*. I think I’ve said something before about how difficult — even more difficult for being pointless — it is to talk about movies that have already been talked about more than enough. Forget about essays and reviews and blog posts. Forget even about documentaries and the feature biopic Hitchcock (2012). How many books have now been written about Psycho? More than one person could hope to get through. I know I’ve read a lot of stuff on Psycho over the years, but it’s still only a tiny fraction of all that’s out there.
*. So where to begin? My own first experience with the film is as good a place as any. I saw it on TV sometime in the 1980s. I already knew the story. Everybody knows all about Psycho even if they haven’t seen it, it has that kind of cultural presence. So I knew Marion Crane was going to be stabbed in the shower. I knew Norman Bates was getting dressed up as his mother and killing people. I knew he kept her mummified corpse in the basement. I knew all this, and the ending still scared the hell out of me.
*. Another place to begin might be with the lonely Wisconsin killer Ed Gein, whose story Robert Bloch first wrote up as a journalist and then turned into a bestselling novel. Aspects of the Gein case would crop up again in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs, though the low-budget Deranged stuck the closest to the actual facts relating to Gein.
*. But if Psycho is to be taken as the father, or mother, of all slasher films this is all down to Hitchcock. Gein himself was not even a serial killer by the usual definition but rather a ghoul (that is, a graverobber).
*. Gein went through a further transformation as well. The real Gein was a middle-aged recluse who looked the part, old before his time and a bit feral. In Bloch’s novel he’s a fat, balding and bespectacled momma’s boy, someone the author saw as “the equivalent of a Rod Steiger type.” Rising hearthtrob Anthony Perkins gave Norman “a peculiar glamour” (Clive Barker) that went beyond being sympathetic. Though awkwardly virginal he’s also sexual, and not without a kind of charm. He can even sway his hips a bit, when alone.
*. This is something that was not going to be followed up on very often in the slasher genre. The vast majority of psycho killers would go on to be freaks, even monsters forced to wear masks. They also rarely spoke. Perkins was transgressive in a way that didn’t catch. Commenting on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, David Thomson says how “it leaves us filled with rueful nostalgia for the days when Norman Bates could put an elegant sentence together.” Even if he had to stutter it out.
*. Yet another beginning: the opening credits. Designed by Saul Bass, and they do look sharp. Those vertical and horizontal lines will be a visual motif throughout (as they had been in North by Northwest). Also Bernard Herrmann’s name comes in the penultimate position, just before Hitchcock’s. Hitchcock always gave Herrmann the credit he deserved, even saying that “thirty-three percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.”
*. The score really is that important. Those strings in the shower scene, that Hitchcock originally wanted to play without any score, feel like bows plucking at bundles of nerves. It’s a cue that would be heard a lot in subsequent horror films. In fact it may be the most sampled bit of scoring in film history. But the rest of Hermmann’s score is just as taut and expressive. This is a movie that isn’t going to let you get comfortable.
*. Herrmann’s score is so good that I’ve often wanted to watch Psycho with the score isolated, all the dialogue erased. This is something I’ve only ever felt like doing for one other movie (The Road Warrior, with Brian May’s brilliant scoring). I think Herrmann, working in tandem with Hitchcockian passages of “pure cinema,” would be enough to carry things through.
*. That’s not a knock on Joseph Stefano’s script. It’s full of wonderful lines that you appreciate more on a second viewing, and that even after a dozen viewings never lose their charm. Of course Norman gets most of these: “She isn’t quite herself today.” “We all go a little mad sometimes.” “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” Norma has some good ones too. “I refuse to speak of disgusting things because they disgust me!” “I will not hide in the fruit cellar! Ha! You think I’m fruity, huh?” And then there’s the highway cop recommending a motel in the area “just to be safe.” Or Arbogast cutting to the chase: “if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jellin’.” I still get a smile out of all of these.
*. It’s interesting how often Norman, in the lines I’ve mentioned and others, is always trying so hard to universalize, and in a way that offers up all his reflections as absolutes. It’s there too in his feeling that “we’re all in our private traps.” I think this is something a lot of lonely people do, because their opinions are never tested in conversation and argument, and the only basis they have for drawing conclusions about people are grounded in their own experience. It’s something that’s nicely observed and related both in the character and in Perkins’ performance.
*. The script also has its subtle cues as well. It’s easy to miss the references Marion and Caroline make to their disapproving mothers, for example. What I particularly like though are the series of confrontations arranged in the motel office, with Norman facing off against Marion, Arbogast, and finally Sam.
*. Moments like these are a personal favourite of mine. Two characters confronting each other, both dissembling and both aware that the person they’re trying to play knows what they’re up to. Even Marion and Norman both know one another on some deeper level. It’s a dance.
*. The connection between Marion and Norman is fascinating. Janet Leigh is so good as the brisk, professional woman coming undone. As many have noted, her face as she’s driving her car at night bears more than a passing resemblance to Norman’s. He’s not the only one imagining voices in his head either. And what voices she hears! She imagines the oilman calling her a tease and threatening to tear at her “fine soft flesh.” Which makes her smile!
*. There are scenes here that are so well known they’ve become part of the collective consciousness, not to mention the essential repertoire of horror. How many times has that swinging lightbulb been seen since 1960? A hundred? More? One that has always impressed me though is Lila (Vera Miles) climbing the stairs to the house on the hill. For some reason this really strikes me every time I see Psycho. Why?
*. One reason may be that it refers back to the earlier scene where Arbogast climbs the stairway inside the Bates home. That scene was originally shot by the assistant director (Hitch had the flu), and it had to be redone because it looked, in the Master’s words, like Arbogast was a killer when it should have made him look like a victim. In shooting Lila’s ascent in much the same way — face-on, looking up at the camera — that same association, now reinforced after Arbogast’s murder, works again. Why was Hitchcock so right about that angle though? I’m still not sure.
*. It’s too bad there was no way to get Leigh and Miles on screen at the same time. They’re both so good, and I really buy them as sisters. One can see the shared personality traits, the same abruptness and hard edges. It’s pretty hard to imagine Lila ending up married to Sam (as we find out happened in Psycho II), but then can we really believe Marion being happily married to him either? These are modern women. Just look at how fantastic they both look with short hair.
*. I’m not going to defend the psychiatrist’s report at the end. Everybody hates that part. But I don’t mind it as much as some. Here’s Roger Ebert, for example, wondering “why Hitchcock marred the ending of a masterpiece with a sequence that is grotesquely out of place.” I don’t find it such a mystery. The movie needed a break to decompress, and it does help to set up the coda with Norman sitting by himself and the brilliant overlapping final shots.
*. Manny Farber, with an interesting take: “Why is taxidermy necessarily a ghoulish hobby? Are stuffed birds in a motel’s back parlor dead giveaways of an aberrant mind? First, a passing motorist, then a wily detective, takes one glance at seven stuffed heads and becomes either queasy or intrigued by the psychological significance (‘What kind of warped personality is this?’).” Well, I’d say it’s not just the birds but the way they’re filmed. But point taken. And I think the only response is that taxidermy is a ghoulish hobby, almost by definition.
*. Psycho is universally seen as a watershed for several reasons. In the first place it was a challenge to censors. Of course looking back on the controversy it all seems so quaint. Janet Leigh in a bra and slip. A toilet is seen, and even flushed. During the psychiatrist’s report the word “transvestite” is used. David Thomson: “It really is quite exhilarating to see what tender creatures we were in 1960.”
*. A broken taboo, or convention may be a better word, that isn’t mentioned as much is the way Leigh actually gets her hair wet in the shower. Was that shocking in 1960? I don’t know, but it added to the sense that anything was possible, and everything was that extra bit more real.
*. More than breaking taboos of what we see on screen, Psycho also rewrote the rules on genre and commerce. Hitchcock had noticed how lousy, cheaply made exploitation movies were making a lot of money and so wondered what would happen if someone tried to do a B-movie well, if just as inexpensively. The result was the most profitable movie he ever made, and one that made him personally rich given that the studio had wanted him to put up most of the money. George Lucas might have been taking notes, or Spielberg, as B-movies with A-budgets and talent were about to take over the industry.
*. For all its exalted status today, it met with a mixed critical reception. It seems clear that box office had something to do with bringing reviewers around as well. Another lesson for our time.
*. Interpretations have run riot over the years. I’m not so impressed by stuff like saying the three levels of the Bates home represent Freud’s layer cake of personality. Voyeurism? Certainly a motif that’s developed (we start off peeking in a window at something we just missed, and then follow someone into the shower), but what of it? I don’t think there’s a message we’re meant to get from this like there was in Peeping Tom.
*. I do like David Thomson’s take on one meaning of the parable: the nastiness of so many of the characters we meet in the first forty minutes “can be felt like sandpaper. Fifty years later, this abrasiveness or indifference is a better explanation of the film’s central violence than the cockamamie answer it concocts about a boy being possessed now and then by the aging spirit of his dead mother. The central killing grows out of the grim unkindness of the world we have seen, not from the lurid casebook of the Bates family.”
*. An excellent observation, and one we can take further. Thomson’s point about the moment of Psycho is that it made murder into acceptable entertainment. That’s one thing, but note how the “abrasiveness or indifference” of everyday life, the “grim unkindness of the world,” has only metastasized in those fifty years. Nastiness and a noir disillusionment with the dream of happiness “was about to overtake not just the American movie but the nation’s way of life.” This is one reason, surely, why murder isn’t only entertainment today but something to be glorified. The slasher serial killer didn’t just go on to become acceptable, he became the hero while at the same time becoming less sympathetic, more inhuman. We were no longer as shocked to see people being butchered, but the killings were more satisfying, even pleasing.
*. Obviously I could go on, and that in itself is a testament to this film’s achievement. People have been writing and arguing about it for sixty years without exhausting all it represents. Part of that is due to the way it continues to develop before our eyes, both fading and becoming clearer. A classic then, not just of an age but for all time.
An all-time classic to be sure; I don’t even mind that ending, as a kid, I found it shockingly calm.
Yeah, the bit with the psychiatrist just seems like a chance for us to catch our breaths, while setting up the final scene with Norman sitting alone. Sure it’s silly and could have been done better, but at that point in the story it’s almost a relief and I’m not sure anyone is paying that much attention..
Thanks for this thorough discussion of Psycho’s content and meta-content. I found a Martin Scorsese clip that discusses ’50s low budget filmmaking and bleak subject matter and briefly touches on Psycho. My reply was getting wordy so I moved it to my blahg at https://www.tommoody.us/archives/2020/06/13/the-end-of-a-psycho-era/
Thanks Tom! Your comments are a good read. I’ve been making notes lately on various sources for the great slasher splurge that launched basically with Halloween. I think Psycho was part of it, if only for its incredible success/return on investment. I think Thomson would add its cynicism. I know Herschell Gordon Lewis took all the credit for Michael and Jason and Freddy because of Blood Feast, where he says he took Psycho a necessary step further and claimed he invented gore. Another source is the giallo genre of the ’60s and ’70s that I seem to remember Carpenter saying was an influence on Halloween. The connection there is also pretty obvious. These were all parts of the matrix. You’re right that Psycho can be seen as the end of something, but like all watershed works of art it looks both ways. Unfortunately, one direction was toward a lot of trash. It’s harder to see the good that came out of it. I’m not sure what Van Sant was even trying to achieve.