By Marc S. Sanders
To watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho today is a blessing and a curse. You can’t take your eyes off the craftsmanship of the film. Yet, you know all the surprises and plot twists. There’s only so much blood you can draw from the stone.
Recently, I told my fourteen-year-old daughter, who doesn’t like scary movies, that she needs to watch the film. If only because she knows absolutely nothing about Psycho. She has no idea what’s to come of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). She’s never heard of the shower scene. She doesn’t know about the true relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his chastising mother. Imagine, assuming you have seen the movie and/or know all its secrets already, watching the movie with someone who is seeing it for the first time with a completely blank canvas to go on. Oh, the reactions you’ll get to see!!!
Hitchcock’s film, with a screenplay from Joseph Stefano, works under a lot of different dimensions. It’s classified as the first “slasher movie.” That may be true. However, it’s much more intelligent than a typical Jason or Freddy Krueger fright fest. Psycho begins as one story with a central character, seemingly innocent, carrying out a crime. Later, it turns on itself and becomes something else altogether.
Marion Crane makes off with $40,000 in cash from a chauvinistic, obnoxious client of her real estate boss. She hits the road, heading towards her lover’s home in nearby California. Her impending doom is never implied. Stefano and Hitchcock focus only on Marion’s scruples with the crime she’s committed. She gets haunted by a curious police officer. She certainly wonders what her boss must think when he’ll discover that she never deposited the money in the bank. Is the used car salesman going to follow up on her after she urgently trades in her car for a new one with new plates?
Soon though, none of that will matter when she has no choice but to pull off the road for the evening to stay at the Bates Motel, currently with twelve cabins and twelve vacancies.
For the one or two readers who have never heard of Psycho, I’ll stop there with the narrative. However, what I appreciate about the second half of the film is that the new central character, now young, quirky, altogether strange Norman Bates, seems to respond with avoidance when a private investigator named Arbogast (Martin Balsam), and then later Marion’s lover Sam (John Gavin) and her sister Lila (Vera Miles) start questioning him about Marion’s whereabouts. Arbogast is on the trail of a thief who went off with $40,000. Sam and Lila are also curious about the theft that seems unheard for Marion to commit. Yet, there’s something else leaving them curious. Norman, on the other hand, knows nothing as to what Marion was up to. In his eyes, the only odd thing about her is that she checks into the motel under a different name. All of these characters are coming in conflict with one another, but not for the reasons they think they are. The fun part is that we are the only ones who know the hands that each player is holding. Even more fun is when we uncover a secret that Norman has been hiding from the audience all along.
Hitchcock tricks his audiences with Psycho. With its first story, we are in suspense of one criminal. Will she get away with the theft? Rather, how and when will she get caught? With its second story, we are unnerved by someone far worse and frighteningly mysterious. Following the infamous shower scene, it’s a little nerve wracking to watch as Norman tries to hide the evidence in the trunk of a car that he pushes into the nearby swamp. Any storyteller would just have the car simply sink. Hitchcock brings in shadowed close ups (with his wise idea of black and white photography) of Norman chewing gum, and then becoming completely still when the car actually stops sinking midway through its descent. As a viewer, your jaw drops. What is Norman going to do if the car doesn’t fully submerge?
Later, it’s a wonder how Norman is going to circumvent around the unexpected visits form Arbogast, Sam and Lila. Then, we are in suspense of their safety. They’re just looking for the missing money while tracking where Marion went off to. Unbeknownst to them, they have can’t even fathom her demise.
I was talking with one of my Cinephile brothers about Psycho, explaining how it follows a similar dynamic that the second half of Vertigo moves upon. In Vertigo, the main characters, Scottie and Madeliene, are both in love with one another. Yet, it’s for different reasons that they can’t explain to each other. In Psycho, the characters are all under suspicion and even paranoid of each other, yet for all different reasons. Norman never knew of Marion’s crime. Though the other characters suspect that he does. In both pictures, only we, the audience, know almost everything at play. According to various documentaries I’ve watched, Hitchcock wholeheartedly trusted his screen writers to flesh out the stories. He concerned himself more with constructing the film with a faithfulness to the script. What’s commendable about the films Alfred Hitchcock chose to make is that he sought out these conundrums where his chess pieces are left bewildered or unaware of why they are sharing the stage with the other players. The director had a way of channeling into deceiving his characters against one another, allowing the viewers to relish in their trickery. Going a step further though, Hitchcock reveals other twists never suggested in the film to turn the audience on their ear in shock.
You can’t take your eyes off Psycho, even with knowing all the goodies that Hitchcock provides.
Anthony Perkins especially is a tense and unnerving menace. He has a boyhood innocence to him that should not appear threatening to Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane. It’s in his relaxation with the role that it feels all the more terrifying to the viewer. Simply look at the way Arbogast pulls up to the motel and Perkins is sitting calmly on the porch eating his bag of candy. Watch how he casually shares with Marion how he relishes in stuffing the birds he has mounted on the parlor walls, or even how he casually offers cabin number one for Marion to occupy so that she can be close to everything. Norman Bates hides himself very well in his virtue. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The Bates Motel and the large house poised behind it on the hill were set up on a Universal back lot. It remains one of the most famous settings in film history. When you see the silhouette of Norman’s mother in the window from afar or young, slender Norman standing in front of the house, the images of the chilling locale stay with you whether it is on a dark and stormy night or even during a sunny afternoon. Hitchcock opted to shoot the film in black and white to taper the goriness of the piece. Outside of the gore elements though, the black and white lends a foreboding feeling to this destination. Even before we realize that Marion is in danger, we feel uneasy with just arriving at this place.
The shower scene of course is one for the ages. I’m not here to discuss all of the mechanics of film’s centerpiece. The assembly of the scene’s elements are masterful though. Can you imagine the scene without Bernard Hermann’s shrieking score? Hermann was to Hitchcock like John Williams is to Steven Spielberg. The aftermath is brutally shocking as well. The camera does a zoom out on Janet Leigh’s eye as the soaking head of her corpse lays down on the bathroom floor. I notice the eye does just the slightest twitch. For me, that’s all the more disturbing than just a very still open eye. It implies the last bits of life leaving her body and consciousness. Later, when Norman cleans up the bathroom, Hitchcock shows his process with a mop and neatly wrapping Marion in the torn shower curtain and disposing of anything belonging to her, including a newspaper that isn’t just a newspaper. Norman is methodical. Perhaps this strange man has done something like this before.
I do have one grievance with Psycho. The air is kind of sucked out of the film in its last few minutes before that delicious last close up on Norman. Stefano’s script offers up a psychological explanation for what Norman Bates seems to suffer from. It’s as if we are given a scientific description for what ails him. This is all painfully boring. I dunno. Maybe in 1960, when Psycho was a pioneering kind of horror film, and moviegoers were not as familiar with the genre that seemed far scarier than Boris Karloff, and vampires and mummies, they needed a summation like this. Sixty years later, naturally this is not necessary. We know all to well that there are disturbed people who live among us. We know, sometimes, to be cautious of folks like these. For someone as reputed as Hitchcock was, being identified as the “Master of Suspense,” this long monologue, spoon fed diagnosis from the psychiatrist kills all of the horror we’ve bared witness to over the last two hours.
Psycho was the first slasher movie. It was the first movie to feature a toilet and have it flush on film. It has one of the most famous characters in all of film history. It has one of the most famous scenes of all time. It was directed by one of the greatest directors of all time. Yet, it also has one of the worst conclusions of all time. If ever a scene should have been cut from a finished product, it is the second to last scene of Psycho.
Now, go find someone who has never heard of Psycho, knows nothing at all about Psycho, and watch them watch Psycho. Of course, as the famous marketing campaign for the film insisted, by all means do not start the movie or walk in the middle, and never reveal any of its secrets.