Written by Joseph Stefano
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Psycho is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic films ever made. Even people who have never seen the movie have likely seen it parodied, especially the infamous shower scene. It’s interesting to note how mixed initial reviews of Psycho were. Hitchcock directed Vertigo and North by Northwest, very classy, glamorous thrillers in the two years prior. Psycho is definitely sleazy in comparison, especially the exploitative nature with which is approaches sex and violence. Hitchcock had to restrain himself to a degree, but he definitely gets away with a lot because of who he was.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a real-estate secretary stuck in a rut due to the high cost of everything. She wants to get married to her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, but he has so many debts standing in the way. Fate tosses forty thousand in her lap when a wealthy businessman pays cash to get his soon to be married daughter a starter home. Instead of depositing the money in the bank, Marion takes off with the money, heading for Fairvale, California, where Sam lives. After a series of close calls, Marion pulls off the road due to a rainstorm and spends the night at the vacant Bates Motel. The desk clerk, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), is an awkward but sweet young man who fixes a bite for Marion to eat. He’s stuck in this place, kept there by his domineering mother, an invalid living up the hill in a Gothic-looking house. The events of that evening will forever change Marion and Norman’s lives, revealing a darkness not glimpsed often, a sickening rot that comes roiling to the surface.
It’s hard to talk about Psycho as a surprising experience because that surprise was ruined via cultural osmosis for so many a long time ago. So, the conversation becomes about the film holding up even if you come in knowing the big secret in the Bates house. I think it does due to Hitchcock’s masterful directing and the fantastic acting of Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Everyone else feels like a stock actor, playing their parts in a manner you would expect. Leigh is able to add touches of the sinister to Marion without ever making her feel unsympathetic. We understand her desperation to escape, feeling hemmed in by financial debts. We root for her while she tries to outwit a police officer suspicious of her passing through Bakersfield.
Perkins never lets Norman sink into caricature the entire picture. His introduction is beautifully done, playing things as awkward but charming. It’s only as Marion sits and talks with him over dinner that she gets a sense that he’s a little strange. But she never exudes fear towards him; she appreciates his company. Norman never feels like a threat from our perspective, either. Marion does most of the pushing in their exchange, questioning why he chooses to stay in such a dismal place under the thumb of such a controlling mother. Norman is quick to defend his position, but we can see he is charmed by Marion. It’s only when his baser inclinations kick in that the dark side of Norman emerges.
However, there is a reason why you don’t hear about much more than Marion and Norman when people talk about the picture. After the initial murder, the plot veers into pretty rote territory. The story becomes focused on Sam and Marion’s sister Lila and their investigation into Marion’s disappearance. They are not interesting characters compared to Norman, so I found myself letting my attention drift when he’s not on screen. The moments the film comes back to life is when the private eye Arbogast pokes his head into the Bates home and that final scene where Lila discovers the truth about what is going on in the old house.
The impact of Psycho on the media landscape cannot be underestimated, though. The avalanche of psychologically centered horror and thriller movies that have been inspired by this picture is numerous. You could argue the slasher genre began with this film, and it keeps influencing the new ones. Even the way these films are musically scored has been influenced by the iconic Bernard Hermann soundtrack. The shower scene alone is one of the most iconic moments in film history. I think it is pretty apparent why Psycho is a Horror Masterwork. There was nothing much like it before, and it has resonated in the culture ever since.