Note: If you have somehow never seen Psycho, beware of the following. I discuss plot points—big, important plot points—freely. You’re a lucky devil if you have never seen this movie before. Go see it before you read this. Really. It’s great. Don’t ruin it.
When people write about Psycho they tend to focus on its place in movie history. It’s easy to understand why. Alfred Hitchcock’s low budget thriller marked a turning point in the history of film on numerous counts. Most obviously, the film reformulated the idea of what you could or could not show on screen. It gave birth to slasher flicks like Friday the Thirteenth, which in turn gave birth to torture porn like Hostel. This is a dubious legacy, but there you go. Psycho also interestingly represented one of the last great gasps of black & white cinematography. In 1960 when Hitchcock made Psycho, most mainstream American films had switched to color, and Hitchcock himself would never shoot another feature in b&w. Finally, Psycho’s marketing was a such a huge success (the film made the equivalent of 300 million dollars in America alone, on a shooting budget of less than a million dollars) it can been seen as one of the progenitors of modern blockbuster. In that way, Psycho gave birth to Jaws which set the stage for Star Wars.
That’s all very interesting, but when you see the film again, something odd happens. You realize what a peculiar movie this is. Psycho is a truly weird in a way that it’s violent offspring are not. It begins in a hotel room where a man and woman have just had some afternoon sex. They have a stilted conversation (which sounds as if it were dubbed through a bucket). She rushes back to her office in time to meet her nervous little boss’s rich new client. The client has clearly had a few drinks. He waves around some cash. $40,000 in hundred dollar bills. The woman steals the money and takes off on the road. A cop questions her. She sells her car and the salesman is suspicious. She drives on, not knowing for sure where she’s going. It begins to rain, and she accidently gets off the main highway and ends up in the middle of nowhere. Then she sees a sign for the Bates Motel.
Note: Do not read the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie. I ain’t gonna tell you again.
Up to this point (about the thirty minute mark) the film has been about the woman, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). We like her. Her story is interesting, but where is it going? As we all know, her story ends in the shower of Room #1 of the Bates Motel. She meets a sick man named Norman Bates who has a nice conversation with Marion when she checks in to the motel, fixes her dinner, watches her undress through a peephole, then puts on his dead mother’s old dress and stabs Marion to death in the shower with a butcher knife the size of sword. With Marion dead, we now transfer our sympathy to the only other person we know: Norman Bates.
After all these years, Psycho still has the power to shock. Most of us have seen more movie gore than Hitchcock’s fertile, violent mind probably ever imagined, but his film isn’t about gore. It’s about that shift in perspective (which owes a lot to Psycho’s screenwriter Joseph Stefano). We don’t want to identify with Norman Bates, but when Marion dies, we immediately begin to…well, I was going to write that we root for him, but that’s not quite right. We don’t want Norman to get away with his crimes. When a private detective (Martin Balsam) comes to the Bates Motel looking into Marion’s disappearance, we don’t want Norman to kill him. When Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) comes looking for her, we don’t want to see her hurt either. Yet, we identify with him because after Marion’s death, we see every scene through Norman’s eyes. We share his secret.
The most famous scene in the movie (perhaps the most famous scene in any movie) is, of course, the shower scene. But look at the scenes which follow it, the scenes of Norman discovering Marion’s body after his “mother” has killed her. These scenes, in which Norman cleans the room, disposes of the evidence, and sinks Marion and her car into a swamp, are some of the best of their kind ever filmed. We have just witnessed a horrible event, but with these scenes we are witnessing something almost as distressing. We’re seeing a madman go about his work, not the insane part but the boring old work that someone must do in order to be insane and not get caught. Yet you can’t stop watching these parts, the weird way in which the normal becomes the bizarre. We’re watching Norman Bates mop a floor, and it’s fascinating.
Norman was played by Anthony Perkins, a congenitally underrated actor, who became the poster child for typecasting after this movie. How could this guy ever play anyone else? In the minds of most people, Perkins pretty much became Norman Bates. Even when he starred in something great like Welles’ The Trial (a movie in which Perkins is excellent) most people can’t shake Norman Bates out of their minds. It’s not just the murders that Bates/Perkins commits; it’s the way he creeps out Marion when they talk over sandwiches and milk. He tells her about his insane mother. When Marion gently suggests that he might have to the old lady put away, Norman’s face darkens, his voice rising and getting faster as he talks about society’s intolerance and the way people look down their noses and “cluck their thick tongues.” Perkins is intense and scary in the part, but most of the time he’s likable and goofy, a childlike man who is sad and scary because he doesn’t know he’s a murderer.
That’s the real power of Psycho: the way in which it marks the crossroads between the old and the new, between what is known and not known, between what we fear and what we don’t even expect.
Hitchcock has been written about more than any other director in the history of film. Here's a link to a forum of scholars who study his work.
For even more on Hitchcock, check out this great page.