“Mother isn’t herself today.”
The iconic lines, images, and incidents in Hitchcock’s classic thriller have become clichés of the modern cinema. Every slasher film from Halloween on essentially re-enacted Hitchcock’s notorious shower scene, and Norman Bates has become the prototype of the psychotic serial killer. The haunted Victorian mansion, the corpse in the cellar, and the glorious black and white with its menacing shadows link Hitchcock’s film to previous classics of the horror genre, but places those motifs in rural America. And thus gives birth to what might be called the post-modern cinematic thriller.
But it was not always thus. Some of the initial reviews of Psycho were as confused and unappreciative as many in the initial audiences. It’s well-known that, despite Hitchcock’s long string of critical successes in the 1950s, from Rear Window and the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much through To Catch a Thief to Vertigo and North by Northwest, Paramount had so little faith in the project that it would not put up the money to make the film. After all, Vertigo had not been a big box office success, and the subject matter of Psycho—Joseph Stefano’s screenplay was based on a 1959 book by Robert Bloch about Wisconsin’s favorite psychotic serial killer/cannibal/necrophiliac Edward Gein—did not promise to be particularly palatable to moviegoers of 1960. Hitchcock raised and invested $800,000 of his own money (a bargain- basement low budget even for 1960). He claimed that the film was made in black and white because the audience could not take seeing all the crimson blood if the film were in color, but let’s face it, it was a good deal cheaper to shoot in black and white. Of course, Hitchcock ended up making a lot of money on the movie, as it reportedly became the highest grossing black and white film since Birth of a Nation, but it was still quite a gamble.
And some initial reviewers were as unenthusiastic as Paramount about the film. A movie critic for the London Observer observed that the shower scene was “one of the most disgusting murders in all screen history….It might be described with fairness as plug ugly. Psycho is not a long film but it feels long. Perhaps because the director dawdles over technical effects; perhaps because it is difficult, if not impossible, to care about any of the characters.” This same critic didn’t have much to say about the shocking twist at the end of the film: as he writes, “I couldn’t give away the ending if I wanted to, for the simple reason that I grew so sick and tired of the whole beastly business that I didn’t stop to see it.” Thus this particular critic could be forgiven for commenting that the disgusting Norman Bates has an even more disgusting mother.
With an objection that might be taken somewhat more seriously, a writer for the Nation worried over the way the film delved into the psychology of a depraved mind, something he considered unfit for the screen:
“Psycho puts you in the position of rubbernecking at the horrors of the diseased mind; it makes you feel unclean. I am sorry to lecture so, but on all sides I see statements to the effect that good old “Hitch” has done it again. If that means that he has repeated the happy thrills and mystifications of The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps, it is nonsense. In, Psycho, Hitchcock is not an entertainer, but a pander of vicarious perversion.”
There is no denying that the film acts as a window on private lives, and places its audience quite deliberately into voyeuristic positions, as with Norman (Anthony Perkins) we gaze through his peephole into the room of Marion Crane (nominal star Janet Leigh), who in only 45 minutes of screen time spends most of it parading around in variously colored brassieres and, ultimately, gets naked for the shower. Of course, she’s doing all this in her private room (though John Gavin is there part of the time), and we’re just peeping in.
One early critic who did give Psycho a rave review was a part-time, fill-in film critic for the New York Village Voice named Andrew Sarris. In his now famous review, Sarris wrote that Hitchcock’s film made all “previous horror films look like variations of ‘Pollyanna’,” and that the movie was “overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as public swamp.” As for the famous ending, Sarris said “the solution of ‘Psycho’ is more ghoulish than the antecedent horror which includes the grisliest murder scenes ever filmed….Such divergent American institutions as motherhood and motels, will never seem quite the same again.”
With all this baggage, it’s very difficult to attend a screening of Psycho today and try to imagine seeing the film for the first time. But that is what I tried to do in watching the TCM-sponsored 55th anniversary screening of Hitchcock’s movie this week at a local theater. And it was only partly an act of imagination, because in fact it was the first time I had seen the movie on the big screen.
The movie does suck you in with a Phoenix hotel-room scene between Marion and her lover Sam Loomis (Gavin) in which, while you’re watching Marion in her lingerie, the two discuss their problems—Sam cannot marry her because his alimony payments to his ex-wife make it financially impossible for him, and so they must continue to meet in secret. Of course, 55 years later, that premise is not so believable, since no one would blink at their extra-marital affair (particularly since they are unmarried and well over 21) and no one would expect that Marion would be quitting her job to get married, so Sam’s financial problems aren’t so compelling. But we understand Marion’s motivations when, seeing the opportunity to take $40,000 in cash from a rather sleazy customer in her real-estate office, she grabs the money and leaves town, planning to drive to Sam’s home in Fairvale, California. As an audience, we are with Marion all the way—we want her to make her love life work, we don’t care about the obnoxious character she robbed, and we are as nervous as she is when she is stopped by a menacing California state trooper who seems suspicious of her. When, after an exhausting drive, she stops outside of Fairvale at the deserted Bates Motel, she spends some time talking to the odd, nervous, but pleasant manager Norman Bates, we see him as an interesting development—a socially awkward young man with the odd hobby of taxidermy, a mama’s boy who seems to be interested in helping her (he makes her a sandwich) but is browbeaten by his mother. Marion sympathizes with him and suggests he should leave his mother and go off on his own. And it appears that answering his questions has made her rethink her own actions, since she bids him goodnight saying that she plans to rise early in the morning to head back where she came from. We begin to think that maybe she’s going to give the money back and face the consequences. Even when we see Norman watching her through his peephole, we remain convinced that this story is all about Marion.
And then she gets into that shower. It soon becomes clear that Hitchcock has been misleading us from the beginning: the $40,000 is just what Hitchcock liked to call the MacGuffin: a gimmick that propels the plot of the story until we get into what the story is really about. It’s really about brutal murder, apparently serial murder, by that same mother who mercilessly nags poor hapless Norman. We see the shadow of the old woman on the shower curtain, we see the knife in her hand rise and fall, we see Marion screaming, trying desperately to protect herself as she stands literally naked, with nothing but her bare hands and arms to protect her. We see the blood swirling down the drain, and we see the drain morph into the open, lifeless eye of Marion as she lies in the bathtub, the lifeblood draining out of her body and down that black-and-white drain.
What we never see is the knife enter Marion’s body. And this is where Hitchcock differs from his cheaper imitators in the slasher genre: Hitchcock uses his own technical expertise (that same expertise that the Observer reviewer pooh-poohed in his short-sighted review), including the shrieking violins of Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, which are more effective in terrifying the audience than more “realistic” sound effects would have been. And so as the $40,000 sinks with Marion’s car and her body into the swamp, Hitchcock has successfully shifted our attention, and our sympathy, to Norman. Turns out the movie is really about Norman, with his pitiable subjection to his invalid mother, and his understandable motivation to shield her from the consequences of her psychotic actions: “Mother just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes.”
We do have conflicting loyalties, I think, as we hope that Sam and Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles), aided by Martin Balsam as the private investigator Arbogast, will find out the truth, but we still sympathize with the essentially likeable, shy, awkward Norman, who hopes they don’t. The murder of Arbogast comes as another shock, but it is certainly less effective for today’s audience than it would have been in 1960. Playing with his technical toys again, Hitchcock shows Arbogast in close up as he falls down the stairs after being stabbed, utilizing a back-projection technique that makes it seem as if the floor is coming up to meet us. In our age of post-Star Wars and computer-generated special effects, the shot appears clumsy to modern eyes—it’s a shot that has not aged well.
But just as effective as ever is the climactic scene of the film, when Vera Miles finds “Mrs. Bates” in the basement of the spooky house, and discovers she is a corpse preserved by her son’s taxidermy, just before the knife-wielding Norman enters, dressed in mother’s clothes, hoping to add a third corpse to his recent binge. When Aristotle, the world’s first drama critic, talked about “reversal” as the most important part of the dramatic plot, he particularly had in mind the end of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, where Oedipus finds that the killer he has been looking for is himself. By instinct or design, Hitchcock creates in Psycho a similar reversal, wherein we as the audience discover that the murderer we’ve been looking for is, in fact, the character we may have been identifying with. No wonder Hitchcock’s publicity for the film begged viewers not to reveal the ending.
Psycho is not a perfect film. The last several minutes, in which Simon Oakland as a psychiatrist who has examined Norman rambles on and on about what precisely has caused Norman to act in this way, is frankly absurd. A few remarks would have sufficed. Just why Hitchcock would have chosen to do this at the end of such an intense film is a mystery. In his much later review, Roger Ebert wrote “I have never encountered a single convincing defense of the psychiatric blather.” My own theory is that Hitchcock, anticipating reviews like the earlier quoted ones from the Observer and from the Nation, took this opportunity to demonstrate without ambiguity that he was not making this film simply for the sake of sensationalism, but was seriously exploring the human psyche. He may even have had the motion picture Production Code in mind, proving that the film had “redeeming social value.”
Much of the film’s effect depends on Anthony Perkins’ tour de force performance. I assume it was his previous depiction of the emotionally troubled ballplayer Jimmy Pearsall in the 1957 film Fear Strikes Out that led Hitchcock to cast Perkins in the role that defined his career, but the film’s chilling last shot of Perkins as the “mother” who “wouldn’t hurt a fly,” looking straight at the audience with what is almost a smirk from beneath lowered brows makes an unforgettable impression, and finally includes with a wink—and implicates—the voyeuristic audience. Like Sophocles’ Oedipus, Psycho examines our pity and fears in a way no prior American movies—and precious few since—have been able to do. This is why Psycho is still a classic, and, despite its flaws and some of its dated aspects, still deserves four Shakespeares.