For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!
Wow, this movie. “Psycho” is nothing like what I expected, and so much more. Alfred Hitchcock is back on the list with one of the undisputed masters of cinema – for the third, but not the final time. For his earlier offerings check out the posts for “North By Northwest” and “Rear Window“. Those films I had seen before- but I went into this film having only some knowledge of the famous ‘shower scene’ in which our heroine is murdered early in the film. There was so much more.
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is absolutely spot on and so creepy. “Psycho” is genuinely upsetting and thrilling, and Perkins’ base portrayal of Bates is sweet, funny, and kind. Perkins maintains complete control over of his character. He and Hitchcock slowly unwrap the truth behind Norman, and reveal the grim present that’s at the heart of “Psycho.” Oh, so so so creepy, but amazing also.
The story begins in Phoenix, Arizona with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a likable middle-aged secretary at a real estate office. The scene opens in a hotel room where Marion is spending her lunch hour with her lover Sam (John Gavin), a divorcee who is struggling financially. They talk of marriage, but she is late for work, and dashes off. She returns to just in time before her boss comes back with a wealthy businessman, who is purchasing a home for his daughter’s wedding present with a cash payment of $40,000. Marion’s boss asks her to take the money to the bank before she goes home sick with a headache. The next scene opens on her packing to get out of town, the envelope with the cash sitting like the elephant in the room on her bed.
It seems as though Hitchcock is setting up a detective thriller, we wonder if she will get away with it- or will she have a change of heart? She is even pursued by a police officer for a while, but he doesn’t push the issue of his suspicion. Marion is exhausted from the long drive, and hampered by the torrential rain, somehow manages to get off the main highway, and stops for the safety of the Bates Motel. Marion signs into room 1 with Norman, who offers her a dinner of sandwiches and pleasant company in the office parlor, which she gladly accepts. She learns that Norman loves taxidermy and that he stuffs birds- ‘only birds.’ Some hints are dropped that something isn’t quite right, and we wonder about his mother- and her mental state. Norman snaps at Marion briefly, and this particular scene showcases two incredible performances. Leigh must shift Marion ever so slightly from paranoia and escape to remorse and reconsideration as she slowly decides to return the money, whatever the consequence. Perkins gives the viewer glimpses of a disturbed personality, while maintaining our belief that Norman, though desperately lonely, is ultimately harmless.
It is not until Marion returns to her room that we begin to see a bit into Norman’s character. As she changes into her robe for a shower, he watches her through the peephole in his office. We realize that in the second of hesitation and reconsideration that he displayed when giving her room assignment that he put her in this room for this purpose. CREEPY. It seems that his mother will have none of this new woman in Norman’s life. While Marion takes a shower, the mother descends on her- in the famous shower scene where Marion is murdered. The scene doesn’t show very much- but leaves enough to our imagination. Hitchcock doesn’t make his film gory; he makes it feel that way. It is an incredible scene – but it is sad to see Leighs’ character leave the story. It would have been nice to see her loose ends tied up.
So- less than halfway through the film we have lost our heroine, and the film takes a dramatic turn to focus on her loved ones trying to find her- namely her lover Sam, and her sister, Lila Crane (Vera Miles). Norman- the ever dutiful son, cleans up after his mother, and sinks Marion’s car and body (with the $40,000 he never found or knew about) in the nearby swamp. Soon Marion’s co-workers and loved ones have Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) snooping around- and then unfortunately he leaves the film as our body count grows by one. Again Hitchcock uses his disorienting camera angles to build tension and increase the threat to his characters. The overhead shot of the mother running to meet Arbogast on the landing and the shot of Arbogast falling down the stairs are two instantly recognizable classic shots from American film.
There are a number of twists and turns, and finally the less friendly than we thought, Norman (and his mother?) are taken into custody. As we listen to the criminal psychologist and the local sheriff (John McIntire), Hitchcock reveals what’s really going on in the story. Please watch for the surprise I won’t ruin! While they talk, Norman sits silently in his cell, determined to show everyone how docile and harmless he is, that he wouldn’t even hurt a fly.
A historically important film, a cultural giant, and a thoroughly watchable and game-changing thriller, “Psycho” is well placed on the list, and will be in my Halloween film rotation for years to come.
In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns: