Cue the jarring Saul Bass monochrome graphics and Bernard Herrmann’s rushing, stabbing title track. And then Hitchcock’s 1960 classic opens on a cityscape across which we read ‘Phoenix, Arizona. Friday December the 11th. Two- forty-three pm.’
A PRIVATE TRAP WHERE CHRISTMAS IS ABSENT
Psycho is a Christmas picture so bleak that apart from that one date at its very beginning, there is all but negligible evidence that ‘tis the season to be jolly throughout the entire movie.
Catholic director, Alfred Hitchcock has created an anti-Holy Family who reside in a ‘private trap’ of isolation and horror at the Bates’ Motel. And this is after he’s shown us an illicit lunchtime love affair plus the woman involved, Marion Crane’s (Academy Award-nominated Janet Leigh) spur-of-the-moment thieving of thousands of dollars (cash!) from her boss’s client.
Fate has collided: her headache and stress; the $40,000 in cash; her boss asking her to put it in the bank safe deposit; Marion’s need to pay off boyfriend, Sam’s alimony debt so they can get married. And then she drives away for her unscheduled rendezvous with shy Norman Bates (a career defining role for Anthony Perkins).
A mad as hell director
The deep irony is that Hitchcock never had any intention of making what has turned out to be one of the darkest of Christmas films. Recorded by Stephen Rebello in hiis book on which Hitchcock (2013) was based, set designer Robert Clatworthy recalled: ‘Hitchcock was mad as hell because he had sent out a second-unit crew to shoot process plates of the city street. When he saw what they’d shot, he noticed that Christmas decorations were hung over the street. He didn’t approve of that at all and said, “Hmm. That will take some explaining.” He was always thinking about the audience, trying to outsmart him. You can see the decorations in the shots where Janet Leigh’s boss walks past her car and peers in the window. There wasn’t time to reshoot. So he added the date in the titles at the beginning and hoped some wiseacre wouldn’t wonder why there was no other reference to the holidays anywhere else in the picture.’
Sorry to be a wiseacre, Mr Hitchcock. In the event, the serendipity that is part and parcel of movie-making adds a whole other dimension. We cannot help but watch Psycho through tinsel-framed specs – and what comes into focus is arguably the most anti-Christmas, even anti-Christian of the festive canon.
No sight of a season’s greeting
Set between December 11th through to the 20th (the 17 on the calendar on the courtroom wall in the final scene is a continuity error), even the Christians of Fairvale Presbyterian Church on the Sunday before the second biggest day of their faith’s calendar, aren’t up for the event if the bareness of the outside of their church or the mundanity of the congregation’s post-service filing out is anything to go by. It helps that neither is there any snow: there are no season’s greetings to be seen or heard at all.
Which means Psycho provides a very chilling vision, indeed. We’re presented with a world where neither Marion Crane, or indeed, Norman Bates in their private traps (“We scratch and claw but only at the air, only at each other. And for all we can, we never budge an inch”) ever stood a chance.