“You’ve never seen Psycho!?” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve fielded this question, often awkwardly, from people of all levels of movie knowledge and interest. Up until this very moment, the answer has been an unforgivable “no,” which is typically said with a prolonged sigh. Of course, the sigh is not directed at the person asking me, but rather at myself for getting into this situation in the first place. How can someone so in love with movies have not seen Psycho? Miraculously, I’ve been able to dodge spoilers, save for knowing that there was an iconic scene with Jamie Lee Curtis’ mother screaming in the shower. But other than that, I was able to go into this film cold. After sinking into its swampy waters, one thing is certain: this film is an unfettered cinematic masterpiece.
By the time of Psycho’s release in 1960, its director Alfred Hitchcock had already been nominated for four Oscars. Being nominated for such a prestigious award once is no small feat, so the fact that he didn’t make the film that he’s most associated with until this late into his career is quite impressive. Based on the popular novel by Robert Bloch and written for the screen by Joseph Stefano, this gripping psychological thriller has a premise that is simultaneously simple and complex.
A Simple Yet Complex Premise
The film opens with Marion Crane, played with delicacy by Janet Leigh, who is spending time in a hotel room with the roguishly charming Sam (John Gavin), her friends-with-benefits style partner, on her lunch break. She returns to work at the Phoenix real estate office, and is instructed to bring $40,000 cash to the bank safe deposit box. After fending off obnoxious advances from their company’s new client, she tells her boss, Mr. Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), that she’d like to go straight home from the bank due to her headache, which we learn fairly quickly that she doesn’t have. She heads home and packs her suitcase for a weekend trip to Sam’s in California. Rather than going to the bank to lock up that wad of cash, she stows it away in her bag and hits the road. And just like that, our protagonist is on the run. After a close call with a skeptical cop and a detour at a car dealership where she abruptly trades in her car, Marion encounters a brutal rainstorm. Exhausted by her day and her swirling emotions, she reluctantly pulls into a remote motel for the evening that is run by the seemingly-benign and boyish Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Spoiler alert, this guy is bad news.
There are a myriad of reasons as to why this film works so brilliantly and its horror elements endure over 60 years later. Sure, the creepy mansion adjacent to the run-down motel, coupled with the gloomy evening storm is inherently freaky and timeless. But Psycho is laced with so much subtlety and attention to detail, instantly elevating the film beyond these set pieces. Before any actors appear on-screen, we are introduced to composer and long-time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s methodical, string-heavy score, which drops like an anvil over the title sequence. The way the precise time of day is spelled out across the screen (“two forty-three p.m.”), rather than being abbreviated numerically, is extremely unsettling. It’s no question that what is about to unfold is going to be a psychological tour-de-force, even if it takes us a while to get there.
Minute Details Add to the Eeriness
Every minute detail and artistic decision Hitchcock makes contributes to the film’s eeriness, though it’s Leigh and Perkins’ captivating performances that turn this into the terrifying tale so entrenched in Hollywood history. Leigh’s calculated and restrained execution of her strong-willed character gives the audience a sense of security, which makes her untimely demise all the more shocking. Perkins strikes a nearly impossible balance between playing “sweet” and “something’s off,” keeping the audience on their toes. He never appears too innocent or acts overtly menacing, which makes each line delivery and the slightest disposition change very revealing. When Marion says in passing that Norman’s extensive taxidermy bird collection in his parlor is a “curious” and “strange” hobby, he innocently explains, “Well, it’s–it’s more than a hobby. A hobby’s supposed to pass the time, not fill it.” Norman’s cheery expression slips into a dark place when Marion questions his mother’s domineering ways. Neither Leigh or Perkins, nor anyone in this tight ensemble, dips into melodrama, which in turn puts more weight behind each character’s words and actions.
Amazingly, there is also not an ounce of fat on this script. Every word is deliberate, adding to and progressing the story forward. In addition to the taxidermy dialogue mentioned above, there are a number of lines that you not only hear, but can actually feel. The way Norman attempts to casually insert an “anyway” into the conversation hints at his social-awkwardness and overall insecurity. “Well, a son is just a poor substitute for a lover,” and “We all go a little mad sometimes” are just two examples of chilling line reads saddled with acute emotional baggage screaming to be unpacked. But, to Hitchcock and Stefano’s credit, the meaning behind these enigmatic lines are left to our interpretation.
That Infamous Shower Scene
All of this precedes that infamous scene, the scene that single-handedly reinvented storytelling. After declining Norman’s invitation to chat a little longer, Marion heads back to her room — the room separated from Norman’s office by a mere wall — and takes a shower. The amount of time we spend watching Marion’s mundane shower preparation (closing the door tight, unwrapping her bar soap) as well as her getting acquainted under the running water, indicates that something is bound to happen. That, along with the screeching music cue, alerts the audience that danger is afoot. The swift, matter-of-fact way in which Marion is murdered, which we only see through quick camera shots, is just as much a shock to the audience as it is to her. Not even halfway through the movie, and we lose our fearless leader? Is that even allowed? It is now.
It’s astonishing how much Psycho holds up, both visually and thematically, given that there are movies from the ‘90s and 2010s that feel excruciatingly outdated. There are only a handful of moments when the film wears its era on its sleeve, the most overt being when Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson), the sleazeball client in the beginning, tries to impress Marion by saying he bought a house for $40,000. Even though that number is considered comically low with the adjustment for inflation, it doesn’t take you out of the narrative because Tom says it with such conviction and confidence.
You’ve likely also noticed at this point that the film is in black and white. Even though films had been made in color for roughly a decade, Hitchcock chose to shoot the film this way both to maintain the strict budget and to keep the audience from what he deemed to be a particularly bloody sequence that they wouldn’t be able to handle. The practical effects on display serve as a much-needed reminder that CGI is not always the answer. There is no way to know whether Hitchcock would have taken advantage of the advanced filmmaking technology at our disposal today, but this film is proof that it isn’t needed to effectively conjure up suspense and fear.
My long-awaited viewing of Psycho exceeded my high expectations. This Hitchcock classic deserves its continued praise and earns its reputation as one of the best pieces of cinematic storytelling. Is it too soon to already want to book another stay at the Bates Motel?