Plot: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer to help her boyfriend (John Gavin) pay off his debts. As she’s running to him, she stops overnight at a secluded hotel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), whose elderly mother lives with him in the adjacent house. When Leigh vanishes (following perhaps the most memorable death sequence in thriller history), her sister (Vera Miles) and boyfriend begin to seek her out, following the trail back to the hotel where she met her fate. A thrilling final confrontation reveals the true depths of Norman Bates’ insanity, jolting the viewers with shock after shock that still resonates 50 years later.
Thoughts: Truly, is there any thriller more classic, more iconic, more memorable than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? The movie launched a whole new subgenre of terror, making the psychology of a killer a vital element to the story. (True, Peeping Tom did the same thing, but far more people remember Psycho.)
Let’s get the necessary stuff out of the way first, though. The film was amazing precisely because it broke so many off the conventions of the day. The film begins with following Janet Leigh as she steals the money and takes off. We watch her go through a red herring sequence where a police officer grows suspicious of her and watches her trade in her car (it adds nothing to the plot, but substantially increases the viewer’s false presumption that Leigh is the film’s protagonist and, therefore, going to be with us for a while). We don’t meet Norman Bates until about a half-hour into the film, and then – assuming you’re one of the three people left on the planet unfamiliar with this sequence – we’re shocked when “Mother” murders Leigh with a full hour remaining. How could this be? She’s the main character, she’s the one we’ve been following! Where will the movie go now?
The truth is that the story isn’t really hers at all, but that false assumption is incredibly effective at distracting us from the true star – Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Norman, as we learn, is the classic victim-turned-victimizer, repressed by an overbearing mother whom he later killed when he felt she was leaving him behind for her new lover. Afterwards, Bates develops a dissociative identity disorder, with “Mother” taking up residence in his head and murdering any woman he feels an attraction to, leading up to the climax of the film, where “Mother” takes over entirely.
Speaking – as I am wont to do – of the influence in both directions, Mother really strikes me as being a construct straight out of William Faulkner. Bates poisons his mother and her lover, then keeps Mother’s corpse with him in the house, carrying her from room to room, speaking to her as if she was alive. I’d be hard-pressed to believe that Robert Bloch wasn’t inspired here by Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” a short story where (in a twist ending — so, y’know, spoiler warning) we learn that the main character poisoned her lover years ago. He was planning to leave her, so she dosed him with rat poison and kept his corpse in her house – and bed – for the rest of her very long life. Something about that idea of living with a corpse, of sleeping next to the dead, is unfailingly creepy. It’s one of the short stories I most enjoy teaching to my 11th grade students every year, just because of the reaction when they get to the end. I wonder how these 16-year-olds would react to seeing Psycho. But more on that later.
Aside from just being a great story and screenplay, Hitchcock’s direction and Perkins’s performance combine to make this a movie that truly deserves the label “masterpiece.” Nearly every frame of the film is a work of art, expertly combining shadow and shape to create an all-pervasive feeling of terror. The 1998 shot-for-shot remake of the film was an abomination in many, many ways, but most notably because you simply can’t create the mood Hitchcock conjured up in a color film. This is a movie that needs to be in black and white to really work. The death scene in particular just isn’t as scary in color. Leigh steps into the shower, blissfully unaware of the figure in the long dress and wig creeping up on the translucent shower curtain. We see the knife raised and brought down, over and over again. The dripping blood (probably chocolate syrup or something of the sort) strikes the pure white tile of the shower and your brain fills in the rest of the blanks as it all swirls down the drain. Sure, we live in a world where the likes of the Saw movies do their level best to be as graphic as possible with the deaths of the characters, but Psycho proves you don’t need to do that to scare the hell out of people.
Janet Leigh – rightly – was given an Academy Award nomination for the film, but I can’t help but feel Perkins was robbed. As good as everything else in the film was, none of it would have worked if his Norman Bates wasn’t so remarkable. When we first meet the character, he’s very kind, polite, handsome, and instantly likable. In other films, he’d be the best friend the leads confide in during their darkest moments. But as the movie progresses, as we learn more about his dysfunctional relationship with Mother, our perception of him begins to change. He becomes an object of pity. With his tall, almost preternaturally slender frame, he somehow looks younger than he really is, almost childlike despite how he rises above Marion. The scene immediately following Janet Leigh’s murder really sticks out. Norman (who the unspoiled viewer doesn’t yet know is the killer) stands in the doorway to the bathroom, mop and bucket in his hand, to clean up the mess Mother made this time. His shoulders slump and we realize the jacket he’s wearing is far too big for his spindly body, making him look like a little boy trying on Daddy’s clothes in the hopes of looking like a grown-up. His discomfort and slip ups when speaking to a private investigator (Martin Balsam) are spot-on perfect, with the sense of unease slowly spreading across his face throughout the scene, leading into a pronounced stutter as his ball of lies becomes too large for him to control.
And then there’s the final shot of the character, once he’s been captured and institutionalized, with Mother’s voice doing the voiceover. The madness hardwired into his brain, projected through the speakers of a movie theater, would be creepy enough, but then Perkins looks up directly at the camera. This is a man that, an hour earlier, any person in the theater would have wanted for his best friend. But now the shape of his smile and the look of madness in his eyes sends an electric jolt of fear straight into the viewer’s brain. He’s clearly mad, clearly an abomination… and then the really chilling thought manages to creep in. If somebody as nice and kind as Norman Bates could be a mask for something so horrible, is there anybody we can really trust? Hitchcock finishes icing the cake as the scene fades and he quickly – almost imperceptibly – superimposes the image of Mother’s skull over Norman’s face. It’s so fast many in the audience probably don’t even consciously notice it, but they know something just happened to scare them even more.
There are only two things that really keep me from considering this a perfect movie experience – one of which is a fault of the film, the other a symptom of its success. The movie ends, after Bates’ capture, with an unforgivably long sequence in which his psychiatrist gets into a highly technical and totally unnecessary explanation of Bates’ psychosis. Any reasonably intelligent moviegoer has already figured out that Bates was insane and killed his mother, the first of his many victims. Giving a clinical explanation for it somehow makes it a little less scary. The few details this scene adds that we couldn’t have figured out – such as the fact that Bates killed at least two other girls between the death of his mother and that of Marion Crane – aren’t needed for us to appreciate the depths of his depravity.
The other problem is that the film is now so well known, so influential, that much of the shock has gone. Even someone who has never seen the movie likely already knows, before they even turn it on, that Norman Bates is the killer and that Mother is dead, a mummified corpse he keeps with him out of a twisted sense of love. In this sense, I almost envy my 11th graders. For many of these kids, 15- and 16-year-olds, any movie made before the turn of the century is practically ancient history, and not on their radar at all. They’ll probably have heard of Psycho, but not really know anything about it. If their apathy allows them to watch this movie for the first time with a blank slate… oh, for the first time, I envy them.
Moving right along, tomorrow we’ll tackle one of the cinema’s most chilling cases of sibling rivalry: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?