February 15th, 2020
With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock is a master magician. His actors, camera shots and sets are his props… and we are the unwitting audience lucky enough to take in such a performance.
From the outside looking in, Psycho is nothing more than a low budget thriller with a couple of well-timed scares to make an audience jump. But what Hitchcock does with Psycho is lure the audience down one path, only to lead them straight into a brick wall and force them down another path entirely. True, the movie only cost $800,000 to make (which wasn’t a lot
of money even in 1960) and true, the sets and costumes are nothing spectacular, but it’s what Hitchcock does with what he has that makes it so
brilliant. Long scenes of no dialogue are made intense by the slick pace at which the film moves; the creative cinematography is nothing short of genius, and of course there is the wonderful score by Bernard Herrmann. To truly analyze this film would take someone much better than I, but – like
Hitchcock – I will do the best with what I have.
The story of Psycho is one that begins simply enough: with a girl stealing some money. Not an off the wall way to start a Hitchcock film, and our presumed heroine is the beautiful, blonde-haired (another staple of Hitchcock films), Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). As the audience, we identify with Marion as a person in love… and a person who has the opportunity to steal from someone who is a complete sleaze ball. Who can blame her for trying to just get away to be with the only person she wants to be with? On trying to take advantage of the situation that has presented itself? And so the story starts.
We follow Marion on her journey as things become more and more tense. We feel growing unease when a police officer suspects something suspicious and begins to follow her. We are anxious as she drives at night through the blinding rain, expecting her to get in to an accident or something worse. And we grow sympathetic towards her as she converses with a motel manager, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and we witness her transition from being a careless, lovelorn thief to a remorseful woman ready to make things right again.
But it’s all a red herring.
The fact of the matter is that Hitchcock takes such time and effort into setting up this story with Marion as the heroine just to have the payoff of shocking the audience when they witness her grisly murder.
“Wait? Wasn’t she the lead? You don’t kill the lead! She’s not really dead, is she? The movie isn’t even half over!”
From here on out, we follow Norman – a son who just wants to do right by his mother. Norman is an abused soul, trapped in a dead-end job by his controlling mother who is unwilling to let him have any friends or any fun. She is so controlling, in fact, that she will kill anyone who poses a threat, leaving Norman to clean up her mess. We feel sorry for Norman. He’s just a goofy kid who believes that “a boy’s best friend is his mother.” His peculiar hobby of taxidermy seems to be the only thing keeping him sane given the environment in which he lives.
As the film progresses, the story grows more intense. Hitchcock feeds us drips and drabs of information, slowly peeling the onion that is the plot, one layer at a time. We, the audience, are represented by a private investigator who comes to question Mrs. Bates, wanting to find out more details and get some answers. His efforts are futile, however, as he is pushed down the stairs and stabbed to death by Mrs. Bates’ trademark kitchen knife.
Marion’s boyfriend, Sam, and sister, Lila, continue the investigation into not only Marion’s disappearance, but now the disappearance of the private investigator. A local sheriff tells them that Norman’s mother died ten years ago. Confused, the pair venture to the Bates home wanting to question the mysterious lady in the window, thinking she will have some information on the whereabouts of Marion. What they find, of course, is cinematic history as we discover in a classic reveal that Norman himself is also his mother, and a victim of multiple personalities.
It truly is a brilliant film, and Hitchcock proves that story and technique is more important than grand set design and fantastic special effects.
The acting is very good as well, with the standout performance being that of Anthony Perkins as Norman. His “gosh-oh-gee” type of charm subtly masks his inner darkness, and Perkins does a fantastic job of switching between the two.
What I loved best about Perkins’ performance was his ability to show the nervousness that he feels as he grows more anxious about being caught for his crime. He is not a cool, methodic killer, a la Hannibal Lecter… he’s a motel manager with mommy issues who gets nervous at the thought of being caught and institutionalized.
This movie is not without flaw, however, and as I watched and listened to the psychiatrist at the end, I began to think to myself, “Alright, we get it.” This scene seemed a bit out of place to me, so it was nice that my thoughts were confirmed by the late Roger Ebert* in his review, as he states, “If I were bold enough to reedit Hitchcock’s film, I would include only the doctor’s first explanation of Norman’s dual personality: ‘Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half existed to begin with. And now, the other half has taken over, probably for all time.’ Then I would cut out everything else the psychiatrist says, and cut to the shots of Norman wrapped in the blanket while his mother’s voice speaks… Those edits, I submit, would have made Psycho very nearly perfect” (Ebert, 1998).
I love this film and think it is something that everyone should see at some point in their life. Hitchcock is truly a genius, and his films are some of the best ever made. I would recommend other Hitchcock films as well, such as Rear Window, Vertigo, and my personal favorite, Dial “M” for Murder.
– Swearwolf Bret
*A little note about Roger Ebert: Anyone who listens to the podcast knows that I have distain for him and his reviews of horror films. If a movie is labeled horror, he automatically hates it. This is unfair to say the least. However, this does not mean that Roger Ebert wasn’t an expert in his field, and his views should be regarded as such. Especially when he agrees with me. But… fuck Roger Ebert!
Ebert, R. (1998, December 6). Psycho. Retrieved July 31, 2015, from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-psycho-1960