Considering all the essays, sequels, theories and spoofs it has inspired, it’s strange for a film to remain as refreshingly thrilling as Psycho. The film begins in the most inconspicuous of places; a hotel room in Phoenix where lovers Marion and Sam Loomis share a passionate post coital embrace. They can’t be together for economical reasons, Sam has alimony and debts to pay. A despaired Marion steals forty thousand dollars from her employer and runs away to California where Sam lives. A heavy storm forces her to stop on her way..
Considering all the essays, articles, remakes, sequels, theories and spoofs it has inspired, it’s strange for a film to remain as refreshingly thrilling as Psycho. Alfred Hitchock ’s 1960 masterpiece contains some of the most iconic moments and characters in film history and even people who have never watched it know they should be scared of lonely motels, possessive mothers, screeching violins and showers.
The film was based on the homonymous novel written by Robert Bloch in 1959 (which was in turn inspired by the real life crimes of Ed Gein). Hitchcock secretly acquired the film rights and saw it as his opportunity to return to the primal suspense he’d become famous for (after his previous film, the now highly revered, Vertigo, had been a complete box office and critical failure). But studio executives didn’t see the potential in the film (despite the casting of rising young stars) and after a long process, Hitchock ended producing Psycho with his own money and resources.
Concerned with the budget, the director decided to shoot the film in black and white, limiting himself to shooting within the studio and trying to emulate the look of B-horror movies of the era. With just that, a set of events was put into motion that worked so efficiently that Hitchcock ended up practically inventing the independent slasher film.
Psycho begins in the most inconspicuous of places; a hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona, where lovers Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) share a passionate post coital embrace. They can’t be together for economical reasons, Sam has alimony and debts to pay. A despaired Marion steals forty thousand dollars from her employer and runs away to California where Sam lives. A heavy storm forces her to stop on her way and she drives into the seemingly desolate Bates Motel.
The owner, the introverted, mildly strange Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), greets her cheerfully and tells her she’s the only guest in the motel. After conversing with him briefly she learns he has lived there all his life with his mother (who due to an illness stays in the house next to the motel) but detects his desire to leave the place and make his own life.
He becomes slightly upset when she suggests he should leave his mother and after a while she returns to her room. Filled with guilt she decides to go back to Phoenix the following morning and return the money.
Seemingly satisfied with her resolve she undresses to take a shower which symbolically will also serve as a baptism of sorts to wash her sins away. Marion in fact never leaves the shower or goes back to Phoenix.
It’s easy to assume that almost everyone knows what happens next, but for those who don’t, enjoying the surprise element of the twist is one of the many riches Psycho has to offer. After this, the film turns into a profound psychological portrait that still manages to scare the pants out of you. As much for its genre thrills as well as for the dark corners of the human mind Hitchcock takes you to.
With Norman Bates he takes us to a place he’d only suggested in other of his famous characters. Perkins’ revelatory performance imbues Norman with a distinctive ambiguity that harbours two sides of the same element. The actor lets the character take over and becomes the battleground for all the emotions, desires and dark turns of the shy Norman. Bates is as terrifying as he is heartbreaking and the fact that Perkins is so handsome makes for a disturbing contrast. Janet Leigh does the same for Marion; she begins as a sex symbol (her conic bra from the opening scene is legendary) and later becomes a criminal. This forces the audience to examine the role of morals and values within the context of sexual attraction.
Is it acceptable to like a criminal? Doesn’t this mean you are an accomplice of sorts? If so, it might be possible to argue that in order to alleviate anxiety Hitchcock provides the sins within the film with almost instant absolution. Marion pays for the lust she ignited in Norman (and audience members as suggested by the voyeuristic symbology) but she is given the chance to atone for the money theft.
The essence of the entire film is contained in these flip-coin elements (particularly the dichotomy between desire and punishment). Forty minutes into the running time the rug is pulled from under you and not for a single minute do you know where you’ll land. Heroes turn into villains, capers shift into horror, murder mystery into ghost story and on top of it all you never know what side you need to be in. The one person fully in control is of course Hitchcock, who handles all the twists and turns majestically.
Even when the film steers into self-parody (as in the infamous denouement) the director assures us that he knows where he’s taking us. And in fact every aspect of Psycho seems to have been thought of carefully. The scary parts are so flawlessly executed that it’s surprising that even after a million viewings they still affect you (each time in a different way), the indie-ness of the look combined with the star power of its leads seems premonitory of what the Hollywood industry has become. Even the various psychoanalytical interpretations that emanate from the film seem pre-planned by the master.
You can read this film upside down and there is nothing that suggests it came from such accidental origins. And so it’s odd that a film that bursts with such power, remains so self contained.