How Sam’s body in ‘Psycho’ melted mine and Julie’s minds
On New Year’s Day I rewatched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As you do. Released in 1960, his low-budget, shockingly deviant, uber-Freudian masterpiece is sixty years old this year. Pensionable, almost.
In a worrying development, suggesting I may be due early retirement myself, I discovered that I’d completely forgotten how fit Marion’s boyfriend Sam is, played by John Gavin, 29. And how much we see of his fitness in the opening topless scene – in which Sam, rather more than Marion, played by Janet Leigh, 33, is the apple of the camera’s eye. No wonder Marion steals $40K to keep him.
Sam is the unwitting femme fatale of this noir: those big, black eyes, those long luscious lashes, that beckoning bosom. That sticky end. Sam is desire.
It’s worth analysing that first scene in Psycho in detail, since it prefigures by decades the way the way men are ‘objectified’ today – and is a timeless cinematic love letter to the late Mr Gavin.
We open with a bird’s eye camera panning across the hot, arid Phoenix afternoon skyline, then voyeuristically zooming in on the dirty, open window of a non-descript, seedy hotel – and swooping under the partially-lowered blinds. (Stuffed birds of prey are an obsession of Norman Bates, who later perves on Marion through a peephole as she undresses in his cheap motel room – in much the same way we did at the beginning of the movie.)
The first shot of our trysting, unmarried lovers is of Marion lying on her back on the bed in her lace bra and half-slip, gazing up glowingly at Sam – his be-flannelled arse and lunchbox occupying the middle of the screen, framed next to Marion’s upturned face. Like much else in this film, including the shot of an actual flushing toilet later (the first ever in a mainstream US movie or TV show), it’s a shockingly suggestive-to-explicit image for fin-de-50s America. What’s more, that bra and those flannels are not even married.
(Unsurprisingly, the censors enforcing the still-extant Production Code were very unhappy with the first scene. Hitchcock offered to re-shoot the opening with the Code’s grim guardians on the set – if they allowed him to keep the shower scene, which they also hated. Fortunately, the board members failed to show up for the re-shoot and the cheap hotel shots also stayed.)
We can see Marion’s lover is shirtless and towelling himself – so we deduce, along with her satiated countenance, and the drowsy soundtrack, that the tableaux is post-coital. But we can’t see the flannels’ head as the shot cuts him off just above his waist. He is the faceless object of Marion’s desire and longing.
But we do hear him speak – in a deep, smooth voice:
‘You never did eat your lunch, did you?’
The camera cuts to the untouched shrink-wrapped sandwiches and soda bottle (and two stubbed out fag ends) on the bedside table. And then immediately to a long shot of a spectacularly unwrapped Sam, shooting an explosively handsome grin at Marion, his lean, attractively muscled body – especially for 1960 – picked out like a vision by the camera lighting in the gloomy room.
So, we know what Marion did eat for lunch. And it was totally delicious. The way her head instantly moves in on him suggests she’s hungry for more.
Sam’s toplessness – which, being male, is officially non-sexual – to some extent stands in for Marion’s, which was still in 1960 Hollywood officially impossible. But in black and white practise, it is very much its own splendid, highly sexual thing.
They then canoodle on the bed, while Marion makes it clear she’s unhappy about their clandestine, seedy meets and wants to get married. Sam eventually demurs that he can’t afford to get married yet because of the alimony he’s paying to his ex-wife, along with taking care of his father’s debts. Marion replies, prophetically:
“I pay too. They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.”
During this exchange the camera spends most of its time on Sam (who remains partially clothed while Marion gets dressed) and his adorable face, nose and chin, which Marion can’t stop stroking – showing us the back of her head, even when she’s talking. We have to see him from her POV: why she would desire him enough to steal, completely out of character, $40,000 from her kindly old employer.
And we really do.
We’re also left in no doubt that that Marion, despite the talk of marriage, is not some shrinking, 1950s violet. She has a very active sexuality and wants to possess Sam.
Norman, whom she of course meets later on the way to claim Sam with the stolen cash, is a kind of anti-Sam – younger, skinnier, sexually repressed and a mommy’s boy. Oh, and a knife-wielding cross-dressing psychotic.
His voice is quaveringly pubescent compared to Sam’s butch baritone. But like Sam he is also pretty – after all, he’s played by teen-throb and sometime popster Anthony Perkins. Moreover, it is square Sam’s hotness, and unavailability, as well as the stifling gender roles and mores of mid-century America, that has led Marion – the older woman – to the seedy-grisly terminus of the Bates motel.
I’d also forgotten something else about Psycho: how much Norman swishes his tiny tush when climbing the stairs of his gothic family home in the final reel. Just before we hear his ‘mother’, in a voice like late Bette Davis in full sneer mode, shouting:
“No! I will not hide in the fruit cellar! You think I’m fruity, huh? I’m staying right here!”
But then, it’s gothic chicken and eggs – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, made two years later, was conceived as a horror cash-in on the runaway success of Psycho, and Davis’ famous ‘psycho-biddy’ character Jane owes more than a little to Ma Bates.
John Gavin died in 2018, aged 86, an event I seem to have somehow missed, but he’s been in my fruity thoughts lately, having also recently rewatched Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), in which he plays a smouldering young Julius Caesar hanging out with an oysters-and-snails loving Crassus played by Laurence Olivier – and yes, of course there’s a bathhouse scene. And Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), in which he plays an object of double feminine obsession (mother and daughter).
Often described dismissively as a ‘Rock Hudson lookalike’, Gavin was, I’d venture, prettier in his prime than Hudson, whose straight-edge, solid, dull, Anglo, handsomeness was the very reason he was supposedly ‘the last man you woulda guessed’. Although Gavin, who was of Latin American heritage, could sometimes be butchly wooden on screen, and unlike Hudson very heterosexual off-screen, there was something about his youthful looks that he couldn’t quite straighten out. That body. Those eyes. That mouth.
But it was the obese, bald, 60-year-old – as he was when Psycho was made – grandfather from Leytonstone, Mr Hitchcock, famous for his sometimes cruel, objectifying treatment of his female stars, who seems to have truly recognised, drawn out, and forever captured (stuffed?) the full-throated sexual energy, passivity and fatal charisma of Mr Gavin in his prime. A sexual energy, passivity and fatal charisma that Mr Gavin probably didn’t even know he had in him.
As a parting observation, I would suggest only slightly subjectively that in this film so famous for its focus on eyes – Norman’s at the peephole, Marion’s blinking at the car headlights on the highway, unblinking on the brightly-lit bathroom floor, the beady glass ones of the stuffed birds, ours zooming in under the cheap Phoenix hotel room’s blinds, Norman’s grinning psychotic eyes in the final frame – it is Sam’s eyes that are most seductive. They suck you in.
Like a shower drain.