Review: “Psycho” (1960)
WARNING: ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S SPOILERS
When I was a budding and hugely unpublished short story writer in the early 1990s I thought it would be cool to write a story that begins in one direction—plot, themes, foreshadowing—and then something happens, boom, and it goes off in a completely different direction. I anticipated the same main character (someone like me, of course), but the story around this character changes, since that’s how life often feels. We think we’re going in one direction and then we’re not. We think we’re controlling the story but we’re not.
I didn’t know this had already been done, and better, 30 years earlier.
That’s the startling thing about “Psycho” when you first watch it. We all know Norman Bates and the famous shower scene, so we’re anticipating Norman Bates and the famous shower scene. But Norman (Anthony Perkins) doesn’t show up until a half-hour in, the shower scene until 45 minutes in. Up to that point the movie is Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh). She’s the main character, with her own plot, her own issues, her own themes. She’s involved with a man who can’t marry her because of the debt he carries; then another man flaps a seemingly phallic $40,000 in her face and she takes off with it. That’s the tension for the first half of the film. Will she get away with the money? Will she go back? Can she go back? Hey, this motel manager is self-deprecating and funny. Not bad-looking, either. Will she wind up with him? Oh, maybe she’ll learn from him. About the traps we spring on ourselves. Maybe she’ll redeem herself. Maybe this shower will cleanse her of her sins.
Hey, what’s that shadow in the background?
Wurt! Wurt! Wurt!
That’s the true horror of the movie, isn’t it? When Norman dumps her body in the trunk of her car and dumps the car in the bog out back, he’s not only burying her, he’s burying her story. Everything she worried about for the first half of the movie, and that we worried about with her, is now inconsequential. Now the story is his. Just as he subsumed Mother’s personality after he killed her, he subsumed Marion’s story after he killed her. There’s something primal in this. Kill someone and everything theirs becomes yours.
Do we want him to take over the movie? That’s a tough one. I went in knowing about Norman and the shower scene, so I knew Marion’s afternoon liaison and sudden theft and getaway and worry and buying a new-used car from good ol’ California Charlie were all irrelevant to the true story, so this shadow-play bored me a little. Even with Hitchcock, that glorious perv, giving us all those shots of Janet Leigh and her progressively dark underwear, I was bored. Stealing forty thousand? That’s it? It’s so small. Her plan seems perfectly addled, too. She right near the Mexican border but flees to mid-California. Does she think they’ll never be able to find her there? That the world will swallow her up? Even when the world literally swallows her up, they still find her.
But I don’t know if I’m bored with this storyline because of its smallness or because I know it’s a red herring. I’m curious what people who saw the film in 1960 thought.
(Bowsley Crowther, for one, reviewing for The New York Times in June 1960, seemed unimpressed with Marion’s storyline: “With a minimum of complication, it gets off to a black-and-white start with the arrival of a fugitive girl with a stolen bankroll right at an eerie motel,” he writes. “Well, perhaps it doesn't get her there too swiftly. That's another little thing about this film. It does seem slowly paced for Mr. Hitchcock and given over to a lot of small detail.”)
Throughout, Hitchcock plays with his familiar themes: the struggle between innocence and guilt; the power of watching and the powerlessness of being watched. The first shot is a voyeur’s delight: a pan of Phoenix, Arizona, on December 11, 2:43 PM. The camera closes in on a building, then a window, then it takes us past the drawn shades and lets us watch a good-looking, post-coital couple in conversation. He’s stripped to the waist, she’s in her underwear. We’re peeping toms, basically. Moviegoers are always peeping toms, of course, it’s just that Hitchcock doesn’t let us forget it—usually as a prelude to presenting a less palatable peeping tom on screen.
Here, for example, is our view of Marion as she’s deciding whether or not to steal the $40,000:
Now here’s Norman Bates’ view, through the Bates Motel peephole, as Marion decides whether or not to return the $40,000:
The only difference is we have a better view. Hitchcock even makes Norman look like our cameraman:
We all want to be innocent (rather than guilty) and powerful (rather than powerless) but are the two incompatible? Accruing power tends to cost innocence. Look at Marion. She grabs $40,000 but can’t stand the loss of innocence. She wears guilt poorly.
To be powerful is to be guilty ... and to yearn for innocence. That can be considered the theme of some of the greatest American movies ever made—“Citizen Kane,” The Godfather trilogy, “Lord of the Rings”—and it’s a theme here, with Norman, on a smaller scale, and with a psychotic twist.
Let’s start with the sequence where Marion checks in at the Bates Motel. At this point, Norman seems like a self-deprecating, semi-charming kind of guy, and, as she signs in with a fake name (“Marie Samuels”), he asks for her home address. “Oh, just your town will do,” he says. She hesitates; then, with inspiration from the newspaper sticking out of her purse, stammers, “Los Angeles.” For a moment his hand hesitates before the keys to the various cabins. Has he detected the lie, the guilt, in her voice? Is he deciding that L.A. is far enough away? Either way, he hands her the keys to cabin one, the cabin where he can watch her, the cabin where everything bad happens.
Later they have dinner, milk and sandwiches, during which she mistakenly suggests an institution for Mother, whom she’d heard berating Norman, and he kind of flips:
Have you ever seen one of the inside of those places? The laughing and the tears? And the cruel eyes studying you? My mother? There? But she’s harmless. She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.
At the end of the conversation, deciding she has to get out of the trap she put herself in, and forgetting her subterfuge, Marion tells Norman she’ll be driving back to Phoenix in the morning. She tells him her name is Crane. Then she leaves. We stay. Is this the first change in point-of-view in the film? I believe so. The movie is already becoming Norman’s. He goes over to the desk, looks at the register and sees “Marie Samuels, Los Angeles.” His look is almost triumphant. Then he walks back into the dark and shadows, among his stuffed birds, and lingers. After a beat, he sets the painting aside to peep into her cabin and see her undressing.
There’s a perverse morality and twisted logic as all of this plays out:
- She is guilty so she must be watched.
- He has watched so he must be guilty.
- Mother must take away (kill) the source of her son’s guilt.
- The son must take away (remove) the evidence of Mother’s guilt.
Norman wants the power of watching but can’t take the accompanying guilt. He wants both power and innocence. You could say that’s the source of his psychosis.
Even at the end of the movie, captured at last, sitting alone in a police holding cell—and thus guilty and powerless—he figures out a way to remain innocent and powerful.
By this point the mother (“Norma”) portion of his personality has completely trumped the real (“Norman”) part of his personality, and, as he sits alone in the holding cell, it’s her thoughts, her creepy voice, buzzing in his head. She defends giving up Norman to the police because she feels innocent of the crimes. Which she is. That’s the brilliance of it. He did everything. He used “her” to commit the crimes to remain innocent of the crimes (“She’s ill,” he tells Marion), and, once caught, he uses “her” to take refuge from the crimes (“He was always bad,” she thinks), since it was always his hand sticking in the blade and disposing of the bodies. He adopts whatever personality is necessary to remain innocent. One suspects that if they eventually charged Mother with the crimes, he would revert back to Norman.
That’s how he remains innocent. But how does he remain powerful? Isn’t he trapped in a place where their cruel eyes can watch him again? He even suspects this. “They’re probably watching me,” Mother’s voice says, as Norman’s eyes glance almost casually around. He’s a peeper and we always suspect others of our crimes.
But are the police watching him? We don’t know. We assume not. But we do know that someone’s watching him. We are. We’ve been watching him the whole time. We have the power of the watcher and the innocence of someone who’s not in control (beyond the ticket purchase) of what they’re watching. Hitchcock has already played with our innocence by associating it with a psychopath. In the final shot he takes away our power.
How can the watched regain control from the watcher? By watching back. Which is what Norman does. With the last line of the movie he turns his gaze on us:
They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know. They’ll say, “Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly.”
Oh man, does it work. By watching us, by letting us know that he knows we’re watching him, Norman regains power and we lose it. It’s frightening. It’s even more frightening because Hitchcock, for a fraction of a second, superimposes Mother’s death-skull over Norman’s smiling face, and he seems a kind of grim reaper, our grim reaper, which is further augmented by the final shot of Marion’s car being dragged from the bog—suggesting not only all of Norman’s crimes but all of our final resting places. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and mud to mud.
“Psycho” has its weak points. John Gavin is leaden, the front story so-so, the shot of Norman in drag almost Jim Carreyishly amusing. Plus the psychiatric explanation is overlong and overdone.
But the rest? This is a movie that changed cinema and our culture. Monsters aren’t the Universal variety—giant or disfigured or hairy—they’re the universal variety. They look like the boy next door. They look like anybody and their victims could be anyone: her, him, me, you. And it can come at any moment. When you’re walking up the stairs. When you’re taking a shower. You’re never safe. That’s the horror. They can get you any time. If this story has gained in power in the 50 years since Hitchcock and screenwriter Joe Stefano worked on it, if we’re still trapped in some sense by Norman Bates’ primal gaze, it may be because we haven’t yet worked up the courage to look back.