Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Year: 1960
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 14
Writer: Joseph Stefano (adaptation), Robert Bloch (novel)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles

Like the character of Norman Bates, “Psycho” is split into two pieces, one more dominant than the other. The first is a crime noir starring Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, a broke secretary who steals $40,000 in order to start a new life with her boyfriend. The second is a dark and twisted horror film about Norman (Anthony Perkins), who just wants to be left alone and spend some time with Mother. On the surface, neither feels like a usual Alfred Hitchcock movie, and because of that the film consistently surprises.

Let’s concentrate on the first piece, shall we? Screenwriter Joseph Stefano creates an internal monologue for Marion as she drives her newly-purchased getaway car. She’s a likeable heroine and we believe that her love for her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) is what drives her to theft, not the thrill of it all. There are the usual complications: Marion spies the boss she stole the money from as she high-tales it out of town, an inquisitive cop just won’t stop following her, etc. It’s all well done, and Marion is an interesting character, but isn’t it all a bit…just okay? The story feels like a noir, and yet Hitchcock is resisting the shadows, instead embracing long shots of landscapes and keeping things mostly in daylight. Watching the movie again, I was struck at just how different the first forty minutes are so from everything that follows and how elegant Hitchcock was at setting up red-herrings that seem like they’ll be so important later (putting the money in the newspaper, the nosey police officer).

The movie begins to transition the moment the first raindrop hits Marion’s windshield. In fact, all three major turning points for the narrative (the storm, the shower and the swamp) are marked by water. No more inner monologue, no more long shots of the landscape…just shadows. I’ve seen the movie a dozen times and the site of that monstrosity of a house staring down at the cheap-looking Bates Motel still gives me the creeps. It looks like the kind of place you wear shower shoes and sleep on top of the covers. Part of it is that the film is shot in black-and-white, leaving the sky behind the house always gray and foreboding. We feel at first off-kilter, seeing Marion in a place that doesn’t suit what we’ve seen before, but her calm as the strange becomes more ever-present assures the viewer that all will be okay.

Even when that house and the Bates’ secrets are known, the movie still works. You begin to appreciate the smart writing and Perkins’ performance still gets under your skin. He just doesn’t seem…right. In the scene where Marion and Norman talk in that stuffed bird-filled parlor, you begin to notice all the small ways Stefano was setting up the upcoming transition to Norman’s point-of-view. It’s so subtle and well-done that I forgave him for giving Marion the last name “Crane” and then putting her in a room with a bunch of dead birds.

After the fantastic murder scene in the shower, which proves that just a trickle of blood can be as unnerving as several feet of small intestine, the scene of Norman cleaning up the body and blood seem endless…and yet you can’t look away. For first time audiences, the time is spent to let the shock sink in, but for repeat viewers there are neat little moments of tension built in that you don’t notice at first, such as when Norman almost leaves the paper or when the car almost doesn’t sink into the swamp.

In fact, there are just so many small things that end up mattering so much that you just don’t pick up on the first or even second viewing. Vera Miles, who plays Marion’s sister Lila, has a purposely strong first moment onscreen where she shouts at Sam, as if to wave her hands in front of the audience and alert them that she’s the new girl in town that we should pay attention to. When Norman carries his Mother down to the fruit cellar, Stefano made sure to put in a line where the Mother shouts “I can walk myself!” to ensure viewers don’t think she’s too incapacitated to do the killings herself. Visually, I can never get enough of that single frame of a skull on top of Norman’s face in his final scene.

Miles and Leigh are both serviceable and quite sympathetic as (relatively) interchangeable heroines, but the real star here is Perkins. There isn’t a moment where he seems at peace on camera. Even sitting, he’s in constant movement, whether fiddling or chewing or darting his eyes from here to there. And yet there’s something we like about Norman, and when he’s cleaning up Marion’s blood and naked body, we don’t hate him. It’s pity, of course, but enough of a bond with the viewer for us to not want him to end up just another victim of Mother’s machinations.

There is one fairly huge flaw in all of this fun, mayhem and blood, and that is the closing sequence. “Psycho” should have ended with Sam wrestling with Norman in the fruit cellar, but Stefano and Hitchcock instead add in a needless explanatory scene to wrap things up. Some random dude explains every plot set-up and pay-off with little or no inflection even though even the slowest viewers could figure it out. The tension is gone, and by the time we visit Norman in that cell it’s almost too late.

There’s so much more, from Bernard Herrmann’s best score (sorry, “Cape Fear” and “Vertigo”) to those fantastic titles by Saul Bass that perfectly set up the mood of both the mini-films that follow.

“Psycho” is an elegant thriller, but also one that remains just as entertaining after its secrets are revealed. The shock value of a first viewing can’t really exist anymore—the movie’s twists are too engrained in pop culture, but there is still so much to love. Stefano and Hitchcock took the time the paint in the edges and make sure they were playing fair with an audience who would be eager to ensure that they did.

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

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