Column: Gods and Monsters: Review: Psycho (1960)


Psycho (1960). Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Vera Miles, John Gavin.


Many spoilers ahoy


We all go a little mad, sometimes ….


My mom once told me that she went to see Psycho twice when it first came out. She hadn’t intended to do this, but after she had seen it the first time, a friend wanted to see it and didn’t have anyone else to go with. So, she had to go see it again and she said it was scarier the second time around. I can attest to this effect, having seen Silence of the Lambs twice more in the theater that I had ever intended. And that was after I had read the book.

I had this family anecdote in mind when I found out that TCM was doing a showing of the film in theaters. I went to the Sunday afternoon show, because I had no intention of going at night, for various reasons. There was a healthy audience for a Sunday matinee – about twenty people. They were quiet and polite but definitely engaged. There were chuckles at various lines, some of them dated, some of them famous. I don’t think anybody jumped or shrieked at any time, everybody pretty clearly having seen the film before, but it got awfully quiet in certain parts.

I don’t think Psycho requires much introduction for horror fans. At this point in time, it’s unlikely that any of the jump scares from the original airing in 1960 are going to have much effect. The shower scene in particular suffers a bit from overfamiliarity and homage, though I think it’s safe to say that it still scars first-time viewers. That said, the reveal at the climax still definitely works.

Obviously, I’ve seen Psycho more than once. You can’t really call yourself a horror movie fan if you haven’t seen it. I’ve heard some people claim that the film is not particularly gruesome, is even tame compared to today’s films. I disagree. Hitchcock deliberately used black-and-white so that he could get away with more. And though you don’t see a lot of overt gore, the violence is very prevalent. Hitchcock manages to ramp it up with his trademark ability to create tension throughout, breaking and not quite relieving it with moments of extreme violence.

Despite its being such an old and familiar film, is it worth seeing in the theater? Yes. It’s a very well-constructed and entertaining film. You see a lot of details that you would not necessarily notice on a DVD, even on a big screen. I pick up on things with each viewing. This time, I noticed the contrast between the hominess and quaintness of ill-fated Marion’s ill-fated room at the Bates Motel, and the sheer creep factor of the little taxidermy museum (accented by paintings of Renaissance nudes being accosted by mythical monsters) Norman has in the back room of his office.

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Another thing that really stands out in the movie theater is how Hitchcock uses noir themes and then totally subverts them, moving fluidly-though-abruptly with Marion’s murder from noir into horror. The interesting thing is that the viewer doesn’t notice that until after Arbogast’s murder. All of the elements of noir are here initially: You have the femme fatale who is also the protagonist, at least apparently. You have the cynical detective. You have the shady young man who’s all country boy aw-shucks until he kills the femme fatale. You have the macguffin, which is the $40,000. You have all the shadows and the shadiness and the tension and the moral ambiguity.

And then what you have is a whole lot of blood and slashing in the shower. Now, that’s unsettling enough, though it would hardly be the first time noir got very strange. Five years before this film, Kiss Me Deadly had a nuclear macguffin and a Cold War explosion on the beach.

But where we start to realize that we are definitely no longer in noir is a subtle-but-clearly-stated transition point. That is when Norman casually picks up the $40,000 macguffin, completely as an afterthought in his frantic cleanup after his murderous mother, and tosses it into the trunk with his erstwhile victim. This is only driven home, so to speak, with the murder of Arbogast and the forceful removal from the story of the other major noir character. At this point in the story, not only don’t we have our original protagonist, but we no longer have either a detective or a femme fatale. We’re just left with an antagonist who is also a protagonist, who has no interest whatsoever in the trappings of noir. Hitchcock has just successfully crossed over from noir into Gothic horror.

This probably wasn’t the first time that a protagonist, or apparent protagonist, was killed off so abruptly early in a film. And it certainly wasn’t the last, either. If you pay attention to the Hays Code, which was still in effect in 1960, it becomes clear that Marion has to die as soon as she says she’s going back to Phoenix. You see, in order to be redeemed, Marion either needs to ‘fess up and go to jail, or she needs to be killed and the money macguffin, along with the plot, must be passed on to another person, rather like a curse. Since it is too early in the story for her to go back to Phoenix, she has to die.

Hitchcock even subtly (or not) lampshades this by starting the film with her wearing white lingerie to her rendezvous with her boyfriend, but having her wear black lingerie during her flight to California, as we see when she changes right after stealing the money and takes off her clothes right before that fateful shower. Marion, for all her misgivings and contrition, has gone full-on bad girl and she can’t go back.

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There are also some class issues going on with Marion. She and her officemate are the new kind of career girl, but that doesn’t exactly put them at the top of the food chain. She is struggling, divorced. Her boyfriend wants to make her an “honest woman” again, but she has doubts about falling back into the illusory safety of being a housewife. He’s struggling just as much as she is.

Then this blowhard walks in with a pile of cash that he intends to give his spoiled daughter, who is getting married and hasn’t lifted a finger ever. He’s practically shoving it into the faces of two women who are working just to make a living, like royalty lording it over peasants. In light of this, perhaps it’s not so far out of character for Marion to break bad.

Watching in the theater also bring some new understanding of Norman Bates. When I first watched the film as a college student, I felt sorry for Norman and thought that Perkins’ performance was very sympathetic. I still think Perkins does a really good job of making Norman sympathetic. In fact, the easiest way to find this out is to watch the blow-by-blow remake in color with Vince Vaughn playing Norman very badly (and Anne Heche as Marion … ugh), to see both how well Perkins does this and how hard it is to do.

That said, Perkins’ portrayal is a lot more complex than just a sweet young man who has more than one person in his head. Micro expressions flow across his face almost constantly, like a subtly disturbed pond surface, and don’t become entirely clear until the very end of the cell. As silly as the psychiatrist’s infodump is near the end, it does bring everything together when Norman smiles, skull -like, and we realize that this smirk has been popping up throughout the film. We realize that this was never Norman’s expression. Whenever we saw that smile, it was always Mother.

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Norman is also a very twitchy person and his anger comes out in some significant moments. It’s easy to see Marion and Arbogast as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, when you pay attention to their conversations with Norman, you can see the moments where they accidentally invoke Mother, thus bringing their own doom. So, even if Marion were not a thief and Arbogast were not a rather slimy cynic, they would not be completely passive victims in their demise. Not every single person is at risk from Norman. Unless, of course, you are in his house.

The house itself is its own character. The use of Second Empire houses, particularly those with distinctive mansard roofs, has been written about at some length. They look creepy and grand and old, so they pop up a lot. Hitchcock cleverly reserves the effect of the house by never revealing very much of it, or allowing anyone inside it beyond a certain point, until Marion’s sister comes in for her extensive search. In the process, she finds a distinctly Victorian clutter of frills and cushions, neoclassical sculptures and interior architecture. It’s not until she hides in the fruit cellar when Norman returns unexpectedly that everything goes really haywire and we realize that all aboveground is just a mask.

It’s probably no shock to realize that Norman himself is wearing a mask, one that becomes increasingly hollowed underneath as the movie goes by. But of course, everybody is wearing a mask in this one. Hitchcock even gives us some interesting mirroring effect, such as in Marion’s initial encounter with Norman where she is opposite a mirror. This appears to emphasize her duplicity in hiding her identity.

Their dinner, such as it is, in his back office is loaded with subtext. It’s almost impossible at this point to escape the fact that there is a great deal of subtext on Norman’s side of the conversation, but when the film first came out, the audience would only have known up to that point the subtext in Marion’s side of the conversation. Norman’s would have appeared pretty innocuous, at least initially. We hear little things come out, as Marion herself notices, but the original audience would discount them as Norman being gauche under his sheltered rural farmboy routine, just as Marion herself ignores the alarm bells ringing in her head.

Marion might have saved herself if she had listened to those alarm bells, but the problem is that she was raised to be a nice girl. That’s why her flight to bring the stolen money to her boyfriend in the first place is front-loaded with failure. Every time somebody appears to catch onto her – and it’s always a guy – she grows timid and nervous. This gives her away more and more, both with the chauvinistic car salesman and the nosy cop. Marion takes the wrong lesson from these encounters, that being aggressive makes her stand out, and ignores her instincts regarding Norman. She goes for being the nice girl, decides it’s safe enough to spend the night, and takes that shower.

Naturally, as the film progresses, Norman’s bird imagery loses any sense of innocence or benevolence and becomes quite sinister. Norman refers to using taxidermy on birds because it is cheaper and easier, and because he sees birds as passive recipients of anything he does to them (something his mother even lampshades later on). He even refers to Marion as birdlike in her eating habits. This is probably a good moment to point out that Marion’s last name is Crane. Obviously, Norman sees Marion as a bird and that’s a big red flag, in light of what he does later.

If you ever get the chance to watch Psycho in the theater, I highly recommend it. This is not just because there are certain effects that are much easier to see and hear (such as the stereo rain during her drive up to the motel), but because the movie itself is quite fascinating. The direction is genius, of course (It’s Hitchcock), but the script is also quite taut, and the central acting duo of Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins are both excellent, giving iconic career bests. One thing I found striking, not least in light of watching the rather cold and detached style of Stanley Kubrick recently, was how Hitchcock, not the nicest guy ever, could evoke sympathy and identification, and even warmth, from the audience for even greatly flawed characters.

It’s easy to start looking at your watch after a few minutes in the theater with a film today, especially after we’ve all been conditioned by the DVR and the computer to do rewinds and stops and fast forwards. Psycho easily survives this test and draws you in. The only times I looked at my watch were to confirm at what point certain key events occurred in the film.

Even the quieter or earlier, or apparently less important or flashy, scenes have a great deal of tension in them. Initially, you have Marion’s dissatisfaction with her life and what she’s going to do about it. Then you get her tension over the theft and her flight. After the shower scene, you have Norman trying to figure out how he’s going to get away with it when more inconvenient people keep showing up. And finally, you have the rising tension of what the hell is going on with Mother. In this way, the movie keeps drawing you along, even as it changes genres right underneath you until the very end.

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About Paula R. Stiles

Paula is not at all paranoid about government conspiracies after six years in EMS, two years in Africa for the Peace Corps, a few summers with the Park Service, and ten years studying the Knights Templar. She's seen governments in action. They couldn't cover up a toy picnic table, let alone evidence of alien visitation. Writes about science for fun, history for money, and zombies for the company. You can read her sober-as-a-judge book about Templars in medieval Spain, Templar Convivencia, on Amazon. You can find her homepage at: http://thesnowleopard.net.

Paula R. StilesColumn: Gods and Monsters: Review: Psycho (1960)