Next year will be the 60th anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, which has become a cornerstone of modern film. It gave us the slasher genre. It brought the word (or rather, insult) ‘psycho’ into common usage. It gave us twist endings. It gave us the privilege of seeing toilets in movies (seriously!). It is one of the best examples of an ‘elevated horror’ film where care, symbolism, and technical achievement are woven so deftly into the film that it can’t not be taken seriously.
If you haven’t seen ‘Psycho’, you know enough from pop culture osmosis. You know the title. You know the music. You know the name Norman Bates. And I sure hope you know the twist, because this is your one and only spoiler warning.
Our protagonist, Marion Crane, wants to be in a relationship with her lover, Sam Loomis. Sam says they can’t be together because he’s in money trouble because of his recent divorce. So Marion, plucky gal that she is, steals $40,000 from the business she works at.
On the run, Marion stops at the roadside Bates Motel. She meets Norman Bates, who says he takes care of the motel and his mother who lives next door. That night, Marion gets viciously stabbed in the shower by Norman’s ‘mother.’
With Marion and the money missing her sister, her lover Sam, and a PI go looking for her. The PI stumbles upon the Bates Motel. The PI is suspicious of Norman and thinks Norman’s mother could prove a valuable witness if he can question her. He relays this to Sam and the sister. Then the PI gets hella stabbed within the creepy Bates house.
With the PI now also missing, Sam and the sister go to the local sheriff to relay the PI’s suspicions about the Bates family. The local sheriff corrects their information. Norman’s mother died several years ago.
So: who’s the woman figure we’ve seen committing the murders?
Well of course, as the last 5 minutes of the film reveal, Norman killed his mom (and her lover), then had a psychotic break and formed two personalities. The malevolent personality is his ‘Mother,’ which is triggered into murderous rage when Norman gets close to other women. After getting arrested, the Norman personality is consumed by the malevolent ‘Mother’ personality.
…aside from the 4 sequels!
But in retrospect, it’s interesting to map out how that plot actually works out, timewise.
Marion isn’t killed until halfway through the film. For a full 47 minutes, this is Marion’s story. ‘Psycho’ starts with this slow burn of Marion’s journey. We start in her stifled relationship and boring job to slowly making the choice to steal, carefully evading the police during her journey north, and then driving in to this odd little motel. Suddenly, the explosion of water, violins, and stabbing. That scene is one of the quickest cuts in movie history—90 cuts in 45 seconds. Then the next hour of the film unfolds at a familiar cause-and-effect rhythm like a routine television episode.
Building of tension, crescendo, and denouement—or, ya know, excitement, climax, and resolution. There. I made the sex innuendo. It’s done. We can move on now.
Compared to his earlier works, ‘Psycho’ really didn’t follow as a ‘Hitchcock film.’ It was much simpler visually and in plot than ‘Vertigo’ or ‘Rear Window.’ ‘Psycho’ plays in content much more like ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: The Movie.’ It’s low-budget; does a more crude, pulpy lean into noir genre; and gives an absurdly concertinaed exposition to wrap everything up. ‘Psycho’ even used a television camera crew.
But ‘Psycho’ was a clear advancement of Hitchcock’s career as a dark filmmaker. It was his first true horror film—not just a psychological thriller or a noir movie, but one that takes those elements and amps it up to full on horrorshow. ‘Psycho’ gave one of the most violent (and yet censor approved!) deaths seen on American screens at that time. It has one of the most macabre mainstream plot elements of all time: stealing and stuffing a corpse to keep around like a real person.
‘Psycho’ really captures a portrait of America at a particular point in time, but also speaks to universal themes in American fiction. The spark that ignites this story is definitively American: chasing a dream through financial gains and questionable means. The initial movement of ‘Psycho’s plot is that Marion wants to be with Sam, but Sam demurs developing their relationship further because of his money problems. So Marion steals money from her job and runs off to be with him.
So much of ‘Psycho’ captures a portrait of 1950s Americana merging into a new age of the 1960s. There is such a strong sense of the classic safety of the 1950s not being able to survive anymore.
The film starts with a strong idea that this won’t be a ‘safe’ journey for audiences of the time. We open on two unmarried people (one of them divorced!) implicitly having a sexual relationship—they are in a hotel that seems to rent by the hour, Marion Crane is down to a bra and slip, they at one point both sit on the only bed in the room. In 1960, this was groundbreaking.
Marion’s tense on-the-lam sojourn through the American West—and ultimately to her doom—is enabled by the highway infrastructure that has only exploded into development in 1956. New connections, breaking down barriers—but also opening doors that were previously kept safely closed.
No longer can the American public be innocently shielded from the realities of nonmarital relationships, darkness inside of their neighbors, violence, or even—gasp!—toilets.
‘Psycho’ is indeed the first time a flushing toilet was onscreen in American theaters. Hitchcock was only able to get the toilet allowed because it is an important plot point. Marion writes a note about the stolen money, then tears it up and discards the pieces of paper in the toilet. A week later, this paper is the only evidence left that Marion stayed at the Bates Motel. How a piece of paper survives a week in toilet water is anyone’s guess, but yay for overcoming film censorship.
When looking at 1950s convention clashing with the dawning 1960s movements, it makes sense that much of the film is based in a sense of constriction. Marion and Sam’s relationship is stifled by distance, finances, and societal conventions. Norman is in his own ‘private trap’.
Even viewers at the time were unfamiliarly restricted—before ‘Psycho’, films ran continuously in theaters, the audience free to come and go throughout. But Hitchcock harangued theaters into not allowing latecomers into ‘Psycho.’ This created an initial sense of tension for audience goers—be here on time, sit down, and strap in for what you’re about to see.
Duality is another heavy theme in the movie. Obviously, there is the duality within Norman as two split personalities. Norman also speaks in dualities—Norman tells Marion he was born in his own ‘private trap’, but “I don’t mind it anymore.” Marion replies, “Oh but you should, you should mind it.” Norman answers, “Oh I do. But I say I don’t.”
But consider also Marion’s duality—a loyal employee for 10 years who in the space of a few hours turns thief. Mirrors and reflections are also a repeated motif, emphasizing characters having a double. Marion’s journey through the film is almost a mirrored one—she starts in a hotel with her lover, and ends in a motel with her killer.
Even the shower scene is an experiment in duality—you think you’re seeing blood and stabs, but in reality you aren’t. You’re seeing violence without tangible effect.
The Bate’s house is obviously modeled after House by the Railroad. This is a work by artist Edward Hopper, who is known for his ability to capture common features of American life. Pastoral, familiar American visuals belie a house of horrors.
That also captures a movement within American culture at the time. Quaint small town America was being exposed as not as secure and clean as everyone had believed. It was only 3 years prior to ‘Psycho’ that its inspiration, Ed Gein, had been captured in rural Plainsfield, Wisconsin. Gein had murdered two women, but also robbed the corpses of several others and turned his small farmhouse into a collection of arts and crafts projects from hell. A year before ‘Psycho’s’ release, the notorious Clutter family murders had occurred in small Holcomb, Kansas.
It’s not surprising, then, that personal alienation is also a consistent theme in ‘Psycho.’ Marion and Norman, again, mirror each other in their respective loneliness driving them to ‘go a little mad.’ Later, in small-town (and fictional) Fairvale, the local sheriff and his wife are blindsided to discover that their mild-mannered, pitiable neighbor Norman Bates is actually a monster.
It’s interesting that ‘Psycho’s plot hinges on fast-paced, less conservative urban interests butting their noses into rural America. If it weren’t for the illicit relationship between Marion and Sam, if it weren’t for a woman taking a dare to run away with stolen wealth… Then a serial killer would’ve quietly continued on in a sleepy town just off the highway.
‘Psycho’ was only able to work, to breakthrough into its immediate and long-term success, because of who Hitchcock was. He was an artist and as a salesman, one side always fighting for the other.
Early in the production process, Hitchcock maneuvered into being a 60% proprietor of the picture. That greatly helped him in wrestling artistic control back from the grip of censors. That also meant that he was able to take risks—from showing toilets to having big premieres of the film in LA and NYC followed by immediate wide release (odd then, but commonplace now!). The latter innovation helped ‘Psycho’ spread largely by word of mouth—which was again, a gamble. The shower scene is still an impressive technical achievement in film, but was very much toeing the line between what would engage or disgust audiences at the time re: nudity and violence.
And all of Hitchcock’s risks—or rather, innovations—paid off. ‘Psycho’ made three times the revenue of any of his previous films. And ‘Psycho’ managed to squeeze a presence in at the Oscars with nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction.
The revenue and recognition of ‘Psycho’ sent major signals. It showed that the tradition of the Production Code was dying, and power over content was returning to directors and audiences. It showed that ‘crass commercial films’ could also be art. This influenced the future not just of horror films but of all filmmaking.
An Essential Scene:
If you see no other part of ‘Psycho’, watch only when Marion arrives at The Bates’ Motel. In particular, the parlor scene and the shower scene that follows.
The parlor scene is just plain good cinema. It’s a perfect exhibition of the layers Hitchcock is weaving into the film, of the excellent characterization, and of a good script.
There are so many layers of darkness and malice in this scene between Norman and Marion.
Of course, there’s the obvious link to the classic ‘come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.’ But it’s important to watch how Norman baits Marion back into the parlor. First he brings dinner to her room—but then he demurs (why? Is it because good boy Norman finds eating in a woman’s bedroom too intimate? Is it because he’s already guessed at what he’ll do to Marion in there?). He redirects to the hotel office—but no, that’s too ‘officious.’ But oh look, the parlor is right behind this door…
Anthony Perkins in his role as Norman Bates is one of the truly great performances of cinema. Granted, the film role was adapted specifically for Perkins. But he plays it so beautifully, a perfect balance of ‘boy next door’ and ‘utter creep’. Perkins lets the audience struggle with deciding if they pity Norman, distrust him, or outright fear him. This scene is a fantastic showcase of Perkins in this role.
(Editor’s Note: Your Intrepid Host will release an upcoming article exploring Norman Bates as a problematic character that adds to the trope of trans characters being vehicles of ‘psychosis’ and murderousness. There’s a lot to say about it and we just didn’t have room to address it here.)
The parlor as a setting is obviously unsettling with the many stuffed birds mounted around it. An owl, a predator, looms over Norman several times as if hinting his true nature.
Norman comments to Marion, “You eat like a bird.” A remark so chilling in the context of these surroundings, it breaches into dark humor.
Similarly, and serving as an early hint of the truth about ‘Mother’, Norman says of her: “She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds!”
And as is exposed shortly after Marion returns to her room, this parlor is Norman’s homebase for his predatory inclinations. Nestled between two classic paintings of rape scenes, there’s a hidden peephole. He spies on Marion as she gets undressed.
But the most potent aspect of this scene is the dialogue between Marion and Norman. It tells us so much about our villain, serves as a turning point for Marion, and personally speaks to the audience.
Norman: “You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
Marion: “Sometimes… we deliberately step into those traps.”
Norman: “I was born into mine. I don’t mind it anymore.”
It’s such a dark exchange, but so profound and sad. And it speaks to Marion. She realizes she has stepped into this trap with the stolen money out of loneliness—and she can’t let herself become ensnared like Norman has with his own loneliness.
Norman talks of ‘we all go a little mad sometimes.’ Marion has to admit to herself, she’s gone a little mad. And she decides it’s time to try to put things right.
Yet ultimately, Marion’s last minute redemption—through this conversation with Norman—doesn’t matter. She doesn’t get that chance to follow through. Even the money, the main movement of much of the plot, gets lost in the swamp where Norman dumps Marion’s car. In further dramatic irony, Norman is so caught in his own private trap of murder, he misses the opportunity to find and take the stolen money, thus buying himself out of the wretched hotel and house.
But then, big city money likely wouldn’t matter to Norman even if he found it. The motel, arguably, is too convenient a hunting ground to give up. He’d want to make ‘Mother’ proud.