-- Much has been written about the film Psycho (1960), although the focus tends to be on the first hour, up until Marion Crane’s body (Janet Leigh) is sunk into the swamp. This essay will instead discuss the latter half of the film, specifically the role of one scene – which I name for ease of description – the Telephone Booth Scene.
The Telephone Booth Scene is a simple one of construction, lasting less than two minutes of screen time, and comprised of only two shots: establishing shot and master shot. The scene opens wide, establishing the gas station parking lot as Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) gets out of his car, shuts the door, and casually enters a phone booth. The booth is standing alone near some trees; a sign reading, ‘Gasoline’ is barely be seen in the dark, left portion of the frame. Dominating the frame is the lighted sign atop the booth which says, in large letters, ‘Telephone.’ Arbogast closes the booth door, grabs a notebook from his pocket, and checks for a number.
Hitchcock cuts to the master shot, medium-close onto the booth, as Arbogast puts a coin into the slot, dials the number, and places the receiver to his ear. He then begins his phone conversation with Marion’s sister Lila Crane (Vera Miles). Being encased in a glass phone booth, the scene metaphorically functions as a message in a bottle, as it is the last communication Arbogast has with the outside world before he is killed.
As a stylistic choice, Hitchcock and writer, Joseph Stefano, have used no dialogue from the other end of the call, only letting us hear Arbogast’s voice. This gives the scene a voyeuristic quality, as the detective is watched in real time. Each time he pauses to listen, it peaks our curiosity, leaving the mind to fill in the blanks.
Coincidentally, in the same year, Bob Newhart launched his comic career with a one-sided phone call routine. Balsam brilliantly pulls off a Newhart moment here, bringing to full life the organic flow of the call. Hitchcock and Balsam must have collaborated on rewording dialogue to make it more natural, as nearly every line has been altered from Stefano’s script. For example, in the film, Arbogast’s greeting is a friendly:
ARBOGAST: ‘Oh hello Loomis? This is Arbogast. Is Lila there? Good, let me talk to her, please,’
This was originally written with more abrasive shorthand:
ARBOGAST: ‘Lila there, Mr. Loomis? Arbogast.’
One could deduce from this warming up of Arbogast’s personality that Hitchcock wanted the viewer to feel sympathy for the detective, to increase our feeling of suspense when he becomes a slashing victim in the next scene.
While the Telephone Booth Scene is a short one, it plays a key role in the film’s dramatic form, shaping the events to follow.
Hitchcock’s placement of this scene at this precise moment, and his rather objective treatment of the expositional information in the call, gives us insight into his suspense strategy. He chose not to draw attention to the scene, as the information relayed in the call is already known by the viewer. This vital information is meant solely for the knowledge of the other characters, Lila and Sam. Hitchcock then creates a great deal of suspense out of their reaction through the next half-hour, as they refer directly to the call nine times in conversation. Their concern surrounding Arbogast’s disappearance grows, creating an up-swell of forward momentum for the viewer through frantic repetition and the local deputy Sherriff’s aloof circular logic. Worry, wide-eyed speculation, and frenzied frustration grows exponentially within Lila and Sam as Hitchcock winds up the tension tighter and tighter toward Psycho’s climax – all because of the phone call.
The content of this message in a bottle is quite simple, yet precise. Arbogast first reveals that Marion did stay at the Bates Motel, in Cabin One. He then mentions a sick mother whom may know more about the whereabouts of Marion. Next, he states his opinion that Sam was not involved in Marion’s disappearance. Arbogast ends the call by repeating a key point, ‘See you in about an hour, or less.’
Hours pass without his return, prompting Sam and Lila to take action. Without this simple phone call in the film, Lila doesn’t know where to go, nor about the mother, nor whether to trust Sam. And, without her and Sam rushing to the rescue of the missing detective, they never discover the mother’s corpse, nor Bates in wig. Clearly, then, this phone call was narratively essential, to put things in motion.
But the begging question about the scene is: why did Arbogast make the call in the first place? The fact that he drives all the way to a gas station to call Lila, specifically, is whimsical at best. Why Lila? The film vaguely establishes Abrogast as a private investigator hired by Marion’s boss, and is only interested in finding the money. Why he doesn’t choose to call his actual client and pass along the new information is unknown. In their previous encounter he is unsympathetic to Lila, but tells her that ‘with a little checking I could get to believe you.’ On the surface it may seem he is calling her out of sympathy, yet he may be testing her reaction to the news, still suspicious of her involvement. Incidentally, he doesn’t seem at all interested in speaking to boyfriend-Sam, probably due to Sam’s wild temperament – the information would have been lost on him.
Emotionally, the scene is about Arbogast being unsure of how to proceed, being lost, and hoping to ‘pick up the pieces.’ It is in the midst of this phone call that he decides to return to the Bates Motel for further investigation. Perhaps in the process of verbalising the findings to Lila, he begins to have a sense of guilt about not asking more questions of Bates. Of course, if he had stayed and tried to talk to the mother, Bates would not have been able
to climb to the bedroom and transform himself into the mother, wielding knife. The very fact that Arbogast leaves temporarily to make this call, seals his own fate. The phone booth, with its wire-mesh window becomes a trap, from which metaphorically he cannot escape.
Written: October 2009
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Written by Jeffrey Michael Bays, an award-winning radio producer most widely known for 'Not From Space' on XM Satellite Radio. He is also filmmaker and film scholar with a Master of Arts in Cinema from La Trobe University. Jeffrey has written for Peter Marshall's Director's Chair, and is currently writing a book for Micheal Wiese Publishing. As an avid fan of Alfred Hitchcock, Jeffrey directed the Australian suspense film Offing David and is currently in development of two new films.