Our Private Traps
She is not like the women in those other films, those dangerous women that she has come to bury just as surely as she will soon occupy a sad and lonely grave, sunk in a pond, crammed in the trunk of her brand new car. They are professional criminals, or at least in league with such people; she is a nervous if determined woman who has made an impulsive decision that will haunt her for the rest of her life — a life that will be over far sooner than she could ever imagine. Right at this moment, she wakes in that eerie, panicked terror that comes from waking up in a place you do not expect to be and seeing someone you do not expect to see: exhausted and stressed beyond reason by her sudden theft of $40,000 in cash from her employer, she has pulled over to the side of a California road and fallen asleep, only to be woken up by the granite face of a highway patrolman. At the moment, her beautiful face is hatched across by flickering fear: fear of being found out, fear of going to jail, fear that her spontaneous crime will mean the doom of her passionate love affair rather than its salvation, and, perhaps, on this lonely desert road where no one else can see, faced with an emotionless and humorless cop who has decided to make her his special project for the day, fear of something else. While we have seen her be decisive and willful, there is nothing in her of the cool, easy calculation of the femme fatale, and her own nervousness gives her away; all she wants to do is get going, get somewhere quiet, and figure out how to fix the mess she has made of her life. What she doesn’t know — what she will learn just as we, the audience, the collective understanding of moviegoers as the noir era comes to its definitive end, will learn — is that there are things far more terrifying than going to prison. She will learn that lesson the next day, and it will be the last thing she ever learns.
Alfred Hitchcock is the last director one could ever credit as having any sympathy for the subjects of the male gaze. He wasn’t one to mount a critique of it; indeed, given not only the paces he put his female characters through, but the often-disturbing ways in which he treated the women who played them, Hitchcock was far more a perpetrator of the harm done by the possessive (and obsessive) eye men cast on women, not a crusader against it. But it is without question that he understood it; much of the emotional impact of his finest thrillers came from his frightfully first-hand understanding of the portrayal of a woman in the grips of fear at what a man who has abandoned the pretense of social control might do to her. Watching parts of Psycho, the 1960 film that was his last masterpiece and that signaled the ultimate transition from the crime dramas of the noir period to the crime thrillers of the decades that followed, it’s hard not to compare it to a similarly groundbreaking story of a serial killer — Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, which appeared over 30 years later and acted as a similar bellwether to a change in the attitudes of moviegoers. Both Hitchcock and Demme use a number of very noticeable, very tight, and very controlled close-ups of the faces of women, and of the men who interact with and attempt to control them, to communicate the emotional and intellectual state of their characters. Marion Crane is the unsuspecting victim of a serial killer’s insane violence, while Clarice Starling is the protector of those victims against a similar killer, but both are constantly bathed in the male gaze. Both must struggle through their intents and decisions under the almost always hostile eye of men who want to restrict their actions; Marion’s encounter with the killer finds her disarmed by his seemingly open and friendly demeanor, leaving her unprepared for the reality of what he truly is, while Starling finds herself dealing with a monster whose nature she already knows, but whose motives in helping her catch another killer are murky to her until it’s too late. Marion reflects Hitchcock’s distrust of authority by having her interact with a relentless cop who, seeking to bring her to justice, almost literally drives her into her grave; Clarice seeks acceptance among the police, but must cope with the fact that most of them don’t want her in their boy’s club. Janet Leigh and Jodie Foster both communicate the determination of these remarkable women almost entirely through their faces, with the former being full of expression and conflict and the latter single-minded and intense.
Did Hitchcock know, when he went ahead with his risky project to film Robert Bloch’s novel of a mad killer, that he was plunging a knife into noir? Probably not. If he had, he wouldn’t have cared; most of his best films are crime dramas, but very few of them could really be considered noir. Strangers on a Train is perhaps the closest, and certainly its origins as a Patricia Highsmith novel put it squarely in the noir camp, but his ingenious structural tinkering gave it an entirely different tone, and his change to the ending removed much of its moral bleakness. Shadow of a Doubt, too, had elements of noir, but its delivery was straight out of classic Hollywood (albeit with a strongly Hitchcockian touch) that dampened its dark stretches. Psycho was the movie that murdered the genre, that came at just the moment when making a tightly controlled black-and-white film that delivered its moral pulse through shadow and light was becoming a retro gesture; that positioned itself outside the psychological murk of the post-war era and faced a post-post-war environment of ambition and success; that replaced the cruel but competent professional hood, with his badness a relative thing to be weighted against factors like police corruption, economic desperation, and pure bloody-minded fate, with the morally stark image of the serial killer, whose crimes were unambiguously evil, unmotivated and thus unfathomable. Ironically, though, up until that one sudden and unexpected first slash of the knife that turned Psycho into a very different movie and crime dramas into a very different genre, it was perhaps Hitchcock’s most noir film: the hapless romance of two people who should never have been together (though gender-swapped, with Leigh in the ‘man’s’ role), the doomed lead who can never escape a split-second bad decision, the harsh pools of black split with light (on Marion’s rain-soaked flight down the freeway, in the one illuminated window at the Bates house, in the basement as the final horror is revealed with a bare bulb madly swinging), the inevitability of a bad outcome, and the overall tawdriness of the whole affair that sets off the chain of punishing outcomes.
That low-rent, sordid feel, indeed, is not only central to the success of Psycho, but also is indicative of what a highly risky film it was; it’s a testament to Hitchcock’s genius that he was able to pull off something so completely removed from his previous work so effectively. His incredibly protective attitude towards spoiling the film’s twist was a gimmick, to be sure, and a highly successful one; he was nothing if not a natural salesman. But it was also a calculating and difficult choice to preserve the tonal shift that makes it such a great piece of storytelling. It was vitally important to maintain the illusion that the star, and the protagonist, of Psycho was Janet Leigh and not the younger, less well-known Vera Miles; and it was just as important to project her early on — this majestic, gorgeous woman at the peak of Hollywood glamour — as a deeply flawed figure in an fiery but ill-advised relationship with a man who seemed to be a failure at everything except satisfying her sexually. Having just come off making some of the most spectacular films of his career, gigantic, colorful, epic thrillers in the classic Hollywood style, filled with elaborate stories, studded with big-name talent, and in full, vibrant, mid-century color. Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest, Vertigo — Psycho could not have been more different than these in every way, and Hitchcock establishes that right off the bat. It is not just violent, but bloody; it is not just sexy, it is dirty; it is not just thrilling, it is terrifying, with its stakes so much smaller than in these other films, but in other ways so much greater. The pop-psych exposition at the end draws a lot of eye-rolls, but it wasn’t the first time he had engaged in faux-Freudianism, and clumsy as the scene may be, it probably allowed the movie to be made. Despite his recent track record of raging success, Hitchcock had a hard time getting a studio to back Psycho; there was too much controversy, too much that was vulgar and vile, too much at risk. So in order to get it done, he jettisoned every technique and method he’d been perfecting over the last decade and made the movie on the cheap, using a stripped-down crew borrowed from his TV series and, like the best noir films, stripping out all the extraneous material until it purred like a very dangerous motor. The result was as distinctly Hitchcock as it was significantly un-Hitchcockian. By the time it was over, it had taught audiences a lesson about fear that they would never forget, and completed a crown for him of three jewels: the master of suspense, the transformer of the crime drama, and the anticipator of modern horror.
He didn’t have much left in him. Only The Birds, which took him three years and much difficulty to make, held any of his previous greatness, and even it was beginning to split along the edges by the time he got it to theaters. But even if Psycho had been the last film he ever made, it would still stand as something almost unthinkable, even by today’s standards: a movie made by a great director using few of the methods that made him great; a genre film that both subverts and transcends its genre; a true masterpiece made on the cheap; a gimmicky picture with a gimmick both essential and disposable; a work of its era that fully ushers in a new one; and a story that wrings much psychological insight out of the shallowest kind of psychology. It may be the supreme statement of greatness by a director who rarely used great source material and never tackled great issues, but almost always managed to make great movies.