THE SCREEN’S MASTER OF SUSPENSE MOVES HIS CAMERA INTO THE ICY BLACKNESS OF THE UNEXPLAINED!
Alfred Hitchcock decided to shake things up in 1960 after making several films that were in color, generously budgeted and featured A-list stars. His new picture would have a smaller budget, no Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, it would be in black-and-white… and it would be positively shocking to both critics and audiences. In Robert Bloch’s novel, Hitch found the ideal story and concept for what was to become Psycho.
This is my favorite film by Hitchcock, for many reasons. I love how when he chose to make it he gambled with his career, and then turned out to have made a true masterpiece that also became a box office hit. One of the best things about the story is its ingenious structure, how it starts as a simple thriller and turns into a psychoanalytical horror movie. Now, beware of spoilers.
The film begins in Phoenix with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a real estate office clerk, stealing $40,000 from a client. She goes on the lam, hoping to get to her lover (John Gavin) in California as fast as possible before anyone notices what she’s done. As day becomes night, Marion drives straight into a rainstorm and decides to rent a room at Bates Motel, a place with 12 cabins and 12 vacancies. It is run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a lonely young man who lives right next to the cabins in a big mansion together with his ailing mother. This is where the thriller ends, the horror begins and we say goodbye to the person we thought was the main protagonist. As Marion takes a shower in her cabin, a shadowy, female figure suddenly appears and stabs Marion to death. When Norman finds the dead body he realizes who is responsible and quickly cleans up after his deranged mother.
However, Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) and lover are trying to find out what happened to their loved one and Bates Motel is looking very suspicious indeed.
Putting psychological theories into great use
Hitchcock does an excellent job of hiding the truth from us up until the very end, although the greatest shock to a first-time viewer has to be Marion’s murder. The shower sequence is one of the most famous scenes in cinema history; meticulously designed, shot and edited, it features a quick series of cuts, nudity, brute force, the horrifying illusion of someone being attacked with a knife, and Bernard Herrmann’s ingenious, screeching score accompanying it. It is still a very potent scene. There’s another similar shock in a sequence where a detective (Martin Balsam) is attacked in the Bates mansion and falls down a flight of stairs.
The production design effectively brings forth the coldness of Marion’s bathroom and the eerie mysteries of the desolate but carefully preserved mansion. Leigh got her opportunity to shine in her most memorable performance; that goes for Perkins as well, but he is also truly brilliant as a challenging, complex human being. The screenplay puts its psychological theories into great use without becoming too academical about it; there are many interpretations of the events and I’m particularly fond of the one that says the mansion represents the three levels of the human mind. That’s the beauty of this film. There are so many ideas one can read into it, so many emotions it stirs; the portrayal of mental illness is frightening, but also a bit touching.
The black-and-white cinematography only adds to the creepiness of this affair, creating shadows and contrasts that would work as well in color. Thanks to Hitchcock’s manipulative skills we’re left feeling very uncomfortable indeed after the final sequence, where for less than a second we see Norman’s face blend with the image of his mother’s skull. Who will ever again trust single men who adore their mothers?
Psycho 1960-U.S. 109 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Joseph Stefano. Novel: Robert Bloch. Cinematography: John L. Russell. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Production Design: Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy. Cast: Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (Marion Crane), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire.
Trivia: Lana Turner and Eva Marie Saint were allegedly considered for the part of Marion. This was the first picture made in Hollywood to show a flushing toilet. The blood in the shower sequence was in fact chocolate sauce; Saul Bass (who designed the main titles) would eventually claim that he directed it, which has been refuted. Followed by three sequels, starting with Psycho II (1983). There was also a TV movie, Bates Motel (1987), a TV series, Bates Motel (2013-2017), and a remake, Psycho (1998). The making of this movie was portrayed in Hitchcock (2012).
Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Leigh).
Quote: “She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” (Perkins explaining his mother)
Last word: “The whole thing was that Hitch wanted me to write something deceptive. There was a lot of script thievery in those days, too, and he didn’t want anyone to know how it was going to be shot. We were having meetings, and I wrote it kind of loose. In the book it says that the knife cuts her head off, and I said, well, we absolutely cannot cut this woman’s head off. So in the script it doesn’t look like what you see on the screen. Historically, what we planned and what we shot were two different things. That was the only time that Hitch wanted me to do something in the script that we knew was going to be different from what we were going to shoot. Another interesting thing is that he asked for no rewrites. Not one. He felt that whoever wrote the movies was the writer, and that was their job.”(Stefano, Austin Chronicle)