It’s hard to believe there’s anything left to say about Psycho, the most renowned horror movie of all time, but here’s a thought worth revisiting: We are all in it. (Violin shriek.)
Alfred Hitchcock’s notorious thriller is a methodically paced freakshow that takes its time shifting from one slightly off-kilter protagonist’s point of view to another, then another, and then another. Which character ends up mattering most? The one we’re never allowed to meet, of course. Rebecca flashbacks, anyone?
We begin the film rooting for, yet judging the runaway secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who has stolen money from her odious boss. Would we do that? Maybe not, but we care about the boss-screwing machinations of 9 to 5 and love Lily Tomlin’s revenge fantasy (right?!), so the arc feels righteous and valid. After 45 minutes behind Marion’s tense glance, we switch to the perspective of a twitchy innkeeper named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who finds himself in the darnedest position of having to cover up for his little-seen mother’s grisly crimes. Would we do that? Maybe not, but if we did, we might look like the naive, effete Norman nervously destroying evidence like someone who thought Unsolved Mysteries was scary enough without having to live out an episode. Following his ordeal, we tag along with a blowhard cop (Martin Balsam, the former father-in-law of George Clooney) and move on to quick-thinking amateur detectives Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and Lila Crane, Marion’s sister (Vera Miles). It climaxes horrifyingly. Our brain freezes, then a deadpan psychiatrist thaws it out slowly with a long explanation of what just happened. We thought we were in this movie, but we were so, so mistaken. Or (violin shriek, stuffed bird cackle) maybe we weren’t.
It’s Halloween. You’ve got to watch Scream, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Mannequin 2, or Psycho, and you may as well stick with the (guh-her!) mother of them all. Here are five reasons you should dig out Psycho from the swamp behind your motel — note also that these five reasons mean Psycho qualifies to be the Best. Movie. Ever.
1. Marion Crane: We didn’t really like you, but girl, you lived.
Know-it-alls pretend Marion Crane’s storyline, which stunned viewers in 1960, lasts about 15 minutes before she’s mothered to death. No, sir. This isn’t a Casey Becker situation. Marion is an active character in Psycho for the first 45 minutes, and that’s what chilling about her demise: You don’t understand what the movie is without her. Sure, there are clues that she’s toast. For starters, her boyfriend is too hot.
Then after she ditches town with a bag full of money, she makes dumb mistakes that attract the attention of a camel-faced cop. Plus — ugh — she changes out of a white bra into a black bra. I know. She may as well make herself an arsenic casserole in Norman’s pantry. The bra shift is a pretty straightforward reference to Marion’s lost innocence, as if Hitchcock is standing on the sidelines doing his best Vincent Cassel impression and purring, “But can you embody both swans, Marion? The white and the black?”
I’ve long rolled my eyes at the fact that Janet Leigh scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination while Anthony Perkins didn’t get a damn thing for Psycho, but I’ll hand it to Jamie Lee’s mom for nailing Marion’s dead-eyed commitment to theft, her resentful sense of conscience, and that altogether snide disposition. We get this woman, but we’re not sure we’re her biggest fans. Then when she’s killed, we feel even weirder for being on the fence. Like, was it nice knowing her? Not sure.
Though Marion said she planned to return the money and resume her humdrum life, Hitchcock makes it clear that it’s waaaay too late for pure white virgin blonde lady forgiveness. At this point, scrubbing away your deceit only means you’ll be murdered in the shower. My favorite psalm! See you in Halloween: H20, lady.
2. I seem to notice some violins in this movie.
Bernard Hermann’s score is arguably the most prized thing about Psycho, and that makes sense considering it’s, uh, a loud volcano of nightmares. We all know the shrieking asthma-attack violins of the shower scene, but I love when the score kicks up unexpectedly too. When Norman rushes from his house to discover Marion’s body, the scary strings are back as he ambles down the stairs. We don’t expect Martin Balsam to be greeted with a death symphony as he reaches the top step in the Bates house, but oops, he does. When Marion drives off after a tense moment with a cop? Some rumbling from Bernard gurgles forth. The score is effective not just because of its operatic drama, but because it stands in such stark contrast with the movie’s relatively dank scenes and atmospheres. You somnambulate into fatal reckoning. Holler, Bernard.
3. Let’s take a look at these two men dealing with each other. I like it.
My favorite confrontation in the whole movie is this nervous-making moment between Sam Loomis and Norman Bates. First of all, they too are performing the Black Swan. Norman is defined entirely by his combed plumage and tense innocence, which has been established in every scene leading up to this one, and Sam Loomis is defined entirely by experience, which was established at the beginning of the movie when he enjoyed a casual nooner with Marion. “When I sue my ex wife for alimony,” he tells Marion, “you can lick the stamps.” Sproing. Also: Jesus, the attractiveness of these two. Like two Truth Or Dare voguers hanging out in the funeral scene of the “Oh Father” video.
And speaking of fathers: Norman doesn’t have one, so when his weak little eyes take in the commanding darkness of this gent, we see in Norman a steadfast distrust. There’s also a hint of befuddlement, as Sam’s sexual confidence is worlds away from the Bates Motel’s libidinous void. Look at effing John Gavin. So suave and arrogant and good-looking in that well-educated Republican way. Infuriating! We’ll get to Norman’s charms momentarily, but this is the scene most worth a Queer Studies dissertation at Oberlin. And that’s why we’re here, right?
4. The shower scene — and also the two scenes that are scarier than it.
All right, all right, I love that shower scene. The knife angles, chopping noises, canted camerawork, and phantasmagoric speed decimate you. It’s flashy. If you squint, it could be the “Take On Me” video. And that spiral pull-away shot on Marion’s dead eye? Worthy of Vertigo, of course. Where’s Barbara Bel Geddes with her prying concern?
But I actually enjoy two scenes more. First, that scene with Balsam where he ascends a staircase and finds himself at the other end of a very bony woman’s knifeplay. (What if Balsam screamed, “Jesus, you’re bony!” before the knife descended? Van Sant, where were you on this one?) I’m not saying his tumble down the balustrade looked realistic, but his shock was damn real. Balsam is an Oscar-winner, children. His daughter’s on Mad Men. Deal with it.
Naturally my most favorite scene is the climax when Norman discovers Vera Miles rifling through his favorite fossils like a regular Mary Leakey. She screams, and there’s Norman to slay her in his fetching cotillion attire. This is not only an astounding reveal — the biggest in horror history — but in his glamorous getup, Norman looks like Project Runway’s Austin Scarlett. Deal with that.
I’ve spent my career at this website drumming up reasons to talk about Anthony Perkins, a.k.a. my Time Machine Husband (TM). I’ve been reluctant to talk about Psycho though, and I’ll tell you why: The combination of innocence, sensitivity, and bubbling-under cynicism that marked Tony’s Oscar-nominated work in Friendly Persuasion was forever maligned as merely “creepy” after Psycho’s release. I consider that a great loss. Perkins’ vulnerability and readable gayness enriched his performances, and he’s one of the few classic actors who (accidentally) gave us great gay roles on film, even if homosexuality wasn’t in the script or subtext. It’s bound to happen when you have a gay actor whose greatest asset is guilelessness.
Before Norman Bates is revealed as an Oedipal Mobius strip, he’s sort of just a cloistered gay dude who is willing to talk about his inability to self-realize. “I was born in [a trap]. I don’t mind it anymore,” he says to Marion, shrugging at his stymied life. He’s also fascinated by Marion’s self-motivated renaissance, noting, “You’ve never had an empty moment in your entire life, have you?” His interest in her is not sexual at all, at least in that conversation. So, in order: claustrophobia, emptiness, and sexual confusion — Hitchcock is pulling some dastardly Rope business here. That man. Nothing amused him more than closeted homosexuals in peril.
But why use words to illustrate Tony’s captivating work when pictures are so picture-y? Here are some.
Yep. The best.
Is Psycho one of your all-time favorites? Will you watch it again this year? And can you forgive my two biggest problems with the movie: the phony mother voice that isn’t an Anthony Perkins creation, and that awful deus ex machina conclusion where Norman’s psyche is painstakingly spelled out?
*An earlier version of this article appeared in October 2103