[played by Martin Balsam]: “I'm a private investigator. I've been trying to trace a girl... that's been missing for, oh, about a week now from Phoenix. It's a private matter. The family wants to forgive her. She's not in any trouble.”
Norman Bates [played by Anthony Perkins]: “I didn't think the police went looking for people who aren't in trouble.”
Arbogast: “I'm not the police.”
Norman: “Oh, yeah.”
Arbogast: “We have reason to believe she came along this way. Did she stop here?”
Norman: “No one's stopped here for a couple of weeks.”
Arbogast: “Mind looking at the picture before committing yourself?”
Norman: “Commit myself? You sure talk like a policeman.”
Arbogast: “Look at the picture, please.”
Norman [looking at it]: “Mm-mmm. Yeah.”
Arbogast: “Sure? Well, she may have used an alias. Marion Crane's her real name... but she could've registered under a different one.”
Norman: “I tell ya, I don't even much bother with guests registering any more. One by one, you drop the formalities. I shouldn't even bother changing the sheets, but old habits die hard. Which reminds me...”
Arbogast: “What's that?”
Norman: “The sign. A couple last week said if the thing hadn't been on... they would've thought this was an old, deserted...”
Arbogast: “You see, that's exactly my point. Nobody'd been here for a couple weeks... and there's a couple came by and didn't know that you were open. As you say, old habits die hard.”— Psycho (1960), screenplay by Joseph Stefano based on the novel by Robert Bloch, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
I am afraid that, for all its formal cinematographic brilliance as an experiment in low-budget Gothic horror, the lesson of Psycho for subsequent filmmakers lay less in how to scare audiences—i.e., how to make them feel delicious tingles at the back of their necks over something that might or might not occur—than in how to shock them, with depictions of gore (though much of this, given censorship regulations of the day, was simulated).
But moments of anticipation, a tightening of mortal stakes for the film’s characters, did exist, even though they were not of the conspicuous kind present, for instance, in the famous shower scene. Such was the encounter—a portion of which I’ve excerpted here—between Norman Bates and Arbogast, a detective hired by the employer of embezzler Marion Crane.
What the audience knows—but Arbogast doesn’t—is that Marion has been stabbed to death in Bates Motel. But in the lines I quoted above, Norman—despite his attempts to stonewall the detective—has made a slip.
It's the slip that a nervous person, hoping to fill a conversational void or to add a detail that might add more weight to what he's said, might make. It’s a small error, maybe the kind that you or I might not immediately realize in the ebb and flow of a conversation.
But Arbogast immediately pounces on Norman’s contradiction. He pursues the accidental disclosure that people have indeed stopped at the motel, and he uses it as an opportunity to persuade a now-tenser Norman to allow him to check the motel register and establish that Marion, under an assumed name, checked in.
From there, the conversation gears shift rapidly. Little physical action occurs between Balsam and Perkins that would constitute a normal marker of suspense (a body dangling from a cliff, say, or two arms reaching for a gun).
No, the suspense lies in what is said and what is not—Arbogast's flat declaration that something is amiss (“If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jelling”), followed by his increasingly confrontational, accusatory questions (“Did you spend the night with her?... Then how would you know she didn't make any calls?”) and Norman’s stuttering responses and sweating attempts to end the conversation-turned-interrogation.
Alfred Hitchcock didn’t give his actors much direction, believing that he’d chosen them for their skill and that they’d figure out how to play their scenes. Here, Martin Balsam justifies that faith.
Over the course of his long career, the character actor won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the mid-Sixties comedy A Thousand Clowns, acted in classics like Cape Fear, 12 Angry Men and Murder on the Orient Express, and appeared before a sizable weekly audience as Carroll O’Connor’s Jewish business partner in Archie Bunker’s Place.
But as Arbogast, he made the most of short screen time and limited plot function to suggest character dimensions not apparent in his dialogue.
The audience already knows something about Norman—his shyness, his domination by “Mother,” his weirdness beneath that nice-young-man exterior. But here, Balsam establishes Arbogast.
Well-schooled in his craft, the detective is cool and confident but also can be blunt, brusque and maybe cockier than this setting previously unknown to him might warrant.
He has learned that something has happened here. But, once he glimpses “Mother” in the window in the house on the hill, the chief instinct of his profession—curiosity—leads him to disregard the chasm between his knowledge and the real situation.
His entry into that dark, foreboding house is inevitable, then, as is his ill-fated encounter with “Mother” on its stairs.
In October, which has become the de facto month for horror depiction on film and television, Psycho holds pride of place. The sequence I’ve discussed supplies many of the sinews of this classic—and, following the surprise dispatching of the focus of the first third of the movie, Marion, follows with that of Arbogast, whom we had only shortly before expected to relentlessly pursue her killer and bring him to justice.
The detective proved inadequate to the task. Blessed with the intelligence to sense a crime, even one different from the embezzlement he’d been hired to investigate, he still lacked the imagination to comprehend the level of insanity and evil—not to mention the danger that represented to him—in this sleepy backwater of the American Southwest. Who could?
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