Sunday, December 4, 2011

Psycho (1960) -- Alfred Hitchcock

An iconic image from Psycho.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) loves Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a recent divorcee with all of his money tied up in alimony and a hardware store. Marion lives in Phoenix and works in a real estate office while Sam lives in Fairvale, California. The couple must sneak an hour together here or there during Marion's lunch breaks to meet at a downtown hotel when Sam visits. Fed up with the arrangement, Marion makes a rash decision and takes $40,000 from her employer and skips town, planning to pay off Sam's mortgage so they can start a new life together. Tiring after a long drive and worried about road conditions, she stops at the Bates Motel as she nears her destination. There she meets the owner, Norman (Anthony Perkins), a strange young man who practices taxidermy and is not who or what he seems. 

Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood! Blood!
Director Alfred Hitchcock shocked movie audiences with his tale of a mentally disturbed man fixated on his mother. It took the suspense genre to a new level and changed women's bathing habits. All slasher movies since are derived from this seminal work, rightly considered a masterpiece of horror and suspense. It is not possible today to fully appreciate how revolutionary this film was in 1960. It is an unconventional one, divided into two distinct parts: the tale of Marion Crane's crime and punishment, and the tale of Norman.

The film starts with a high view over downtown Phoenix. The camera slowly pulls into a hotel window where Marion and Sam have just made love. Hitchcock cleverly uses the color of Marion's undergarments to symbolize her nature; here, still a "good" woman, she wears a white brassiere and slip. Later, after her theft, she has lost the veneer of honesty and appears in a black brassiere. The tryst with Sam establishes that Marion is unhappy and frustrated. Later, back at work, she feigns a headache. Her employer sends her home, but on the way, asks her to make a bank deposit. The temptation is too great. She steals the money and heads for Sam.

A wonderfully tense sequence follows where Marion, beset by paranoia, encounters a motorcycle cop. He finds her napping on the side of the road. It's a routine check, but because she acts nervous, he grows suspicious. He watches her later as she exchanges her car at a used-car lot, paying cash without haggling with the surprised dealer, even refusing to take the new car for a test drive. Longtime Hitchcock collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, overscores much of the driving sequence with tense strings, similar to that used for the opening credits. It's unnerving, allowing the audience to share Marion's mood of disquiet and guilt. Hitchcock famously had a fear of the police in real life, and he hides the officer behind a pair of dark glasses to give him an ominous look.    

Mort Mills as the highway patrol officer.

Marion drives into the night but runs into fatigue and a rainstorm; somehow she has gotten off the main road. She pulls into a roadside motel, planning to sleep a while before continuing on. The place is run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a man in his late 20s. She rents a room and he invites her to the office for a bite to eat. Marion overhears an ugly argument between Norman and his mother, who seems a dominating, complaining nag, a suffocating burden for Norman to bear. For his part, Norman seems a pathetic beaten-down weakling who's put his life on hold to care for his ailing mother. When asked if he has any friends, he replies, "Well, a man's best friend is his mother."

The two share an odd conversation, surrounded by Norman's stuffed birds, talking about the traps people get into, and we get the first hint that Norman is a little off. He's quick to anger for one thing. Marion realizes her life is not so difficult in comparison, and she comes to believe she's made a terrible mistake. She decides that tomorrow she will return to Phoenix to accept the consequences of her actions.

While their conversation gives plenty of clues that Norman may be unstable, because it is so innocent and because he appears so harmless, Marion doesn't quite see him for who he is.  

Norman: It's not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?
Marion: Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough.

Marion: Wouldn't it be better if you put her... someplace.
Norman: You mean an institution? A madhouse?
Marion: No, I didn't mean it like...
Norman: [suddenly angry] People always call a madhouse "someplace", don't they? "Put her in someplace!"
Marion: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound so uncaring.
Norman: What do you know about caring? Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing, and the tears, and those cruel eyes studying you? My mother there?
[subdued tone]
Norman: Oh, but she's harmless. She's as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.
Marion: I tried to mean well.
Norman: People always mean well. They cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads and suggest, oh, so very delicately!

The most famous scene in Hitchcock's entire canon soon follows, a masterpiece of editing and sound. George Tomasini served as editor. He knew what he was doing and would collaborate with Hitchcock on nine films, including Vertigo and most recently, North by Northwest. Hitchcock lets the viewer's imagination do the work here, a daring choice by the director. It works beautifully. 

Arbogast. Hired by Marion's sister, Lila (Vera Miles), to investigate Marion's disappearance, he stops at the Bates Motel. Arbogast grows suspicious upon questioning Norman, who acts peculiar and evasive. Watch Perkins' eyes and gestures during the interrogation. He's still popping that snack, but now he's a bundle of nerves. He stutters, trying his best to act nonchalant, but the detective keeps tripping him up.

Already jolted by one shocking death, the audience soon gets another. Convinced that the man is hiding something, Arbogast sneaks into the Bates house with the intention of questioning the mother, whose silhouette he believes he caught a glimpse of below. It's wonderfully suspenseful. He slowly ascends the stairs, careful to keep quiet, looking about to make sure Norman isn't about. Suddenly, in a high shot above the action, a figure darts out of a room onto the landing, clad in an old woman's robe. It holds a knife high overhead. Down it comes. The camera cuts to the detective's face as he stumbles backward, struggling desperately to keep his balance down the stairs. It bears a large gash and utter astonishment. Herrmann's frightening score adds immensely to the mood of the scene.

Arbogast is victim number two. 

At this point you might wonder where Hitchcock is taking you. Psycho contains considerably more graphic violence than any of his previous work. Of course, that's one reason it is so shocking upon first viewing.

Arbogast's death proves to be Norman's undoing as it brings Sam and Lila to the scene, where they unravel the mystery in a famous encounter in the basement of the Bates' home. There's a spooky exchange with a local sheriff when they are told that Norman's mother died ten years ago. Some critics don't like the denouncement/explanation by a psychologist at the end of the film, but it sets up the terrific final shot of Norman in jail. Thanks to the voice-over and Perkins' creepy smile, you know he's come completely unhinged.

He wouldn't hurt a fly!

The film earned 4 Oscar nominations, including Best Director, Best Set Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actress (Leigh). It won none, though Leigh did take home a Golden Globe for her work. It was named to the National Film Registry in 1992.

Arguably Hitchock's best work, it is certainly his most shocking. With superb pacing, the mystery is unraveled slowly to keep the suspense high. For anyone lucky enough to have seen it upon its initial release, it surely burnt a permanent scar into their brain.   


  1. Very nice review! Yes, it is indeed two films in one and that's what make Marion's demise so shocking. I agree that it's hard for new viewers to realize just how shocking that was in 1960 (and when I first saw it on TV in the 70s). Ever notice all the bird stuff in the movie? Marion's last name is Crane. She lives in Phoenix. Of course, Norman stuffs birds. Ironically, Hitch's next pic was...The Birds!