My Year Of Scary Movies
by Daniel Hutchens
Part 5: Psycho (1960) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh
“Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!”
Psycho comes close to being the perfect horror film, but it also transcends the horror genre and is worthy of consideration as one of the great films of all time. Director Alfred Hitchcock decided to approach this project on the cheap, using the same crew and techniques he had been using on his successful TV series, as opposed to the full blown Hollywood treatment given his other films of the day, such as North By Northwest.
Thus, Psycho was shot in black and white, fairly quickly, and the budget remained bargain basement low by the standards of big time Feature Films. The lean style of the film intensifies the emotional impact: the story is filled with shadowy symbolisms regarding Mothers and Sons, Greed and Lust, Hope and Disappointment, Loyalty and Betrayal...
This is all ripe material for psychologists, but Psycho is also just plain scary. And it features some of the all-time iconic horror film images, particularly the legendary shower scene. The film boasts a number of American movie firsts: the first time a woman was shown in her undergarments onscreen, the first time a toilet was shown onscreen, and most significantly, the first time a leading character was killed less than halfway through the film. These touches all served to disorient moviegoing audiences in 1960. Not to mention Anthony Perkinsʼ outstanding portrayal of Norman Bates, who has become our quintessential Sympathetic Horror Movie Villain. We hate Norman and we fear him, but we also kinda know where heʼs coming from.
The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which in turn was loosely based on a series of true-life murders that occurred in Wisconsin during the 1950s. Iʼve never read the book, so canʼt comment, but the film inspects the nuts and bolts of human wrongdoing: why does one commit murder, really? Why do people do these things? In our movie, Janet Leigh portrays Marion Crane, a frustrated young lover whose boyfriend wonʼt marry her because he has money problems. When Marion sees an opportunity to steal $40,000...well, she takes the money and runs, desperate to resolve her relationship issues. We understand her actions, though maybe we think them unwise or even disapprove. Then down the road when Marion meets Norman Bates...well, Norman has problems of his own. The ante is upped. Marion has her reasons for stealing money; Norman has his reasons for dressing up like his Mother.
And we get it. Weʼre allowed glimpses inside the charactersʼ minds, and their actions arenʼt at all unfathomable. Marion, despite resorting to theft, is essentially a decent person. Norman is just heartbroken and lonely; he isnʼt really a monster...or is he? Or are we all, potentially? Faced with the same circumstances, would we behave any differently?
Itʼs all pretty heady stuff, but itʼs not shoved in our faces academically; itʼs woven seamlessly into the fabric of a really interesting story, a really great ride. Hitchcock was at the top of his game here; there are so many brilliant, classic shots, visually poetic and thrilling and disturbing all at once...for instance, the scene where Norman wraps a female corpse in a shower curtain, then carries it out the door, symbolically carrying the veiled bride across the threshold in reverse––itʼs a web of cracked imagery that somehow involves Normanʼs notions of his Mother, his sexuality, his guilt. Itʼs a potent scene and itʼs perfectly realized; a cinematic grand slam.
Another big key to the power of this film is the music. The score by Bernard Herrmann is all strings, no percussion or horns or keyboards...stylistically spare, like the movie itself. (Herrmann was quoted as saying he wanted to create a “black and white sound” to match the black and white visuals.) And the fusion of this music with these visuals creates something bigger than the sum of its parts. Try imagining the movie without music, or with different music, and itʼs pretty clear that without Herrmannʼs score something essential would be lost. The insistent string pulses during dramatic scenes, the high-pitched screeching during murderous climaxes, the mysterious soft washes of sound (reminiscent of clouds drifting across a full moon) in the background during thoughtful interludes...itʼs one of the coolest film scores ever recorded.
Numerous critics have noted that the one miscue in the film is the final psychiatristʼs summation scene, in which a very central-casting Shrink type ties up all the loose ends of the story a bit too cleanly, a bit too certainly. After all, the whole thrust of the film seems to be this: no human being can ever be perfectly explained or understood, and you can never be too sure whatʼs really going on in anyoneʼs heart and mind––even your own.