Written by Joseph Stefano, based on a novel by Robert Bloch
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
A Paramount Picture
Starring: Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates); Janet Leigh (Marion Crane); Vera Miles (Lila Crane); John Gavin (Sam Loomis); Martin Balsam (Arbogast); Patricia Hitchcock (Carolyn); Vaughn Taylor (Mr. Lowry); Frank Albertson (Mr. Cassidy); John Anderson (California Charlie); Mort Mills (The Policeman); John McIntyre (Sheriff Chambers); Simon Oakland (The Psychiatrist)
It almost seems ridiculous to write about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a thriller that has had more words dedicated to it than any other. What more could possibly be said about this seminal film? Every single sentient being roaming on this planet has either seen the film or at least knows its secret. Robert Bloch’s famous twist is so well-known that one suspects that, having entered the international consciousness, the film’s revelations are genetically passed into the brains of new-borns. Norman Bates is a murderer who, unwilling to accept the fact that he has murdered his mother, kills attractive women while donning his mother’s dresses. We know that; this is not a secret that is worth keeping from anyone (trust me, whoever you might bump into, they know the ending of this film). Thousands of essays have been written in thousands of books concerning this seminal film. At this juncture, I’d like to recommend two in particular: Danny Peary’s in Cult Movies and William Rothman’s in Hitchcock – The Murderous Gaze. If you really want to know a thing or two about this film, start with those two geniuses and keep going from there.
So why the Hell am I going to attempt to add anything new to such a plethora of words and ideas? Because there’s no way I couldn’t include Psycho in a month of scary movie viewing and therefore I am contract-bound to say something about it. I can’t promise any fresh revelations after all this time, but I’m proud to be yet one more sputtering idiot venerating at the feet of a film that changed not only horror films but film in general. When it comes to the history of cinema, there are really only two periods: before Psycho and after.
One way to truly appreciate Psycho’s power is to stylistically compare it to the film that Hitchcock released the previous year, North By Northwest. That film, as secure a classic as it is, is a throwback to the thrillers that Hitchcock was expertly churning out twenty-five years earlier (literally, as the film has many similarities to his 1935 magnum opus The 39 Steps). As good as North By Northwest is, with its biplane chase and elegant heroes and villains, there is something sneaking in between the frames of the film that tells this reviewer that Hitchcock was starting to feel stale with this type of film. Cary Grant is still charming but a bit too gray-haired to be running in front of crop dusters and despite all of Hitchcock’s assurances that the audience wasn’t interested in the plot (in his famous McGuffin explanations); North By Northwest suffers from a deficit of depth when it comes to the storyline. North By Northwest is flashy and fun and it was about time for Hitchcock to turn a corner. It was time to get dark.
There is evidence to suggest that Hitchcock knew this himself: rather than use his regular film crew to shoot Psycho, he instead employed the crew that shot episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the hope of getting a quicker shoot and a different look. He succeeded with flying colors (in black & white, that is); Psycho looked and felt like no other major release that came before it. That the man who gave the world Rear Window and Shadow Of A Doubt, not to mention his appearances on television screens week after week in witty inserts for his suspense program, could delve into something as dark and dirty as the story of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein (the first of many films to be inspired by his crimes) was a revelation/mindfuck. Hitchcock’s audacity produced a film that will never be forgotten and that will always be identified with absolute terror, regardless of how worn the shocks have become.
In 1960, Psycho’s power was concealed in its secrets. In modern times, Psycho is a respected patriarch, unable to shock but respected and venerated for 43 seconds of film that will never be bettered: nothing became Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) life more than her leaving of it. While the story belongs to Robert Bloch and the script to Joseph Stefano, the most famous murder sequence in cinema history belongs to no one but Hitchcock: when confronted with Bloch’s shower murder, which ends with the unfortunate Ms. Crane losing her head, Hitchcock crafted a murder sequence that will never be mastered. In 43 seconds, he ends Marion Crane’s life in style, giving us violence worthy of later horror directors like Craven and Zombie, while keeping well within the realm of the standards of the Hays code. After more than forty years of calling the shots, Hitchcock knew exactly how to play both the audience and the Hays Office: producing a sequence that could achieve maximum scares while appeasing the censors was a high-wire act that would’ve impressed Karl Wallenda.
Thus far, an uninitiated reader might glean that Psycho’s greatness lasts for only 43 seconds, the rest of its running time given to preparation and aftermath. Nothing could be further from the truth. What few reviewers talk about is the connection between the plight of its two main characters, Marion Crane and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). In many ways, what Marion struggles against is what Norman has already surrendered himself to. Marion’s natural middle-aged fear of remaining a spinster is magnified by the already-ruined libido that is Norman Bates. The marvelous conversation that Hitchcock stages between the two in Bates’s parlor tells us more about Bates’s relationship with his mother than Simon Oakland’s turn as the psychiatrist at the end of the film: when Marion points out that Norman’s mother had only him after the death of her lover, he responds, “A son is a poor substitute for a lover.”
Not that they didn’t try.
Psycho is a horror film not just because of Marion’s murder, but because of the filthy underbelly of depravity that Hitchcock can only hint at: yes, we see quite clearly that the corpse of Norman’s mother is right there in the fruit cellar, big as life and twice as ugly, and the words of the psychiatrist fills in some mighty dreadful gaps, but where this film ends is where our imaginations begin. Oakland’s psychiatrist states the facts of Norman’s life with as much tact as to not upset Marion’s sister Lila (or the censors), but let’s think about those words: “For years, the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world… He stole her corpse… even treated it for as long as it would keep…” These are simple words which conjure up the images of a nightmare: Norman finding a way to replace his mother’s casket with stones, hiding the body and using his taxidermy skills to stuff and preserve the body as it decays and leaves its impression on the bed that Lila (Vera Miles) discovers in the film’s final act. Hitchcock has taken the road that Mary Shelly’s delicate Victorian feet trod in Frankenstein and led us to its modern equivalent, but unlike Shelly’s mad scientist who at least succeeds in creating life, Norman can create only death: the life he creates exists only in his own tortured mind. The Modern Prometheus has taken an even more modern turn, by way of Freud’s worst wet dreams.
Anthony Perkins, then twenty-eight years old, played Bates with a perfect mixture of small-town naiveté and crippling neurosis. His monstrousness isn’t wholly in the murders he commits; it’s his illusionary harmlessness that unsettles the viewer once the whole truth is discovered. To be fair, Perkins isn’t required to play a homicidal maniac for much of the film: only his scene in the fruit cellar and his silent scene in the police station is all we get of Norman-the-psychopath. Hitchcock wisely cast an actor known for his sensitivity (Perkins was a particularly shy man, especially around women), but a little of Perkins as a nutjob goes a long way. While Perkins in drag struggling with John Gavin feels anticlimactic today (the real climax of the scene is the reveal of the cadaverous Mrs. Bates), Norman’s “She-wouldn’t-even-harm-a-fly” smile still sends shivers down the spines of modern audiences (and keep a sharp eye out for the almost subliminal dissolve of Mrs. Bates’ skeletal smile over Norman’s mouth). Even in that final moment, with Norman’s story now an open book for all to read, there is a real inscrutability concerning this young man: through the entire film he has been blaming his mother for the murders and now it is Mother Bates (voiced by actress Virginia Gregg) who blames Norman for the murders. While Norman, the man who owns the hand that held the knife that stabbed Marion Crane to death, is chiefly responsible for what he’s done, his evil smile and Mother’s monolog point in another direction entirely. The psychiatrist begins his scene by saying that, mentally, Norman no longer exists, and so the evil smile can only be his mother’s. There is something absolutely frightening about Mother Bates’ speech at the end of the film; her smile is that of a cobra ready to strike (if such a creature could actually smile). It bides its time: it won’t swat the fly that’s crawling on its hand, but don’t take that as a sign that it’s safe to wander anywhere in striking distance. A creature that decides not to swat a fly and smiles like that does so because killing is the only thing that gives it pleasure, and a fly certainly can’t scream as loud as a fully grown woman taking a shower, so where’s the fun in that?
Our last look at Norman is undoubtedly the sight that made Marion scream as she turned to view her assailant in the shower, it is what made Arbogast (Martin Balsam) stumble backwards down the staircase. When it fixes us with its gaze at the end of the film (followed by a shot of Marion’s car being dragged out of the swamp, lest we forget what may become of us if we encounter Norman on a bad day), we are the next victim. Psycho is still a great film because in its last frame it reminds us that we are the ultimate victim of Norman’s gaze. Norman Bates is the specter of death and he’s coming, ultimately, for us. Not because we’ve done anything to deserve it (it’s important to note that Marion’s murder occurs after she decides to return the money she’s stolen and face the consequences), but simply because that’s what it does, and it likes its job.
And any film that can make people slightly nervous to take a shower over fifty years after its premier can’t be all that rusty.