I teach Psycho almost every year in my introduction to film classes, even though it is not my favorite Hitchcock film, and, as you can read elsewhere in this series, I don’t think it’s truly characteristic of Hitchcock’s long career in the movies. I teach Psycho because it is interesting, and because it is showy! You take any two-minute sequence from this film and ask students to write a shot-by-shot breakdown of its structure, noticing things like the lighting, mise-en-scene, editing, costume, use of music, performance, and framing, and they will come up with something intriguing, new to them and often new to me. Cultural aura aside, looking at this film in detail pays off. Psycho may not be subtle, but it is deeply satisfying.
Consider, for example, the wicked perfection of the first scenes, in which a nosy camera pans around the skyline of Phoenix Arizona, and then enters a hotel bedroom window, circles the room, and settles on a half dressed couple: Sam Loomis (John Gavin) is standing next to the bed, wearing dark pants and no shirt, and Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is lying on the bed at an angle, in white bra and slip. “You never did finish your lunch,” Sam says, and the camera cuts away to a quick shot of her sandwich and drink on the bedside table. An easy continuity shot, we think, and in his long close analysis of Psycho Raymond Durgnat calls the shot “pointless” or at most “atmosphere”. And yet, when a student of mine focused on this cutaway she discovered that it has a similar formal structure as the previous shots of the couple, with a dark lean vertical figure over a white horizontal figure at an angle. The point of view perspective isn’t a perfect match, but the people and the lunch have similar framing. Why? Because these people had each other for lunch. When Marion next delivers my favorite line in the film—“These extended lunch hours give my boss excess acid”—we can hear the word “sex” twice in the phrase, hiding in “these extended” and “boss excess”. The latter phrase even employs the word as an aural palindrome! Someone clearly had a lot of fun writing this film, and a lot of fun shooting it.
This sense of crafted, meaningful, dense cinematic representation, in which puns live up to their implications and images reveal and obscure at the same time, continues throughout the first part of the film. Sam and Marion can’t afford to marry, and Marion is tired of meeting in hotel rooms, longing for a sit-down dinner and respectability instead. She returns to her office only to be confronted by the luxuries of other people’s lives: “I’m buying this house for my baby’s wedding present,” the rich client in the cowboy hat tells her. “Forty thousand dollars, cash! Now, that’s not buying happiness. That’s just buying off unhappiness.” Provoked by his flirty arrogance, Marion goes home with a headache, promising to drop off the cash at the bank on her way. But… she packs a suitcase instead and drives off to Fairvale California, to find Sam and restart their life.
The scenes of Marion driving through the day and night are strangely alive despite their minimalism, a showoff display of what makes a character and a performance tick. She spends the first night on the side of the road, is awakened by an iconically startling policeman in dark sunglasses, and decides to trade her car for one with California license plates. She drives on into pouring rain and, finally exhausted, decides to stop somewhere safe for the night, becoming the first and last person in film history to think the “Bates Motel” a safe haven. And here we are introduced to another instance of how lives intersect. Norman Bates (in a magnificent and subtle performance by Anthony Perkins) is a shy young man, adorable in his eagerness to please and clearly oppressed by his domineering mother and meager opportunities. He shows her a room, makes her a sandwich, discusses his hobby of taxidermy, and reminds her that sometimes people are entrapped by their circumstances.
It is such a bitter irony that Marion is killed brutally in the shower of her room just after she has decided to turn around and head back to Phoenix, return the money and get out of the trap she stepped in. We only see the outline of the murderer, a woman’s outline that we identify implicitly from Norman’s subsequent cries of “Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!” Norman cleans up the bathroom, wraps Marion’s nude body in the shower curtain, places her, the suitcase, and the money in the trunk of her car, and sinks the car in a tar pit. There goes our star, our character, and our story. Now what?
Hitchcock used to say that audiences often don’t remember much of the second part of the film, and this bears out in my experience teaching it. The details of Marion’s story are imprinted in viewers’ minds, partly because they are designed to be memorable. They are intended to be mined for clues. After her murder the film becomes looser, less dense, the language less pun-infested, the cinematography less pointed. Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles), and private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) arrive at Fairvale, and join forces with Sam to find out what happened to Marion. Arbogast questions Norman and tries to question Mother, but is brutally killed by her in an unexpectedly intense scene on the staircase of the Bates house. The relationship between the Victorian house and the rambling motel building becomes intensified, as now each structure holds different promises of danger. Norman grows much more ominous as time goes by, while Lila and Sam still think they are solving a mystery.
The final sections of the film include not one or two but three resolutions: Lila searches the Bates house while Sam detains Norman, and finds that Mother is a mummified corpse hidden in the cellar. Norman rushes in to kill Lila dressed in Mother’s old-fashioned housedress and an ill-fitting wig. So it was Norman who killed Marion and Arbogast after all. But wait, the police psychiatrist explains: it was Mother inside Norman, the identity he absorbed in order to animate the corpse that would not relate to him any more. In a calm authoritative voice that contemporary audiences sometimes find funny or campy, the psychiatrist describes the split in Norman’s psyche, and we get a direct glimpse of Norman in the holding cell. He sits still as the Mother’s voice describes what she has done, how she has explained everything to the police, exonerating herself and blaming Norman for the murders. In the last shot of the film Norman and Mother appear to be co-present on his face, as a faint skull looks at us through his ominous dark eyes.
The film was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, inspired by the true gruesome story of serial killer Ed Gein. In addition to being one of the most iconic, most famous films ever made, Psycho was an incredible success for Hitchcock, who shot it quickly, in black and white, and using his TV crew. The confidence of the actual film is palpable, the result of honed textual and narrative practices of a seasoned director and a professional cast and crew. We may be in the proverbial dark about what is going on for most of the movie, but the film is fine-tuned, sure-footed, assertive in the effects it wants to create, its timing, and the kinds of densities required of both mystery and horror generic structures. If the film heralds the success of horror films, B movies, slasher films, and teen flicks that traffic in unnamed dread, its pedigree is in the classic Hollywood studio picture, in film noir, the detective film, and the classic melodrama. Hitchcock pays close attention to characterization, motivation, and sequence, even as he eagerly replaces these solid pleasures for what seems to be a wild and strange ride into the unknown. Not subtle, but really fun.