I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho. The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.Alfred Hitchcock
I revisited Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho a few nights ago on the streaming service Stan. Spending an evening at the Bates Motel (located just off the main highway) was well worth the stopover. Although I admit, I did skip taking my usual shower before bedtime. Psycho and The Birds are the only two horror films made by Hitchcock. They both stand up to repeated viewing, even though the shocks they once delivered have dimmed sixty-plus years on. Psycho, released in 1960, is perhaps the better performed of the two movies. I don’t mean to diminish The Birds in any way, it’s one of my favourite Hitchcock films, a classic. It’s just that both Janet Leigh (as Marion Crane) and Anthony Perkins (playing Norman Bates) deliver outstanding performances in Psycho. Leigh in particular is mesmerising as the cool Hitchcock Blonde. They are suitably supported on screen by Vera Miles (Lila Crane) and John Gavin (Sam Loomis). Miles appeared in Hitchcock’s TV series and also The Wrong Man. 22 years later she returned as Lila in Psycho 2, directed by Richard Franklin. But I’m getting side-tracked, back to the original Psycho. Some critics have argued that Psycho loses momentum after Marion Crane is brutally stabbed in the shower. Death should always be painless! Watching Psycho again, I found this assessment to be somewhat true.
He gave me great respect, but it had to be within the framework of his concept, his camera.Janet Leigh on Hitchcock
Janet Leigh’s untimely death (just over 40 minutes into the film) leaves us scrambling for answers and following brand new characters when Lila and private detective Milton Abargast (played by Martin Balsam) enter Sam’s hardware store looking for Marion and the stolen $40,000. However, the film never lingers long enough on Abargast or any of the other characters (except Norman) for us to get bored in their company. It can be argued that Lila and Sam are poor substitutes for the sexually confident Marion and the sex-deprived Norman Bates. Sure, Vera Miles and John Gavin don’t quite cut the mustard as Marion’s sister and part-time lover…they feel somewhat out of place as an onscreen couple. But I suspect that’s what Hitchcock wanted, two rather clumsy amateur investigators, certain to get murdered by Norman Bates once their true identities are exposed. Thus, creating that most famous Hitchcock film ingredient, “suspense!”
After the disposal of Marion’s naked body in the lake (our leading lady is now officially dead in the water) the film gallops on, this time following Abargast as he searches for clues relating to the whereabouts of Marion. After only five minutes of screen-time Abargast cops a razor-sharp knife across the face and tumbles down the stairs. Mother (Mrs Bates or is it?) runs on and stabs him to death. Fade to black – We then ride sidesaddle with Lila and Sam (pretending to be married) as they interrogate Norman, and secretly search the Bates Motel and Norman’s spooky family home looking for a weak old woman, Mrs Bates. Look, that old woman, whoever she is, she told Arbogast something. I want her to tell us the same thing, Sam. What Lila finds inside are rooms full of faded memories, stuffed toys and Psycho’s shock-ending. That’s right, Mrs Norma Bates is dead. She is decomposing in the fruit cellar…and spoiler alert…the killer is her crazy son. Norman Bates, a taxidermist when he’s not changing the motel’s bedsheets, dressing up in his mother’s clothes or mopping up blood 🩸 has attempted to preserve (like a stuffed animal) his dead mother’s body to keep his memory of her alive. Matricide is a hideous crime. It’s particularly difficult for the son who commits it!
I once read somewhere that a man admitted killing three women and he said he had killed the third woman after having seen Psycho.Well, I wanted to ask him what movie he had seen before he killed the second woman. And then we’d ban that movie, don’t you see?Alfred Hitchcock on film violence
What intrigued me about Psycho watching it this time around was the frequent “close-ups.” They are intimate and draw us closer to the main character in a scene. Close-ups that capture fear are by far the most effective in the film. The kind of fear that festers inside someone with a lot of guilt. Marion, secretly hiding $40,000 (stolen money) from a roadside cop is a perfect example of this. Her close-ups give us (the audience) a front-row seat into Marion’s fear of the law. She is after all a thief on the run and a flirtatious secretary who screws men during her lunch break in cheap hotels. Hitchcock beautifully captures Marion’s inner turmoil through Janet Leigh’s expressive eyes as well as ramping up the suspense surrounding the stolen money, close-up after close-up. I also noticed the cheapness of some of the sets particularly the motel rooms on this viewing, and the extraordinary black and white cinematography by John L Russell. The cinematography is so good I can’t ever imagine Psycho being filmed in colour. Russell’s next film after Psycho was ‘Billie’ starring Patty Duke (a teen film I quite like) in 1965. Psycho is his most memorable screen credit. If you are only remembered for photographing one Hollywood film then it might as well be Hitchcock’s Psycho.
A mystery is an intellectual process, like in a whodunit. But suspense is essentially an emotional process.Alfred Hitchcock
It’s obvious Psycho was made on a shoestring budget by Hitchcock and his TV crew. No film studio would finance it. The project was considered to be vulgar by all the major Hollywood studios. Why is Hitchcock even making this film? No one in Hollywood understood! Hitchcock was forced to put the money up himself, around $800,000. John Carpenter’s Halloween which was shot over a decade later was made for a similar amount.
Despite the small budget, the pacy screenplay by Joseph Stefano based on Robert Bloch’s novel, along with Hitchcock’s flair for visual storytelling keeps the audience glued to the screen for most of Psycho’s running time. Stefano knows how to write dialogue and he understands the B-grade nature of the source material, and he embraces it…although his script is often too theatrical by today’s standards.
You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.Norman Bates
My favourite dialogue-driven scene is when Marion and Norman share an intimate late-night snack in the back office before Marion takes her fatal shower…cue Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violins and scary music. Surrounded by Norman’s stuffed birds and painful childhood memories, they eat and connect in an odd bird-like way. No monsters here to see, just two wounded animals shooting the breeze. Marion and Norman are both trapped, handcuffed to beds they’ve each made. Marion has stolen $40,000 from a client and her boss and fled the office. Norman has poisoned his mother and her lover and lost his mind in the process, although we don’t know that at this point. This delicate scene of them breaking bread together (becoming one under the eyes of God) balances regret, desire, compulsion and fate superbly. It reminds us we are all flawed and broken in some way, and that we are in the hands of a master filmmaker at the peak of his creativity. That filmmaker is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock.
Have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I’ve never tasted it.Alfred Hitchcock
Psycho is directed and performed with skill. It’s made with great affection for Robert Bloch’s pulp novel (the source material for the film script) and despite its low budget sparkles like stolen cash. Forty grand was a lot of money in America in the 1960s. It’s worth remembering that Psycho broke rules and challenged film censorship at the time with its depiction of sexuality and violence. Sam and Marion sharing the same bed in a seedy hotel room in the opening scene would have been considered extremely risqué. It controversially used the word “transvestite” when describing Norman. And the sight of Janet Leigh cavorting in a bra and slip drove the “Production Code” of America into a frenzy. It is also the first film to feature a flushing toilet. Heaven forbid! What’s to become of us? According to film censorship in the 1960s, “There’s was no need to show a toilet in a film as Americans didn’t shit!” Psycho changed that notion the minute Marion Crane flushed the evidence ($40,000 handwritten on scrap paper) down the bathroom toilet and stepped naked into the shower. In fact, the shower sequence – 78 camera setups, 52 cuts, over just 45 seconds – changed cinematic grammar forever. Add Bernard Herrmann’s music score into the mix, particularly the violins in the shower sequence and you’ve got a classic movie moment, which is simply unforgettable! Apart from Herrmann nailing Hitchcock’s initial brief in the shower sequence, the entire music score is first-rate. Listen to the music in the opening title sequence designed by Saul Bass, and I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s been composed by a genius. Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho is not easily forgotten.
We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes
In casting Anthony Perkins, a slightly effeminate (gay but closeted) Hollywood star in the role of Norman Bates, Hitchcock put homosexuality on cinema screens around the globe. He’d dabbled with gay killers in films before Psycho. The film Rope is a perfect example as is Strangers on a Train. If you revisit Hitchcock’s back catalogue and you’ll find it’s littered with homosexual characters often in supporting roles. You’ll also find queer references and a camp punchline or two. A boy’s best friend is his mother! Or…You think I’m fruity, huh? This line about being “fruity,” is voiced by Mrs Bates in Psycho, but refers to Norman’s queerness. As if to say, “You think I’m queer Norman? Like you?” When Norman watches Marion undress through a peephole in the back office, is he devouring Marion sexually or envying her curves?
Norman Bates was “something else,” even for Hitchcock fans. He was a cross-dressing psychosexual killer. An attractive “mama’s boy” with a love of birds and carving knives. Norman is older and uglier in Bloch’s novel! Perkins of course gives a stellar performance in Psycho, it’s possibly his best role. But Norman Bates would haunt him for life. Hitchcock once confided to a friend…I would have been a poof if I hadn’t met Alma (his wife) at the right time! It’s possible Hitchcock’s latent homosexuality played out not in his real-life…but in his films.
Perhaps Psycho’s best moments are the silent scenes, with no dialogue. What Hitchcock called pure cinema. Hitchcock understood the power of the moving image. He was influenced by German expressionism and silent movies, it shows in Psycho. In scene after scene of Psycho Hitchcock lets the “black and white images” do most of the talking. These silent film moments speak directly to the audience. They remind us that Hitchcock is the ringmaster of pure cinema, and we are his puppets. Cut to – A hotel room with Marion and the stolen $40,000 on top of the bedspread. Cut to – Norman by the lake as Marion’s car sinks slowly beneath the muddy water. Cut to – Lila Crane sneaking into an old dark house in search of Norma Bates and her missing sister, Marion…we learn more through Hitchcock’s intimate camera lens, more about the main characters in the above mentioned “silent scenes” than we ever could through spoken words.
It is required that you see Psycho from the beginning!Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock’s Psycho was a huge box office hit on its initial theatrical release. The audience was required to view the film from the beginning, latecomers were not admitted into the cinema. The gimmick of locking out latecomers Hitchcock hoped would protect Psycho’s surprise-shock ending and create strong word of mouth. Which it did! Afterthought – Hitchcock was possibly influenced at the time by the master of film gimmicks, director/producer William Castle. Castle paid back the compliment in 1961 by directing a Psycho rip-off titled, Homicidal. The film’s gimmick…a 45-second fright break where the audience was given the option to stay and watch the end of the film or leave the cinema.
Hitchcock’s Psycho has rightly earned a place in the history of pop culture and has been referenced in TV shows like the Simpsons and films like Halloween which starred Janet Leigh’s daughter and featured a character named Sam Loomis; Mel Brooks tribute to Hitchcock thrillers, High Anxiety; Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill; and Wes Craven’s Scream. Some critics today might dismiss Psycho as an old fashioned black and white film made over 60 years ago. But after revisiting it again, I would argue they are wrong to write it off in that way. Just like Mrs Bates locked away in the fruit cellar, a light is shining somewhere in the dark for Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho. For cinema puritans that light will never die.
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