One of Those Faces You Can’t Help Believing: Anthony Perkins in 'Psycho'
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.
PsychoDirector: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin
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.
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.
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.
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.