Friday, February 19, 2010

Yes... I'm Norma Bates.

(The Sun eclipses the moon: a second light or lens or filter appears to be lowered into place at frames 4 and 5.)

In Psycho's fruit cellar, showdown scene, after Lila screams and knife-wielding Norman appears, Mother's voice is heard (just as Sam arrives) underneath Herrmann's shrieking violins: 'I'm Norma Bates'. Next we hear a further, final, female scream that we see doesn't come from Lila, and in fact can only metaphorically if at all come from Norman. The 'I'm Norma Bates' line has only attracted serious attention since dvd releases began: previously it was largely lost amid Herrmann's strings as well as, of course, audience screams in many contexts including most first screenings. Since it seems a good bet that Hitchcock wanted these somewhat abstract/metaphorical sound elements to be blended into (and not stand out from) the sound mix of the climactic scene, the more separated sound we now enjoy/endure is somewhat controversial (though not nearly as much as, say, the re-foleying of Vertigo in the '90s).

In this note I look at how the 'I'm Norma Bates' line developed out of Bloch's novel, through Stefano's screenplay, and into Hitchcock's completed film. Here's the relevant passage from Bloch:
Lila opened the door of the fruit cellar.
It was then that she screamed.
She screamed when she saw the old woman lying there, the gaunt, gray-haired old woman whose brown, wrinkled face grinned up at her in an obscene greeting.
"Mrs. Bates!" Lila gasped.
But the voice wasn't coming from those sunken, leathery jaws. It came from behind her, from the top of the cellar stairs, where the figure stood.
Lila turned to stare at the fat, shapeless figure...She stared at the garishly reddened lips, watched them part in a convulsive grimace.
"_I am Norma Bates_," said the high, shrill voice.
In Stefano/Hitchcock, of course, Lila doesn't immediately discover that Mother's dead (then scream in response). Rather S/H tease us by having Lila ask 'Mrs Bates...?', walk over to Mother, before the slow, slow, big reveal, and scream. In Bloch's novel, 'Mrs Bates!' is an anguished/hopeless (I've blown my cover/hiding-place) gasp/exclamation, not a question. In a sense though, Norman hears it as a question. That is, Bloch writes 'Yes...I'm Norma Bates' as bewigged Norman's somewhat stage-villainy entrance ('Ha ha! I'm right here behind you!'). Norman appears first as just a voice, his 'Yes' replying to Lila, as if answering an overheard even if not-exactly-asked question. Note too that in Bloch's description, Norman is revealed static/'standing there', rather than as running in (as in the film), which also makes for more possibility of dialogue. Bloch's basic idea is stagey but it works (and a stage version of Psycho might do well to go back to it!):
Scream. (Beat. Lila is crushed.). Mrs Bates! (Behind her, shockingly) Yes (I heard that!)...I'm Norma Bates.
But now we can see how Stefano/Hitchcock generate a problem for themselves. They want to ratchet up the tension around Lila's discovery of Mother, but that blows the possibility of Bloch's verbal interaction between Norman and Lila (assuming there's no stomach for giving Lila an additional, post-scream 'Mrs Bates!' line) Yet they still want to keep the 'I'm Norma Bates' line from Bloch's more interactive structure. That is, S&H want to do the following kind of sequence:
Mrs Bates? Lila walks across to Mother. Mother turns. Lila screams (Now she's in trouble.), and her scream is joined by Norman's who runs in wildly screaming 'Ayeeeeeee am Norma Bates'.
That sort of sequence strongly separates Lila's 'Mrs Bates' line from Norman's 'reply'. But what sense can Norman's line (or his saying of it) make if he isn't replying to Lila?

In Stefano's screenplay Norman's screamed line happens off-screen, i.e., before Lila turns to see him. Hitchcock, however, has Lila's scream trail off as she turns and her scream blends with a first off-screen Norman scream. Then Norman runs in pausing to give us a full second of the maniac/raving thing he'd earlier assured Marion his mother wasn't ('I'm the raving thing.'). Cut to Lila's wide-eyed reaction, and back to Norman beginning to advance and starting afresh his main screamed line, just as Sam arrives.

Lets' summarize the three versions of the scene that we've considered:
  • B: Scream. Mrs Bates! (Behind her, shockingly) Yes...I'm Norma Bates.
  • S: Mrs Bates? Lila walks over to Mother. Mother turns. Lila screams. (off-screen) Ayeeeeeee am Norma Bates. Lila Turns. Norman is standing there.
  • H: Mrs Bates? Lila walks over to Mother. Mother turns. Lila screams and turns (off-screen) Ayeeeeeee. Norman enters and stands there for a beat. Ayeeeeeee am Norma Bates'.
In sum, as we move from Bloch -> Stefano -> Hitch the fruit cellar showdown gains articulation and complexity, at the cost of increasing separation between Lila's 'Mrs Bates' line and Norman's 'I'm Norma Bates' line. The line itself slips from being a stage-villainy, 'I'm right behind you!', response to Lila, to something that's much more free-standing and abstract. With Hitchcock we reach the point where we explicitly see that Norman's mouth doesn't move. Who's really talking? Who's really listening?

Obviously a lot of what's going in Hitchcock's version of the scene is what we might call 'the magic of the movies'. Neither Herrmann's strings nor Lila's recoil into the light-bulb is in the screenplay, let alone in the novel. [The lightbullb is about the size of the Death Star in a couple of remarkable shots (see image above), before Lila sends it swinging. The bulb also chimes with the insanely bright bathroom light in the shower scene, just as the flickering light and shadow it induces chimes with the remarkable play of light and dark in Arbogast's interrogation of Norman.] But it's orchestrating those elements right, on top of everything else that will make the scene sizzle, and give it its physically specific timing. It's the Director's unique privilege and responsibility to see these possibilities, and then develop and execute them thereby (in part) finding the great film inside the dazzling script. The music and special lighting elements need time to develop within the scene. On one level, then, they take time and spread things out in the scene. But on another level they collapse time: they unify the whole climactic freak-out, making it one long, rolling, literal and metaphorical scream.

Having directed the hell out of all that stuff, Hitchcock then has to decide what to do with the screams and Mother's 'I'm Norma Bates' line, which now threaten to float away from the scene and to raise more questions than they answer. As far as I can see, Hitchcock decides to leave these elements floating and abstract, and their final interpretation open-ended. Who's really screaming/speaking? Possibly just a voice in Norman's head. Who's really hearing the screams and the voices? Maybe just Norman, especially in the case of the big line. But other interpretations are possible, depending on how deeply one has thought about matters. All of this, I conjecture, Hitchcock embraced as good 'icebox' material. To the 20th dvd viewing we go. And to the IMDb. Best iceboxes ever.

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