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Thursday, 7 May 2009

Book of the film: Psycho

Thanks to the Alfred Hitchcock film, the character Norman Bates has entered that dubious pantheon of modern myth. Of course reading this book after being aware of the movie destroys some of Robert Bloch’s well-constructed suspense. Even so, it is still an intriguing and page-turning crime noir study of reader misdirection and dark psychology. And it’s also possible to appreciate the cunning structure of the novel and the subtle hints beneath the veneer presented by Bates.

Bates is fat and bespectacled and quite unprepossessing and dominated by his mother. He resents her but cannot seem to function without her in his life. He hides in his books but to no avail. He evokes some sympathy but is also somewhat unprepossessing. A memorable creation.

Mary Crane absconds from her job with a large sum of cash and heads for the home of her fiancĂ©, Sam, intent on using the stolen money to help him get out of debt. She stops overnight off the beaten track at the Bates’ motel. The shower scene occurs on page 30, so she isn’t in the book much, but her presence is felt throughout as first Sam then her sister Lila start to wonder where she has gone. They are aided by the insurance private detective Arbogast.

Bloch masterfully weaves the individual stories of Bates, his mother, Mary Crane, Sam, Lila and Arbogast. His story is unsettling since it seems that the main protagonists are not destined to survive. Then those who do remain are brought to the creepy storm-laden denouement.

This is a short book, with hardly any words wasted in deceptively simple prose. Usually, Bloch enjoys peppering his stories with wordplay but here the narrative doesn’t seem to need it – though he can’t resist one final foray in the last sentence.

Inevitably, a film script is going to differ from its source: Psycho was in fact a difficult book to film as there was a great deal of internal monologue to create character, move the story forward and to misdirect. Some of this was achieved by voice-over for thoughts. Apparently, as there was a real Mary Crane in Phoenix at the time of the film, it was decided to rename this character Marion (played by Janet Leigh). Her boyfriend Sam and the detective Arbogast kept their names, as did Bates. The Marion character didn’t succumb in the shower scene until the film was 40 minutes into the story, with just over an hour to go. Neither in stature nor appearance did Anthony Perkins resemble the Bates character in the book, but he certainly claimed the role as his own with creepily nuanced under-acting.

If you have only seen the film but not read the book, I’d recommend finding a copy; it’s worthwhile. The entry for the film in Wikipedia is quite comprehensive and fascinating.


Unknown said...

Thanks Nik for a very erudite review - which has quite made me want to obtain a copy and read this obvious classic.

Nik Morton said...

Thanks, Rob. Bloch had a big following but - are we surprised? - critics didn't like his genre fiction. The moral - write what you like but appeal to the millions rather than critics...