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« First and Last | Main | Unsung Heroes: Alec Baldwin in 'The Royal Tenenbaums' »
Wednesday
Mar302011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "PSYCHO"

In this weekly series "Hit Me With Your Best Shot", we look at a pre-determined movie and select what we think is the best (or at least our favorite) shot. 


 Let's stare this down right away.

The best shot in Alfred Hitchcock's immortal Psycho (1960) comes from arguably the most famous single scene in cinema's 100+ year history. It's that devastating slow clockwise turn (mirroring blood swirling down the drain) paired with a slow zoom out. Marion Crane is dead or thereabouts. Dying in the shower allows her final posthumous tears.

In what is arguably Hitchcock's most brilliant decision in a film filled with them, this moment turns the movie's fabled voyeurism (and explicit understanding of cinema's very nature) back at the audience. We've been staring at Marion Crane, foolish bird-like Marion, for 49 minutes watching her squirm in her "private trap". We couldn't (didn't want to?) save her. Now it's her turn to stare back.

How much death does the cinema need?
[read full post and participating blogs]

Are we, the audience, raving maniacs?

I didn't really want to talk about the shower scene -- it's but four minutes of one hundred and nine brilliant ones and I'll never top Manuel Muñoz's chapter on it in "What You See in the Dark" anyway --but it's difficult to avoid as the film's pivot point and centerpiece.

Here's something you don't hear often: I find the second far less discussed murder even more  frightening.

 

This is the single image in the film that always scares me most. Perhaps it's the speed of the attack. Perhaps it's the mounting dread now that we know what "Mother" is capable of. I'd blame it on that sick repeat-view feeling you get when you know exactly what horrors await but in truth this shot scared me the most the first time I saw the film, too. I've settled on the notion that it's the overhead view that lends it its eery potency. We're no longer peering into the privacy of a shower (perverse but entirely human). Hitchcock has elevated us to a more god like view. But here's his new diabolic cruelty. We still won't be able to stop what's coming; Omniscience without accompanying power is a sick sick trick.

I've seen Psycho several times now and it never loses an ounce of its potency. Here on sixth (?) view, I found myself enjoying the way the film is constantly rewarding audiences for returning. It's like the master constructed it knowing that we'd return again and again.

 

This shot early in the film (albeit too mundane to pretend as "best"), as Marion pulls away leaving three men staring at her was my personal favorite this time. It reminded me of a clever line I knew would arrive shortly after Marion's murder.

Someone has seen her. Someone always sees a girl with 40,000 dollars.

They're watching Marion from the trunk of her car (where she'll eventually end up) and we're watching her from the front, always urging her closer (Hitchcock rewards us next with a lip biting close-up). She's surrounded. How did she ever think she was going to get away with it?

 

 

They all go a little mad sometimes...
Check out what these other voyeurs spied with their little eyes.

  • Serious Film "ten seconds of suspense"
  • Amiresque Norman's menace and vulnerability.
  • Film Actually Norman's arrested development. "A boy's best friend is his mother."
  • The Red Headed Invasion Marion is "Okay" (I love this shot, too)
  • Ahora peephole pleasure (this image is a favorite for many of the participants!)
  • Tom Clift "the dark swamp of the human psyche (our first shot of this particular variety in this series)
  • Musicinephiles Marion isn't fooling anyone.
  • Victim of the Time a shot that more than justifies that cinematography notion. Great unexpected choice.
  • Okinawa Assault it's story time!
  • Movies Kick Ass "the pleasure of watching" -- I must say, I've never found the opening scene more erotic than during this particular viewing for some reason. So I'm glad someone mentioned it.
  • Encore's World Norman, at one with his surrounding. It's the only home he's ever known.
  • Cinephilia & Sass "a skull with empty eye sockets" ... but not the one you're thinking of.
  • Kyle Unscripted sees Hitchcock's visual wit equalling the clever lines "Mother isn't herself today"
  • Pussy Goes Grrr on Hitchcock's playfulness and Vera's enigmatic reaction shots.
  • Dial P For Popcorn common relatable fears and Lila Crane
  • The Owls Are Not... two people, one body.

Trivia: Did you know that Psycho was not nominated for Best Editing at the Oscars? Speaking of going a little mad.

Next Wednesday: Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994) In Two Weeks: Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991). I originally announced Akira (1988) because we'd never done an animated film. But I was horrified to discover that Netflix does not offer it (and I know that's how the majority of participants rent their movies) so we're switching to the Disney film that I had promised to write about. How is it that I've talked about The Little Mermaid so often and rarely Beauty?

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Reader Comments (29)

That is definitely the best shot of the film, and one of the best of all time! Great write-up as usual, Nat!

I'm still surprised that Anthony Perkins wasn't Oscar-nommed for his Norman Bates! If the film came out today he would surely be nominated and WIN for Best Supporting Actor! The Academy loves their villains in that race. It definitely be a 180 from Bardem's Chigurh and Ledger's The Joker. They would go nuts over it. It's just too bad, so sad.

March 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMattyD.

I should add that it'd be a change from Waltz' Hans Landa as well. Shouldn't forget that one!

March 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMattyD.

Oh Dave, why??? :p

Anyway, at least I know someone else likes that shot too ;)

March 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

Aaaah, no Akira. I just watched that days ago. (borrowed from public library)

March 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMikhael

Mikhael -- sorry. i really wnated to do it but i can't believe it's not easy to rent. so sad.

March 30, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I completely agree about the second killing being the most frightening moment in the film. While we're almost positive a murder is about to occur, the speed at which it takes place, and the angle from which it is shot (which is also a rather ingenious way to keep the killers true identity hidden) never fails to shock me.

March 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Clift

Sorry to digress from the Marion love. I'm a bit sad that I'm not getting an excuse to see Akira and that it's difficult to get Heavenly Creatures, but Beauty in the Beast! I saw that. In French! For Grade 9 French class! This is gonna be awesome!

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

I would like to argue the point regarding the brilliance of all 109 minutes. the last 4 or so legitimately damage my appreciation of the first 105, which I agree are all brilliant. I can't afford this film the masterpiece status it otherwise would've earned because of that ending.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Fiore

Nathaniel, I love your point about the second murder. Far scarier, especially because it isn't even all that fast: you get a full overhead second or so of the Mother walking calmly towards Arbogast. Frightening stuff.

Sad that I couldn't join tonight's party, but I'm working on a review of Manuel Muñoz's What You See in the Dark that will sorta double as a Best Shot post anyway. What a lovely novel.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterColin Low

Colin -- oh yay, another fan. You got it quick. it just came out this week!

March 31, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Casey -- i do understand reservations about that scene. I really do. But i've come to just accept that it's there and to hope that it's merely the only part i don't connect to. and to maybe even believe it's another red herring because honestly... even if it's true and accurate read of Norman on the surface (and the second to last shot suggests that it is) it still is a facile attempt at diagnosing him if you ask me. Clearly there is so much that went on over the years that could fill volumes on his psychosis.

March 31, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Best film ever. One I could watch every month, but I must hold back and reserve its viewing during the annual Halloween Psycho viewing party (which consists of me and me alone so I can marvel at the genius of Hitch without interruption from others).

My new favorite scene as of late is showcased via the link to misicinephiles' site -- Marion driving while voiceovers from the cop and car salesman talk to one another about her odd purchase of the car. Leigh lifts her eyebrows and provides a faint smirk that is rather genius.

Between Psycho (my number one film) and Beauty and the Beast (my number two film), I'm loving the choices for this series.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

Well, like always, I'm late for the party (damn World time zones!) but I've twittered you my entry. Hope you like it.

PSYCHO is also one of my all-time bests. It's so refreshing to see a horror movie (and I don't like horror films) that is also one great movie.

The one aspect I love most about it, which I see now was also mentioned by a lot of you contributors and readers, is how Hitchcock plays with our fears. The policeman's face, that repeated glancings at the mirror by Marion, the repeated image of the policeman waiting outside the used cars department, the spook Lila gets mistaking herself for another person when looking at the mirror in the Bates' manor (my personal favourite shot)...

And I also loved remembering the first time I watched it, because I recall being terribly judgemental of the whole thing, thinking he'd be very predictable with one thing (example: the cop chase - I always thought that it was SO obvious the chase would be an important plot point) and then Hitchcock would give it a twist and complicate the story in beautiful, unexpected ways. I was so marvelled by it.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

One should note that that awesome shot of Janet Leigh starts on a freeze frame of her eye, then rotates (post production) out to the shot so deservingly glorified here...its key to note because it shows that even Hitchcock needed some help magnetizing his effect outside of his 'in-shot genius'.However, the most significant, ''best' shot by far.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDino

My mail didn't arrive or is it just that the post wasn\t very good? That's okay.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDimitra

Ack! My 2nd favourite film of all time and I didn't have time to do an entry. Now I'm sad.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Fantastic analysis, particularly on that less noticed third shot. That entire sequence is one of Hitchcock's best but least talked-about suspense sequences; it gets me every time, desperate for her to get the hell out of there, when really, knowing what's coming, I should be hoping the opposite. In a lot of ways, that shot is her driving away from her last possible rescuers, her last chance, before Norman and his Mother. She'll change her mind later, but it will be too late.

And Beauty and the Beast! I haven't seen that since I was twelve - I was looking forward to Akira, but this will be a real nostalgia trip.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaika

Dimitra -- i include all participants. The more the merrier. but i didn't see any email from you. i just searched your email address in my inbox and didn't see anything? Can you resend? filmexperience (at) gmail (dot) com.

or just post your link in the comments here and i can add it. thanks

Glenn -- hopefully you'll join us again soon. I was kinda surprised at certain people who didn't show up given the film ;)

March 31, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Marvelous film. One of my favorites. And I loved your shot which coincidentally is one of mine too.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Ack I screwed up and completely forgot this was happening, even though I watched the dang movie the day before yesterday! Oh well, I was planning on doing a Psycho post today at MNPP anyway. So stay tuned! Baited breath, and what not. ;)

It's been a great joy reading all these posts though, so thank you again for hosting this awesome series, Nathaniel. And I relish the excuse to rewatch Beauty and the Beast, my favorite Disney film.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJA

I personally would have loved an announcement of Performance to fill that slot. Very bizarre movie: The closest comparison I could coin would be "Cockney Blue Velvet."

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I share the sentiment about the second murder. The first time I watched the movie that scared the shit out of me much more than the shower scene and every other one of the "scariest" moments of the film. And on repeated viewings it's still that scene that scares me the most.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlison Flynn

Here it is: http://bigmysecret.tumblr.com/post/4215727882/hit-me-with-your-best-shot-psycho

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDimitra

No matter how many times I see Psycho, it never fails to entertain and scare the hell out of me. It's just so technically flawless that it works every time, no matter how many times you've seen it. I haven't been able to participate in this series even though I'd like to because of time constraints, but I don't even have to watch the movie again to pick my favorite shot (honestly,most of the shots in Psycho are forever burned into my brain, they're so indelible): That cop in Marion's car window. It's such an intrusion, and his face is so big, and his glasses are so black... and he's an absolutely nothing character. Not even really a plot point. But you always remember that guy after viewing Psycho (or at least I do), even with all the craziness that goes on after. THAT'S how you create a character from nothing.

I could go on and on about each of the shots picked by everyone: That hot Hot HOT opening sequence, Marion driving, the shower, Norman spying and later cleaning up, the car in the swamp... they're all genius. The only other shot that gives the cop a run for it's money (other than the justifiably famous graphic match of the drain and Marion's eye - the most chilling dead body shot in all cinema), is the cut-away Norman when the car at first doesn't sink. I love how you can't see his eyes, so you're not really sure what is going on in that head of his. Third favorite is Mother, with the swinging light make her "eyes" move.

And Beauty & The Beast! My favorite Disney film of all time. I can recite it line for line all the way through, that's how many times I watched it as a child. But best shot? That's a toughie!

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

And yes, absolutely on the second murder. It's that stunning, almost dream-like tracking shot following Arbogast down the stairs that gets me, though. The inevitability. The sad, sad inevitability.

If I had a time machine, I would want to go back and be there for the first screening of Psycho, just to watch the audience. I would absolutely LOVE to see the movie as those people would have seen it, what with how unexpected everything in the film is based on established movie-going conventions at the time, but even to watch the audience watching Psycho would be fascinating.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Look closely at Norman's last closeup, and his demented smile. As the film dissolves to the car being dragged from the swamp, a skull (Mrs. Bates) is seen superimposed over his face. Brilliant...and so subliminal, most viewers do not notice it.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTomS

And I can't bear to put a Hitchcock above position 101 best, personally. Even the one I find to be the most beautiful (Strangers on a Train) is still too ugly for a top 100 position. I personally feel that even Dr. Strangelove looks better than Strangers or Psycho. Personal best horror, as I've mentioned: ERASERHEAD. (I just shuddered typing the title out. And again, just looking at the title.)

April 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Denny -- that new book i interviewed the author about "what you see in the dark?" has a little bit about moviegoers seeing the movie for the first time.

i agree. of all the time machine things. that might be something really special movie-wise. can't imagine how shocking it must have been.

April 1, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Here's my old post from last year:

http://plakaty.blox.pl/2010/08/W-kadrze-Psycho.html

April 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMierzwiak
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