Psycho is a masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock, a uniquely American horror story that redefined and codified the horror genre. Even after one has already seen the film, and knows the twists and the plotting detours that Hitchcock’s adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel might make, it’s still a powerful and compelling piece of cinema. Hitchcock laid a template here that would inform generations of horror films that followed, with the DNA of Psycho to be found even in the most unlikely of places.
Note: Hitchcock famously guarded the ending to this project. “Don’t give away the ending — it’s the only one we have!” he pleaded in advertisements. However, it has been fifty-two years, so I fear that the statute of limitations on potential spoilers has expired. After all, Psycho has been so massively influential it’s hard not to know what happens. If, by some fluke, you know nothing about the film… see it! See it now! We’ll still be here when you get back.
You could make a fairly solid argument that Hitchcock and Psycho effectively invented the “slasher” genre, to the point where John Carpenter’s Halloween, the film that kicked off the spate of low-budget efforts in the late seventies and eighties, features a character named “Sam Loomis” who must be an homage to the prototypal heroic boyfriend in this film. In fact, Wes Craven’s Scream, the film the kicked off a post-modern frenzy of slashers in the late nineties, even featured its own “Loomis” character in the form of Billy. (Of course, in that example, the boyfriend turned out to be the killer, in a wry and ironic twist.)
You can see a lot of the elements that would become essential ingredients within these later movies, arguably articulated with more confidence and skill than many subsequent efforts. In effect, Janet Leigh finds herself cast as the first slasher movie vixen killed by promiscuity. She’s introduced in a sordid state of undress in a sleazy hotel room with her boyfriend. It’s that affair which prompts her to steal the money belonging to her employer’s associate, and it’s that train of thought and action that ultimately leads to her untimely demise.
Although by no means as overwhelming and suffocating as some later efforts, Psycho appears to lay down the harsh puritanical morality of these sorts of films. By stealing the money, as a result of her sleazy love affair, our heroine seals her own fate. In her first scene, Janet Leigh wears a virginal white bra. After she steals the money, her costume changes. Her bra and skirt are immediately black, as is her handbag – perhaps visually representing how she has been morally tainted.
It’s telling that she still winds up murdered, even though she seems to repent. In one of her final scenes, she confesses to Norman that she plans to return home and to make right her mistake. “I stepped into a private trap back there,” she tells him, “and I want to go back and… try to pull myself out.” Hitchcock’s morality is too harsh a mistress to forgive even the most sincere attempt at redemption, and she dies almost immediately afterwards, unredeemed.
Hitchcock’s movies have always had a strong sexual undercurrent, and perhaps it’s appropriate that Psychois one of his most explicit – after all, the slasher genre would inherit a rather curious sexualisation of violence. The knife is, of course, a phallic instrument, so it seems significant that Hitchcock stops just short of showing penetration during the frenzied attack on the first victim. Although, it should be noted that the knife does quickly breach the skin during three frames, the shots are so brief that even Hitchcock himself would later suggest, “Naturally, the knife never touched the body; it was all done in the montage.”
That said, the standards of the time would have made a more graphic death almost impossible. (To the point where apparently they weren’t even sure they could show a flushing toilet.) Still, even if three frames show the knife touching the skin, I maintain it’s pretty effective symbolism, given that Norman’s attacks are deeply rooted in a distinctly sexual frustration. Indeed, Hitchcock even explicitly links Norman’s violence with his repressed sexual urges.
Norman’s mother is jealous and possessive, and pretty liberally throws around the word “erotic.” She yells, rather vocally, “I won’t have you bringing strange, young girls in for supper by candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds!” Norman is so deeply repressed that he can’t even bring himself to cross the threshold into his female guest’s room to eat dinner with her. Instead, the closest he comes – outside of his ‘mother’ persona – is watching through a hole in the wall.
Hitchcock implies that Norman was doing more than just watching Marion in the shower – something that Gus Van Sant’s remake made pointlessly explicit. If you watch closely, there’s even a suggestion that Norman may have also been pleasuring himself in the motel room with Marion’s corpse. He could, of course be, just trying to get some blood off when he wipes his hand on his shirt, but it seems strange that there would only be a tiny bit on his hand.
Again, as with a lot during the film, the hint is only barely suggested, but it is still there. Hitchcock has this wonderful idea to suggest a lot more than he could ever get away with showing and, in a way, it makes his films somewhat more disturbing rather than less. This implied sexual release rather explicitly links Norman’s sexual release to acts of violence – it’s no coincidence that he does so both before and after the murder.
(It’s also interesting to note how Hitchcock links food and sex. He seems to suggest that both are pretty basic human urges and should be satisfied in a healthy manner. Marion Crane visits with her lover on her lunch hour – the sordid nature of their affair perhaps referenced by the fact that she hasn’t touched her food. “You never did eat your lunch,” he chides. Her desire for a more regular intimate relationship is expressed in terms of regular meals. “We could see each other… we could even have dinner,” she offers. His response makes the implicit sexual subtext explicit, “And after the steak, do we send Sister to the movies? Turn mama’s picture to the wall?”
In that light, Norman being unable to eat dinner with Marion in her room is rather pointed. In fact, Hitchcock rather explicitly links Bates’ repressed and broken sexual life to his appetite. “I’m not hungry,” he tells her while she eats. He also comments that she eats like a bird – explaining that his habits include “stuffing”dead birds, for some extra creepy subtext. Bates doesn’t eat regular meals. He’s constantly seen eating candy, a visual representation of the fact that he never really grew up.)
Norman’s dysfunctional sexuality is pushed to the fore repeatedly. To be fair, Hitchcock does avoid falling back on excessively conservative prejudices when he refuses to explicitly label Norman as a “transvestite.” Instead, Hitchcock suggests that Bates never quite matured enough to come to terms with his sexual identity. When Marion’s sister tours the old house, she finds that Norman sleeps in a room decorated with toys and childish trinkets. He hasn’t even made his bed, despite taking immaculate care of his mother’s room.
His fixation on his mother is heavily implied to be sexual, even though Norman himself seems unable to process it. “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” he tells Marion at one point, which – while creepy – avoids any Freudian undertones. However, later on he’s more explicit, although he seems remarkably casual about it, as he states, “A son is a poor substitute for a lover.” When they believe that his mother and her lover died in a murder-suicide, the sheriff’s wife laments, “Norman found them dead together. In bed.” The psychiatrist at the end makes Norman seem like a jilted lover in the way he responds to his mother’s lover. “Then she met a man and it seemed to Norman she ‘threw him over’ for this man.”
Bates was, of course, modelled on real life killer Ed Gein. Like Bates, the killer harboured a fixation on his mother, with her death acting as a catalyst for his own psychosis. (With some sources suggesting that Gein murdered his own brother for speaking against her.) Similiarly, Gein used human skin in all manner of upholstery and furniture. While such an obsession would perhaps have been too much for the standards of decency and morality of the time, it is reflected in Bates’ obsession with taxedermy.
(Gein also dug up corpses from the local cemetary that looked like his mother. Bates, of course, dug up his actual mother. Gein was, notoriously, constructing himself a suit made out of the skin of women – much like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. While one imagines that such a scene might have been too much for audiences in 1960, it seems to be reflected in the fact that Bates dresses as his mother.)
And yet, for all that Hitchcock defined a lot of the rules and tropes that one would associate with the slasher movie – from the sexual undercurrent to the rigid morality – it’s also worth noting that he also carefully avoided a lot of the problems later films would encounter. Although Hitchcock’s film is shocking and visceral, even today, it doesn’t wallow in the violence for the sake of it. Only two victims die on-screen, with two earlier victims identified. While undoubtedly explicit for the time, Hitchcock favours atmosphere over cheap shocks.
(In fact, it’s telling that the movie still holds up so well despite the fact its most graphic scene (in the shower) and its most shocking moment (Norman’s mother) are both deeply engrained on the cultural consciousness of people who have never even actually seen the movie. When I first say Psycho, I was aware of most of the central plot developments and twists, and it still worked extremely well. That’s a testament to Hitchcock’s skill as a director, and it’s something that a lot of Psycho‘s spiritual successors quickly forgot.)
The infamous shower scene, for example, remains shockingly powerful despite the fact that it’s relatively tame by today’s standards. It really is a nearly-perfect murder scene – from the moment the figure enters the room as a shape behind the curtain through to that transition from the swirling drain to the pupil of Marion’s dead eye. It’s a superb and fantastic sequence, one which likely seemed provocative at the time, but – with age – has been revealed as a piece of genuine cinematic art. Many directors go entire careers without a sequence like that, and Hitchcock managed to do it at a time where such a sequence was liable to be branded “schlock.”
Psycho has a fantastic atmosphere. The opening titles, designed by Saul Bass are still impressive and effective today. While Bernard Herrman’s iconic score is ripe for parody, it’s also an incredibly aggressive counterpart to Hitchcock’s imagery, providing a powerful one-two punch that seems to overwhelm the viewer’s senses. (Even in black-and-white.) Hitchcock and Herrman manage to make a shot of Marion driving down the highway seem incredibly powerful, a sequence that – in any other film – might be reduced to a mere establishing shot or montage. It’s fitting, then, that the second-to-last credit is reserved for Herrman, cementing his importance to the film.
It’s also fascinating how Hitchcock constructs his movie. I can’t imagine what audiences must have expected on seeing it for the first time. It starts out as this story about a woman stealing $40,000 and then… she gets brutally murdered! The movie begins as something of a noir film, a movie with a lead character making a morally ambiguous decision and evading both the law and her conscience. Suddenly, the focus is on the creepy guy running the hotel. Bates doesn’t even appear until quite a ways into the film, after our lead has been threatened by a sinister highway patrolman who ultimately proves little more than a red herring.
When Marion dies, the rest of the cast seems to rotate around Norman. Only Sam Loomis had appeared before Marion’s untimely demise. While this seems like a perfectly logical flow today, as we’ve grown up with Psycho as a cornerstone of our cinematic history, it must have been wildly disorienting at the time. Even now, Marion stands out as one of the best developed (and best portrayed) female “victims” (rather than “heroines”) in the history of cinema. The fact that the audience would not have seen her as a victim until it was too late changes our approach to the character. Because she doesn’t appear expendable, and doesn’t fulfill the stereotypical role of a big-screen murder victims, we allow ourselves to get invested in her – making her death more powerful.
All this is executed with such skill and ease that the only awkward element comes in the third-to-last scene. It’s easy to forget that Psycho was the first film of its kind, given the skill with which Hitchcock executes it, but it seems like he didn’t trust an audience unfamiliar with this type of story to “get” it. After Bates has been apprehended, we get a scene in police headquarters where a psychiatrist pretty explicitly articulates everything we need to know about Bates in a rather blunt manner.
Of course, audiences at the time wouldn’t really have had a frame of reference, but it seems quite dated today. Our cinematic landscape is so decorated with dysfunctional and broken human beings that we can almost intuit everything we need to know from the sight of Norman in his mother’s dress (if not from earlier scenes). It feels a little blunt, and a little forced, despite a nice performance from Simon Oakland. It looks like the psychiatrist might as well be breaking the fourth wall like Charlie Chaplin did in The Great Dictator.
Still, Hitchcock lays out a distinctly American brand of horror here. I suspect that Psycho is a major reason why so many later American horror films act like hell itself is waiting just off the next major motorway – that anybody wandering off the highways crisscrossing the country is venturing out into some haunted no man’s land populated with all manner of monsters in human forms. Norman greets Marion, “Twelve cabins. Twelve vacancies.” Explaining why business isn’t booming, he tells her, “They moved away the highway.”
Despite being close the West Coast (between Phoenix and San Francisco), it seems like the Bates Motel is a relic of Lovecraft or Poe’s haunted New England. Hitchcock reportedly based the Bates house on the hill on Edward Hopper’s The House by the Railroad. It’s telling that the painting featured a house reportedly modelled on ones that Hopper had seen in New England or Paris. The house looks like something from a gothic horror – it’s the neon sign and the motel that define it as distinctly American in character. It’s a grotesque union of classical European and American influences, much like The House by the Railroad, combining a house colonial in design with the railway, a symbol of American modernity.
It’s a surreal netherworld that doesn’t seem quite real, for lack of a better word. Norman has some sort of swamp land the establishment that will eagerly swallow up any sins that he is willing to offer up. Even the ground itself is far from stable in this strange and ethereal part of the world. When Marion tells Norman that she’d gone off the main road, he replies, “I knew you must have. No one stops here anymore unless they do.” Only lost souls end up in this strange and haunted place.
Norman suggests the type of guests who frequent a place like this when he hints at the anonymity his establishment offers. “Your home address. Oh, just the town will do.” The establishment is described as “hiding from the world” and Bates only turns on the vacancy sign when he wants to, rather than as a matter of course. It is almost like one of those lights designed to lure and kill insects, a beacon into the darkness.
Even this area has its own dark and sordid secrets. The Sheriff advises Sam, “You must remember that bad business out there. About ten years ago…” That seems to imply that the incident got major news coverage. “It ain’t only local history, Sam, it’s the only murder-and-suicide case in Fairvale Ledgers!” Even before anybody knows the truth of what Norman is doing, there’s a sense that the location is cursed and scarred. Somehow the earth has been tainted by the incident that occurred. The locals refer to Norman as a “hermit”, implying that they only really tolerate him out of pity – there’s no sense that he’s part of their community, but they’ve never looked at him in too much detail either.
Anthony Perkins does a fantastic job as Norman Bates. Perkins plays the character as a profoundly damaged (and surreally childish) young man with a very dark secret. From the moment he appears on screen, it’s quite clear that there’s something not quite right about him. It’s a superb and powerful performance, and Hitchcock manages to make the character both incredibly menacing and unsettling, but also strangely pitiable. Perkins gives us the impression that Bates was broken human being, never entirely in control of his actions.
It’s really a massive shame that Perkins would end up typecast as Bates for the rest of his career. Perkins had been nominated for an Academy Award four years earlier for what was only his second role, in Friendly Persuasion. At the time, Psycho cast Perkins massively against type. However, he’d continue portraying Bates in a string of sequels until his untimely death due to complications arising from AIDS. (To the point where Perkins himself asked for Psycho IV to serve as a finale, knowing he could not make another film.) It’s a shame this role did not earn Perkins a nomination, but it’s also a shame that the film so massively side-tracked his career.
Psycho is a cinematic milestone and genuine classic.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | alfred hitchcock, art, AT&T, Edward Hopper, film, graphic design, Graphic Designers, gus van sant, halloween, hitchcock, Janet Leigh, Movie, non-review review, Norman, Norman Bates, Psycho, review, Robert Bloch, Saul Bass, United States, wes craven