Unhealthy Fixations: Why I’m Psycho for “Psycho”

Janet Leigh's final moments in "Psycho."

[***Be warned: If you’ve never seen Psycho, this post is one big SPOILER.***]
For most of my life Psycho was just another pop cultural touchstone; a title to be casually referenced — a movie everyone had heard of. My dad had told me that one of his most unnerving childhood memories was of his father taking him to see it in the summer of 1960 and how it took a large chunk of his formative years to finally shake off the scarring experience. Dad has never been a big horror movie fan and even today excuses himself to fetch a bowl of cereal if a movie on TV gets a little spookier than he’d expected. So naturally, I took his appraisal of Psycho‘s effect with a grain of salt, lumping the title in with other Saturday matinee screamers (The House on Haunted Hill, The House That Dripped Blood, etc.) he’d reference when sharing stories of his Cincinnatti childhood.

When I finally saw it for myself it was not at all what I expected. It was different than other “old” movies I’d seen – darker, a little more nightmarishly disorienting and more than a little perverse. Over the years I read a lot about it (There are probably more books dedicated to the analysis of Hitchcock’s Psycho than any other American movie.) and while I never got too deep into Hitchcockian film history, I regularly found myself stumbling upon essays, articles and retrospectives dedicated to the director’s most famous, if not best reviewed, title.

"Psycho" original book cover

Psycho‘s simplicity is one of the first things that struck me about it. It’s essentially a tightly-scripted murder mystery complete with red herrings and a final twist revelation. Forgetting for a moment everything we know about the brilliance of Hitchcock’s direction, Joseph Stephano’s script, based on Robert Bloch’s novel, is probably as close to perfect as screenwriting gets (save for one nearly unforgivable final scene which I’ll discuss below). While punching all of the standard thriller buttons, it still manages to defy expectations and toy with well-established rules of cinematic narrative.

An elementary plot breakdown: Our primary identifiable protagonist, Marion Crane, as played by Janet Leigh, has our sympathy and understanding from the start when she impulsively steals $40,000 from one of her boss’ clients. She’s a classic flawed heroine, and what suddenly, and shockingly, becomes a  chilling thriller, first lulls us into submission, with the generic heist-movie trappings of observing Marion’s deviant actions and the conflict it stirs up behind her eyes. But beneath it all is the paranoia-inducing string subtext of Bernard Herman’s intense score which hints of rougher waters ahead for our central character.

So there we are, about twenty minutes into the story, confident that we’ve been introduced to all of the important primaries; Marion’s married boyfriend Sam (John Gavin), her boss, the client she steals from, and her flibbertigibbet office mate (played by Hitch’s daughter, Patricia). Twenty minutes in and still no sign of Anthony Perkins in the role that would define his career:  the twitchy, handsome, awkwardly charming motel clerk, Norman Bates.

The Bates Motel after dark.

When bad driving conditions force her off the road Marion checks pulls up to the Bates Motel and–how nice!–they have a vacancy. We suspect she wants to pull herself together and plan her next move. (Up to this point she’s planned nothing and regret is already registering in her face.) When Marion and Norman first meet we immediately notice  that there’s something off about the young man, but he lacks any known motivation for causing Marion trouble and besides, he’s just not very menacing. Creepily eccentric? Maybe. Dangerously sinister? Not at all.

But then…

Maybe it’s the way he nervously eats his candy corn, or the fact that his parlor is decorated with a wide variety of stuffed birds, or the way he talks about his mother. (“She’s not herself today.”)  Something is making us second guess our initial reaction to Norman. Maybe Marion should feel slightly threatened by this shy desk clerk. Does he know she’s on the lam? Is there a dragnet out for her? Will he try to turn her in? Or take her money? Is their conversation making Marion as uneasy as we’re beginning to feel?

Soon enough we realize that we’ve been barking up the wrong tree and each of the above questions is absolutely moot. Even if Marion is in some sort of danger, we only feel fear on her behalf up to a point. She is, after all, our lone protagonist. We take for granted that she’ll be with us until the credits roll — even if things do end badly for her. This is still her story…isn’t it?

Marion has checked in, had a sandwich (with a side of awkward conversation) and is ready to wash away her day with a nice comforting shower. Talking to the young man from the front desk has helped her to put things in perspective and face her day’s criminal behavior. We sense that it’s done her some good and that tomorrow she’ll wake up and do the right thing.

But then…

I’ll interrupt myself here to interject that, yes indeed, my dad had told me about the shower scene and how it was exceptionally intense for 1960; a fact that, given his verbal explanation, was a little difficult for even youthful ears (already jaded from the comparatively excessive pop-violence of the eighties) to comprehend. That said, after seeing and contextualizing Psycho, it makes perfect sense that this fairly short scene packed a hell of a wallop.

Hitchcock breaks the rules and abandons us. In quick  grim film cuts and knife slashes, Marion’s peaceful respite is invaded by the shadowy figure of an old woman beyond the shower curtain. The movie slams on the brakes and, through more of Herman’s shrieking-string score, something devastating and unthinkable occurs —  something so abrupt and from out of nowhere that audiences in 1960 must have felt like they’d had the wind  knocked out of them.

Janet Leigh's Marion Crane in the aftermath of murder.

It’s impossible to convey the jolt the iconic shower scene gives an unwitting audience on first viewing. Someone who might never have heard of Psycho and knew nothing about it (even a sophisticated modern movie-goer like yourself) simply could not have expected the horror that Hitchcock unleashes in this single set piece. Even if you were expecting something awful to happen to Crane, in 1960 you wouldn’t have expected something this awful, especially from a studio movie and a well-respected director –not even the “master of suspense.” We were just getting to know Marion Crane, and what’s more, we were just starting to like her!

In the aftermath we’re left with nothing more than Leigh’s lifeless eyes staring back at us from the bathroom tile. She’s obscenely slumped over the edge of the bathtub, her shower curtain is ripped from it’s rods– and we watch breathlessly as her blood spirals down the drain along with our preconceived notions about cinematic good and evil. She’s dead and we’re all alone. Even the score abandons us for a few moments while we slowly pan around Marion’s room like voyeurs at a crime scene, with a lot of movie left to unspool and only one character with whom we’re left to identify: Norman.

That’s the legacy of Psycho; a singular shining example of what happens when a director tosses aside the rulebook. But the historical context is significant because the rules change with the times. (Consider for example that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez pulled a similar switcheroo in the decidedly less artful From Dusk til Dawn, in which a heist movie turns–when we’re  least expecting it–into a vampire bloodbath. It’s a cool trick but it doesn’t come close to packing the same punch because genre-bending is far more commonplace in modern cinema, thanks to genre-addicted filmmakers like Tarantino, than it was in the late fifties and early sixties when even the best stories maintained a comforting whiff of predictability.

The rest of the movie unspools as a fairly straightforward murder mystery as  Sam teams up with Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) to find out just where the hell Marion disappeared to. Martin Balsam is the gumshoe hired to help track Marion down.  All three follow clues that deposit them at the office door of the Bates Motel where they each have their own run-in with an increasingly flustered Norman, whose behavior reveals he clearly has plenty to hide.

But Hitchcock has cleverly helped us eliminate Norman as a murder suspect by allowing his actions to paint him as more of an accessory than anything else. When he discovers Marion’s body it’s obvious he’s legitimately mortified by the grotesque scene and there’s no one but the audience around to convince. Further, we sneakily overhear an off-screen argument in which Norman hurls accusations at his witch-voiced mother; the most likely suspect. We observe him queasily but dutifully cleaning up the scene of the crime, mopping up blood in an almost hysterical panic just before we spy him disposing of Marion’s car by sinking it in a nearby pond.

Hitchcock takes Mrs. Bates' seat.

Hitchcock circulated rumors about casting the character of "Mrs. Bates."

In another context these red herrings might seem like a bogus cheat. It’s not until Psycho‘s final resolution that we understand how these details set it apart from other, more conventional, murder mysteries. In the end it was never about why Marion was murdered or for that matter, who murdered her. In fact, this movie was never really about Marion at all. It’s Norman’s story and a story of insanity and how an essentially good person is pushed to dark acts by a psychosis he doesn’t control. Norman doesn’t recognize himself as the murderer any more than we do, until it’s explicitly laid out in the film’s final act when we see him attempt an attack on Lila in the fruit cellar of the Bates house, just moments after she stumbles upon the real Mrs. Bates; a well-preserved corpse planted cosily in a rocking chair.

We see Norman in the dress and the wig, holding the knife with a deranged predatory expression obscuring Perkins’ boyishly handsome face. Only then do we begin to understand what’s happened and why.

It’s almost a shame that the final scene of Psycho takes literal steps to snuff out any lingering questions we might have about what we’ve just seen. Disappointingly, Hitchcock finally succumbs to underestimating his audience by employing a police-psychiatrist character to spell it all out, over-explaining Norman’s condition in a monologue that sounds torn from the first chapter of a Psych 101 text book.


The bottom still shows the brief superimposition of Mother's face over Norman's.

Despite that (unfortunately glaring) flaw, Psycho still has time to leave us with one last morbid chill: the slow pan-in on Norman’s face as he sits, detained in the police station, wrapped in a blanket and staring directly at us with a face that is no longer his own. It’s Norman’s mother who is staring us down, with his eyes, as her voice-over assures us of what we already know: Norman wouldn’t even hurt a fly. Just as this shot is about to transition to the movie’s final final shot, of Marion’s car being dragged from the pond, we see the decomposed face of Mother’s corpse superimposed over Norman’s face. (If you’ve watched Psycho before and never noticed this, it’s worth a slow-mo run through.)

But alas,  you’ll only ever be able to view Psycho for the first time once. After that, its surprises and secrets won’t have the same weight they had in your initial viewing. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less ripe for repeat viewings. In fact, it’s probably one of the most rewatchable movies of its type. There are so many interesting and clever elements, both trivial and profound, to reward those who return to it.

There’s the recurring “bird” imagery. It’s purpose and meaning may be debatable but once you’ve noticed it, you can’t imagine how you missed that Marion CRANE, takes FLIGHT from PHOENIX to hide from the repercussions of her crime at the Bates Motel, whose caretaker’s parlor is filthy with dead-eyed birds of all kinds; from the accusatory stare of a stuffed owl, to the prophetically hysterical-looking black crow with its stiff wings urgently spread. “You eat like a bird,” Norman observes as Marion nibbles away at the sandwich he’s made her. And I believe I already mentioned that all along he’s been nervously PECKING at CANDY CORN, of all things. It’s a nice touch. (Also watch how, in the trailer below, Hitchcock makes sure we take note of the framed bird painting that covers Bates’ peephole into Marion’s room.)

Marion Crane's black post-crime undies.

A racy publicity still of Marion Crane's black post-crime undies.

The decision to shoot Psycho in black and white was more purposeful than it might seem to modern eyes which equate b&w with “old” and color with “new.”  In fact, most major studio efforts were being produced in color by 1960. Furthermore, Hitchcock had already shot Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest in color. He knew that, aesthetics notwithstanding, the bloody terror he planned to unleash with Psycho would simply not fly with audiences, critics, or censors, in vivid Eastman color. Keeping Psycho black and white helped keep costs down and helped keep people from barfing in their laps when Marion is sliced to ribbons in the shower. (Though the foley effect of audible stabbing — accomplished by knifing a melon — probably got them queasy enough).

The shower murder is made up of no fewer than 90 quick shots that erratically shuffle your perspective around Marion and the shower. It creates a disorienting out-of-control effect that makes the viewer fumble for his bearings and think: slow down! what’s going on?! The most obvious reason that the shower scene strikes a nerve is that it taps into our innate recognition of the fact that we are rarely more vulnerable than when we’re alone in the shower. It’s why the quick flashes of Leigh’s naked flesh are so revolting. (Incidentally, there is no clear nudity in the scene. A body double in a nude body stocking stands in for Leigh in many of the quick cuts. When Psycho was first submitted to the studio, censors sent it back complaining of nudity. Hitchcock eventually submitted the exact same footage again without making a single cut and successfully convinced them that whatever they THOUGHT they’d seen had been removed!) This isn’t titillating exposure of a sexy starlet. For a moment this is YOU– caught off guard, exposed and defenseless.

The shower scene is immediately followed by a slow tracking shot that takes you, now very alone without Marion to cling to, out of the bathroom and around her motel room. A slow pan and zoom forces our perspective on the envelope of Marion’s stolen money,  making it clear that the killer wasn’t after it, thereby eliminating any knowable motivation for the murder. This makes everything about Marion’s murder even scarier as a result. (You can almost hear Hitchcock saying, “remember when you thought THIS was going to be important? — HA!”)

See it from the begininning or don't see it at all!

"See it from the beginning or don't see it at all!"

There’s plenty more fun stuff to be mined from repeat viewings of Psycho — like how before she steals the money, Janet Leigh’s bra (impressively daring for 1960!) and purse are white. But later, after commits her criminal act, its black. And let’s not forget the first known cinematic shot of a flushing toilet. Or the rear-projection effect that tracks Martin Balsam’s long backward fall down the stairs of Norman’s home– a signature moment. (-and one that’s referenced in one sequel as well as the 1998 remake…More on those later.) It’s a shot that makes up for in style what it lacks in realism.

Hitchcock, almost P.T. Barnumesque in his commercial showmanship, devised one of the most effective and historically mimicked marketing campaigns ever when he set out to sell Psycho. First, an airtight lid was kept on the movie’s storyline. Hitchcock was so aggressive in his intent to whet the public’s appetite without giving anything away that the cast’s shooting scripts were incomplete, and a portion of Psycho‘s budget went to buying up as many known copies of Bloch’s novel as possible to keep answers out of the hands of prospective audiences.

His TV, print and radio ads pleaded with audiences to keep the ending a secret once they’d seen Psycho. The entire campaign succeeded in keeping its name on the lips of everyone, making it one of the first true “event” movies, preceeding Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (which is credited with creating the “summer blockbuster”) by fifteen years.

Even further, Hitchcock demanded that theater owners enforce his rule which asserted that no one would be allowed to enter a screening of Psycho after it had begun (back when studios could do that sort of thing).

If you want to see what truly great movie marketing looks like, watch this amazing tongue-and-cheek trailer in which Hitchcock takes you on a tour of the Psycho set, eluding to much, but revealing nothing:

Note that the woman seen screaming at the trailer’s end is not Janet Leigh but Vera Miles, whose character survives to star in the sequel! Just one more great gag to keep audiences confused but guessing. Related to this strategy: rumors about who had been cast in the coveted role of Mrs. Bates were deliberately circulated around Paramount’s Hollywood studio, despite the fact that the character gets one on-screen shot–as a stuffed corpse!)

Edward Hopper's "House by the Railroad" -- inspiration for the Bates house.

Edward Hopper's "House by the Railroad"

The exterior sets used for the Bates Motel  are as iconic as anything else in the movie: the simple, boxy and benign roadside motel watched from atop a hill by the Bates-family home. If there’s a more recognizable piece of historic pop culture real estate, I don’t know what it is.

It’s a great gothic-styled structure, reportedly based on the Edward Hopper painting, House by the Railroad (left), and it’s been duplicated for sequels as well as both coast’s Universal Studio theme parks.

The imposing architectural monster is far more menacing than anything we see in Norman’s face (until that final shot of him anyway), probably because it’s the embodiment of the late Mrs. Bates– looking down on Norman, looming over everything he does, judging, nagging and tormenting the poor kid from where she’s impossible to ignore, high up on a hill.

-Will Nepper

~ by willnepper on August 3, 2009.

2 Responses to “Unhealthy Fixations: Why I’m Psycho for “Psycho””

  1. Great Part I Will. You really have a great interpretation and perspective on this film. I’m looking forward to Part II.

  2. This is a legendary movie. I think what really shocks people about the shower scene is killing Marion. No one saw it coming. It was completely unheard of to kill off the main character. Such a brilliant, brilliant film.

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