In conversation with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock mentioned “Psycho,” saying that it was a film for filmmakers – people like Truffaut and Hitchcock himself. Hitchcock deliberately wanted “Psycho” to have the cheap look of an exploitation film. As such, he shot it not with his expensive feature crew (who had just finished working on “North by Northwest”) but with the lower budgeted television show crew. He utilized black and white filming. There was no dialogue in lengthy sections of the film. Even by 1960’s standards, his budget ($800,000) was low; The Bates Motel and mansion were constructed on the Universal Studios back lot. In terms of its pulse, “Psycho” is more comparable to noir films like “Detour” than it is to beautiful Hitchcock suspense thrillers such as “Rear Window” or “Vertigo.”
Though other Hitchcock films may have been more well-received, none had a greater impact than this one. In an interview with Truffaut, the director remarked “I was directing the viewers…You might say I was playing them, like an organ.” To its original audience members, it was the most shocking film they had ever seen. The advertisements advised: “Do not reveal the secrets!” and no viewer could have guessed the twists that Hitchcock had in store–the murder of Marion (Janet Leigh), the apparent protagonist, only a third of the way into the film, and the mystery surrounding Norman’s mother. “Psycho” was marketed as an William Castle trash film. Hitchcock stated that it was required for the audience to see “Psycho” from the beginning, explaining that those who came in late would be waiting to see Janet Leigh after she had disappeared from the screen action.
Even though these twists are now well-known, “Psycho” continues to terrify and insinuate audiences. That’s largely due to Hitchcock’s artistry in two places that aren’t immediately apparent: the creation of the Marion Crane narrative and the connection between Marion and Norman (Anthony Perkins). Both of these parts function because Hitchcock invests his full attention and ability to treating them as if they will be developed throughout the film.
A theme that Hitchcock often returned to was the idea of an ordinary person who is guiltily caught up in a criminal plot. Marion Crane does steal $40,000, but she still fits Hitchcock’s mold of an innocent victim of crime. We first see her during an afternoon in a shabby hotel room with her divorced lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). He cannot marry her because he is still paying alimony from his previous marriage; they must meet in secret. When the money appears, it’s attached to a slimy real estate customer (Frank Albertson) who insinuates that Marion might be willing to have sex with him for money. So Marion’s motive is love, and her victim is a creep.
This is a plot that Hitchcock could’ve easily used and it would’ve been interesting for two hours. It never feels like something created to deceive us. Also, as Marion tries to escape Phoenix to go Fairvale, California– which is Sam’s home town– we get another one of Hitchcock’s famous trademarks: paranoia about the police. A highway patrolman (Mort Mills) wakes her up from a nap by the road, questions her thoroughly, and can almost see the envelope with stolen money. She has to give up her automobile and acquire a different one with different license plates, but as she approaches the dealership, she is surprised to see the same police officer parked across the street, leaning against his squad car, arms folded, surveying her. This first-time viewer thinks that the arrangement establishes a story line that the film will follow to its conclusion.
Marion is afraid, weary, and perhaps already ashamed of her crime as she drives toward Fairvale. A violent rainstorm slows her progress. She pulls into the Bates Motel and begins a brief but significant connection with Norman Bates. And once again, Hitchcock’s attention to the scenes and dialogue assures us that Norman and Marion will be important actors for the remainder of the story.
In the “parlor” of Norman’s home, where savage stuffed birds seem poised to swoop down and capture them as prey, he seduces her. Marion has overheard Norman’s mother chastising him, and she gently proposes that Norman not remain at this dead-end motel on a route bypassed by the new interstate. She cares for him. She is also compelled to reconsider her own behaviors. And he is affected by it. That is why he must kill her.
When Norman spies on Marion, it’s easy for the audience to see his actions as those of a Peeping Tom. Truffaut observed that the film’s opening, with Marion in a bra and panties makes it clear what will happen later on. We have no idea murder is in store at this point.
Many aspects of the shower scene come to mind today. Unlike modern horror films, “Psycho” never depicts the knife cutting open flesh. There are no wounds. There is blood, but it isn’t gallons of it. Because he felt that audiences could not endure so much blood in color, Hitchcock filmed “Psycho” in black and white (the 1998 Gus Van Sant remake disproves this). Bernard Herrmann’s spine-chilling chords play in lieu of more gruesome sound effects. The final shots are not graphic but rather symbolic; as blood and water spin down the drain, the camera focuses on a closeup of Marion’s unmoving eyeball. Remaining the most effective slashing in movie history, this suggests that situational and artistic detail are more important than graphic ones.
Perkins gives a performance that has become a landmark in its representation of the complex character Norman. He shows us there is something fundamentally wrong with Norman, and yet he maintains a young man’s likability through gestures like jamming his hands into his jeans pockets and skipping onto the porch with a grin. Only when conversation turns personal does he stammer and evade. In doing so, Perkins evokes our sympathy for Norman in much the same way as Marion does.
The death of Marion is followed by Norman’s intense mopping-up of the scene. Hitchcock deliberately substitutes protagonists so that, after Marion’s death, we identify with Norman on a subconscious level. We would be consumed by fear and guilt like he is if we stabbed someone. Bates, dressed in a wet suit, takes the wheel of her car and drives it into a swamp. The vehicle sinks and then pauses; Norman continues to watch intently. The automobile is finally submerged beneath the surface as Bates puts the key in the ignition.
We notice that we wanted the automobile to sink as much as Norman did, and we analyze our feelings. “Psycho” has a new protagonist before Sam Loomis re-emerges, teamed up with Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) to search for her: Norman Bates. One of the boldest swaps that Hitchcock ever pulled was in this film. Though the rest of it is full of edge-of-your-seat drama and two jump scares, nothing compares to when private eye Arbogast (Martin Balsam) gets killed. The way Hitchcock uses back projection makes it seem like we’re following him down the stairs. And as if that wasn’t enough, viewers are also let in on Norman’s mother’s dark secret.
However, for those who think deeply about what they watch, an even greater surprise is in store. The mystery of why Hitchcock tarnished the ending of a beautiful work with a scene that ishideously out of place. After the murders have been solved, an inexplicable scene occurs in which a lengthy psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) lectures the assembled survivors on the origins of Norman’s psychopathic behavior. This is a real anticlimax that has almost reached the point of parody.
I’d cut out the doctor’s first explanation of Norman’s dual personality, which appears toward the beginning of Psycho: “Norman Bates no longer exists. He was only half-existent to begin with. And now, the other half has taken over, most likely for all time.” I would cut out the psychiatrist’s dialogue and jump to the shots of Norman wrapped in the blanket while his mother’s voice speaks (“It’s sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son…”). These edits, I submit, would have made “Psycho” much closer to perfect. I have never seen a single convincing defense of the psychiatric chatter; Truffaut skilfully avoids it in his famous interview.
“Psycho” is one of the few films that continues to scare us even after we’ve left the theater because it hits close to home in terms of the fears that grip us on a daily basis. Whether it’s committing a crime ourselves, being targeted by a madman, or fearing our mother’s disappointment, “Psycho” provides a spine chilling reflection of our everyday anxieties.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Joseph Stefano, Robert Bloch
Stars: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles