by Erika Bromley
“My name is Arbogast, friend. I’m a private investigator.”
Psycho opened in 1960 to much fanfare and success, and it seemed audiences entered theaters for Janet Leigh (and/or the Wiliam Castle inspired Alfred Hitchcock “marketing party” -- can I make that a phrase? -- and spectacle) and left talking about Norman Bates (see what I did there). Both Leigh and Anthony Perkins (whom JB wrote a column about a few Octobers ago) give career-defining performances that truly remain with viewers long after the film ends. But I can’t help but also recognize Martin Balsam, who may only have a handful of scenes in the film but almost steals the movie for me.
“Your girlfriend stole $40,000”
It’s also refreshing that Arbogast takes the case very seriously from the start. He first tracks down Loomis, because (as history has also shown us), the significant other is often a factor in missing person cases. Loomis seems so confused about the situation initially, and I love that Arbogast’s intuition is quick; he senses there’s more to this disappearance than running away with a boyfriend -- or the boyfriend trying to steal money. When Arbogast says, “Well, with a little checking, I could get to believe you,” he’s so pleasant, casually leaning against the store counter and quietly securing their trust, and he gains the viewer’s trust, too. Arbogast sets out to retrace Marion’s steps as best as he can, leaving Lila and Sam with a solid, assured, “I’ll find her” before he leaves the store.
“Someone has seen her… someone always sees a girl with $40,000...”
“Old habits die hard; it’s possible this girl could have registered under another name…”
When he calls Lila to tell her that Marion had been to the Bates Motel, Hitchcock does NOT have any shots of Lila on the other end -- it’s only Arbogast's side. His dialogue alone has to move the story forward, explaining his motivations and updating what he thinks might be a major clue for the case. Movies almost always cross-cut in scenes like this, but Hitchcock doesn’t here, so it’s all on Balsam, and again, he makes it easy and natural.
“I think our friend Sam Loomis didn’t know Marion was here.”
Because Balsam has the presence of a seasoned stage actor (his start came from television, but he did win a Tony in 1967 and an Academy Award two years prior for A Thousand Clowns, which was adapted from a play), he seems reliable and trustworthy. The audience believes anything he says and is immediately on his side. When he enters the Bates motel (without permission!), his facial expression quietly turns to less of a relaxed curiosity and more of a focused, ambitious curiosity -- something seems off, and he knows it, but he doesn’t have any answers yet. Then, when he enters the home to snoop around, he’s alone -- alone in a big house, responsible for using nothing but his “stage presence” to hold the audience’s attention/focus. Maybe it’s just great casting, so credit should go to Jere Henshaw (uncredited casting director). If they needed a natural, confident actor, Henshaw chose the perfect one.
Balsam isn’t given as much to do in Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece, Twelve Angry Men, yet I still notice him more than some other jurors despite his character not having any of the flashy monologues, feisty outbursts, or emotional close-ups. Patrick and I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time last winter, and though I knew a lot about the film going in, I was not aware of Martin Balsam’s role; the surprise of seeing him had me beaming through all his scenes.
And earlier this #ScaryMovieMonth, after sharing a few movie characteristics for which I was in the mood, Patrick pulled The Sentinel from our shelves. Not only did this movie work for me on every level (New York, seventies, modeling, Beverly D’Angelo, strange gatherings of peculiar-acting characters, giant book shelves, ghosts, weird sex stuff, other sex stuff, Jerry Orbach…), but it features a scene with MARTIN BALSAM! I loudly shouted his name when it popped up in the opening credits (I’m all movie-watching class over here!), and though it is not a huge part, again, something about his cool consistency on screen had me hooked. He’s much older here than in Psycho obviously, but it is his natural presence and ease of performance that captivated me once more.
A common phrase during any theater production is, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” I don’t know how professional actors feel about this idiom, but I do know that an actor can absolutely make a difference in even the smallest of roles. Martin Balsam always did, never more than in Psycho.