“I think I must have one of those faces you just can’t help believing.” And boy, is that face good at acting.
DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK WRITTEN BY JOSEPH STEFANO MUSIC BY BERNARD HERRMANN
STARRING JANET LEIGH ANTHONY PERKINS VERA MILES JOHN GAVIN
After stealing from her job, a young woman runs away and hides out in a seedy motel. Another man who would’ve made a lot of people’s lives easier had he just gone to therapy. The first of four Hitchcock films on the list. A more Production-code friendly version of the story of Ed Gein that focuses less on his fascination with human body parts are more with his unusual relationship with his mother. The secret twisted tragedy of Marion Crane. Anthony Perkins… I love you.
Way back in the day when we had a thing called “cable”, I watched this film for the first time on TCM with my older brother. I had not yet reached the double digits, but I was still old enough to recognize the beauty behind this film. While I normally wouldn’t advise showing scary movies to children (Nosferatu traumatized me), the plot twists in this film are the most famous things about it. The shower scene and Mother’s reveal are so deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche that it would be nearly impossible to watch this film for the first time unspoiled unless you were a child. Hitchcock and his collaborators knew they were making something revolutionary and took great care to make sure people watching this for the first time got to experience its power. Although not my favorite film on the list so far, there is so much to love about this black-and-white psychological thriller.
Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, is the film’s protagonist. She is genuinely sweet and polite, but easily misunderstood by the men in her life. In fact, we don’t really get to see her unless through the lens of a man. As we see with Tom Cassidy (the rich man with $40,000 to spend), he jumps at the chance to flirt with Marion even though it makes her uncomfortable. Based on her reaction to this unwelcome flirtation, it’s suggested that this is a regular occurrence for her. When Bates prepares dinner for her and she invites him into her room to dine, he misunderstands again and assumes this is a sexual invitation. However, instead of eagerly agreeing like Cassidy does, Bates reacts adversely and offers the parlor instead. Crane’s ultimate demise comes not because of her actions, but because of how she is perceived by a man. Kinda unfair, right?
Speaking of Marion’s actions, her clothing is an indication of her journey with morality throughout her time in the film. Marion is not inherently “good” or “bad”, but a little bit of both. That’s why her color story is so fascinating. When the audience is first introduced to Marion Crane, she is draped across a hotel bed in a white bra and skirt alongside her boyfriend, Sam. After stealing the money and hiding out at the motel, she gets ready for a shower and her bra is black. In this moment, she is no longer the same Marion Crane we saw at the beginning of the film. She has chosen wrong over right. Although she eventually decides to give the money back, she has been forever changed by her decision to steal it in the first place.
This film is all about duality. Although Hitchcock was no stranger to technicolor (North by Northwest was released a year earlier), black and white allowed him to emphasize the struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. There are countless examples of duality in Psycho, including Marion’s bras, the dueling personalities of Norman and his mother, man and woman, wealth and poverty, happiness and depression, and so many more.
While watching this time around, I noticed how much lighting and camera work influenced the impressions of the character. Apparently, they used 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras, creating an angle that’s most similar to human vision which further involves the audience. One of my favorite scenes (which I had completely forgotten about since my initial viewing) is when P.I. Arbogast goes to investigate the disappearance of Marion Crane and ends up at the Bates Motel. He questions Bates and Bates reluctantly starts to give him more of the answers he’s looking for. The lighting and sound design contribute greatly to the scene’s emotionality. Although there is no music, the sound of crickets quietly chirping in the background add to the intimacy and the extreme closeups on both Bates and Arbogast’s faces feel claustrophobic. Just look at the way the camera follows Bates as he leans over to look at a picture of Marion. His chin casts a stunning shadow and we see what Arbogast sees: a man who’s squirming. Perkins and Balsam are incredible in this scene and everything comes together in harmony to create one of my favorite scenes in cinema history.
For such a visual film, it’s surprising that the last eight minutes are essentially an epilogue directly to the audience. Lila and Sam serve as audience surrogates as a psychiatrist essentially explains everything wrong with Norman Bates. It feels cheap, anticlimactic, and it robs the audience of seeing part of Norman’s character development. It feels unjust not to incorporate the subject of his monologue into the actual storyline.
While the impact of this film has been forever changed due to the ubiquity and imitations of the two most famous plot twists, Psycho still holds up as a fascinating character study and a great example of how collaboration can make a movie awesome. While imperfect, this is required viewing for any Hitchcock fan. Even if you’re not a fan, I still highly recommend this film.
- Alfred Hitchcock said SCREW the Production Code! Show an unmarried couple post-coitus! Show a toilet flushing! Murder a woman!
- Because of the nature of this film, Hitchcock was a major pioneer in advocating for set showtimes. He didn’t want people walking in in the middle of the movie and ruining it for themselves, so he designated specific times for people to enter the theatre and watch Psycho from the very beginning.
- For a look at Psycho’s influence on trans representation in film history, I highly recommend the Netflix documentary Disclosure.