Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ.
– Alfred Hitchcock
I usually hate horror films to the point of being indifferent to them. Specifically, I hate two sub-genres of horror – horror of Armageddon and horror of the demonic. Horror of personality involving psychologically deviant but otherwise ordinary humans is a genre that has unfortunately been relegated to countless B-grade films and ‘slasher’ flicks. And the sole reason for this pathetic state of affairs is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
One of the most talked about films, one of the most analyzed, one that gave rise to countless imitations and parodies, one that had books and interviews and scholarly papers devoted to it, one that had remakes that served only to elevate its own status. A film that everyone seems to know about even if they have not seen it.
Psycho as a horror film is about fear and suspense, not revulsion, not repulsion, not aversion. It connects directly with our fears – fear of being killed by a maniac, fear of being caught by the police, and so on.
You know that the public always likes to be one jump ahead of the story; they like to feel they know what’s coming next. So you deliberately play upon this fact to control their thoughts. You turn the viewer in one direction and then in another; you keep him as far as possible from what’s actually going to happen.
– Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock is such a master manipulator that he achieves the impossible. He builds up the character of the protagonist, and then kills her a third through the film. Then he turns the villain into the protagonist and makes us root for the villain for that point onwards!
There are innumerable subtleties, symbols, and manipulations to cover in any single article. From the credits symbolizing schizophrenia to the famous shower scene, there are countless studies and researches delving into excruciating detail. It is said that Psycho “simultaneously epitomizes and disturbs, completes and undermines, enacts and exposes, the defining norms of commercial film practice”.
Hitchcock knew very well that it is not the director, but the mind of the viewer, that can imagine the worst horror. Just like the actual shark is not shown at all in most of Jaws, the ‘horror’ of Psycho and the shower scene is created mostly by us. Instead of grisly sound effects, wounds, and gallons of blood, what works is artistry and style.
I’m full of fears and I do my best to avoid difficulties and any kind of complications.
I like everything around me to be clear as crystal and completely calm.
I don’t want clouds overhead. I get a feeling of inner peace from a well-organized desk.
When I take a bath, I put everything neatly back in place.
You wouldn’t even know I’d been in the bathroom.
– Alfred Hitchcock
Psycho broke many conventions. The heroine dressed in her underwear. The first shots of a toilet and flush in American cinema. The use of the word ‘transvestite’ in dialogue. Indulging and hinting at taboo subjects like schizophrenia, transvestism, incest, necrophilia. Hitchcock knew he was pushing the limits.
Bullet wounds and head injuries can be depicted safely in films. But a knife striking nude flesh presented challenges in both violence and nudity, and it was masterful editing and clever marketing that made it possible. Hitchcock falsely claimed that the knife is never shown striking the flesh (it is shown very briefly) and that the body double used was that of a male (it was a voluptuous stripper). There was no ‘R’ rating in those days, just an ‘Approved’ censor certificate one had to get! His marketing gimmicks worked well and people believed him. Like always, he was one step ahead of everyone.
A director who had never directed a scene before. A still photographer who had never been a cameraman. Actors who had never even been tested for their roles. The background score by a novice Ravi Shankar. With a meager budget, this team went on to create a renowned classic that brought Ray into the spotlight of international fame.
While Psycho is voyeuristic to the extreme, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is the exact opposite. Everything in Pather Panchali is honest and true. It is meticulously believable and draws you in. There isn’t a single false note in this symphony. We feel with the characters, not for them.
The power and beauty of this film is that I never felt as if I was watching a movie. I was not a viewer and what was happening on the screen was not a movie. The experience was as if I was inside the life and minds of the characters. The stooping old aunt, Chunibala Devi was 80 and living in a brothel when Ray located her for the film. There are too many poignant passages, but the one that remained in my heart was the delight and wonder of the children as they wander far away in the fields to catch the sight of a train. Ray made me a child again.
I have not seen acclaimed films like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. While there are many good films like Pulp Fiction, Parash Pathar, Pestonjee, The Philadelphia Story, The Pianist, The Piano, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I’d like to list the following as noteworthy:
- A Passage To India, the meticulous craftsman, David Lean’s beautiful adaptation of a literary classic.
- Philadelphia, the first time Hollywood dealt with AIDS using stars in a courtroom drama. The brilliant scene where Hanks talks about his favorite aria brings about a conversion of the soul in Washington, and is one of my most beloved cinematic scenes.
- Pushpak, a silent film about an unemployed youth, an Indian cult classic.
- The People vs. Larry Flynt, that shows how a pornography publisher became a defender of free speech for everyone.