On a bright December Friday afternoon, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) returns to work after some afternoon delight with her similarly cash-strapped lover Sam (John Gavin). When her boss sends Marion to the bank to deposit a client’s $40,000 in cash, on a whim she hastily backs her bags and flees with the money, but draws the attention of a road cop during her escape. When darkness and an incessant downpour prove too much for Marion, she checks into the run down, deserted Bates Motel, where she meets motel manager Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a kind yet awkward young man, unfamiliar with pretty young women entering his life. Norman’s bedridden mother disproves of the presence of Marion, and refuses to let her into the house, but this is no concern of the girl’s as she still has to plan what to do with the money.
If you haven’t seen Psycho and know nothing of the plot beyond what I’ve written above, then I would firstly like to welcome you to this place called ‘The World’ and secondly I’d recommend that you stop reading this now, and go see Psycho instead. The film is great, for many reasons that I intend to go into, but I’m also going to spoil pretty much the entirety of the story, as it would be somewhat difficult to properly discuss it at length without mentioning the second half of the film. Finished it? Jolly good, then I shall proceed.
Psycho is widely regarded as a film that changed the face of cinema – specifically horror cinema – as we know it. It is the most famous film to show a kill from the killer’s perspective (although it was beaten chronologically by two months by Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom), it had the audacity to kill off the film’s sole lead before the halfway mark, it features a heroine who is not only a criminal, but one who has sex out of wedlock and in the middle of the goddamn day, and it featured cinema’s first ever flushing toilet. Oh the depravity! Censors had a field day upon its release, with the pivotal shower scene infamously undergoing several resubmittals to the distribution board and receiving different feedback each time, despite director Alfred Hitchcock never changing a single cut. When watched today Psycho may not have quite the same shock impact it did back in 1960 thanks to how well known the film has become – there’s even the recent Hitchcock, about the making of the film – but it’s easy to imagine how audience’s would have felt upon it’s release.
Think about it; Hitchcock had just made North By Northwest, arguably his most commercial film; one that was almost entirely thrill-driven and popcorn-friendly. The only thing that could have led audiences to have some idea what they were in for with Psycho is the title, but to be fair even that is ambiguous, and it isn’t until Marion has been killed that we have some idea who it is referring to. Up until that point it could have been Marion herself, or the creepy, dogged cop chasing her, or perhaps even Marion’s lover, Sam, who may well have turned on her for some unknown reason once she arrived to see him. And before she is killed off, the entire film has been seen through the eye’s of Marion, right up until she finishes her supper with Norman and she heads to the bathroom, whilst he makes his move to the peep-hole in the wall. There was nothing to lead people to believe that they were about to be left floundering, with no lead to follow, with more than an hour’s worth of movie left to go. It’s no wonder Hitchcock refused to allow cinema patrons to enter the cinema once the film had begun, as how else could he guarantee their complete and utter discombobulation at seeing Marion, the audience’s cypher, killed off before them? It is such a shame that this shock is now lost on new viewers to the film, as even on my first viewing it was all but impossible for me not to know almost exactly what was going to happen, and when, and to whom. Alas, I even knew the only marginally less famous twist at the end of the film.
So can Psycho still be enjoyed – and even more importantly, is it still effective – even with knowledge of how it will all play out? Undoubtedly. After all, you can just look at the career of M. Night Shyamalan to know that doing something unexpected in a film does not guarantee that said film will be remarkable, so therefore a remarkable film must surely rely upon other talents that will hold up on repeat viewings. The element of Psycho that most greatly embodies this for me is the acting, specifically Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. His is definitely my favourite performance I’ve seen so far in a Hitchcock film (second place currently being held by Robert Walker in Strangers On A Train), as he perfectly balances the line between being creepy and awkward, unfamiliar around other people yet yearning for company. He stumbles over his words, stuttering and stammering at the proximity to this beautiful creature that’s fallen into his life. The conversations he has with Marion are also wonderfully ambiguous once you know exactly what he’s talking about; Marion’s mind is firmly on the stolen money, whilst Norman’s is most certainly not. It is a sublime, gawky, gangling performance that I feel does not get the appreciation it deserves, especially when you consider that Janet Leigh was nominated for an Oscar for this and he was not.
As I’m becoming used to with the later Hitchcock films, the cinematography is both inventive and effectively used, in most cases to best aid the storytelling. The wordless sequence showing Marion preparing to flee with the money is a prime example of this, as the camera pans from her face to her hastily packed suitcase, but keeps on finding it’s way back to the envelope stuffed with money, showing her doubts over whether what she is doing is right or not. There is also Marion’s bra colour, which purportedly emphasises her purity and respectability when its white, and her guilt and deception only a few scenes later when it is now black. The aforementioned supper conversation helped to show the distance between the two as well; never showing them in the same shot with the camera flitting between the two.
Bernard Herrmann’s score is terrifically atmospheric too, from the opening Saul Bass striping credits to his shrieking strings to those infamous piercing, stabbing notes during Marion’s ill-fated shower. However, some times the absence of score is just as effective, as in during the questioning Marion receives from the cop at the roadside. The tension-inducing music isn’t needed until she peels away, the strings kicking in like a knife when she hits the gas.
I feel like this will be quite a dull post to read if I just continue to list the highlights of the film. Fortunately, it isn’t all amazing. There’s a shot late in the film that follows a character falling down the stairs that must have been technologically impressive to shoot but nowadays looks stilted and awkward. Also, of the four characters whose narratives we pick up after Marion’s death, the two that have become our new hero and heroine – Marion’s lover Sam (John Gavin) and sister Lila (Vera Miles) aren’t very compelling, but fortunately Norman is still around to remain utterly captivating. That’s it. That’s all the negatives I can find. Back to the positives I suppose. It’s less bad that the falling-down-the-stairs shot doesn’t work because of how much I love the shot, also of the staircase, that sees the camera smoothly pan up the stairs and rest in the rafters, watching as Norman descends in one fluid movement.
What else? Well, the way that everyone is looking for a motive that just doesn’t exist in the second half of the film, thinking that Marion must have been killed for the money, is deliciously funny. And most directors would find that a shot of a long-dead corpse with a skeletal face and deep-sunken eyes would be creepy enough, but not Hitchcock. No, he needs to add a bare, wildly swinging lightbulb to cast disconcerting shadows at all angles, and of course Norman emerging knife in hand and dressed like Nora Batty to the mix as well. And that final internal monologue is so chilling! Oh I could talk about how much I love this film forever!
Choose film 10/10