Wednesday, January 02, 2013

This Land is Mine and Psycho - a comparison

Today I watched the 1943 movie 'This Land is Mine'. Amazed that the internet mice haven't written more about the links between this film and Psycho, I thought I should oblige. I've tried to avoid spoilers here as I do recommend both films if you're not already familiar with them. 

This Land is Mine is a fairly explicit propaganda film made once America was involved in the second world war. It is set "Somewhere in Europe" and that somewhere is probably France. It starts out as a lightly comical look at life under occupation but later becomes a courtroom drama. The transformation of the main character is from cowardly schoolteacher and mother's boy to upstanding pacifist martyr, speaking out for his nation and finding a voice to express himself to the woman he loves. It has some great speeches, wittily shows how resistance took place in nations that ceased to be free and effectively portrays the easy charm of the Nazi message in starving Europe. It highlights at several points how easily the "middle classes" (which has a wider meaning in America than Britain) in any country can become collaborators. It reaches out to different audiences across the seas by including a reading from the French Bill of the Rights of Man, which has much in common with the USA Declaration of Independence. They were both influenced by Thomas Paine who spent much of his life in France and America winding up his old country by being the really popular writer of Rights of Man. This Land is Mine is a wonderfully stirring affirmation of human rights. It had a record-breaking release at the box office, according to its Wikipedia entry. Its publicity poster, and the title, puts me in mind of Gone with the Wind with the red sky and a strong woman in the forefront (1939).

Source: Wikipedia: fair use claimed.

But enough background, onto the intertextuality! As a media studies student I gained more than a passing acquaintance with the symbolism in the 1960 version of Psycho and, although I'm going to have to watch it again to really indulge myself, many crossovers leap out. Most obviously, the mother and son relationship has been completely caricatured in the later film, with Bates picking up the metaphor in the courtroom scene that "we are all two people" and running with it to portray the twisted relationship in which his 'mother' persona kills women out of jealously and possessiveness. In This Land, the killing is not done with a big knife, but by informing. In a couple of cases, this looks far too much like deliberate copying for comic effect, such as a sillouette of Charles Laughton coming down the stairs that looks like the famous view of a Hitchcock cameo and his bursting towards a frosted door with murder in mind has echoes in Janet Leigh's shower scene. I'm sure someone will tell me if I'm reading too much in to this. 

In Psycho, Saul Bass's titles and much of Hitchcock's direction includes shadows and the screen being split by lines, suggesting split personalities. In This Land the shadows of windows elegantly show the reality of imprisonment despite apparent freedom. This is underlined by the release of a pigeon that is trapped and given to one of the main characters for food. This theme is again echoed in a monologue by Norman Bates about his creepy taxidermy collection. Is there a tabby cat in Psycho? In This Land, the tabby belongs to the woman Londy loves who comes into his bedroom through the window at night (the cat, that is, not the woman). He brings the cat down to breakfast in the morning and gives it treats in small acts of rebellion against his overbearing mother who, obviously, hates the cat. The camera lingers on a crushed rose given to the character by the emasculating Nazi soldier as he quoted lines from Romeo and Juliet at him and tried to woo him into yet more betrayal. More watching and reading to see if there are any links there. 

So the question, my fellow students, is: what were the makers of Psycho trying to do by nicking so many of the elements of a film about Nazi-occupied Europe? Psycho is based on a novel written the previous year, a fairly straightforward tale of an American gone mad and I think most of the crossovers have been added in Hollywood processes. How about personal links between film-makers? Hitchcock and Laughton were both British and contemporaries, born in the same year and with a similar career path. They never worked together again, as far as the listings tell, following Jamaica Inn, which was Hitchock's last UK-based film before they both went to Hollywood and in which, according to Wikipedia again, there were creative tensions between the two. Could the similarities in character portrayal, in particular of the mother, be theft of a rival's work, or a tribute made in admiration for strong and memorable performances? IMDB's entry on Psycho mentions how much of the film revolves around the new highways that ripped so much of old-time America apart; this could have been a shot at modern society's so-called freedoms or perhaps it was a way to remind some of the audience at least of a film they would have remembered from a more noble, or difficult, time when people faced the sort of choices that make Marion Crane's choices look like actions of a woman in a decadent and self-serving era. Incidentally, comparing the two the portrayal of women is probably more sexist in the later film; although Crane is a liberated modern woman she is punished for it, whereas the two women in This Land, although apparently more dependent on their men, are portrayed as less duplicitous and braver than most of the male characters. Even the mother is a fierce anti-Nazi when they get on the wrong side of her china collection.

Psycho could be trying to revive messages from the earlier period, or it could have been portraying a psychological reaction to the traumas suffered in the old world during the war: Norman Bates' character is portrayed as immature but could be old enough to have grown up in the late 1920s and 30s, coming with his mother like many others and changing their name to something more American. Are we to read Psycho as a portrait of a country pathologically damaged by its roots?

Ot it could all simply be coincidence that these were common symbols and the mother's boy/mother were stereotype characters in this period, making for easy shorthand for Hitchcock and his film-literate audience? Discuss...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The movie of Psycho was closely based on the bestselling horror novel _Psycho_ (1959) by Robert Bloch. Bloch had been part of the H.P. Lovecraft circle, so some might see in the novel a faint allusion to Lovecraft (devastated when his mother died, later lived with two spinster aunts, outwardly a conventional man but inwardly a master of horror). But, as Bloch stated many times, the actual source for the setting and plot details of _Psycho_ was the grisly real-life Ed Gein murder case of 1957.