Psycho (1960)

The film that made us afraid to open the shower curtain.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
Studio:  Shamley Productions
Starring:  Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin
Tagline:  A new- and altogether different- screen excitement!!!
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  thriller, suspense, mystery, horror, psychopath
Scare score:  B
Rating:  A

Plot overview:  After embezzling $40,000 from a client at her place of work, Marion Crane (Leigh) leaves Phoenix on a long trip to take up a new life with Sam Loomis (Gavin), with whom she has been having a love affair.  After an exhausting day of driving, Marion arrives at the isolated Bates Motel and meets its quirky proprietor Norman Bates (Perkins).  That night, she is brutally murdered by an unseen killer while in the shower, and in a panic, Bates disposes of the body, her car, and all other evidence in a nearby swamp.  Marion’s theft and subsequent disappearance spark an investigation that will uncover the terrifying truth about the Bates Motel, where even the killer may not be fully aware of their crime.

What a wonderful film.  Hitch doesn’t fail to keep us constantly entertained with an enticing production and beautifully suspenseful cinematography.  This film was racy at the time of its debut, but looking back I think it’s safe to say that it changed the horror genre or at least impacted it for good.  To be honest, shower curtains still creep me out since I first saw this movie (because obviously that slippery dead end is where all thieves and murderers would choose to hide), and who isn’t wary about isolated motels?  Drawing terror from real fears is sure to make our imaginations go wild.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is so brilliant.  At first we are given a seemingly normal although admittedly quirky man.  His hobbies and idiosyncrasies are both believable and subtly unnerving: the way he will sometimes stutter, the way he is constantly munching on candy corn, his love of taxidermy, and his defensiveness regarding his manhood.  Of course the crowning achievement of this character is his neurotic tendencies in all subjects involving his mother.  Even Miss Crane becomes quickly aware of his mother’s overbearing qualities, of how she belittles Norman, of how she very much makes Norman’s life a living hell, and how Norman couldn’t bear to leave her on her own because she is incapacitated.  One of my favorite lines from the film is “A mother is a boy’s best friend”(ladies- if you ever meet a man who tells you that, RUN).  The scene where Marion takes supper in Norman’s office is the definition of creepy, as they are surrounded by all the taxidermied animals and our protagonist (if we can call her that) begins to catch glimpses of Norman’s odd and almost unstable personality.  That scene and the rest of the film are rich in metaphors regarding hunting, killing, and taxidermy (…mother?)

Janet Leigh does a commendable job in her “bad girl” protagonist role.  Do we, the audience, like Marion?  She is having a love affair, she embezzles from a client, she is sassy with policemen, and aside from maintaining good contact with her sister (Vera Miles) and mother, she is self-centered.  While her demise is certainly untimely, we at least get to see that she intends to return the stolen money and make amends before she is murdered in the shower scene (one of the most iconic scenes in the horror genre and in American film in general) – which I like to think is a sort of baptism before death.  There is a weird juxtaposition to this scene as it is both sexy and scary.  In and of itself, this scene is as complicated – in emotions and actual technical filming – as the plot and killer.

Let’s talk about the cinematography.  Hitch fills Psycho with tons of intriguing and just plain cool camera angles.  I specifically loved the closeups on people’s eyes (such as Marion’s during the shower scene and Norman’s through the hole in the wall before said scene), and there was a sideways shot I remember thinking was pretty impressive.  Wasn’t crazy about the scene where private investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) falls down the stairs, but I assume that was complicated to shoot and took a lot of prep work.  The filming is voyeuristic throughout, further complicating the plot, Norman’s psyche, and the viewer’s nerves!  I almost forgot to mention that there was a substantial use of shots scene through mirrors, which I really enjoyed.  We are constantly seeing Marion, Marion and Sam, Marion and Norman, and other characters in mirrors and reflections throughout the film.

The score!  The score, the score, the score.  Composed by Bernard Herrmann, even if the plot and execution of the film were not as excellent as they are, the score would have been sure to make the movie memorable nonetheless.  The easily frightened viewer will be on the edge of his or her seat as the staccato strings pluck their way under our skin and make our hairs stand on end.  It is brilliant and entertaining, adding so much to this classic.

This film has an excellent final twist.  We’re not sure what the reality about Mrs. Bates is, but once it’s revealed, most people are sure to be shocked and disgusted.  This movie has done wonders insofar as exploring the psyche of the killer, and especially his neurotic tendencies, goes: we are given a marvelously complex and frightening, and maybe pitiful?, murderer.  To himself, Norman is both the villain and the hero, the protagonist and main antagonist in his own life although to an extent he is not only Norman but also his mother.  Unable to cope with what he believes are his inefficiencies and also his guilt, Norman’s personality has split, perhaps permanently, by the end of the film.  Thanks to the cheesy, audience friendly explanation from the police at the end of the movie, even the most dull viewer can understand the true psychological status and horror involved in this film.

Final critique:  This horror classic is an absolute must for the Halloween season.  Hitch isn’t likely to let us down anyway, but Psycho is a wonderful doorway into the filmography of the Master of Suspense.  If you’re a regular reader you know that I love horror movies that have solid plots, so the fact that the majority of this film is more of a mystery/ thriller helps it to secure a solid spot in my spooky book.  I highly recommend this movie for all viewers because in reality it is a suspenseful, intriguing mystery with only a few, excellent scares, making it perfect for those who scare easily.  All in all, a must see horror and an American classic.

3 thoughts

  1. I wonder if the psychiatrist’s monologue was put in there for the 1960 audience to catch their collective breath. They’ve just gone through The Big Reveal during the climax down in the fruit cellar. So then Simon Oakland is brought in to hold forth. And I’ll bet some audience members were even gathering their things to leave the theater before the guard’s walk down the hall and Herrman’s music during Norma(n)s thoughts slowly inched up the tension again. Until that last skin-freezing moment when we see Norman really is Mother for all time. Then a final churning of the cellos as the chains pull the car containing Marion’s remains out of the swamp. Tough to say after all these years and without Hitchcock himself to tell us.

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