An Appreciation – Psycho (1960)
Few films stand as clear touchstones. Every so often, a work will leave such an enormous impact that it will cause a notable shift within the cinematic landscape. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is one of those films. It operates as a clear transitional point, drawing the curtain down on the immediate post-war era and helping to usher in a new wave of storytelling that would dominate the late 1960s and into the ‘70s. It effectively put an end to the classic Film Noir age, planting the seeds that would eventually take down the Hays Code and bring about new forms of expression. Of course, Psycho isn’t the only film to do this, but rarely has a film left such a massive cultural footprint.
Some have labeled Hitchcock as a director who only stayed in one lane, that his skill was regulated only by the thriller genre. This thought is shortsighted. Hitchcock’s brilliance was largely due to his ability to adapt – to flow with the changing times. Yes, he had themes and obsessions that would run throughout his career: fear of being wrongfully accused of a crime, fear of police, fear of domineering parental figures, a compulsive obsession of strong-willed women, etc. But he encompassed those ideas within an ever-shifting style. Consider that he was not only able to sustain a forty-plus year career as a director, but was able to work in silent film, in black and white, in color, within genres like thriller, horror, adventure, comedy and romantic melodrama. He wasn’t just making passable films but high-quality ones, many of which are now considered masterpieces.
Hitchcock existed almost entirely within the studio system, and yet he did so with the vision of an artist. Psycho was such a change of pace for him that it could almost be considered experimental. It comes right between the big budget productions of North by Northwest (1959) and The Birds (1963). He utilized the crew from his television show, shot in black and white, and used a limited amount of sets in the Universal backlot. In interviews, he mentioned that he was going for the look of an exploitation film, with a stripped down, rougher feel than his usual, glossier work. Of course, there is also the narrative itself – written by Joseph Stefano (adapting Robert Bloch’s novel). It took a huge risk in killing off Hitchcock’s biggest star a third of the way into the plot and relying on a relative unknown to carry the audience from there on out.
It’s easy to forget – more than sixty years later – just how much of a gamble Hitchcock and his crew took. By this time, Hitchcock was just as big of a name than those he cast, and it’s no doubt that he used his influence to make the film he wanted. But he always made sure that his expert craftsmanship led the way. Hitchcock was a master manipulator when it came to storytelling. He was of the belief that the process of directing also meant swaying an audience to get a particular reaction. He tosses our allegiances back and forth like a hot potato, constantly questioning character motivations so that at one point we find ourselves rooting for the villain. The noir-centric feeling of anxiety and moral ambiguity is twisted and amplified to the extreme.
How does Hitchcock pull this off so successfully? The first act operates like a usual Hitchcock plot, in which secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer to run away with her lover Sam (John Gavin). Right away, Hitchcock is setting us up for what’s to come. By creating a situation where we side with Marion (even though she is committing a crime), we are placed in the position of accomplice. We are going on the run with her, and her growing anxiety of being apprehended is shared. When her employer catches her driving away, we feel her unease. That unease is expanded into fear when she runs into a police officer and is questioned. Her nervous answers immediately draw suspicious glances.
Just by describing Marion’s predicament, we are already finding ourselves getting drawn back into her story. That’s how effective the writing and direction is. We are put into a vulnerable position both as an accessory to Marion’s action as well as a detached observer. We go along with her and are unable to do anything about it. Much of the film has a voyeuristic quality – in how we observe events unfold and how characters observe each other. This is established in the opening, in which the cinematography (John L. Russell) features a shot that begins over the city of Phoenix, Arizona and gradually zooms into a hotel room where Marion and Sam (both partially undressed) are staying in. It’s this feeling of seeing what we are not supposed to see that pervades the entire narrative. From there on out, there is a constant feeling of paranoia.
That feeling continues once Marion arrives at The Bates Motel. Norman (Anthony Perkins), the young man who runs the motel seems polite enough but is a bit too eager to be friendly – inviting her to a late-night snack in his parlor. The stuffed birds decorated around the room hover over Marion, like they’re eyeing down their prey. Even the Bates’ family house acts as a character. Located behind the motel, the house now exists as a featured attraction for tourists at Universal Studios. But in the movie, it stands above all in menacing shadow, with Norman’s “Mother” being a constant presence even when she is not seen. If the atmosphere wasn’t dreaded enough, the voyeurism is taken to a literal sense once Norman spies on Marion through a peep hole.
Norman Bates is one of the hardest kinds of characters to pull off. In lesser hands, he could have immediately come off as despicable, pushing the audience away before we have a chance to get drawn in by him. Luckily, Anthony Perkin’s all-time great performance prevents this from happening. He effectively balances a “Gee, Golly” boyish charm with a noticeable off kilter attitude. Norman is clearly a lonely person, who has withdrawn from the rest of society so much so that his connection with his mother has become the central relationship of his life. When he says, “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” he means it. And yet he is polite, flashes a smile, stuffs his hands into his pockets and skips around the motel like a youngster. In the present day, we know what his façade truly hides, but in 1960 – when audiences didn’t know what he was – he must have been viewed as a strange enigma.
As a marketing ploy, Hitchcock demanded that all theaters not allow people in once the movie started, and implored audiences not to give away the twists. Part of this effort no doubt involved keeping the infamous shower scene a secret. It’s one of the most analyzed scenes of all movie history, the sequence in which (spoiler alert) Norma Bates – dressed as “Mother” – murders Marion by stabbing her while she takes a shower. Much talk has been made about how it was constructed, how Hitchcock (with editor George Tomasini) incorporated a rapid-fire editing technique that gave the impression of violence happening on screen. But when broken down, we find that the composition of shots not only doesn’t show the knife entering the body, there is also no nudity. The craftsmanship gives the effect of something happening despite it not actually being shown. There isn’t even all that much blood. The combination of shot selection, editing, sound effects, and Bernard Hermann’s piercing score makes it shocking. In fact, it can be argued that the most disturbing moment happens after the murder takes place, where the camera does an extreme close up of Marion’s eye as she lays dead on the bathroom floor.
The genius of the scene isn’t just how cinema language is used for a desired effect, but how it is the turning point for our emotional investment. Janet Leigh – the biggest star of the cast and who was featured in all of the advertisements – is no longer there for us to attach to. Instead, the narrative makes the bold move of shifting the focus to Norman. This happens in the long stretch of time immediately following the murder, in which Norman “discovers” Marion’s body. The series of events are meticulous. First is the shocked reaction by Norman over what we finds and then the step by step process of him cleaning up all of the evidence. It’s this extended sequence where we start to follow alongside him. All of the empathy that was generated for Marion has now been transferred to Norman – instead of being Marion’s accomplice, we are now his. He tries to dispose of Marion’s body by placing it in her car and shoving it into a nearby swamp. When the car stops sinking and pauses still above the water, we are thinking the exact same thought Norman is: “Please go in.”
From there on out, the story is Norman’s and the central tension involves whether or not he will be captured. It’s a fascinating switch, and yet it happens so smoothly that when all is said and done we wonder how we could have rooted for such a troubled person. That’s what makes the appearance of the investigator Arbogast (Martin Balsam) so intriguing. Hired by Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles), Arbogast shows up at the Bates Motel and questions Norman over whether or not Marion stopped by there. How are we supposed to take this scene? In a more straightforward story, we would hope that Arbogast would pinch Norman for his crime and bring him to justice. But because Hitchcock has already established a fear of police figures, our alliances are on far shakier grounds. The famous “Psycho Switch” has been done so often in the decades since that it has become a cliché of its own.
Hitchcock throws us for a loop again when it is revealed that Norman is the true killer and that “Mother” was a product of his broken psychology. While the reveal does recontextualize our feelings about Norman, it also sets up the most problematic scene. The closing speech made by a psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) to “explain” Norman’s state of mind is long, monotonous, and unnecessary. It provides a backstory to Norman that we simply don’t need – delving into his past, his strained relationship with his mother, and the duality that now resides in his head. All of this is already suggested leading up to the climax. What makes Norman so interesting is the mystery that surrounds him. To provide an explanation is to take away his narrative power. It is the only weak point in an otherwise perfectly executed film.
Psycho rewards multiple viewings, not just to decipher how the surprises are hinted at before they happen, but to witness how Hitchcock used cinema to play the audience like a fiddle. He takes us on a ride while dictating every rise and fall along the way. It is the ultimate example of how the medium can sway our thought process – how light and sound has the power to generate legitimate emotional reactions. It is the art form operating at its highest capability.