Psycho has, somewhat inaccurately, been credited with being the ancestor of what we now call the “slasher” film, despite having virtually nothing in common with modern horror films, in plot, theme or tone. It’s more of a godfather to that genre. At the very least, it gave birth to the horror movie tradition of the audience shouting to the characters on the screen, “Don’t go up those stairs!”
Rather than being a horror film in the traditional sense, Alfred Hitchcock‘s first film of the 1960’s is really a blood-soaked character study and that character is Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who single-handedly gave “momma’s boys” a bad name for a generation or more.
This film, his last for Paramount, was Hitchcock’s attempt to make one of the low budget exploitation films that was popular at the time, only his would actually be good, with a quality cast and a deeper story. He elected to adapt Robert Bloch‘s novel, which had been inspired by the recent case of Ed Gein. This made Psycho the first of several movies at least partially influenced by Gein’s crimes, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon.
I am somewhat conflicted about how much of the plot to give away. At this late date, I fully expect that most people who are going to see Psycho have seen it, but there are always new viewers coming along. So, for the benefit of you who were too young to see it before or who have been hiding in a bunker since 1959 when Uncle Jethro told you the commies had nuked Des Moines, I am warning you now that this review gives away the big twist toward the middle and end of the movie. Stop now if you want to see it like audiences did in 1960, something that Hitchcock himself went to great lengths to ensure, forbidding theater owners to seat patrons after the film had started.
Psycho opens with a scene that proved that the Hays Code, the decency standards enforced on Hollywood since the thirties, was losing its grip. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her divorced lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), enjoy an afternoon tryst in a Phoenix hotel room. He gets dressed while she lounges on the bed in her bra and slip. She’s tired of meeting on the sly and wants to get married, but he’s barely getting by under the weight of family debts and his alimony.
Back at the real estate office where she works, Marion is entrusted with $40,000 dollars that a high-rolling customer is using to buy a house for his daughter. Rather than take it to the bank as she is told to do, he impulsively takes off for Sam’s hometown in California, hoping to use the money to get him out from under his debts.
But Marion is not what you’d call a expert thief. She’s haunted by feelings of guilt and fear of discovery. When a driving rain storm causes her to become lost, she pulls into the first motel she finds, the ramshackle twelve-cabin Bates Motel. The proprietary is a shy but friendly man named Norman, who sets up Marion with a room and makes dinner for her. He’s happy to have company because the motel doesn’t get much business since they moved the highway. He’s also obviously taken with Marion, which appears to upset his invalid mother, who lives in the house behind the hotel.
Although Marion finds Norman a bit odd, his apparent sincerity causes her to rethink her actions and head back to Phoenix to return the money. She excuses herself to take a shower before heading to bed.
While she’s in the shower, a figure appears in her bathroom, apparently an old woman, who throws open the shower curtain and brutally stabs Marion to death. Norman reappears, seemingly horrified by what his mother has done, but like a dutiful son, he cleans up the scene of the crime, places Marion’s body with her belongings, including the $40,000, in the trunk of her car, which he sinks in the swamp behind the house.
A week later, Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles) comes to Sam Loomis’ hardware store looking for Marion. He hasn’t seen her and didn’t even know she was coming his way. Lila is followed by Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a private investigator hired by the bank to recover the money. Arbogast canvases every hotel in town and finally, as almost a last resort, tries the run down Bates Motel about fifteen miles outside of town. Norman initially denies that Marion was there but eventually admits that he saw her but insists she only spent the one night and was on her way.
Arbogast finds something fishy about Norman’s answers and decides to go back to question the mother. Sneaking into the Bates’ home and up the stairs, he receives a knife in the head for his trouble.
When Arbogast doesn’t return at the scheduled time, Lila and Sam go to the local sheriff (John McIntire), now suspecting that either Norman or his mother killed Marion for the money. The sheriff says there’s not much he can do but he does doubt that Arbogast was going to get very far with Norman’s mother. She’s been dead for ten years.
As I said, Psycho was deliberately filmed on the cheap, actually using the crew from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show instead of the director’s usual feature film crew. The spartan production values and black and white photography serve the picture far better than color ever could. For once, Hitchcock’s aversion to filming on location doesn’t really hurt the picture. In films like Vertigo, when the film cuts from Kim Novak jumping into the real San Francisco Bay to Jimmy Stewart diving into what is obviously an indoor tank, the illusion of reality is strained, if not broken outright.
This film insidiously plays with the audience’s expectations. At first we think we’re following the story of Marion Crane and a possible romantic triangle between the handsome but kind of lunkheaded Sam and the shy and awkward Norman. Then, about one third of the way through the movie, we get thrown a curve ball that would put Cy Young to shame. Now the story is obviously about poor Norman’s desperate attempts to cover up his mother’s crimes. Of course, the film still has one more curve to throw.
Anthony Perkins’ performance here is an acting clinic. He is so successful at making Norman sympathetic yet simultaneously a bit creepy. We perversely root for him when Arbogast comes nosing around and feeling sorry for him having to deal with “mother’s” brutal crimes. Yet, there’s enough “off” about him that when the film’s final twist is revealed, we’re not completely thrown for a loop.
Janet Leigh is also quite affecting in her role, keeping the audiences sympathy through to the end, despite sneaking away from work for a “nooner” and then stealing a customer’s money. She creates the necessary identification for her death to be as big a stunner as it has to be for this film to work.
The only miscalculation this film makes comes at the very end, with the psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) gives a long, clinical explanation for the crimes that have occurred. The ending would have been more effective if they had simply cut from the fruit cellar to the last shot of Norman at the police station. Oakland’s monologue is the kind of scene for which fast-forward buttons were invented.
Coming at the end, however, it doesn’t prevent Psycho for being a taunt, efficient and genuinely creepy thriller, deservedly among the three or four best films Hitchcock ever made.