#32) Psycho (1960)


#32) Psycho (1960)

OR “Oedipal Arrangements”

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Joseph Stefano. Based on the novel by Robert Bloch.

Class of 1992

This is a revised and expanded version of my original “Psycho” post, which you can read here.

Also, I can’t discuss “Psycho” without mentioning the film’s major plot twists, so spoilers ahead!

The Plot: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) can’t afford to marry her long-distance boyfriend Sam (John Gavin), so she impulsively steals $40,000 cash from her job and drives from Phoenix to Fairvale to be with Sam. After a tense drive, Marion checks into the Bates Motel, run by the earnest Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his distant yet domineering mother (Voiced by Virginia Gregg/Paul Jasmin/Jeanette Nolan). After dinner with Norman, Marion is murdered by Mother in the shower before she has the chance to return the money. Once Marion goes missing, her sister Lila (Vera Miles) becomes determined to find her. This leads everyone back to the Bates, where the mother of all surprises awaits.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “suspensefull [sic]” and praises Bernard Herrmann’s “spine-tinglingly [sp?] unforgettable” score. They also, however, detail how Perkins and Leigh’s future work was overshadowed by “Psycho”. In addition, an essay by film critic Charles Taylor digs a little too deeply into the film’s symbolism.

But Does It Really?: No surprises: “Psycho” is on my list of truly untouchable great films. I have seen “Psycho” several times over the years, and I was well aware of the film’s twists prior to my first viewing, but I’ll be damned if this movie still can’t scare the crap out of me every time. “Psycho” certainly isn’t the taboo-busting pulp thriller it was in 1960, and it’s dated and sexist as all hell by today’s standards, but Hitchcock’s polished, confident directing, plus a cast and crew at the top of their game, ensures the film’s longevity. A game changer for the thriller genre as well as for all of moviedom, “Psycho” has endured, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Everybody Gets One: Film and stage actor Anthony Perkins was always Hitchcock’s first choice to play Norman Bates, his “boy-next-door” good looks being a departure from the character’s shorter, cruder description in the book. Although he was seemingly typecast for the rest of his career, Perkins often spoke fondly of his time making “Psycho”. That being said, upon his passing, his urn was inscribed, “Don’t Fence Me In”.

Wow, That’s Dated: I’ll assume the original title of this movie was “Issues with Women: The Motion Picture”. Jeez Louise is this thing sexist (It should be noted that both director and screenwriter were coping with their own mother issues during production). On a less depressing note, the $40,000 Marion steals would be roughly $346,000 today.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Psycho” opened to mixed critical reviews, but strong word of mouth made the film a worldwide box office sensation. At the 1961 Oscars, “Psycho” managed four nominations, but zero wins. Janet Leigh lost Best Supporting Actress to Shirley Jones in “Elmer Gantry”, and Hitch lost his fifth (and final) Best Director nod to that year’s big winner: Billy Wilder for “The Apartment”. For those of you keeping track, “Psycho” received no nominations for Picture, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, or Original Score.

Other notes

  • Although serial killer Ed Gein was the primary inspiration for Norman Bates, “Psycho” author Robert Bloch was unaware of the specifics of Gein’s crimes until he had almost completed the manuscript, and was amazed at how close he was. Call it the most perverse parallel thinking that ever happened.
  • Expecting another big-budget thriller a la “Vertigo” or “To Catch a Thief”, Paramount rejected the “Psycho” screenplay, calling it “too repulsive for films”. Undeterred, Hitchcock financed the film himself, shooting on the Universal lot with his TV crew from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” to keep “Psycho” under-budget. Paramount still distributed the picture, but ultimately sold their cut of the film back to Hitchcock.
  • Those credits, man. Only Saul Bass can take a series of lines and make them suspenseful. Special mention to Bernard Herrmann, whose score so impressed Hitchcock, he doubled Herrmann’s salary.
  • While reviewing the establishing shots of Phoenix filmed by the second unit, Hitchcock noticed that Christmas decorations were visible on the streets. Rather than reshoot, Hitch added text stating the film begins on “Friday December the Eleventh”, making “Psycho” the least Christmas-y Christmas movie this side of “Die Hard”.
  • We get TWO Hitchcock cameos in this movie! Hitch makes his usual appearance at the beginning (but why the cowboy hat?), followed immediately by his daughter Patricia in the brief role of Marion’s co-worker Caroline.
  • Wow, Tom Cassidy is the tip of this movie’s sexist iceberg. Who knew Sam Wainwright was such a creep? Hee-haw!
  • Before we get to the actual scares, Hitch keeps the suspense going with good old-fashioned paranoia; the nosy cop, the pushy car-dealer, the voices in Marion’s head. The Bates Motel sign signals a (ultimately false) sense of security.
  • Perkins is wonderfully sympathetic as Norman, but he’s also giving you plenty of red flags. The taxidermy? “A boy’s best friend is his mother”? Marion, you in danger girl.
  • This film’s other watershed moment: it was the first mainstream movie to feature a flushing toilet. The production code allowed it because Marion flushes away evidence, thereby making the action integral to the plot.
  • This whole post could be me dissecting the shower sequence (God knows everyone else has). In a film that has taken its time edging towards suspense, the shower murder is a full-on cathartic barrage of cuts and close-ups and Bernard Herrmann’s stringed staccatos. What a shocking experience this unfettered violence/sexuality must have been to 1960 audiences. The shower scene may be the definitive demonstration on the power that film has on our collective psyche. Kudos to everyone involved…except you, Saul Bass. You know what you did!
  • This legendary moment is immediately followed by a step-by-step tutorial on how to clean up a murder scene and dispose of the body. I feel very prepared if I ever find myself in this situation.
  • Vera Miles doesn’t get much to do in this movie, but I appreciate Lila taking command of this situation. I sense this is as strong-willed a female lead as Hitchcock would allow in one of his movies.
  • As much as I love Martin Balsam, no one ever needs to be that close to his face.
  • The one thing I never understood regarding the Norman/Mother dichotomy: When Arbogast goes to the house to interrogate Mother, how did Norman get from the motel to the second floor of the house without Arbogast seeing him AND while also managing a quick-change into his mother costume? Color me impressed.
  • Once we reach the climax, we get an extended scene of a psychiatrist explaining Norman’s condition to Lila & Sam, and it really doesn’t mesh with the rest of the movie. It doesn’t help that Simon Oakland, the actor playing Dr. Richman, is a bit too slick for this film. It’s a weird performance in an unnecessary scene at the end of an otherwise superb film.
  • Although several actors shared the voice-over duties as Mother Bates, radio actor Virginia Gregg is the sole voice of Norma during the final “She wouldn’t harm a fly” monologue. It’s perfection.
  • This will sound weird, but with this viewing I recognized what a bizarre little movie this is. “Psycho” is so steeped in our culture that it’s easy to forget that the movie kills off its quote-unquote lead 45 minutes in, and then reveals that our new sympathetic lead is the murderer. The unorthodox plotting has become less conspicuous the more the film is referenced and studied, but if you really try to forget everything you know about “Psycho”, you’ll realize just how unconventional this film was in 1960 and still is today.

There’s so much more to talk about, so read about the legacy of “Psycho” here.

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