First, a personal remembrance.
When I was in high school, they used to show movies in the auditorium on Friday nights. Once my best friend and I went to see PSYCHO there. I’d seen it before but he hadn’t, and I wanted to vicariously relive the shock and surprise through his viewing experience.
I remember that during the screening we sat behind a wise guy who kept leaning over to his girlfriend and saying: “See, this guy’s really …. blah, blah, blah … and his mother’s really … blah, blah, bah.”
Well, he didn’t really say “blah, blah, blah.” Instead, he gave away all the movie’s secrets, which is something I don’t want to do on this blog even today, on the small chance that someone’s reading this who has never seen PSYCHO and would rather not have one of the greatest films of all time ruined for them.
I pulled my friend away so we could go sit in another row, but the wise guy noticed us, calling after us: “Hey, sorry if I spoiled the movie for ya!”
No, you weren’t sorry, you movie-spoiling jackal.
There’s a special place in movie hell for guys like this, along with a different guy at school who ran up to me before I’d had a chance to see THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK to make sure I knew who Luke’s dad was. That was a surprise stolen from me that I could never get back.
So PSYCHO was and is a movie full of surprises. One is that a major character that you assume might survive for the whole movie …. might not. Say no more. And also, that guy living in the house with his mother … hey, I said I wouldn’t spoil it so I won’t.
Even though it came out before I was born, I feel that PSYCHO is the birth of the modern horror film. It might have a toe still in the Gothic traditions of the past. After all, Norman Bates’ spidery mansion is a California cousin to Dracula’s castle. But with its shocking, sudden violence and its moderately frank approach to sexuality, along with its dollop of pathological psychology, it’s clearly taking us somewhere new. And nasty.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is on the run, her purse bulging with funds embezzled from her employer. Staying at a rundown motel on a neglected stretch of highway, she has a change of heart, planning to return the funds and face the music.
But this is not a movie about embezzling, and the Bates Motel has other plans for her. Soon, Marion is missing, and so is a detective hired to find her. There are two scenes of shocking violence in the film, shocking more from their suddenness and the consummate skill with which they are staged than for their graphic content.
At the center of the mystery is mild-mannered though twitchy motel manager Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and his sickly mother, who is only glimpsed in the bedroom window of the old house up on the hill.
But the person really at the center of this tale of madness is suspense master Alfred Hitchcock, working in black and white and on a TV budget but absolutely and exquisitely playing at the top of his form.
The celebrated rapid cut shower sequence has been studied and dissected, but there are many other tour de force scenes in PSYCHO that bring us back for repeated viewings, including the detective’s fate as he climbs the staircase (even Hitchcock’s choice of camera shots — switching unexpectedly to an overhead perspective — is startling here.) Even the early scenes in the film, long before we’ve arrived at the Bates Motel, are taut with suspense, such as the sequence in which a suspicious motorcycle cop shadows Marion as she flees her old life.
Post 1960, it’s hard to watch any horror film without acknowledging a debt to Hitchcock’s smashingly innovative thriller. The Bates Motel is worth a revisit any time. Just don’t stay in room Number One.
“I couldn’t do that. Who’d look after her? She’d be alone up there. The fire would go out. It’d be cold and damp like a grave. If you love someone, you don’t do that to them – even if you hate them. You understand that I don’t hate her. I hate what she’s become. I hate the illness.” — Norman Bate, asked about leaving his mother
“Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly.'” — Mother
“It ought to be burned down, and the ground sowed with salt.”