Film critic Glenn Kenny, on his splendid site Some Came Running, has posted an endearing reminiscence of the first time he saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, wrapped around family legend and memory. You should read it. It made me laugh because I have what many people, particularly parents of kids in a more cosseting-and-cotton-swaddling era, might consider a story of delinquent parenting, also involving Psycho. Not me. I consider it a funny reminder from an age when parents weren’t so uptight about what their kids could see and read, especially if they considered their kid able to handle what they knew to be adult subject matter.
So picture the scene, ten o’clock or so in the evening, probably the school holidays, one of the four TV channels we had is about to show Psycho. My Mother, a woman of waspish wit and some deviousness, usually well hidden to all but those closest to her, says to me, “Have you ever seen this?”
I say “no”.
She says “Ah we’ll watch it so.”
I was ten years old.
I know what age I was because we were still living in the house in which I spent my earliest years, and we didn’t move out until I was ten going on eleven. I was delighted to be staying up to watch an “old movie” (Psycho would have been thirteen years old at the time, a little bit older than me). It was probably that feeling of well-being that caused me to miss my mother’s odd smile and the giveaway lift of the eyebrows, which should have alerted me that something was amiss. If that didn’t give the game away, my father’s arrival about ten minutes into the movie asking “What’s on?” only to be told “Psycho — say nothing” and be given a hard stare by my mother, should have absolutely tipped me off. But I was obviously engrossed in what was a neat little thriller about this blonde (Janet Leigh) who embezzles her bosses money and does a runner. So far so good — I’d seen enough of these things even at ten to recognize a basic crime-chase drama, even if I couldn’t have recognised the trappings and called it a noir, a word I hadn’t learned yet.
So imagine my surprise when things get a little creepy — there’s the motel and the awkward guy running the place (Anthony Perkins), then there is the overheard argument with his mother in the big sinister house, not to mention the eye watching through the hole in the wall. All the while I’m trying to get my ten-year old head back to the money and the cops-and-robbers aspect of it all; shouldn’t Janet Leigh be hightailing it out of California before the cops catch up to her? I’m failing to note that my mother is watching me, who is watching Norman Bates, who is watching Marion Crane who is getting undressed and going to the shower, and while she’s in the shower, the shower curtain is flung back and there is a knife………………
I jump about a foot and a half out of my seat — which is pretty impressive when you are ten and in a sitting position — and my mother laughs and says “You weren’t expecting that were you?” No I bloody well was not. (Typically, my father is having a fit he’s laughing so hard).
Now obviously someone could concoct some theory about boys and their mothers, me and Ma, Norman and his Ma, the perils of parenting, what kids should and should not see, the things we pass on to our kids, but I’m Irish and I don’t go for that psycho-babble (ouch!) stuff. I’ll just say nice one Ma, ya got me good.
As a coda — many, many years later, while working in a super busy bookstore in New York, I was approached by our book-buyer who indicated with a raise of his chin “Do you know that woman over there?” Doing a hundred things at once I gave the elegant elderly blond lady a cursory glance over my shoulder.
“No,” I said “should I?”
He said “Think Psycho“. I looked again and sure enough it was Janet Leigh and what do I go and blurt out? “Jaysus, she looked different in the shower…”