Halloween Editor’s Pick: Psycho (1960)

by on October 24, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Oct 31 at 1:00, 4:40, 8:50 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Dbl Ftr w/ OBSESSION (De Palma, 1976)


Where to begin? Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological slasher film changed the face of the movies, and it will make fine viewing on all Hallow’s Eve at Film Forum before you head out to your party. You can go as Norman Bates in drag, or maybe do an homage to Janet Leigh’s white bra vs. black bra duality if you want to get lucky. I’m assuming nobody is going to want to go to a Halloween party as Vera Miles’s Lila or John Gavin’s Sam, but trust me, there are plenty of writers who have found interesting things to say about those characters, too.


(Editor’s Note: Psycho plays in the second week of Film Forum’s “Bernard Herrmann” festival, thru November 3. Read Dan’s Alt Screen feature on the prolific film composer here.)

First, the heavy hitters…


James Harvey focuses on Janet Leigh’s quietly desperate, cash-strapped Marion Crane in his book Movie Love in the Fifties:

…she seems vulnerable from the moment the movie begins—first of all to Hitchcock’s camera, panning across the skyline of Phoenix, Arizona, and then swooping down to a window and passing through closed venetian blinds into the dingy hotel room where she has just had sex with her boyfriend, and is lying on her back on the bed, in a white bra and half-slip, gazing up at the shirtless male figure standing beside her: she is silent and he is talking. Though we don’t see his face at first (the framing cuts him off), we see her eyes looking up at him. Even her breasts in the low angle shot seem to be pointing up at him, in that almost luminous white bra. She never touched her lunch, he says—and Hitchcock gives us a close-up of the lunch tray.


..about Marion, there’s something disturbing altogether. Partly it’s that music—a soft, slow pulsing of strings—whenever she is alone on the screen. And from the start—in these hotel room scenes and after that at her office—the film gives us the uneasy feeling of some urgency about her that we are not quite understanding yet: the way the shots and framings make her smallest choices (like that uneaten lunch tray) seem somehow momentous.


But Raymond Durgnat finds some significance in the small details:

Food. Pointless, narrative-wise, is a quick shot of the sandwich Marion forgot, amidst a mucky litter of a meal. It’s an ‘atmosphere’ shot; almost, indeed, a metaphor, an emblem, for lunch-hour love as . . . fast food. (It’s punched in, its visual mess half-snags our eye, and it’s whisked off. The ‘double jolt’ and drastic speed contrast with the traditional idea, that symbolic details should hang about on-screen, to ‘sink in’.)


Appetite and Forgetfulness. Marion only nibbled at this food, but looks forward to a respectable family meal. Sam gleefully spots she forgot to eat; she reminds him he’s still barefoot. He’s scoring a sexual point: ‘I make you forget yourself.’ He’s scoring a childishness point.



Robin Wood describes what Marion finds at her office in his life-enhancing masterpiece Hitchcock’s Films:

The man with the money—Cassidy—is a vulgar, drunken oaf; he has plenty more; his boast that he “buys off unhappiness,” that his about-to-be-married “baby” has “never had an unhappy day,” fills us with a sense of unfairness even as we realize how far his boast probably is from the truth: whatever he is, Cassidy does not strike me as a happy man.


The whole fabric of the film is interwoven with these parent-child references: even Marion’s fellow office girl has a prying mother, and Marion’s room is decorated with family photographs which look down on her as she packs. Cassidy’s relationship with his “baby” takes us a step into the abnormal, because it is highly suspect: she will probably be better without the $40,000 house, which is clearly a symbol of her father’s power over her. That Marion will also be better without it is a reflection we do not allow ourselves, any more than she does. By minimizing our opposition to the notion of stealing $40,000, Hitchcock makes it possible for us to continue to identify with Marion, involving ourselves in her guilt as easily and unthinkingly as she herself becomes involved.


For Harvey, Hitch’s attention on Marion feels “obsessive”:

We are immersed in all the inflections and details of her behavior in these opening and even later scenes. Of course, you recognize a genre characteristic in all this; in a conventional thriller any detail or minor circumstance may be either a clue to a puzzle or a signal of danger. But in Psycho there is no puzzle and the danger is everywhere at once. The details feel ominous but we don’t know why.


Of course, Bosley Crowther in his vintage New York Times review saw this ominous detail rather differently:

You had better have a pretty strong stomach and be prepared for a couple of grisly shocks when you go to see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” which a great many people are sure to do. For Mr. Hitchcock, an old hand at frightening people, comes at you with a club in this frankly intended blood-curdler.


There is not an abundance of subtlety or the lately familiar Hitchcock bent toward significant and colorful scenery in this obviously low-budget job. With a minimum of complication, it gets off to a black-and-white start with the arrival of a fugitive girl with a stolen bankroll at an eerie motel.


Well, perhaps it doesn’t get her there too swiftly. That’s another little thing about this film. It does seem slowly paced for Mr. Hitchcock and given over to a lot of small detail. But when it does get her to the motel and apparently settled for the night, it turns out this isolated haven is, indeed, a haunted house.


Wood again:

The confrontation of Marion and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is in some ways the core of the film: the parallel made between them provides the continuity that underlies the brutal disruption when Marion is murdered. It is part of the essence of the film to make us feel the continuity between the normal and the abnormal: between the compulsive behavior of Marion and the psychotic behavior of Norman Bates. In the “parlor” behind his office, surrounded by Norman’s stuffed birds and paintings of classical rapes, they talk about “traps.” Marion is brought face to face with the logical extension of her present condition. Norman tells her, “We’re all in our private trap. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it we never budge an inch”: he is defining the psychotic state, the condition of permanent anguish whence development becomes impossible, a psychological hell. The parallel between the two is clinched when Norman says to her, “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” It is her perception of Norman’s condition that gives Marion her chance of salvation, which she takes. In answer to his question, she says, “Sometimes just one time can be enough. Thank you.” She decides to return the money the next morning. The decision this time is clearly made: she has regained her freedom of will, her power of rationality. The scene prepares us for the transference of our interest from Marion to Norman. We see Marion under the shower, and her movements have an almost ritualistic quality; her face expresses the relief of washing away her guilt.


But, alas, Marion’s blood is soon headed down the drain along with her guilt:


Hitch told composer Bernard Herrmann that he didn’t want music under the shower scene, but he relented once he heard Herrmann’s intensifying score for it. For comparison, here’s the shower scene with and without music. In some ways, it seems to me that it’s even more horrible without the music. View the comparison here.


Here’s how her death is described in Robert Bloch’s original novel, where Marion is called Mary:

Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.


In her essay “Fear of Movies,” Pauline Kael describes the generation-defining power of this scene:

One film has shocked me in a way that made me feel it was a borderline case of immorality—Hitchcock’s Psycho, which, because of the director’s cheerful complicity with the killer, had a sadistic glee that I couldn’t quite deal with. It was hard to laugh at the joke after having been put in the position of being stabbed to death in the motel shower. The shock stayed with me to the degree that I remember it whenever I’m in a motel shower. Doesn’t everybody?


In the famous trailer, showman Hitch in publicity mode tells us that it’s all just in good fun:


In Citadel Press’s The Complete Films of Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins says:

Not many people know this, but I was in New York rehearsing for a play when the shower scene was filmed in Hollywood. It is rather strange to go through life being identified with this sequence knowing it was my double. Actually, the first time I saw Psycho and that shower scene was at the studio. I found it really scary. I was just as frightened as everybody else.


Janet Leigh says:

Every time Psycho is shown on TV today I get piles of crank mail, some of it threatening real harm. Some of the letters demand money. But the ones that are really terrifying are the ones that threaten me with the horrid death I had in the shower scene. We used a stand-in for that scene, as it happens. The crank letters didn’t start until the film was put into TV distribution. Now Psycho is shown on TV stations about 25 times a year—and every time I get those threatening letters. They are given over to the FBI. I should be used to the letters by now, but I’m not. I didn’t get scared by the shower scene, but these cranks could haunt me for the rest of my life.


And then there’s what comes after the shower scene. Here’s film professor and passionate Hitchcock scholar Richard Allen discussing the film’s transition point to Norman’s point of view with its screenwriter, Joseph Stefano:

RA: One question I had while looking at your scripts for the film: there are a number of places in the film, as you know, where there isn’t any dialogue, especially after the murder. There’s nobody to talk to. And in the film we see Norman cleaning up the mess in the bathroom. In the script you describe this sequence in some detail. Are the descriptions in the script the result of conversations with Hitchcock about how he planned to film this? How did they arise? Some things are in there and some things aren’t. For example, the fantastic camera movement which ends the shower sequence, when we see the water going down the plug hole and then Hitchcock moves away from Marion’s eyes, is not written down, but there are a lot of other things which are written down, including camera movement. I just wondered how it all came about.


JS: What I did discuss with Hitch was that we needed time. The audience had just been cut off from a person they’ve been following for the whole first part of the movie, and suddenly she’s dead. Now what do you do? I felt that we needed the audience to shift their allegiance to Norman, and one of the ways I felt we could accomplish that was by making Norman extremely sympathetic. First of all, the Norman Bates in the book was not at all like Tony Perkins.


RA: He was a fat alcoholic.


JS: Yeah. So making him a sympathetic and likable young man who then has to clean up after his mother, after his mother’s homicidal rage of killing this girl in the shower, makes sense. The main thing it did was keep you from suspecting that Norman had done the murder, or anyway from thinking it wasn’t Mother who did it. Secondly, it was to give you time to really digest the thought: this could be any of us. We could all have a mad mother who kills somebody and leaves us to clean up the mess, because we don’t want her arrested, we don’t want her to be put in a madhouse. And it seems that one of the most sympathetic things would be that he has to clean up all that blood, all that mess, and get rid of the clothes, get rid of every sign that Mother had been there. I felt that if it’s too long in the script, you could just shorten it. I don’t mean that I would have shortened it, but I felt that if Hitch thought it was too long, he could just cut it shorter. But he didn’t. He went along with the whole thing. You know, it was a wonderful sequence. To me, what the audience was going through was getting over Marion and jumping on to Norman, to the extent, which surprised even me, that when the car kind of stops when it’s going down in the swamp, the audience is relieved when it does continue to go down. I thought: you know, a reel ago, you were upset because you were afraid she might get arrested. But now we’re saying, good, good, get that car under there. We like this guy. That made me feel very good.



In Francois Truffaut’s seminal interview book with Hitch, they discuss the reversals in the film:

A.H.: You know that the public always likes to be one jump ahead of the story; they like to feel they know what’s coming next. So you deliberately play upon this fact to control their thoughts. The more we go into the details of the girl’s journey, the more the audience becomes absorbed in her flight. That’s why so much is made of the motorcycle cop and the change of cars. When Anthony Perkins tells the girl of his life in the motel, and they exchange views, you still play upon the girl’s problem. It seems as if she’s decided to go back to Phoenix and give the money back, and it’s possible that the public anticipates by thinking, “Ah, this young man is influencing her to change her mind.” You turn the viewer in one direction and then in another; you keep him as far as possible from what’s actually going to happen.


In the average production, Janet Leigh would have been given the other role. She would have played the sister who’s investigating. It’s rather unusual to kill the star in the first third of the film. I purposely killed the star so as to make the killing even more unexpected. As a matter of fact, that’s why I insisted that the audiences be kept out of the theaters once the picture had started, because the late-comers would have been waiting to see Janet Leigh after she has disappeared from the screen action. Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ.


F.T. I admired that picture enormously, but I felt a letdown during the two scenes with the sheriff.


A.H. The sheriff’s intervention comes under the heading of what we have discussed many times before: “Why don’t they go to the police?” I’ve always replied, “They don’t go to the police because it’s dull.” Here is a perfect example of what happens when they go to the police.

Here’s Hitch talking about the second of the film’s murders, of the detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam):


Hitch explains the technical side of the Arbogast murder to Truffaut:

F.T. I was rather intrigued by that fall backward. He doesn’t actually fall. His feet aren’t shown, but the feeling one gets is that he’s going down the stairs backward, brushing each step with the tip of his foot, like a dancer.

A.H. That’s the impression we were after. Do you know how we got that?


F.T. I realize you wanted to stretch out the action, but I don’t know how you did it.


A.H. We did it by process. First I did a separate dolly shot down the stairway, without the man. Then we sat him in a special chair in which he was in a fixed position in front of the transparency screen showing the stairs. Then we shot the chair, and Arbogast simply threw his arms up, waving them as if he’d lost his balance.


Durgnat sees some similarity between Gavin’s Sam and Norman Bates:

If sensed, the similarity of Sam and Norman might suggest the currently fashionable idea that as (R.D.) Laing used to say, sanity in our society is just another form of madness, and that Sam, Norman and the normative spectator are three of a kind – all ‘Guilty! Guilty! Guilty’ (to cite The Phantom Tollbooth). Hitchcock would, I am sure, agree – but he might also insist that the similarities between sanity and madness don’t abolish the differences. In which Hitchcock would include the ‘conservative, reactionary’ defenses – sexual taboos and repressions, prudent fears of punishment and of ruining one’s life, including even the need to be hypocritical (because we live in society). Sam’s ambivalence and unconscious cruelty to Marion are radically, systemically and forever alien to Norman’s.


First prize for Critical Posterity Embarrassment goes to Peter John Dyer, who wrote in the autumn 1960 Sight and Sound:

…it is a very minor work. Hitchcock is not a serious director (except in his worst films)…[Psycho has] an unacceptable basic premise.


From 1928 to 1960, Caroline Alice (C.A.) Lejeune was the film critic for The Observer. She walked out on Psycho, refused to review it, and quit her long-time job.

Let’s agree to forget that the film was remade supposedly shot-for-shot in the 1990s; the only thing worth saving from that film is a stray shot of Viggo Mortensen in the first motel scene. It is also good to forget that Perkins made a later career playing Norman Bates, to diminishing returns, in several film sequels.

Hitch might have been tickled by this video that squishes the whole film into 24 seconds.


Here’s an intriguing video essay about the film, which also links Norman and Sam, by Rob Ager:


And finally, here’s the last scene, where Norman’s head turns ever-so-briefly into a skull:

Compiled by Dan Callahan

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