No movie Alfred Hitchcock made prior to Psycho (1960) had prepared audiences for the shock and stunning surprises of his Gothic thriller. Many moviegoers, critics and film scholars consider it not only the “Master of Suspense’s” best film but also one of the best films ever committed to celluloid. While Hitchcock made some of Hollywood’s most romantic thrillers (Rebecca, Suspicion, Notorious, Spellbound), Psycho is his anti-romantic bid: characters look for love, redemption, connection, honor, but in the end they are thwarted by their identities and personal histories. As a wise friend of mine used to say, “We can never outrun our backgrounds, our childhoods, our past. They catch up with us eventually”.
In the case of one character, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), she is quite literally running from the law and from infidelity (her lover Sam, played by John Gavin, is married). In a sudden, bold attempt, she had stolen $40,000 from her employer to help Sam pay for a divorce. Marion decides to make an overnight pit stop at a motel. Before continuing in her flight, she meets the motel owner Norman Bates. Norman wants love or at least to make something work with his entrancing guest, but he is grappling with an overbearing mother, and well, I won’t give too much of it away. These characters represent people undone by a lack of love or a fear of illicit love: Norman’s fear of his mother, Marion’s fear of losing love, of law enforcement, of getting caught. Psycho does not have the “all’s well that ends well” ending of some other Hitchcock outings.
Psycho is arguably the first psychosexual slasher film. It is a story driven by the black madness that propels people’s motives and actions, the torments hidden in the shadows of people’s minds, the disturbances we sense but cannot see in others until it is too late. Hitchcock intentionally fills a movie with shadows and mirrors. In the first scene there are shadows cast by the window blinds across Leigh and Gavin just after they have made love in a seedy city hotel. These cage-like shadows fall across the doomed lovers, imprisoning them in their fate. Norman’s taxidermy hobby populates the motel office and rooms and shadows appear everywhere; they appear in hallways and corners, stairways, in the stuffed, dusty, dead owls and glass-eyed birds perched precariously, in the antlers and horns hovering, all of them watching Norman, watching others.
Watch, too, for the mirrors Hitchcock proliferates. If one stares into a mirror too long, they can come unhinged. You may look too closely at your own image, catch some movement behind you, or get dangerously close to your own psyche; the very perception that mirrors contain something beyond them, that they may trap you in some altered reality, is frightening. In PSYCHO this altered reality is what we see when we peer too deeply into Norman’s troubled mind.
Some of Hitchcock’s keen trademark humor is on display, rendered by Anthony Perkins, perfectly cast as the ultimate Mama’s Boy. However, the film is largely an over-the-top Gothic ride, complemented by Bernard Hermann’s legendary, rolling score. His music grabs us by the hair, pulling us toward the story’s disturbed conclusion. I dare you not to think about PSYCHO’s aftershocks for hours, days, even weeks after you have seen it. It is a movie that will stay with you for a lifetime.
Psycho was historically groundbreaking. Hitchcock’s instituted an innovative “no late admission policy”, as he felt that audiences needed to see what Marion had experienced (her theft, her adultery) prior to her arrival at the Bates Motel. The movie’s promotional posters asked moviegoers not to spoiler the surprise finale. Also groundbreaking was Hitchcock’s use of simulated nudity. He took full advantage of recent leniency in the institution of The Production Code, showing the shapely Leigh in bra and panties and Gavin shirtless, clearly presenting post-coital lovers. Prior to this, strict Production Codes had forbidden depicting two people in the same bed.
Psycho also marked a milestone with the early murder of Marion, a character audiences were set up to believe was the leading lady. It was unheard of to dispatch with a star of Leigh’s magnitude halfway through a film. It is to her brave credit that Leigh agreed to what could have been a career-destroying plunge. Fortunately, her courageous choice granted her movie immortality.
A major reason for this is the celebrated shower scene. It took weeks of planning and a week to film. Consisting of 77 separate cuts (some film historians say 78), its power lies in a suggestion of violence, not in violence itself. If you study the scene closely, you never see the knife pierce Marion’s flesh. The scene is constructed of flashes, swipes, and slices of the weapon through mid-air. The implication of murder is accomplished through suggestion and sound (and screams). In fact, Leigh screams her head off. Still, nowhere in the scene can one find the gore and gruesome overkill of slasher films, progeny of PSYCHO. Nonetheless, it is a scene so shocking, so violent, so out-of-nowhere that it leaves one unable to breathe. The impossibly tight close-up of Leigh’s dead anemone eye provide the ultimate mirror-like reflection: paradoxically reflecting everything and nothing, reflecting the void.
Hitchcock loved shaking up audiences. In no other film did he manipulate as roughly and as playfully as in Psycho. He twisted the saccharine idea of “Mother” into something truly sinister, which no director has ever topped. Contemporary movie directors aspire to create a perfect horror film, but they must first conquer this Mount Everest of a movie. It spawned several sequels; rather than lament being typecast as a maniac, Tony Perkins embraced his fame and played Norman Bates until the end of his life. The film is inspiration, of course, for the popular Bates Motel TV series which stars Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore.
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PSYCHO is a tour-de-force of storytelling, acting and psychological excavations but above all, it is a paragon of direction from the incomparable Alfred Hitchcock. I love Hitchcock. I love his bald pate, his frog eyes, his Pillsbury Doughboy profile. I loved listening to him talk. He always sounded like he’d just eaten an entire bag of marshmallows. Every Friday night, I would drag my shivering body next to the scary, hissing space heater in our living room. I would turn the lights low and revel in his spooky anthology series, Alfred Hitchock Presents. Psycho has made entire generations into fans of horror. To this day, I am as happy as a clam to watch a Hitchcock film. Thank you, Mr. Hitchcock. May your work entertain us for years to come!
Oh! One last reminder — keep an eye out for Hitchcock’s trademark cameo, his way of giving us a wink and a nod in practically every movie he made. See if you can spot him!