Sunday, 14 March 2010

Psycho: love in the afternoon

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) have had sex; Leigh is lying on the bed in her white bra, Gavin stands shirtless over her. (Other critics than me have noted that after Marion decides to steal the money that sets the Psycho nightmare in motion, her underwear is black.) The scene could be a painting by Edward Hopper (the Bates Motel, when we see it framed against a dark sky later, is said to have been inspired by Hopper's House by the Railroad).

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is about to be rereleased (on 2 April) for its 50th anniversary. Everyone rightly concentrates on the famous shower scene (death by 70 edits), but Psycho also opens with one of my favourite first scenes in cinema.

Saul Bass's title sequence is a relatively simple affair of lines traversing the screen. Together with Bernard Herrmann's driving score (sampled by Busta Rhymes for Gimme Some More), the credits signal movement, action - an intensive advertising campaign had already promised terror. We open on a city skyline and a sequence of increasingly precise titles that would, in different circumstances, be funny but this, we know, is no laughing matter: 'Phoenix, Arizona… Friday, December the Eleventh… Two forty-three pm.' The time here is important (the date was apparently only added when someone spotted Christmas decorations in the background of some of the street shots of Phoenix).

Pan to an apartment block, followed by a dissolve to one particular window, its blind almost completely lowered. Cut to what is clearly a set and the camera moves through the gap between the bottom of the blind and sill into a room.

'You never did eat your lunch, did you?' Sam says. 'I better get to the office,' Marion replies. 'These extended lunch-hours give my boss excess acid.' The following four minutes are a demonstration of concise set-up; we learn as much from the tender tone in which the dialogue is delivered as from what is said. Sam visits Marion by plane for these liaisons; he lives behind a hardware store paying off his father's debts and alimony for an ex-wife. Marion wants to settle down with him; he wants to sort out his financial footing. 'Tell you what, when I send my ex-wife her alimony, you can lick the stamps,' Sam says. 'I'll lick the stamps,' Marion promises.

They have to vacate the room by 3pm - it's that kind of hotel - and Marion returns to her office without Sam. Standing outside is Hitch himself - in a cowboy hat; soon she makes the impulsive decision to steal $40,000 from work.

When I was a teenager I thought this scene was pretty sexy; Janet Leigh immediately displays a certain poise as Marion. It's also sad - Herrmann's romantic theme is post-coitally melancholic - and, worse, it sets her up as the unmarried woman who's about to get hers. I still rather envy them that lunch-hour (if she left work at 1pm, say, they haven't done too badly by 2.43pm, and all on an empty stomach).

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