At this point, I've seen Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho often enough to have a lot of images from that movie permanently seared into my brain: the unnerving enthusiasm of Norman Bates' crooked grin, the bloody water spiraling down the drain, the wide-eyed victim reeling backwards on a staircase, the silhouette of an old woman sitting next to the window, the sheriff standing across the street with his arms folded, the Bates Motel sign, Hitchcock in a cowboy hat, the sinking car, the fly. I love the movie, but I also know it so thoroughly that it becomes easy to forget the initial impact of my first viewing. Yes, it's an immensely absorbing film and you pick up lots of little details with repeat viewings, but nothing quite matches the raw shock of the movie's big revelations.
That's why I was sort of grateful to be sitting in front of a woman who had never seen Psycho during my most recent viewing of the film. I say “sort of” because she was also an exceptionally talkative person, offering running commentary during moments when silence would have been appreciated (“Look at her, she's in her underwear – I didn't think you could show that back then!”). Still, it added something to the experience, because her uncertainty about what was going to happen and her responsiveness to the film's big moments (there was a no-holds-barred scream during the shower scene) caused me to stop paying attention to the nuances of Hitchcock's technique and start focusing on what a diabolically clever piece of storytelling Psycho is.
The film begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, Touch of Evil), a Phoenix real estate secretary who steals $40,000 in cash from her employer and goes on the run. After trading in her old car for a new one, she determines to head to California, where she plans to give the money to her unsuspecting boyfriend Sam (John Gavin, Spartacus). On the way, she stops to spend the night at Bates Motel, a humble little business located on the side of a quiet highway. She's the only customer the motel has had in days, and the office/property manager Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, The Trial) certainly seems excited to see her.
Norman initially comes across as a sweet guy, but the more Marion talks to him, the odder he seems. She overhears a heated argument he has with his hateful mother, and later discovers that Norman's chief pastime is taxidermy (“My hobby is stuffing things”). We begin to suspect that he has been severely damaged by his mother's overbearing nature. And then... well, if you know, you know, and if you don't, I won't be the one to tell you.
Given society's current obsession with serial killers and psychopaths, it seems strange to consider that Paramount disliked the notion of building a movie around a psychopathic character. Not because they found it distasteful, mind you, but because they feared audiences wouldn't be interested in a film like that. Suffice it to say that their fears were unfounded: the film was a huge hit, and is arguably the defining work of Hitchcock's career.
Bits and pieces of Norman Bates' personality can be found in a host of modern film and TV villains, but the frequent imitations haven't diluted the character's impact. That's partially because Hitchcock demonstrates a level of empathy for Bates that few filmmakers are willing to extend to their nastier characters. The film doesn't merely point at a psychopath and scream in terror; it invites us to get inside his mind and occasionally even tricks us into rooting for him. Norman's panic is as palpable as anyone else's.
The other key part of what makes Norman special, of course, is Anthony Perkins' terrific performance. It's a perfect marriage of actor and role. Yes, it probably ruined a lot of career opportunities for Perkins (it was so difficult for the general public to see him as anyone other than Norman Bates), but it also made him a legend. His performance is so much looser and more alive than most performances in Hitchcock films are permitted to be. Watching Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam (12 Angry Men), John Gavin and some of the film's other actors, you sense Hitchcock's precise direction of their body movement and line delivery. Perkins is (seemingly, anyway) given considerably more freedom to explore – he stammers, pauses, squints, smirks and scratches his head, creating a character who's far more neurotic than anyone else in the film but also far more human. Gavin seems like a handsome actor auditioning for a role in a straight-laced '60s cop drama, but Perkins seems like that one nice guy you know who always turns down invitations to parties and tends to ramble nervously during casual conversations. There's a fascinating contrast during his scenes with Leigh, who plays her character with a tense stiffness that feels entirely appropriate given the situation she's gotten herself into.
Psycho has an unconventional structure and flow, but Hitchcock demonstrates the command of a great symphony conductor in the way he arranges the pieces of the movie. Consider the long stretch of dialogue-free scenes that appear in the wake of the shower scene, as Hitchcock allows a lengthy sequence to unfold at a fairly relaxed pace for the sake of giving us time to get our bearings and ask ourselves questions about what we've just witnessed. The film has us firmly in its grip at that point, and Hitchcock gives the audience ample time to readjust to Psycho's new reality before jumping back into the realm of plot and exposition.
Hitchcock was in the middle of a particularly imaginative stretch of films when he made Psycho, and there's a cool technical idea in almost every scene, from the way the opening credits occasionally morph into musical waveforms to the way a fleeting-but-unsettling image is superimposed over the film's penultimate and final shots. Countless pages have been written about the brilliant editing in the shower scene, but how many people also take the time to appreciate the ingenuity of the way Hitchcock essentially skips a handful of potentially dull exposition-driven scenes by employing snippets of voiceover dialogue from other characters during Leigh's long, rain-filled drive? The film's black-and-white cinematography adds immeasurably to the film's foreboding atmosphere. For direct contrast, observe the full-color shots of the Bates estate in the assorted Psycho sequels, and notice how much less striking they seem.
All of Bernard Herrmann's collaborations with Hitchcock are worth celebrating, of course, but there's no question that Psycho is the most instantly recognizable score of the composer's career. Again, the contribution to the shower scene is the moment everyone knows, but the bold, tense energy of Herrmann's title cue sets the tone of the film perfectly, and he knows precisely when to switch from low-key suspense music to thunderous melodrama. It's the grandfather of countless horror scores, and as with Perkins' performance and Hitchcock's direction, its influence can be found all over the place. There are many Herrmannesque scores and many Hitchcockian films, but precious few things in either category match the brilliance of the genuine article.
It's hardly an original criticism to suggest that the film's most prominent flaw is the coda involving the psychiatrist, who patiently explains things that were already entirely obvious to anyone watching the movie. The film's less commonly criticized weakness are the scenes involving the characters played by John Gavin and Vera Miles (The Searchers), who aren't nearly as interesting as the other major players in the film. The scenes aren't bad, it's just that they feel like scenes from a fairly ordinary early '60s thriller. They only stand out because of how sensational everything else is. Psycho is the rare movie that actually lives up to the bold promise made by its posters: “A new – and altogether different – screen excitement!”
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Year: 1960