Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Frank Albertson, Patricia Hitchcock, Vaughn Taylor, Lurene Tuttle, John Anderson, Mort Mills, Virginia Gregg
(out of 4)
Can you grab me a towel?
Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead
I can only imagine the kind of effect Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had on the movie-going audiences of the year 1960. Here is a film that, I think, was among the first to have not just one jarring twist but two of them, an exercise in manipulation practically unmatched since (although, M. Night Shyamalan did his best); a movie that broke boundaries in horror, moving the bar in regards to what would be acceptable to show in mainstream cinema. A bit of trivia I can’t help but share: in addition to the two major scenes of violence that sorta make Psycho the granddaddy of slasher cinema, this was the first movie made in America to portray a flushing toilet(!), another instance of dragging the audience into the “gutter” so-to-speak (something I suspect Hitchcock-follower De Palma liked to do). Even the use of the term “transvestite” at the end of the film was taboo, until screenwriter Joseph Stefano convinced the suits that it was an actual scientific term and not some kind of curse-word.
Hitting the screens with the gimmick “Nobody will be admitted after the show starts… do not tell your friends the horrible secrets!” Psycho opens with a camera push-in through a high-rise hotel window where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is with her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin), whom she hooks up with during lunch hours. She feels like she is rapidly approaching spinster status, but Sam won’t marry her due to the enormous debts he carries, not to mention the fact that he lives in the back of the hardware store he works at. At work, one of her boss’ drunken millionaire clients makes a clumsy pass at her while waving around $40,000 in cash (that’s more than $300 grand in today’s money, in case you’re wondering). In an impulsive, irrational act, she fails to deposit the money into the bank for her boss and instead drives out of town with it, hoping it will give her and Sam a new life. Her paranoia begins when her boss crosses in front of her car while she’s leaving (remember that scene in Pulp Fiction where Marcellus turns to see Butch in his car?), and builds after a highway patrolman (Mort Mills) becomes suspicious and follows her, leading to a scene where she hastily trades her car in for another.
Smokin cigarettes and watchin Captain… Kangaroo….
What I just described is the first trick from Hitch. The movie is very focused on what Marion does with the cash and the suspense of her run-ins with people who are close to ruining her plans. The audience at this point thinks it’s a crime caper/drama. Then the rain falls heavily at night, forcing Marion to take shelter at the Bates Motel, which isn’t very popular since the main highway was built. Caretaker Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins in a career-defining performance) checks her in to cabin #1, and awkwardly invites her to dinner, since there’s nobody else around to eat with. Well, almost nobody – Norman’s overbearing mother lives in the large house next to the cabins at the top of a hill, and Marion can hear that she’s not very happy with her son flirting with strange girls (“I tell you no! I won’t have you bringing some young girl in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds!”) Norman and Marion have a conversation in the parlor in the rear of Norman’s office which I think is one of the most important sequences of the film. Norman apologizes for his mother’s outburst, saying that she’s “ill” and proceeds to tell Marion about himself, including the fact that he does taxidermy as a hobby (Norman likes to stuff birds most of all, because they look “passive” to begin with). Norman is awkward and a bit nerdy, but likable, until Marion mentions the idea of taking his mom to an institution, which makes Norman angry (“What do you know about caring? Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing, and the tears, and those cruel eyes studying you? My mother there?”) At the end of the conversation, the two agree about how everybody lives in their own private trap, usually of their own making. If you’ve seen the film, you realize the irony in this scene, as the conversation with Norman has convinced Marion to return the money and head back to Phoenix.
At this point, Norman Bates has been made into a sympathetic figure, and he’ll remain one to the end, despite the revelations about him that are coming. He’s shy, weird, and definitely too close to his mother for comfort, but the audience still feels that he cares for Marion’s well being. His mother, on the other hand, is possessive, insanely jealous and, we soon find out, murderous. The shower scene is one of the most famous sequences of all time, and is notable for a few reasons. One is that, due to the way the kill scene is cut/edited, the viewers never see the knife contact flesh. It’s all done with edits and sound. Another reason is that it’s a classic case of rug-pulling by Hitchcock, a massive betrayal of the audience. After this scene, the movie has switched gears and has now firmly entered mystery/thriller/horror territory. Bates, being the dutiful son, witnesses the aftermath of his mom’s rampage and cleans up the scene.
By now, private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) has been hired to track down Marion and the MacGuffin (er, the money), along with her boyfriend Sam and her sister Lila Crane (Vera Miles) in tow. Arbogast is persistent, and eventually shows up at the Bates Motel, where he catches Norman in more than a few lies. Arbogast soon becomes a victim to “mother”, leading Lila and Sam to Sheriff Chambers (John McIntire), who insists that Norman’s mother died years ago. In a brilliant case of misdirection, typical of the Hitch, the Sheriff says “Well, if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates… who’s that woman buried out in Greenlawn Cemetery?”
Alright, sit, down, shut up, and let me explain this to you idiots.
You probably already know the twists in Psycho, don’t you? If you don’t, just stop reading and watch the film. For the rest, I encourage you to re-watch the movie and enjoy it for its multiple layers. Things to watch for: the commentary on voyeurism (Norman’s peeping at Marion through the hole in the wall), the driving scenes where Marion creates conversations in her head (paralleling Norman’s “condition”), the idea of falling into “private traps,” the conversations characters have with one another without them being on the same wavelength, the concept of stuffing things to give the illusion that they are still alive. Then there’s the brilliant score from Bernard Herrmann (which I can’t help hearing in themes from Friday the 13th and Re-Animator), the title sequence/parallel lines from Saul Bass, the touches of humor (Norman tries to bury a car in the nearby swamp and is perturbed when the car momentarily stops submerging), the ending “explanation” from a psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) which I have no problem with, partly because of the funny, self-satisfied way that Oakland delivers his lines, and finally, Anthony Perkins’ performance, which is absolutely amazing. He is the reason that Norman Bates is one of the greatest on-screen villains. Finally, there’s something interesting, maybe fortuitous, about the fact that Psycho was made in 1960, and marks this transition from the conservative 50s to the chaotic, counterculture of the 60s. In cinema, Psycho is no doubt an important turning point.
– Bill Gordon
Buy Psycho on DVD
Buy Psycho (50th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray]
Buy Psycho (Collector’s Edition DVD)
Buy Psycho: Universal Legacy Series (Special Edition DVD)
So much has been written on Hitchcock’s Psycho I wouldn’t even know where to start. I do like Walter Chaw’s take on the film, where he states that Hitch undermined “every single article of faith in American society of the 1950s with meticulous efficiency and sadism” and that the film “skewers not only our belief in our fellow man and every single traditional tent pole of security, but also our trust that our children won’t turn out to be monsters that exist ineffably apart from us. Psycho kills because it casts the innocent as The Other.”
Psycho inspired sequels (all starring Perkins), but not for more than 22 years after the original! Psycho II (which also brings back Vera Miles) came out in 1983 and Psycho III (directed by Perkins himself) came out 3 years later. There was even a prequel/sequel made for cable – Psycho IV – The Beginning.
“You wanna talk about secrets…my boy’s got a whopper, let me tell ya.”