film only lives for me (only perks up) when Perkins is on screen, doing nervy battle with Martin Balsam’s Arbogast (the scene had to be slowed down with extra reaction shots during editing to allow the audience to keep up with their lightning ad-libbing, Durgnat tells us), and even the plodding John Gavin has one quite lively scene.

As evidence of his thesis that the shower scene changed the movies for ever, as well as apparently preparing the way for Charles Manson and Ozzy Osborne, Skerry makes much of the nipple, the stabbing knife and the first flushing toilet bowl on screen, all of which Hitchcock managed to get past the Production Code people. Leigh, in Skerry’s interview and in the Bouzereau documentary, regrets the loss of the code. In the book, Skerry, now praising the enforced indirection rather than the revolutionary revelations of the shower scene, says: ‘I think having the code disappear is not such a good thing.’ Leigh agrees: ‘I think it’s terrible … You know society can’t live without rules, or you’re having riots; you’re having anarchy.’

The Production Code stated:

Motion Pictures are very important as Art … Here, as in entertainment: Art enters intimately into the lives of human beings. Art can be morally good, lifting men to higher levels … Art can be morally evil in its effects. This is the case clearly enough with unclean art, indecent books, suggestive drama. The effect on the lives of men and women is obvious.

In his more playful mode, Hitchcock might have been amused at getting a nipple past the censor, and a slightly grubby loo seat on screen, but he gets something much more unclean, indecent and suggestive through to me whenever I watch Psycho. Hitchcock’s revolutionary idea of losing his star halfway through the narrative is only part of the impact of the film. We lose the story, too. The whole first half of the movie is a MacGuffin: the love interest, the theft, the mirror-eyed cop, the lost $40,000. Most lost of all is the ambivalence the audience has been carefully made to feel between Marion’s bright female boldness and payback for her stuckness in a masculine world, and her decision to return and deal with her life differently. We have a considerable involvement and investment in the story of Leigh’s emotionally rich Marion, in her white and then black undies, looking for a bourgeois happily-ever-after, looking at moments quite demonically enthusiastic about having screwed the Man, and then rejecting, or growing out of, both the happily-ever-after and the rebellion. It is all snatched away from us as the camera pulls back from the drop of water in the corner of her dead eye, to give us time to consider and adjust, not really to the screeching terror of the shower murder, but to Hitchcock’s determination that we confront the shocking and trivial end of everything. If Marion can die right there in the middle of her story, in the middle of our story, well that’s really no different (if, we can hope, somewhat more violent) from what happens to any of us. To you, and, as I am made distressingly aware, to me. Turns out nothing is all that important.

It’s not surprising if the rest of the film creaks like just any other B-movie after that, and only Perkins’s gangly wit keeps me in my seat. Perhaps it’s even a punishment Hitchcock meted out to his audience for their gullibility, their sentimentality, and the ease with which he can manipulate them. He wasn’t, I believe, a very forgiving man (Vera Miles’s dull role and unglamorous make-up and clothes were punishment for her having the temerity to go off and have a baby – and certainly not Hitchcock’s baby – while she was still under contract to him). Those predatory stuffed birds in the back room of the motel remind me as much of Alfred Hitchcock, the director whose first love was the creation of near-unbearable suspense in his victim audience, as they do of Norman Bates’s enraged, vengeful, deceiving mummy.

When Simon Oakland had finished his scene as Dr Richmond, giving the audience the rundown on Norman’s psychosis (‘He was never all Norman but he was often only mother’), Hitchcock apparently said to the actor: ‘Thank you. You have just saved my film.’ Durgnat suggests it was Oakland’s vigorous acting that saved the clunkiness of the psychological explanation from killing the movie stone dead. I’m not sure even the acting saves it. The movie is saved, though, by Hitchcock not allowing that to be the final scene. There are two more final scenes. First there is Norman, Buddha-like, wrapped in a blanket with a wicked look on his face as his mother knowingly refuses to swat the fly on his hand, and then that almost subliminal cross-fade into the mummy’s grin (something of Alice’s disappearing Cheshire Cat) superimposed onto Norman’s face. But the final final scene of Psycho takes us back to the swamp, as heavy dark chains are cranking the sunken car out of the mire, the boot filled with Marion’s dead body and the pointless $40,000. Had we forgotten about her and how we felt when she was killed and her story terminated? As the boot of the car emerges from the slime, the words ‘The End’ come up on screen and then the horizontal stripes from the title sequence of the film reappear. At the beginning, they turned into the Venetian blinds the camera went through to give us our first sight of Marion and Sam, frustrated by social norms and lack of money in their lunchtime hotel room meet-up. Then you remember how at the beginning the date and precise time flashed up on screen: ‘Friday, December the Eleventh. Two Forty-Three p.m.’, and you realise it had no bearing at all on the rest of the movie. Another feint. Another indication of the arbitrary. While you’ve been watching the rest of the film, ducking, screaming and laughing nervously on cue, and forgotten all about Marion and mortality, Hitchcock has been biding his time, waiting by the swamp to remind you that his hysterical and funny slasher movie is really scary.