(Editor's Note: This is part one of "Psycho-thon." Stay tuned.)
Writing About Psycho is a Losing Proposition
This is going to be an extremely daunting task for yours truly. Why?
Psycho is a film with an enormous amount of cultural baggage. This is a bonafide classic that we are dealing with here, after all. I can’t help but wonder, though, if people have forgotten why the movie is deemed “important.”
I’m not here to argue about Psycho’s place in film history. I’m not going to try to convince youngsters in the audience that Psycho is “that scary.” (I find it far more unsettling than scary, but we’ll get to that.) I’m not even going to advocate for the sheer mastery of the shower scene.
There is so much ink spilt over Psycho that it outweighs Marion’s blood in the bathtub. I’m not here to add to the criticism or confusion; you’re more than welcome to disregard most of what I have to say.
I’m writing this is to tell you why I have always loved Psycho.
I will start with my humble opinion: No one ever talks about what Psycho is truly about from a thematic standpoint. Am I going to convince anyone that the story of a secretary getting slashed up is deceptively complex?
No, but I’m going to go out swinging.
Let’s Start off by Doing the Impossible.
Everyone knows that Hitchcock was an entertainment specialist. His movies are still effortlessly watchable, and some of them have unexpected (or unintentional) emotional depths. William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist) once said that aspiring filmmakers shouldn’t even bother going to UCLA. They should just watch Hitchcock and learn from him.
Watching Alfred Hitchcock movies at a young age is one of the reasons I got hooked on film. I would be doing my “film geek” cred a massive disservice if I labeled him “overrated.” There are people who do that, and it’s almost like committing a form of sacrilege.
So what is there to do if I’m not lecturing about Hitchcock’s flawless editing or shot composition?
I’m going to put my emphasis on the story, with a special eye to the script by Joseph Stefano.
Here are a few things that happen in Psycho:
- Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a relatively decent woman, makes a horrible decision when she steals $40,000. She betrays everyone’s trust (family, her boss, even her boyfriend by making him guilty through association). She does this in a moment of profound weakness, and (by movie logic) seals her fate. (The role of fate plays a big part in Psycho. This might seem like a flimsy argument for the moment, but stay with me.)
- Every major character in Psycho is living with a vast amount of grief. There is the necessary acceptance of unexpected tragedy (by Marion’s sister Lila, played by Vera Miles). There is the ancient ghosts of family damage and mental illness (this pertains to Norman). There is the unfortunate fact of intense uncertainty (the private detective Arbogast, played by Martin Balsam, knows “something just isn’t right.”) One of my favorite movie conventions, unrequited love, is personified by Marion’s lover Sam (played by John Gavin). Just as his divorce is final, the future love of his life is rendered unavailable by way of a butcher knife. This is a deeply sad movie that we are watching.
- Let’s get back to Marion: No, I’m still not going to touch the shower scene (we all know she ends up hacked to death.) She has her “honest moment” far too late, after Norman’s actions are set in motion. She desperately wants to atone by returning the money and offering a confession. Her fatal mistake is that she thinks that is an action that can wait until the morning. (Remember what I said about fate earlier? Here it is again, in all its brutal glory.)
I’ve watched Psycho for years...wondering what is really underneath the conventional “thriller” plot.
Here’s a (bad pun intended) stab at an explanation. First, let’s back track and talk about my personal favorite scene.
The Scene No One Talks About
There’s a phrase one of my screenwriting professors gave me: a “shoe leather” scene. That is essentially a scene which bridges the expositional gap between more important events. There isn’t much that happens, but it’s so pivotal and essential that it’s easy to over look. (An example? The scenes in which Jack Nicholson drives his family to the hotel in The Shining).
Psycho has one of the all time great “shoe leather” scenes: the scene in which Marion has sandwiches and milk in Norman’s parlor. The fascination for me here is less in the action, and more in what these two strangers decide to talk about. Remember, it’s all about “personal traps?” The inevitability of having tragic circumstances in life. Norman drops two of his signature phrases in this scene. The first one is: “We all go a little mad sometimes,” and the even greater classic “A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
I don’t have to beat you over the head with my point. This is, of course, foreshadowing for the rest of the events that are so eerily played out. We’re back to dealing with fate (which is so important that it requires repeated italics).
I wonder if people who are interested in film (historians, critics, students) have ever talked about how it feels to watch Psycho. I’ll name out my emotional monsters the movie always invokes: dread, paranoia, and guilt.
I feel like what makes Psycho truly upsetting is the way Hitchcock reinvents the ordinary. The hardware stores, cheap motels, used car lots and empty highways take on a completely new look in stark black and white. They become menacing in ways that they might not be if you came across them outside of the movie’s world.
Everything in Psycho is oddly inevitable. This shit happens, to “normal” people, on a daily basis. The world is much riskier than an average Joe (or Jane) wants to deal with. (Seen the local news lately? Have fun counting the murder reports!)
I said I wasn’t touching the shower scene, but I will talk about the aftermath. The great thing about Marion Crane as a homicide victim is that she is easy to clean up after. The white of the tiles and tub are back in no time once Norman takes the mop to them.
What makes this bitter pill even harder to swallow?
There’s No Shame in Liking Norman Bates...I Do.
Norman (so well played by Anthony Perkins) is one of the great tragic figures in all of cinema. The other implication of the scene in the parlor is that it plants the seed of empathy (that’s right, more italics.) Norman is just a repressed Mama’s boy; cheating himself out of a life more suited to a guy with his age and abilities. He can’t “break free” from his “personal trap,” and is almost blind to the horror of his own situation.
That all holds true, even after the full picture is revealed. He is suffering from insanity, but is a reminder to us that it’s part of the human condition. Remember: “We all go a little mad sometimes.”
Without Norman, there would be no Travis Bickle, Hannibal Lector, or Dexter Morgan. He’s the forefather of the lineage of empathetic killers that are now common place.
One more final thought before I leave you.
“What’s with the psychologist?”
That is an often asked question by generations of audiences. Remember that long winded blowhard of a psychologist’s “explanation?” “Norman is Mrs. Bates...” What’s the deal with that?
I think it’s one last dirty joke from Hitchcock. The audiences in 1960 might have needed the explanation of taboo subjects like transvestism (but just barely, I would imagine). The scene doesn’t add much from a dramatic stand point. However, it does accomplish the task of rubbing our noses in the dirt.
We just enjoyed sitting through a terrible story about murder, incest, and greed. Now here’s a painful reminder of why we are all naughty children.
That is at least my take on it.