1 Hr., 48 Mins.
Psycho June 22, 2018
The premise of Psycho (1960) came to the rotund filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) at the perfect moment in the middle of 1959. Although he was fresh off the release of the major critical and commercial hit North by Northwest, a cross-country thriller that was the third highest-grossing feature of that year, he found it difficult to enjoy its success — he was too focused on what his next move would be. Genre competitors like William Castle were helping inform shifting, more sensationalist tastes, incurring fears of becoming outdated. Two proposed projects for Paramount, Flamingo Feather and No Bail for the Judge (which was supposed to have starred Audrey Hepburn), had been perfunctorily scrapped.
Hitchcock was at a loss. He was aware that he couldn’t repurpose the glossy pomp of so many of his works of the 1950s — it would be too predictable. His devotion to playing his audiences like pianos would have to be more staccatoed and frantic this time around. For a time, then, anxiety was pervasive. Would North by Northwest’s successor make for a slump?
That creative wall was fortunately hammered down before his worries could grow out of control. His assistant, Peggy Robertson, turned him on to Robert Bloch’s well-received 1959 novel Psycho, which was inspired by the exploits of the serial murderer Ed Gein. Upon reading, Hitchcock was taken aback: Bloch’s book was just the type of expectations-defying material he was looking for. He knew he had to make Psycho into a movie.
Persuading Paramount to allow him to cinematize the story was demanding, though. The novel’s gruesome, perverse nature made the studio hesitant to provide Hitchcock with his usual elephantine budget. Plus, Bloch’s novel was already once considered for dramatization, but was rejected for being unfilmable.
Ever-determined, Hitchcock pleaded. He’d photograph the movie in less-expensive black and white. He’d settle for a modest budget. He’d use the crew of his popular television program, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-‘62), to save money. He’d take a dramatically decreased director’s paycheck. He’d ask his stars to take lowered salaries. The pleas worked: Paramount eventually relented, reluctantly greenlighting the project.
The ensuing movie upholds the idea that sometimes the finest works of great artists are the ones built off an effortful attempt to do away with comfortabilities. Like the time Wes Craven snubbed his fondness for straightforward, well-made exploitation filth and settled for the self-referencing lark that was the Scream series (1996-2011). Or when Martin Scorsese tried on the cinematic regalia of the black comedy for After Hours (1985) and ended up making one of the most inspired works of his career.
Psycho worked with the trappings, both narratively and stylistically, of the exploitation genre. And that back-to-basics approach fostered a new sort of creativity for the storied Hitchcock. By 1960, he had become so accustomed to working with big stars and even bigger budgets that adopting the hermetics necessary to make a movie like Psycho enabled him to pull off the 180 obliquely required to sustain the suspense master moniker. It made for a perpetuation, but also a reinvigoration and reminder, of his genius.
One wonders if Hitchcock might have seen Psycho’s decades-long horror-genre ubiquity coming during the throes of pre-production. By now, the film, whether being discussed historically or simply in terms of the literal movie’s goings-on, has been so mythologized and tampered with that there are perhaps no stones that have been left unturned.
There are, of course, countless “making-of” sorts of books and documentaries covering the film’s development, production, and aftermath. There was a film, Hitchcock, from 2012, which detailed the making of the feature and starred Anthony Hopkins, donning a fat suit, as Hitchcock. There was also a television show, A&E’s Bates Motel, which ran from 2013 to 2017, that acted as a five-season-long prequel of the events depicted in the movie. Both, especially the TV series, were successful. While Hitchcock has remained a popular figure, Psycho, clearly, continues to be the feature that enraptures the most.
For fans of the filmmaker, though, viewing the movie, especially after watching his colorful, accessible, and sometimes comically inclined thrillers of the 1950s, continues to jarr. It, along with its similarly well-crafted follow-up, The Birds (1963), is among his few sobered horror films. It isn’t unambiguously Hitchcockian like capital-H examples like Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), or Vertigo (1958). It very much feels like Hitchcock the Artiste operating under the exploitation genre beneath him and redefining its defining characteristics as he saw fit. That shouldn’t suggest apathy or a lacking of new artistic ideas, though: it should suggest bold reinvention masterfully pulled off, thrilling to behold.
Much of the long-lasting interest in the movie, I think, has to do with how it is so capable of leaving an imprint on the memory of the majority of its viewers. I haven’t seen the film in years, yet I have remained able to remember all its characters by name. The transitions — and really the entire parade of images that come out of the woodwork over the course of its 108 minutes — have stayed with me to a point where I feel as though I could piece the film together by memory. It is the sort of movie that almost willfully lingers.
I’m partial to believing that it is the unusually unaffected development of the narrative that has helped Psycho become a permanent fixture in the recollections of audiences. So many horror features of its kind are built to dupe and manipulate. From the get-go, we’re untrusting of even the most seemingly untouched hints of sincerity. But Psycho, even if we’ve seen it more than once, consistently seems to be one thing but proves itself something else. It is among the few facets of the horror genre which does not feel wholly, blatantly manufactured. (This is ironic, given that it was marketed in a highly manufactured, William Castle-esque way upon its release.)
Look at how blithely it opens. Though the intense, Saul Bass-designed opening credits hint at the thrills to come, the inaugural scenes resemble those you might otherwise find in a romantic melodrama, not a violent slasher movie. Following a modest aerial shot which whirrs about the tops of Arizonan skyscrapers, the camera veers into a hotel room, where a lunchtime tryst is taking place.
It is between a cool blonde, Marion, (Janet Leigh, exceptional) and the handsome Sam (John Gavin). They spend most of their afternoons like this. Marion is a real estate secretary; Sam is a recent divorcé. Their relationship isn’t necessarily immoral. But because Sam’s alimony debts are so great, they must keep their romance a secret, since getting married isn’t an option at the moment.
We take to this story immediately. Forbidden love between attractive people: a sneakily effective way to inspire sympathy.
Once lunchtime hour ends and Marion heads back to her desk, an unlikely opportunity emerges. Her boss asks her to deposit a $40,000 cash payment for a real estate magnate (Frank Albertson), with the promise that she can take the rest of the day off if she agrees to the task.
If she weren’t caught in romantic agitation, Marion would do the errand without a hitch. But the money presents a solution: It would give Sam the ability to pay off his debts, and would allow him and Marion to run away together. (New identities might be a necessity, though.)
Initially, Marion scoffs at her immoral ideas. But as she’s packing up, her thoughts shift. She thinks about Sam, looks at the money — haphazardly stuffed in a package — and realizes that this would be the easiest way to turn the fantasy of the “happily ever after” into a tangible reality. So, shortly after leaving the bank, she packs a suitcase, along with the money, and hits the road. She will meet Sam in his native California, and they’ll try to regroup from there.
Once again, it is easy to side with her: We believe in her and Sam. It helps that we briefly meet that aforementioned businessman, who spews out myriad misogynistic remarks in the span of a few minutes. He’s an asshole, we reason. He probably doesn’t need this $40,000, and he doesn’t deserve it even if he does.
This set-up is efficient. We like these lovers in the first place, but we’re also wont to think that Marion will make it California without any problems, besides obvious flarings-up of debilitating anxiety and regret when appropriate. We suppose the real trouble will come when she arrives in the state, when the police will certainly be onto her.
But then a forceful rainstorm eventually makes the road impossible to drive on, and this persuades Marion, exhausted by nightfall, anyway, to check in to an inn for the night. She goes with the Bates Motel, just on the side of the road. It is run by Norman (Anthony Perkins), a young, angular brunette whose naivete is prominent and who apparently inherited the business.
Feeling for Marion when she enters the lobby all wet, Norman offers to make her dinner. She accepts. Later, they eat in the parlor. The conversation is pleasant. But a few alarm bells go off. The room in which they eat is covered in creepy taxidermic decor. A subject or two causes Norman to angrily react. On separate occasions, Marion hears Norman and his shrill mother bickering up the hill, where their decrepit mansion sits.
Perhaps you know the rest of the story. Marion, mere hours after arriving, is stabbed to death in the shower by someone who looks an awful lot like Norman’s mother; a smug detective (Martin Balsam) is dispatched by Sam and Marion’s sister, the nervous Lila (Vera Miles), but is also killed; then Sam and Lila go investigate the Bates Motel for themselves, which results in one of the all-time great plot twists we should have seen coming in the first place.
Psycho’s three acts conclude subversively. In another film, the entire Marion-centric arc would take up more time; it would last for most of the movie, not prematurely end in a traumatic murder scene. (Which, impressively, contains no graphic violence or nudity.) The second act, orbiting around the detective, begins so convincingly that we’re certain that the character will discover just what happened to Marion, and will be the one to save the day. But that, too, ends bloodily. Miraculously, it is the fearful boyfriend and the jittery sister who turn out to be the film’s Hardy boy and Nancy Drew. But that they manage to become heroes seems fortuitous.
Each act is so powerful because these characterizations, developed by the American screenwriter Joseph Stefano, are so rich, even when they appear facile on the surface. These characters are types, no doubt. Marion is the victim, Arbogast the all-knowing detective, Sam the ideal hunk, Lila the doe-eyed good girl who will probably make it to the end, Norman the eccentric who turns out to be more than a red herring. Yet Stefano, who was dealing with an unhealthy relationship with his mother at the time, writes precisely and subtly.
Marion is a conflicted woman caught in a sympathetic situation that happens to be criminal. She is reasonable, thoughtful — immediately aware that what she has done is immoral. Her entire car ride is filled with the sounds of doubtful voices in her head, not mundane radio music. It’s clear that, the morning after departing the Bates motel, she will turn herself in. (The shower, in a way, was the first step in cleansing herself of her sins.) Little of her inner turmoil, though, is clarified expositionally — it is suggested, masterfully, by Stefano and Hitchcock.
Arbogast has seen it all, and has no reason, given what we presume are successes in similar cases, to think he’ll lose his life. He's like Philip Marlowe — wearied, but confident. That makes his murder, then, all the more jolting.
Stefano’s screenplay, paired with the exact performances of Gavin and Miles, makes the worries of the latter two characters so potent that we feel their irrepressible need to discover the truth.
It is the Norman character, however, who makes the utmost impression. The “psycho killer” type, inarguably popularized by him, has in the ensuing years become a one-dimensional antagonist. They are a foe we either know as a thin side character creeping in the shadows, or a knife-wielder who only has to be defeated, never unmasked.
Norman is different. When we first meet him, we are struck by him. He is spindly, charmingly shy. Sort of handsome. It is obvious that he has a fraught relationship with his mother, who yawps louder than a Rottweiler, and we know that that must be difficult. He probably doesn’t have a life outside of this motel. He has strange outbursts here and there in conversation, sure, but it's nothing unusual for a young man who spends so much time alone with, supposedly, just one other person. We feel for him. Even when the sensationalist ending comes about and we come to understand the full dimensions of his character, we find ourselves alternately terrified and disheartened. Others were victimized, but this villain was victimized, too — an unusual thing in a genre which likes its villains so one-dimensionally bloodthirsty. Perkins's performance, as mostly everything else in Psycho, hits impressive, unexpected notes.
The ending, however, does a major disservice to much of what comes before it. After Lila and Sam discover what really happened to Marion and Arbogast, they sit through a Charlie’s Angels (1976-’81)-style breakdown of Norman’s motivations in a police station. A psychiatrist walks us through the case, and at one point makes outdated remarks about gender dysphoria.
The movie would have been perfectly acceptable had it stuck with the big reveal as the finale. Over-explanation, a trope which has always been so bothersome in the horror genre, undermines the intense fear we felt during the previous scene.
Still, Psycho makes for an uncommonly sharp example of the slasher movie, which still would not be commonplace, at least in America, until the 1970s. Yet it is a thriller first — its stalk-and-slash scenes are forms of catharsis. Hitchcock’s staging of each act is seamless and stylish, maximizing the effects of Stefano’s writing. The film’s best touch is how effortlessly it glides back and forth between the points of view of each character — a sympathetic, emotionally heightened lens captures them at each turn. The scenes involving Marion are the film’s best: Stefano’s, Hitchcock’s, and Leigh’s understanding of the character is so strong that we could certainly watch a movie revolving around her without her iconic death.
It is a near-perfect movie. But I am also aware that Psycho is, in some ways, a harmful one. It helped popularize one of the most misogynist genres in cinema, helped muddy the public’s understanding of mental health and its correlation to murder, and rather messily attempts to connect gender identity with homicidal inclinations. It is, to say the least, a problematic favorite. But as a product of the horror genre, and as a touchstone in Hitchcock’s career, it continues to be unparalleled. The relentless copycats and cash-ins have done little to deter its capacity to terrify. A+