Retro Review: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)

Psycho 1960 Poster with Hitchock

This low-budget black-and-white shocker is one of the great achievements in the horror genre, although it eschews the monsters and supernatural trappings usually associated with the genre at that time, in favor of a psychologically based approach to terror. As producer Howard Hawks had done with THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, producer-director Alfred Hitchcock took the familiar horror movie clichés and reused them in a new, contemporary setting. Although a realistic tale (loosely—very loosely—inspired by actual events), the approach to filming is full-blown Gothic. The lonely road and the rain the drives a victim to seek shelter where there is only danger—this is the stuff of classic horror movies, as is the spooky house, a fine 20th Century stand-in for Dracula’s castle. And of course, the lurking menace hiding in the attic or the basement—what more could you ask of a horror movie?

The film begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) shacking up with her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) in a hotel during a lunch break. Unable to marry because of financial circumstances, Marion succumbs to temptation and steals money from the bank where she works. Her escape route leads her to an old hotel, where she finds the friendly nervous proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) trapped in his own cage, forever tied to his ailing mother. Seeing her own plight reflected in his pathetic condition, Marion decides to give the money back, but before she can a silhouetted maternal figure sneaks into her hotel room and stabs her to death. Horrified, Norman cleans up the mess and hides the body, to protect his mother from the police. A private investigator searching for (Martin Balsam) is stabbed to death on the stairs of the Bates mansion. Marion’s boyfriend and her sister Lila (Vera Miles) come searching for her, but they learn one inexplicable fact: Norman’s mother died years ago. While Sam distracts Norman down at the motel, Lila sneaks into the mansion to find the truth about his mother. Norman knocks out Sam and heads up to the house. Lila searches in the basement, where she finds Mrs. Bates: a mummified corpse. Suddenly, the figure of “Mother” appears behind Lila – it’s Norman, dressed in his mother’s clothes. Fortunately, Sam arrives in time to stop her from killing Lila. In the police station, a psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) explains that Norman murdered his mother in a jealous rage, but his guilt-obsessed mind blocked out the memory, and the only way to keep her alive was to take her place. The film ends with Norman in his isolated cell, his own personality completely submerged, his mother’s voice echoing in his head…

PSYCHO Janet Leigh in shower
Janet Leigh as Marion Crane

Decades have passed, yet this story still works – even though the shock has worn off and we all know the ending. (Much credit for that must go to the direction by Hitchcock, since director Gus Van Zant’s word-for-word remake proved to be a total bore.) Robert Bloch’s novel supplied a great structure, including the shocking death of the lead character midway through the story, plus an unguessable twist ending. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano reworked much of the dialogue and characterizations, making Norman Bates more sympathetic and less suspicious, at least in his early scenes. Anthony Perkins’ performance is perfect: it works whether or not you know the truth about his character. And of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful direction brings the proceedings to life in visually arresting ways, most memorably in the notorious shower sequence, but also in more subtle moments, as when we last see Norman, now fully transformed into his alter ego, Perkins’ sly expression glaring out at us from against an almost blank background, and then briefly, almost subliminally, there comes the superimposed image of Mother’s corpse, her features briefly lining up with those of her son.

The film is not quite perfect. The shock of Marion’s death is devastating, but it brings the story up to that point to an abrupt halt, and the film has a bit of trouble getting the momentum going again. And the surprise revelation regarding Norman’s mother requires a bit of what lawyer’s like to call “laying the foundation” (the exposition scene about Mrs. Bates’ death), plus a long-winded explanation from the psychiatrist at the end of the movie. This attempt to keep the story points clear is laudable, but it does slow the pace.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

Fortunately, the film easily surmounts these minor missteps. The impact of this movie changed the genre forever, relocating the source of horror from the far off hills of Transylvania and internalizing it in the most cherished of relationships, the one between mother and son. Previous films had used contemporary settings and emphasized psychological explanations (e.g., Val Lewton productions like THE CAT PEOPLE), and stories like DR. JEKYLL AND MR HYDE had featured characters with split personalities, but these were diversions that still retained elements like European superstition and mad science to explain the etiology of horror. Yes, Irena thought she would turn into a cat if sexually aroused – but only because she’d been brought up to believe this in Serbia. Yes, the respectable Dr. Jekyll turned into the monstrous Mr. Hyde – but only because he indulged in misguided experiments.

PSYCHO managed to overthrow even these tenuous links when it came to the “blame game” – this is, identifying the cause that turned Norman Bates into a maniac. By making his mother out to be the real monster – the one whose psychological domination drove her son to murder and madness – Hitchcock’s film manages to be truly subversive and disturbing. The monstrous “Other” is no longer out there somewhere at a distance, threatening a normal, safe, and comfortable homestead; the monster now resides within the very heart of the home, where the innocent have no defense.

TRIVIA

  • As written in Robert Bloch’s novel, Norman Bates is a considerably different character, older and heavier, who seems to modern readers like a prime candidate to be a child molestor, so his eventual unmasking as the murderer is not as shocking as it might have been.
  • The film was a Paramount production, but it was shot on the lot at Universal Studios. Paramount considered the project as little better than a disreputable exploitation film and provided only a low-budget, so Hitchock shot the movie using the crew from his weekly television show, which was then in production.
  • Years later, Univeral purchased the rights to the picture from Paramount and produced three sequels and a disastrous remake.

PSYCHO 1960 Norman outside the Bates houseAlfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, Simon Oakland.