by Ken B.
The question exists, 54 years after its release and following its entry as a cornerstone of pop culture and an influence to an entire genre or two – is it even necessary to review Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? Every positive thing I write will be of no surprise to anyone. Should I be worried about spoilers? I’m pretty sure that nearly everybody reading this knows who actually killed Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the shower of Room 1 of the Bates Motel. A top of the line star rating seems ubiquitous with the property, with raves that will follow devoted to just about everything, including, but not limited to, the story, the acting, Bernard Herrmann’s score, and Hitchcock’s direction, where his oft-stated mantra of playing the audience like a piano is in full force. And in any given piece about the film, there will likely be discussion of how, even in an era where one has seen movies, TV shows, and/or news broadcasts with far more graphic and visceral images, how Psycho’s black-and-white violence and suspense, tame by current standards, still have the power to make for a riveting and spine-tingling 109 minutes. But, to an extent, all of these things should still be said, because they are all true.
It’s important to remember that for the uninformed audience member watching Psycho in its original 1960 theatrical run, there was no reason to believe that there would be a scene just under an hour into the movie in which the person presumed to be the lead character would be murdered, stabbed to death, naked and most vulnerable, under running water in the bathroom of a roadside motel. Today, the shower scene is an irrevocable symbol of Psycho – and to an extent, Hitchcock and Leigh’s careers, despite all of their other notable achievements – but to the original set of viewers, with minimal levels of marketing material besides its trailer and those famous posters and ads where our director informs theater goers that no one will be admitted once the film starts (this old video press release shows that this was meant), this was an out-of-the-blue plot development. The movie goes through stages: Crane going on the run after stealing $40,000 from her Phoenix office where she works as a secretary to afford a marriage to her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) moves into an investigation of her subsequent disappearance, a detective story of sorts, and ends as a wrenching display of madness from Anthony Perkins’ chilling performance as Norman Bates.
And yet some critics upon its initial release stuck their noses up, seeing it as little more than pop sensationalism, or a perceived gross display of violence, otherwise unheard of at this level in major movies in its day. It even led to Guardian critic C.A. Lejeune’s resignation. Now, in a more total perspective, it’s clear that Psycho is a movie that works totally and sleekly, despite being made on a small budget, financed out of Hitchcock’s pocket, shot from late 1959 to early 1960 with the same crew and the same locations as Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Still able to earn its audience’s reactions and jolts over a half-century later, it’s surprising and simultaneously fascinating, to see how well this movie holds up.
A movie that starts with a story of a secretary stealing thousands of dollars and concludes with the revelation of arguably one of the most famous split-personality cases in film, many moviegoers know Psycho inside and out, but I recognize that some may not, and although in the course of the rest of this writing, I may reveal more plot elements that a normal review would, I’ll try my best to steer clear of total spoilers. If you have somehow not yet seen this movie, well, I don’t think I need to say you should, as I’m pretty sure everyone else has before me. But seriously, still do it, because, y’know, it’s a classic.
It’s hard to determine which aspect of Psycho could be considered the most iconic – it could be anything from the shower scene, to the plot twists, to Herrmann’s music, with its sharp and dissonant stabs of the string section. Equally difficult is trying to narrow the film’s single most compelling element. It’s something that people try to do with any great movie, analyzing, scrutinizing, asking that question, “What makes it so great?” Maybe for movies, this is a question best left unanswered, because it is not meant to be so – an excellent film gains its status because everything works so well together, with every aspect performing at top speed, a near-flawless combination of well crafted components expertly blending under their director.
Well, Hitchcock’s direction is good at messing with us, as movie after movie has proved. With a false lead in the first act; a highway patrolman (Mort Mills), with a particular eye on Marion as she drives around the California roadways, even to the point where she quickly trades in her car, her paranoia infinitely multiplied because of the illegal cash in an envelope, the shots taken within the car, simply Marion in the front seat, steering, are standard for filming a character whilst driving, there is an added degree of creepiness, the feeling that she is being watched, that everyone knows what she has done. And then, in the middle of a heavy rainstorm that night, barely able to keep her eyes open, she notices a small motel with its vacancy sign on. The office is empty. But up, nearby, is a big old house with its lights on. And when she is able to get the attention of those inside, a man in his early to mid 20s comes out to help her. Norman Bates (Perkins), the largely isolated son of Norma Bates, tells Marion that “a boy’s best friend is his mother”, and his mother is and has always been the only person that he spends any significant amount of time with. There’s not much thought to be made of this until Marion goes to her room and enters the shower. The rest is history.