ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S PSYCHO
By William C. Martell
Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Vera Miles
Screenplay by Joseph Stefano based on the novel by Robert Bloch
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
After a dozen years of making beautiful color movies (mostly shot
by Robert Burks) Alfred Hitchcock returns to glorious black and
white again for this comic tale of terror. The clever opening
titles designed by Saul Bass feature converging lines and words
that split in half, giving us clues to the film that follows.
Bernard Herrmann's score in both unnerving and jaunty, the
perfect fit for a picture Hitchcock described many times as "a
After the titles we are introduced to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)
and her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) in the hotel bed where
they have spent their lunch hour. Too broke to get married, too
much in love not to sleep together every chance they get.
"I'm tired of sweating for people who aren't there," Sam tells
her. "I still have to pay off my father's debts, and he's in his
grave. I still have to pay my ex-wife's alimony, and she's
living on the other side of the world somewhere."
These are trapped lovers. Doomed lovers.
Marion dresses and goes back to her job in a real estate office
where her boss is completing a cash transaction with a handsy oil
man (Frank Albertson). Marion is asked to take the $40,000 to
the bank and deposit it immediately.
But Marion has other ideas.
$40,000 is enough for her and Sam to run away and start a new
So Marion goes home, packs her bags, and leaves.
Stealing the $40,000.
Suspense builds as she tries to get out of town... passing her
boss and the oil man on the street! They spot her. Will they
phone the police? Hitchcock puts us right in Marion's shoes,
giving us great POV shots that heighten our identification. We
WANT Marion to get away with stealing the $40,000!
One suspense scene after another as Marion is almost caught. A
policeman follows her. She switches cars... And the policeman is
watching. She takes back roads... is she being followed?
Paranoia builds. Will she get caught? Will she go to jail for
stealing the $40,000? Using "pure cinema" techniques, Hitchcock
makes us feel what Marion feels every step of the way. PSYCHO
runs 109 minutes, with two stretches of almost 20 minutes each
without a word of dialogue. Pictures tell the story, here.
Rain forces Marion to pull off the road for the night... into the
parking lot of the Bates Motel.
Norman Bates has been called the Hamlet of horror. They say that
casting is 95% of any movie's success, and Tony Perkins as Norman
is the key to PSYCHO's success. Frail, meek, un-threatening,
Perkins had played exuberant high school kids up to this point.
As Norman, he played a quiet kid trapped in the family business.
Forced to take care of his sick mother (Iris Henderson) while the
other kids had been able to go to college, or move out of
Fairvale, or get married. Norman is another trapped character...
another doomed character.
Marion and Norman seem to recognize their similarities. When
Norman asks her if she'd like to have dinner with him, she
Norman: "You eat like a bird"
Marion: (Looking at the stuffed birds in his den) "You'd know, of
Norman: "no, not really... I don't really know anything about
birds. My hobby is stuffing things. You know, taxidermy. And I
guess I'd rather stuff birds because I hate the look of beasts
when they're stuffed. You know, foxes and chimps... Only birds
look well stuffed because - well, they're passive to begin with."
Marion: It's a strange hobby. Curious.
Norman: Uncommon, too.
Marion: Oh, I imagine so!
Norman: And it's not as expensive as you might think. It's
cheap, really. You know, needles, thread, sawdust. The chemicals
are the only thing that costs anything.
Marion: A man should have a hobby.
Norman: It's more than a hobby...
Marion: Do you go out with friends?
Norman: (resigned) A boy's best friend is his mother... Where are
Marion: I'm looking for a private island.
Norman: ... I think 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 in mine.
Two trapped, lonely people, reaching out for each other. Norman
and Marion become more than just friends... she realizes that
Norman has to escape his domineering mother if he's going to
survive. She also realizes she can't run forever... that's a
trap in itself. Marion decides to return the $40,000.
It's here that Hitchcock pulls one of the most amazing stunts in
cinema history. He switches protagonists. Up to this point, we've
been involved in Marion's theft of the money... Janet Leigh has
been the star of the film. But when Marion leaves the motel
about 50 minutes into the film, we stay with Norman... Tony
Perkins becomes the star, and we follow Norman's difficulties
dealing with his domineering and hot tempered mother. Any other
director wouldn't have been able to pull off this switch, but
Hitchcock instantly immerses us in Norman's mother problems.
Again, this is where the casting of Perkins is perfect. He is so
frail looking, so innocent, that we hate his mother for making
his life hell. If they had cast a more muscular actor you would
wonder why Norman doesn't stand up to his mother. But Perkins is
so wimpy, so frightened by his own shadow, that we feel sorry
for him. We realize he can't defend himself against her, can't
stop her from ruining his life. He is doomed.
Here is an example of why Hitchcock chose to shoot this film in
black and white even though he'd shot his first color film twelve
years and thirteen films earlier: Norman is often shown in half
shadow, his face divided into light and darkness... both a man
and a silhouette at the same time. The separating Norman into
two halves, one dark and one light, Hitchcock visually shows us
the struggle within the character. This visual motif is used
throughout the Norman Bates segment of the film.
Another touch of genius are the mirrors. Characters are often
shown along with their own reflections... visually showing us the
duality of their lives. The perky Marion slips in a nooner with
her boyfriend at a hotel. She's the most competent employee in
her office, but also the one most likely to steal $40,000.
Norman is bright and friendly on the outside, but deeply troubled
underneath... almost crushed under the weight of his mother. A
truly tragic figure, and Perkins plays both sides of Norman to
perfection. Every smile conceals a frown. Every sentence has a
The Norman Bates segment walks the tightrope between tragedy and
farce. Such awful things happen to Norman due to his domineering
mother that we often don't know whether to laugh or cry.
"PSYCHO is a film made with quite a sense of amusement... it's a
fun picture!" Hitchcock said in an interview.
Part of the fun is the way the film seduces you into wishing some
really awful things would happen. There's a swell moment of
suspense where Norman is trying to cover up a crime his mother
has committed and has thrown evidence in the swamp behind the
motel. The evidence begins to sink. Then stops. Suspense
builds! You WANT the evidence to disappear! Even though
Norman's mother is a horrid person, you WANT her to get away with
her crimes. This is bizarre! First Hitchcock makes us hope
Marion will get away with stealing $40,000, then he makes us hope
Norman will be able to cover up his mother's crimes!
In a later scene where a detective (Martin Balsam) comes to the
Bates Motel, you hope Norman will keep him from finding any
evidence. You don't want Norman to get into trouble with his
mother... she'll scream at him until he cries!
About 80 minutes into the film, Hitchcock pulls off his next
miracle... He passes off the story from Norman Bates to Sam
Loomis and Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles). Now we are back to
the main story again - tracking down Marion and the missing
$40,000... Norman and his mother problems no longer concern us.
No other film in history has bounced the audience from one
protagonist to another successfully. We begin identifying with
Marion, then identify with Norman for Act 2, but in Act 3 we
identify with Marion's sister Lila. Each time we are passed to
the next character, we are thrust into their problems, scrambling
to find a way out of their little trap... a path to the private
paradise. The goals of the last character become the obstacles
for the next character to overcome.
The film's end has a very slow, very boring five minute scene
designed to tie up any lose ends. For the cleverness of the
first 103 minutes, these five minutes are unbelievably inept.
Talk, talk, talk. But look for Ted Knight from THE MARY TYLER
MOORE SHOW as a policeman in one of the final shots.
Tony Perkins would forever be thought of as Norman Bates, and
Iris Henderson (Mrs. Bates) would never be in another film.
I don't think that PSYCHO is Hitchcock's best film (that would be NOTORIOUS). In
fact, when I recently made a list of my favorite Hitchcock films, it landed
at #10 (after YOUNG AND INNOCENT). It was slow moving even in
1960 (compare it to NORTH BY NORTHWEST made the year before) and
because of its experimental multiple-protagonist structure it
doesn't seem to delve as deeply into character as VERTIGO or
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. When it was first released critics trashed
it, but it has endured the test of time. It's as strange, as
twisted, and as funny today as it was almost forty years ago.
"We all go a little mad sometimes..."