“We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”
The Scoop: 1960 R, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh and Vera Miles
Tagline: No one… BUT NO ONE… will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Summary Capsule: As you probably guessed from the title, it’s the story of a calm, rational hotel owner who does entirely sane things. Honest.
Drew’s rating: The rooms were spacious, the pool easily accessible, and the continental breakfast was… well, to die for. (Sorry.)
Drew’s review: We’ve all been there: you’re enjoying a hot, steamy shower – trying to wake up, or washing away the grime of a long, hard day – when some jackass thrusts back the curtain, screeches “Reet reet reet!” and stabs you with a shampoo bottle, or a tube of toothpaste, or a comb. Maybe it’s your roommate. Maybe your girlfriend/boyfriend, or husband or wife. Maybe your younger brother or sister. (In which case, buy a lock.) It doesn’t really matter – what’s important is that we all had the exact same reaction: jump, yell, cover ourselves, then hurl expletives at the intruder while they giggle uncontrollably. We don’t even question it – every single person reading this understands the reference through cultural osmosis, even if you’ve never seen the movie. But… just for one second, imagine that isn’t your spouse, or roommate, or little sibling. Imagine it’s a stranger, and instead of a comb they’re holding a butcher knife. Kind of puts a new perspective on things, doesn’t it?
To begin with, Psycho tells the story of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a real estate clerk in love with a man named Sam Loomis, who can’t marry her until he repays his numerous debts. To expedite the process, Marion steals $40,000 from her job and flees, planning to meet up with Sam and live happily ever after. But a stop for the night at the quaint Bates Motel brings Marion in contact with proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a friendly young man whose earnest demeanor makes her reconsider her actions. Deciding to return the money, Marion resolves to make a fresh start of things in the morning, starting with a nice, hot shower. But it seems Norman’s mother isn’t fond of other women talking to her son; and when Mother isn’t happy, there just may be some unpleasant consequences…
I don’t think it’s spoiling things to reveal that halfway through the film, it ceases to be Marion’s story and undergoes a radical shift in focus to Norman and his infamous mother. What I can’t emphasize enough is how jarring that transition is — and that’s in retrospect, just imagine what it must have been like in 1960. With just one scene, your POV character is gone, replaced by a creepy guy and his psychotically homicidal mother. Later horror films (notably Alien) would make use of this sudden puncturing of audience expectations, but Psycho did it first and is still one of the best. And as you’d imagine from a Hitchcock film, the technical elements are excellent: vivid scenery (even in black-and-white), tension-heightening camera angles, and even sharp dialogue, which I wasn’t expecting… the first half hour surprised me with how funny some of the lines were, given the subject matter of the movie.
But ultimately, Psycho’s well-deserved status as one of the classic horror films of all time (despite minimal gore and victims) comes down to exactly two things: the story, and the actors. Leigh sells her conflicted young woman extremely well, particularly Marion’s nervousness immediately after stealing the money, and the depth she shows in the first half of the film makes you sorry to see her go. But by far the most credit has to go to Perkins, who could not possibly have been better cast. I know I’m prone to exaggeration, but take that as the unvarnished truth, as he perfectly crafts a character who is by turns sympathetic, awkward, genuine, and incredibly disturbing. Modern viewers expecting to see Norman as a villain may be surprised by the likable guy-next-door we’re first introduced to… and will then marvel at Perkins’ pitch-perfect transition from normal (if slightly jittery), to lonely and increasingly shifty, to inexplicably angry and frightening… and that’s all in one scene. It must have been the challenge of a lifetime to get inside such a character’s head, but I’ll bet Perkins never regretted it for a second.
As alluded to earlier, Psycho has seeped its way into society to the point where almost everyone knows the big secret already. However, if you’re one of those rare people like my wife who doesn’t know the twist, I’m not going to spoil it. Suffice to say it’s both effective and incredibly disconcerting, and no matter how many later parodies and jokes it inspired, you can’t ignore the sheer creepiness of the situation while watching it unfold before you. The bottom line is that you should see Psycho, not because it’s a “classic,” but because it’s just a damn well-made film. Probably not one you’ll want to revisit every day, but during the Halloween season, or those long, dark hours of the night when you’re in the mood to be unsettled? It’s exactly what mother would suggest.
- Alfred Hitchcock has a cameo outside the real estate office.
- Marion = not the best at playing it cool.
- Though the shower scene is considered one of the greatest scary movie moments ever, it’s rather non-explicit, with the knife only shown penetrating flesh for three frames (about an eighth of a second).
- The sheriff tells Sam there’ve been no major crimes since the murder/suicide ten years ago, but it’s later mentioned that two young women have gone missing in the time since.
- Man, that psychiatrist is pretty blunt about telling Lila her sister is dead.
- Extra kudos to Anthony Perkins, because the final shot of Norman Bates is possibly the most disturbing face I’ve ever seen a human being make.
- Psycho is based on a book of the same name, which in turn was inspired by the real-life case of Ed Gein. Gein, who had been domineered by his fanatically religious mother as a boy, was arrested in 1957 in connection with the disappearance of a local woman. Though ultimately convicted of only two killings, the sensationalistic nature of his crimes (including grave robbing and constructing a “woman suit” out of human skin so he could pretend to be his mother) aroused national interest in the case. Aside from Psycho, other films inspired by the Ed Gein killings include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs (the character of Buffalo Bill).
- Hitchcock was so adamant about audiences not learning Psycho’s twist ahead of time that he took unheard-of precautions, including not screening the film for critics beforehand (causing many of them to drub it). As the tagline suggests, he also forbade theater owners from allowing patrons in after the movie had started. Many owners initially balked at this restriction, but quickly stopped when they saw how profitable the film was.
- Hitchcock bid for the rights to the book Psycho anonymously, fearing that if his name were attached, the price would immediately skyrocket.
- Despite popular rumor, Hitchcock did not arrange for the water in the shower scene to turn ice cold to elicit a realistic scream from Janet Leigh. He also originally envisioned the scene as completely silent, only changing his mind after the music director scored it anyway with the infamous screeching violins. Hitchcock liked it so much, he doubled the music director’s salary.
- Janet Leigh is the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis, whose first movie role was playing another ordinary woman confronted by a serial killer: Laurie Strode from Halloween.
- Psycho was remade shot-for-shot in 1998, starring Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates and Anne Heche as Marion Crane. It was a box office flop and critically panned, with most people questioning the necessity of a remake.
Sam: Marion, whenever’s possible I want to see you, under any circumstances… even respectability.
Marion: You make respectability sound so… disrespectful.
Cassidy: [Pulls out $40,000 in cash] I never carry more than I can afford to lose. Count ’em!
Caroline: I declare!
Cassidy: I don’t… that’s how I get to keep it.
Caroline: He was flirting with you! I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring.
Cop: Is anything wrong?
Marion: Of course not. Am I acting as if there’s something wrong?
Cop: Frankly, yes.
Norman: Well, a- a boy’s best friend is his mother.
Norman: We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?
Mrs. Bates: No, I will not hide in the fruit cellar! Hah, you think I’m fruity, eh?
Sam: You are alone here, aren’t you? It’d drive me crazy.
Norman: I think that would be a rather extreme reaction, don’t you?
Norman: ‘This place’? ‘This place’ happens to be my only world. I grew up in that house up there. I had a very happy childhood. My mother and I were more than happy.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Rear Window
- Friday the 13th