With its reputation as a classic horror film, I wouldn’t have thought Psycho was the movie for me. But as I continue my Classic Hollywood self-education, it seemed impossible to ignore one of Hitchcock’s quintessential works. And not unlike Norman Bates, I find myself obsessed.
My first reaction to Psycho (1960) was that it complicated my understanding of Hitchcock as a filmmaker, and by the end I was thinking that maybe it fit into that framework after all. As much as I love Cary Grant and James Stewart, it was refreshing to see a Hitchcock film without his usual stars. Marion Crane felt like a different kind of Hitchcock female, as the first act of the film is driven by her actions without the typical male voyeur. That is, until the second act and enter Norman Bates. The first scene finds Marion in a hotel room (!!) with her lover (!!!) wearing only a slip and white bra (!!!!!). I can only assume that showing a leading lady in a bra was scandalous in 1960, even though the huge pointy contraptions of the time seem modest by today’s standards.
Okay, so Marion’s lover isn’t married, but they can’t be together because he’s in debt and has alimony payments. Ah, romance! Then $40,000 cash crosses Marion’s path at work, and she seizes the opportunity. A Hitchcock trademark is imbuing a seemingly innocuous object with menace. One example is the key to the wine cellar in Notorious (1946), and the envelope of cash serves the same purpose in Psycho. Marion drives off to meet her boyfriend, only to find herself caught in a rainstorm and checking into the Bates Motel. But not before she’s shown in a black bra because now she’s bad, see?
Psycho is a study on how to achieve scares and suspense without resorting to gore. The famous shower scene is shot in such a way that the violence is frightening without showing much blood. It also made me realize that the power of blood is connected to its color because the image of a blood splatter is less disturbing when it’s gray rather than red. Apparently Hitchcock chose to shot Psycho in black and white partially to limit the gore. The viewer doesn’t lose the sense of horror, but the focus remains on suspense rather than disgust.
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is a revelation to me. He has some of the hallmarks of an obsessive Hitchcock male, such as when he spies on Marion through a hole in the parlor wall, but he’s not trying to be Jimmy Stewart. The way his performance oscillates between earnest and awkward gives him a creep factor all his own. The film’s second act is the intersection of Marion and Norman, and their conversation in his parlor is a treasure trove of iconic lines. In the third act the focus shifts entirely to Norman and the people trying to figure out what’s happening at the motel. The story structure is brilliant in its simplicity.
In this interview Gillian Flynn mentions watching Psycho a lot when she was growing up. I mean, of course she did. At first I thought I recognized her penchant for flawed female characters in Marion’s agency and the cruelty of Mrs. Bates. Upon further reflection, I had to acknowledge that Hitchcock females are always deeply flawed, although Marion is stronger than average. Norman Bates is certainly unhinged by the women in his life, and what’s more Hitchcockian than that? Still, there’s something about Psycho that sets it apart, a sense of innocence corrupted that’s missing from his other stories of obsession.
You can watch it for the mesmerizing performances. You can watch it for the score that just won’t quit. Watch it to see Janet Leigh in a bra, for all I care. Often imitated but never matched, you just really need to watch Psycho.