Psyching oneself for 10 years over a work of art that has become an obsession may be a record of sorts; on the other hand, there’s nothing unusual about Art audiences waiting decades to confront the original of a work they had spent their lives thinking and talking about. “Psycho”, the all-time grand guignol Hollywood [...]

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What’s black-&-white — & red all over?


Psyching oneself for 10 years over a work of art that has become an obsession may be a record of sorts; on the other hand, there’s nothing unusual about Art audiences waiting decades to confront the original of a work they had spent their lives thinking and talking about. “Psycho”, the all-time grand guignol Hollywood entertainment, opened in America on 16 June, 1960, fifty-five years ago this week.

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in the famous-notorious shower scene in Psycho

Psycho hit audiences so hard in the head and the solar plexus that family and friends of Alfred Hitchcock said the director had “gone too far” on this occasion. Described as a psychological horror-thriller, Psycho was such a success with audiences that critics who had glossed over it were forced to view it again, and rewrote their reviews with high praise. Psycho became Hitchcock’s most talked-about film.

While Psycho was terrifying Americans in the millions in New York and other US cities thousands of miles away, film fans in Colombo were registering Psycho’s seismic effects. In 1960, in Colombo, there were five ultra-precocious nine-year-olds who had made a little project of Psycho. The Five Little Horrors were Devashri Abeyawansha, Rizan Mohammed-Marikar, Mitch McBlair, Krishan Goonagasinghe and self. We were truly horrible and truly mad about film. We would share Psycho information when the primary six class teacher was not looking. The Horrible Five could have gone on radio for a Psycho Quiz and beaten hollow any rival adult team that thought it knew all there was to know about the film.

Of the five, the author of this article was the only one whose parents were not regulars at the five main Colombo cinemas. The parents of the other four saw just about every English language movie in town. In the case of Adults Only and Strictly for Adults Only fare, the elders would give blow-by-blow, frame-by-frame accounts of films their brats were barred from seeing.

These bits of gathered film data, the equivalent of celluloid segments, were brought to school, pooled and spliced in the studio of the imagination. Before long we had in our heads a close approximation of the entire movie, from opening to closing credits. The “stills” – photographs from the film – were scrutinised with a magnifying-glass intensity; once we had the narrative sorted out, all that remained to be done was to connect the plot’s million-and-one dots and voila! — we had the forbidden movie down pat.

Director Alfred Hitchcock between takes during the making of Psycho in 1959

A tremendous help in establishing the film’s imagery for Our Project was the famous Psycho trailer everyone was talking about. It was being screened along with “It Started in Naples,” the 1960 Hollywood charmer with Sophia Loren and Clark Gable. Devashri Abeywansha was the first of the five to see the trailer, and he described it to us with glee, not spoiling the ending. The six-and-a-half minute trailer is a gem and a classic in its own right. A wickedly straight-faced Hitchcock takes the audience around the Psycho property, the creepy house on the hill and the L-shaped motel, and ends his tour in the bathroom, scene of the first crime.

The eyes of Marion Crane
The “strictly for adults only” film arrived in Colombo, at the Liberty Cinema, in 1961, and ran for weeks, months. We walked past the theatre and gazed yearningly at the magic words “Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO” in red 3-D letters spelled on the marquee. We stepped into the cinema lobby for a close-up of the life-size Alfred Hitchcock cardboard cutout, where he says “No one will be allowed into the cinema once the film has begun,” and “Please do not give away the ending to your friends.”

Our maniacal fascination with “Psycho” would reach its climax 10 years later, when we finally got to see the film, on the Big Screen, during its second outing, in 1970, at the Liberty Cinema. During those 10 years we had read up on Psycho as if we were researching for an academic term paper. In 1970 there were no cassette tapes, CDs or DVDs. Those who hadn’t seen the film had only the Robert Bloch novel, the reviews, the studies, and the hearsay on which to build a Psycho thesis. We “knew” the film backwards.

Before we saw the actual movie, parts of our own interior Psycho would appear in dreams. It had developed a life of its own. No unseen movie had captured our imagination quite like this. Psycho was a secret indulgence.

In fact, Psycho the Film was déjà vu all the way. Everything was as foreseen, previously visualised. What had been generalised, frame or scene, was particularised on the big screen, overlapping images combining and crystallising as our own Psycho and Hitchcock’s Psycho clicked away in sync. That first viewing was mostly a clarifying experience.

If there was any single surprise, it was the lighting in the infamous shower scene. Reading the book in 1960, we pictured the bathroom where Marion Crane takes her final shower as dimly lit, so as to mute the killer’s appearance. The film shows an intensely illuminated bathroom – blindingly white wall-and-floor tiles and porcelain fixtures. No shadows in corners. No detail spared.

It was a 6.30 p.m. screening that we attended. With us was Gihan de Fonseka, son of musician Evangeline de Fonseka, who played violin with Mother in the Colombo Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonic String Quartet. When we came out of the cinema, we both had symptoms of nausea, a bilious disgust. It was a physical reaction to Psycho’s unrelenting, unrelieved unpleasantness.

Don’t forget we had just seen the film on the Big Screen. Seeing Janet Leigh full face, screaming and filling the Liberty Cinema screen, is a very different experience to watching Leigh being killed on your TV or computer screen. It’s the difference between looking at a rampaging Yala elephant on a SmartPhone, and putting the phone down to face the real thing charging at your Jeep.

Visceral, vicious, viscous
Psycho is elegantly vicious; it goes for the jugular and hits low, in and below the belly. It is visceral, without showing spilled guts. And it is viscous; the shower scene serves up a freshly cut-open body – wet, squeaky naked and heavily punctured. Body fluids are running freely, along with lots of flowing water.

Psycho was talked about endlessly with classmates and fellow movie-lovers. We swapped our independent observations. Gerard Raymond, who went on to become a film critic, commented on the soundtrack and the electronic-screeching (“like that of a castrated computer”) of violins in the shower scene; Mohan Arsecularatne had been tracking angles, how the camera closed in on Anthony Perkins’ handsome face, then slid under his reptilian throat; Shah Milah noticed Perkins changing gender, his hips swaying ever so slightly, as he mounted the stairs and approached the second murder; Asoka Weerasinghe said Janet Leigh’s mesmerising eyes looking directly at the audience during her long drive towards death – night falling, rain falling – prepared viewers for the famous rotating close-up of her eye in death, and that heartbreaking drop of liquid on her skin that could be water or a tear or both.

Cinema art apart, the shower scene is every filmgoer’s favourite worst nightmare: those 2 minutes and 51 seconds of numbing horror project an ultimate vulnerability – that of being naked and cornered in a bathtub, confronting a cleaver-wielding manic killer. Realism and Artistry run neck and neck, black and white, furiously intercutting in possibly the most parsed and analysed cinema sequence ever.

The film does not lose momentum after the shower killing, but we recognised that scene as the film’s chief climax. The first arc of the movie narrative ends in the shower; the second ends with the second murder on the staircase, and the third with an attempted killing and the killer’s identity revealed. Three Acts. After Act I, the rest of the film is cleverly sustained suspense. Most of the time, during repeat viewings, we switch off after the bathroom shocker. It’s like being satisfied, to change metaphor, with an overture to an opera that cannot match its splendid opening.

Since Psycho became available for home screening, we have watched it many, many times over, from cassette tape to CD to DVD. The film never loses its edge. Each viewing is like having a favourite old wound slashed open yet again – to enable further clinical study of the film’s workings. The most recent screening was a week ago, for the purpose of writing this article. What did we observe this time that we had only half-noticed before?

The Performances: Superlative, every frame of the way. Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins are flawless as Victim and Deranged Motel Keeper. And you couldn’t ask for more from the secondary roles of John Gavin, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam. The subtle modulations of their facial expressions are pitch perfect.

The Good Looks: The Leads and Secondary Players are winners – Beautiful, Handsome, even “Sexy”. Janet Leigh’s beauty is subtle, not in-your-face. Is there any Hollywood actress with eyes as intelligently expressive and searching as Leigh’s?

The Erotic Charge: That opening scene, with Leigh in her lingerie lying in a hotel bed and looking up at a shirtless, tony-bodied John Gavin is so potent you wonder if you have come to see a film about illicit love and sexual desire and not about murder.

The Blood: The limited gore spilled in the shower scene does not justify the savage, multiple stabbings. Hitchcock held back on the blood and ended up under-doing it. Surely a body with 20-plus stab wounds would spout more chocolate sauce?

The Milk: In Michael Ondaatje’s American novel “Divisidero”, there is a reference to Psycho and Anthony Perkins bringing Janet Leigh a glass of milk so glowingly white it looks as if “there is a light bulb inside.” But there is no glass of milk in Psycho. Perkins carries a tray with a sandwich and a jug that may contain milk, but you don’t see any. A glass of milk of the luminous kind suggested by the writer appears in another Hitchcock film, the 1941 “Suspicion.”

Real time: The mopping up sequence — of Perkins washing the bathroom, wrapping up the body in the torn-off shower curtain, dumping corpse and incriminating evidence in the boot of Marion Crane’s car — all that feels paced to the clock of real time. The sequence takes seven minutes; you feel you could accomplish a similar task in the same length of time. You would be efficient if you had a body to dispose of. Here’s a case of art-life synchronicity.

Black, White and Low Budget: Psycho was made on a tight budget, and everything about the production was scaled down. The film was shot in black and white, like the Alfred Hitchcock TV shows. Hitchcock had gone back to black and white after years of painting films in gorgeous colour. Leigh was happy with half her usual fee, and Perkins agreed to a slashed fee. The composer Bernard Herrmann wrote his Psycho score for string quartet, not full symphony orchestra; only four musicians had to be paid.

The Music: The creepy mood-setting and scare tactics in the Psycho score are achieved with just four string instruments — two violins, viola and cello. The string quartet is stretched to deliver sounds hard to imagine from a delicate instrument like the violin, as in the shower scene, strings screeching behind the screams. In the love scene at the beginning of Psycho, there is a surge of romantic music that is sublime string quartet sound. Too bad it is only seconds long. Anyone who has grown up with the sound of violins and of string quartet playing would be appreciative of the ingenious Psycho score.

You must be insane
Psycho ranks among the most cinematic films ever. The French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, who wrote a book based on interviews with Hitchcock, is said to have watched Psycho once a week in his home theatre. When a movie gets that forceful and overwhelming, all the time keeping its classic poise, you have to gasp at the sheer power of Film as Art.

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” repeatedly comes up in listings of the 10 Greatest Films of All Time. More relevant to this writer is the declaration by Peter Schjeldahl, one of America’s leading art critics and art writers, that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and a certain Matisse painting hanging in a gallery in Paris are for him the two greatest works of Art of the 20th century.
Surprised? Not us.

One evening, during Psycho’s 1970 rerun, we were zipping around in a Morris Minor taxi. Inside were the now grown-up members of the Little Horror Psycho Society, founded in 1960, in the Royal Primary School playground. Witty Krishan Goonagasinghe in the front seat was chatting away with the taxi driver who, as we glided around the Kollupitiya Liberty Circus, asked if we had seen Psycho.

“Pissu dha!” said Goonagasinghe. He meant: You must be mad to think we’d see a film as insane as that. It was a clever, instant, assonant, cross-language pun of a reply, and typical of Goonagasinghe.
The Little Horrors made quite a team – and too clever by half.

The world has not been the same since Psycho. Since 16 June 1960. 16.06.60.
While Psycho shocked and rocked audiences inside cinemas, the movie was spreading a red-black circle of fear and edginess outside cinemas. Reports of people refusing to shower in their bathrooms after seeing Psycho were multiplying.
And there was that double crime in Mount Lavinia in the 1960s, a savage homicide-suicide crime passionelle that seemed as if it had been storyboarded by the same hand that designed the Psycho shower scene.

A handsome young Sinhalese Police Officer of rank had in a fit of jealous rage slashed open his 19-year-old Burgher lover’s throat with a can opener, then left his lover to bleed to death in the bedroom, while he went into the bathroom and simultaneously hanged and shot himself in the head with his police revolver.

The double tragedy was extra shocking to our family because the female victim was the daughter of a friend of Mother’s; they had been classmates at Holy Family Convent School, Bambalapitiya, in the Twenties.
The true-life tragedy’s Psycho elements continue.

The female victim’s younger brother, mentally wavering from childhood, was admitted as a patient with a nervous disorder to the Mulleriyawa Hospital. Father, who suffered all his life from a crippling case of anxiety neurosis, would admit himself to the same hospital whenever he sensed a problem, a breakdown, approaching. The young man struck Father as being a decent lad, but deeply unstable. Despite his own problems, Father was sympathetic and did what he could to help him. (We were in the room when Father described the lad’s condition to Mother; we were the Fly on the Wall, the eavesdropping brat who collected stories to write about one day.)

Many years later, in the 1970s, we heard that the slash victim’s brother had gone completely over the edge. His condition was irredeemable, and he was being warded at the Angoda Mental Hospital. The boy’s condition had apparently worsened overnight after his mother had inadvisedly taken him to see Psycho, according to musician Elmer de Haan, a family friend. It was “the last film on earth” he should have seen, Mr. de Haan told the young man’s mother.

On a lighter note, if you can use the term “light” in reference to anything to do with Psycho, one of the Little Horrors played a cruel Psycho prank on his older sister, who had gone with her father to see a matinee of Psycho in 1961. Rizan Mohammed-Marikar removed a long knife from the kitchen, slipped upstairs, put on a blonde wig and a nightdress belonging to his mother, daubed his face with lipstick and a thick layer of makeup, and hid in the bathroom, standing in the bathtub behind the shower curtain, lying in wait.

The scream his sister Rowena uttered on entering the bathroom and seeing a horrid knife-brandishing figure tearing open the curtain was heard as far as the Colombo Town Hall. The father, whose nerves were raw after seeing Psycho, raced upstairs, shouting blue murder. But Rizan was already far away, hiding in the depths of Vihara Mahadevi Park, frightening everyone who crossed his path.

Life likes to copy Art, including playing sick jokes. Psycho played the deuce with our imagination.

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