“I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Watershed cinema. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) changed the way deranged killers were perceived outwards in our real world and the way inwards movie genre clichés were bent and reshaped. Norman Bates, as played by Anthony Perkins, is a quirky and even gushy normal-seeming guy with hidden subversions and deviances. He is one of the most famous psychopaths of the movies, up there with Hannibal Lecter. Perhaps this is due because we acknowledge his exterior intellect first. That Norman could hold up a polite conversation with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a reminder that mentally ill people can feign normalcy when necessary. You have to be able to look for the clues. Marion sees a few stuffed birds. Marion acknowledges artificial laughter from the man, as if he were desperate for acceptance. The audience gets a whoopee of extra private insight, when we learn that Norman is a peeping tom. And that he wanted with zeal to be as much a matronly mother like his own that he began dressing up like her.
The whopping plot twist surprise is what makes the heart stop during your first view of “Psycho.” Brought up on cookie-cutter television series and generic three-act movies, the first whopper truly is a WTF moment. But it goes beyond there. My favorite two shots by Hitchcock are of a flushing toilet and of a car that doesn’t quite sink to the bottom of the mote. Impassive black & white cinematography made it all the more viscerally effective.
Marion is hiding a secret too, the $40,000 she has run off with. Nobody knows her whereabouts or that she ended up at a roadside motel, aptly “Bates Motel.” Marion is horrible with secrecy, and it’s after that conversation with Norman that she might be having a change of heart and might return the money. Her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) is bland and lacks a strong opinion – a great excuse for Hitchcock to select a bland actor. Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) is also bland and middling – in this case a mistake in casting.
Of course, the greatness of “Psycho” is usually summed up in its foremost snuff scene; we feel it more because of the artistry involved. The shower sequence, requiring 78 edits for 45 seconds of film, remains a landmark for the psycho genre. I think those superfluous edits however mean something more: that Norman didn’t just like to kill, he liked to torment while he was killing. Making his victim recognize they were going to die – and feel helpless during it. Norman doesn’t just have a dirty mind, he has a wicked mind. Another man dies, slashed, taking a long flight down to the bottom. This is torment.
But if “Psycho” isn’t quite the masterpiece to me that it is to other critics it’s because I always felt Hitchcock was merciless in crafting pure terror except for the climax in the cobwebby basement where he holds the camera on skull and bones, with shadow silhouettes dancing before our eyes – Hitchcock surrendered too much mercy to his audience. For all the shocking macabre of most of the picture, this final confrontation lacks slashes, nicks and the inevitable blood. I just see two actors playing tug-of-war.
When I recall “Psycho” I picture Norman Bates stuttering silently, I can almost see the skeleton flapping his jaw underneath the skin. I have these eternal memories of Norman, with the aid of ghastly black & white. Revisiting “Psycho,” I like the first 80 minutes best.
109 Minutes. Rated NR, mature audiences only.
Film Cousins: “Peeping Tom” (1960, Britain); “Frenzy” (1972); “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974); “American Psycho” (2000).