One of Those Faces You Can’t Help Believing: Anthony Perkins in 'Psycho'

Aaron Knier

The "shower scene" in Hitchcock's Psycho has become woven into our pop cultural backdrop, but it's the “dinner scene” that shines a narrow light on the character of Norman Bates.


Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin
Studio: Paramount
Year: 1960
UK Release Date: 1960-08-04
US Release Date: 1960-06-16

“We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” innkeeper Norman Bates asks on-the-lam secretary Marion Crane with a boyish grin in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, Psycho. If only she knew how mad the handsome young man was, perhaps she could have saved herself an untimely and undignified wet demise. A recurring theme used in several Hitchcock films is the notion that people aren’t always what they seem. In this particular case, Norman, whose name bears a striking resemblance to the word “normal”, is anything but. The Norman/Mother dynamic has become a part of our cinematic pop culture, but what clues does the actor, Anthony Perkins, give us to reveal the monster in the back of his mind before the final scene of bald exposition? The “dinner scene,” which directly precedes the more celebrated “shower scene,” shines a narrow light on the character of Norman who, as shaped by Perkins’ subtle body language and facial expressions, shows us more of his internal struggle to control “Mother” than is readily seen upon a cursory viewing.

Louis Giannetti tells us in Understanding Movies, “Hitchcock’s casting is often meant to deceive…sometimes [he] cast awkward, self-conscious actors in roles requiring a note of evasive anxiety.” That description almost defines Perkins’ portrayal of the young madman. Marion, initially the protagonist, is expected to survive the movie in accordance with general film convention, especially since she is played by Janet Leigh, a prominent star of the day. But this is a Hitchcock picture, after all. A director who liked to play off the expectations of his audience through clever casting, Hitchcock chose Perkins, an experienced but relatively unknown (though Academy Award-nominated) actor, for the part of Norman, with whom we genuinely sympathize as he covers up his mother’s heinous crimes, before we finally see that he has been “Mother” all along.

Beginning with Norman’s introduction to Marion, his first appearance in the film, Perkins shows us a young man running a failing motel far off the main highway. He’s shy and charming in a 1950s “aw shucks” kind of way that endears us to the character and lulls Marion, who to this point has been acting rather nervous and guilty herself, into trusting this awkward slip of a man.

At 28 minutes and 50 seconds into the film, having turned away from Marion as she signs the register, Norman’s hand hovers over the key to cabin three, then cabin two, before chancing a surreptitious glance over his shoulder to see if Marion saw his hesitation, finally taking down the key to cabin one. This momentary indecision, coupled with the glance, shows us he consciously put her into the cabin by which he could spy on her. The decision on the part of Perkins to put just the right pace to his uncertainty shows us a man trying to resist his baser, if relatively harmless, instincts. At the time, the audience does not yet know the reason.

Perkins uses the audience’s lack of advance knowledge to throw more hints our way in the short scene where Norman shows Marion her room. His seemingly silly reluctance to say “bathroom” and his repetitive looks to his right shore up the crowd’s notion that he’s just nervous being alone in a room with a woman he obviously fancies. Upon second look, though, we now know he’s looking fleetingly at the hole in the wall he’s made for just such an occasion, a liberty he takes just 14 minutes’ screentime later.

Aware of Marion’s attractiveness, but maybe just out of good manners, Norman offers to make a simple dinner for his guest so she doesn’t have to venture out in the rain again. She accepts, and after hearing a heated exchange between the reasonably spineless Norman and his loud, clear, domineering mother, invites him into her room to share the light supper he’s prepared. Perhaps due to sympathy and the diffused nervousness of hiding the money she stole, Marion subtly comes on to Norman (maybe only in his mind) when he returns with the sandwiches, leaning against the doorframe, inviting him in with her body language.

At this point, it’s important to remember that Norman is quite unbalanced mentally. Though the audience doesn’t yet know this, Perkins certainly did. He takes a step back at this moment, to show us Norman’s reticence, that the man-child is intimidated by her implied sexuality. “Mother” has already made her presence known to us in her vocal disapproval over Norman’s invitation, which in “her” mind is an explicit overture of an illicit nature. Instead, he invites her into the parlor. Here the clues begin to pile up, but Marion, due to her own guilt, fails to catch them.

Through the ensuing conversation, Leigh shows Marion becoming more comfortable as Norman becomes less so. He begins stammering (“I hear the expression ‘eats like a bird’ i-is really a fal... fal-false... falsity”) as she shows interest in his personal life, revealing he doesn’t have any friends. “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” Norman says, and the earnestness with which Perkins says it is the compelling factor. Maybe it’s just my 21st century sensibilities, but shouldn’t that have thrown up a red flag in Marion’s eyes? A grown man living off the beaten track whose only companion is his mother is strange enough, but paired with his shifty-eyed behavior is something else. They hardly ever look directly at each other for very long, which becomes very important later.
Apparantly, the disarming, goofily charming presence Perkins has infused Norman with serves to defuse that mental circuit-breaker in Marion. Soon after, Perkins throws the audience a massive clue to his dependence on “Mother,” when he tells her people never really run away from anything. At this point, Norman and Marion have shown their cards to us, but not to each other. Marion’s front of being just another traveler falls away with her glance down at her sandwich, as Norman’s dependence on “Mother” is solidified in his look up and to his right... to the house on the hill. Marion doesn’t catch Norman’s tell and he misses hers, but we see it, and Perkins and Hitchcock know we do. These decisions look calculated to us as we study the scene, but to an audience, especially a ‘50s audience, they aren’t so striking, not even the tight threading of Norman’s fingers as he talks, as though he were trying to hold something back, to hold something inside. He likes her, but “Mother” doesn’t like that.
Next, the conversation turns to “Mother herself,” and Norman’s demeanor changes. He stops fidgeting and stammering as much and he becomes more still and serious. In this, Perkins shows us a shade of “Mother,” but not so much as to alarm Marion, apparently. To this point, all the clues have been subtle: shifty eyes, uptight hands, a charming sort of shyness. However, when the conversation turns to madhouses, Norman shows us something new. Even if it doesn’t distress Marion, we see it plainly. It becomes obvious as Norman leans forward and stops blinking. He locks eyes with Marion and the Norman we’ve known to this point begins to slip away.

It becomes clear through this conscious acting decision that Norman has been a guest of one of those places and speaks from personal knowledge about the terrors of being the inmate of an asylum. We don’t know why he was there yet, but we can see something dangerous in his uncharacteristic, unwavering stare, which passes as quickly as it came, with Perkins sliding back into harmless old Norman. Soon after, Marion finally realizes something isn’t right about Norman and finds an excuse to leave. And well, we all know what happens next.

People aren’t always what they seem in our first impressions. We don’t always notice the clues that come across in real-time. An actor has the chance to take the words on a page and make a determined call about how to show us what’s happening inside the characters we watch. Every tic, every glance away is a conscious choice made by an actor or initiated by a director. Marion didn’t know what Norman was, but Anthony Perkins did, and the barely restrained repression he showed us elevated Norman Bates to the icon of cinematic madness we now know and will continue to study for another 50 years.

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