PSYCHO (1960) – Paramount – Rating: ★★★★½
B&W – 109 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (Marion Crane), John Gavin (Sam Loomis), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), Martin Balsam (Milton Arbogast), Patricia Hitchcock (Caroline).
Produced by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch.
Director of Photography: John L. Russell
Edited by George Tomasini
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Titles designed by Saul Bass
Note: Because of the significance of this film in Hitchcock’s catalog, I will divide my analysis into two parts. The first is a general overview; the second will be a more detailed look at several key scenes in the movie, as well as overall techniques employed by Hitchcock. Also, in past Hitchcock movie entries I have tried to walk a fine line between review and analysis. Going forward I will focus on analysis, and presume that my audience has already seen the movie.
Everybody knows Psycho. It is part of a select group of films (e.g. Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz) that are part of the the movie-going collective consciousness, to the extent that even those who haven’t seen it almost feel as if they have. Elements of the movie have been referenced, alluded to, copied, and parodied hundreds of times in popular culture. But Alfred Hitchcock certainly did not set out to make a groundbreaking movie. Psycho was intended to be an “experiment” of sorts, one that proved to be a massive success for all involved.
Source material: The movie is based upon the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. Bloch’s novel is a well-paced, fast-moving thriller that most fans of the movie would likely enjoy. The plot structure of the movie follows the book to such a degree that the book almost reads as a movie treatment. The most significant change made by Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano relates to character, not plot. In the novel, Norman Bates is described as an overweight, middle-aged, pathetic looking man. Bates’ physical description makes him a repulsive character from the first page. For the movie, Hitchcock and Stefano made the wonderful decision that Norman Bates should be younger, more attractive, and likable. Hitchcock loved to create a sympathetic antagonist, and perhaps there is no greater example in his entire canon than that of Norman Bates. He may be one of the most sympathetic “bad guys” in all of cinema. Of course one could make the argument that Norman isn’t the villain at all; rather his mother is the true antagonist, and Norman just another one of her victims.
The “experimental” film: The word “experimental” could apply to a handful of Hitchcock’s films: certainly The Wrong Man, Rope, and Lifeboat at the very least could be classified as such. But Psycho was an experiment of a different nature, by Hitchcock’s own admission.
He had just released North by Northwest in 1959. That film was a breathtaking spectacle for the eyes, large in scope, shot in Technicolor and VistaVistion. Why follow that up with a small scale, black and white film that has very little dialogue and takes place primarily in small cluttered rooms? It is often said that Hitchcock had to make Psycho in black and white because the censors wouldn’t have allowed him to show blood in color, to the extent that he wanted to show it. That certainly was a consideration, but Alfred Hitchcock also chose to shoot in black and white (and Psycho was his last non-color film) because he used his television crew to film it. Alfred Hitchcock had the notion that he could use the technical crew from his very popular “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV show to shoot a feature film, and that they could do it in less time and with less money. This was of some significance to Hitchcock because he was also the film’s producer. Keeping costs down meant more money in his pocket. And Psycho went on to become one of the most profitable film’s of Hitchcock’s entire career. His “experiment” paid off in spades.
Themes and motifs: All of the major themes of Hitchcock’s career can be found in Psycho, making it a very representative work for that reason. The concept of guilt is very significant. Marion Crane is hounded by guilt almost from the moment she decides to flee with the money. It is only after talking to Norman Bates at the motel that she has a change of heart, and makes her plan to return the money. What a sad irony that Norman helps her come to this realization, only to kill her moments later. Norman’s guilt is of a much more profound and complex nature. He is portrayed as a victim, as much as anyone in this film, and yet he is most certainly a killer. Another major theme is the relationship between men and women. Hitchcock often portrays relationships with much more realism than was common at the time. His films show that sacrifices have to be made for relationships to succeed. Marion Crane is ready to make any sacrifice to be with Sam, but his pride gets in the way. When he remarks sardonically that she can lick the stamps when he writes his alimony checks, the love and devotion in Marion’s voice when she replies “I’ll lick the stamps” is heartbreaking. One could argue that Sam could have prevented the tragedy to come if he had merely put aside his pride and agreed to let Marion live with him.
To say that the “mother” motif shows up in this film is a major understatement. Mothers in Hitchcock’s films are often domineering and belittling of their adult male children, nowhere more so than here. Even from the grave, Mrs. Bates’ domination of her son is total. Hitchcock’s fear of the police is on display here as well. Hitchcock often portrayed law enforcement as inept, bumbling fools. Here however, the highway patrolman is played with a sense of menace, and it works very well. Some Hitchcock scholars have pointed out the many staircases that figure in his movies, and there is one that features very prominently here.
It is interesting that Hitchcock’s follow-up to this movie would be The Birds, because birds are all over in this movie. Norman’s parlor is full of his stuffed birds. He comments that Marion eats like a bird. Marion’s room at the motel has pictures of birds on the wall. Marion’s last name is Crane, a type of bird, and she is coming from Phoenix, named after the mythological bird.
Performance: The two standout performances here belong to Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. Janet’s character undergoes a lot of different emotions in her shortened screen time, and she also has several scenes where she is alone on screen, and must convey her feelings with no dialogue. She does a fantastic job of playing it low key. And Perkins portrayal of Norman Bates is one of the best acting performances in any Hitchcock film. Veteran character actor Martin Balsam is solid as always, in his portrayal of Arbogast. The one performance that doesn’t quite work is that of John Gavin, playing Sam Loomis. There is no real chemistry between Gavin and Janet Leigh in their opening scene, and he comes off as somewhat wooden. Vera Miles, who plays Marion’s sister Lila, also gives a somewhat detached performance. Miles is good, but somehow off-putting.
Promotion: For Psycho Alfred Hitchcock employed what may be the most ingenious marketing campaign in the history of motion pictures. It all grew out of his concern that word of mouth would kill the movie’s surprises, and hurt its box office chances. His first decision was not to have any advance screenings, either for critics or for a test audience. He then made the decision that nobody should be allowed to enter the theater once the movie had started. He actually made this a condition for theaters who wished to show the movie. Movie theaters were sent a ton of promotional materials from Paramount explaining the policy of no late admissions, including signs, life-size cardboard figures of Alfred Hitchcock, and vinyl albums with repeating messages recorded by Hitchcock. Here, you can listen to one of these promotional messages in its entirety.
Delivered with Hitchcock’s usual dry humor, the dialogue was written by James Allerdice, who also wrote most of Hitchcock’s dialogue for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show. Another of the recorded messages urged moviegoers not to give away the movie’s secrets to their friends.
Some theaters even hired security guards to man the lobbies, preventing late entries into the theater. Hitchcock even went so far as to tell theater owners how to show the movie. He suggested that the house lights should remain off for 30 seconds after the end credits finished. Hitchcock suggested that this would imprint the movie’s images into the viewers minds. He then suggested a very low light, ideally green, while moviegoers exited the theaters. The campaign was a huge, unparalleled success, with massive lines queued up outside theaters all over the country. Alfred Hitchcock also created one of the most unique and impressive theatrical trailers for this movie. Rather than showing clips from the movie, the trailer features Alfred Hitchcock giving a “tour” of the Psycho movie set. This highly entertaining trailer runs over 6 minutes in length, and can be seen in its entirety on the Universal blu-ray or DVD.
Recurring players: Vera Miles appeared in the film The Wrong Man.
Mort Mills, who plays the highway patrolman so well, would later appear in Torn Curtain. Frank Albertson also had an uncredited part in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Sam Flint had a small role in Strangers on a Train. Virginia Gregg had an uncredited role in Notorious. And Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia can also be seen in Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train.
Where’s Hitch: Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo comes very early in the film. At about the 7:00 mark, he can be seen standing outside the office where Marion works, wearing a cowboy hat.
Academy Awards: Psycho received four nominations: Alfred Hitchcock for best director, Janet Leigh for best supporting actress, John L. Russell for best black-and-white cinematography, and Joesph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy and George Milo for best art decoration/set decoration black-and-white. Psycho did not win in any of these categories.
What Hitch said: He told Truffaut that his main satisfaction with Psycho was that “the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting…I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this…the audiences…were aroused by pure film.”
Definitive edition: Universal’s excellent 2010 blu ray release has a treasure trove of extra features: a commentary track by Stephen Rebello, author of “Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho“; a feature-length documentary; a 10 minute segment on the new 5.1 sound mix; a 26 minute documentary featuring Martin Scorsese, Willliam Freidkin, Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, and many other filmmakers lavishing praise on Hitchcock; a 15 minute Hitchcock/Truffaut audio interview clip; an 8 minute vintage newsreel; the shower scene with and without music; Saul Bass’ storyboards for the shower sequence; posters, ads and lobby cards; production and behind-the-scene photos; original theatrical trailer and 5 short re-release trailers.
Below you can watch one of the best scenes from the movie: Arbogast questioning Norman Bates about Marion. Here are two character actors at the absolute peak of their craft, and they are a joy to watch. When the two actors completed the first take on this sequence, the crew erupted into applause! It was Anthony Perkins idea to chew on the candy corns, as was the stutter that creeps into his speech as Arbogast presses him. Notice the shot, early in the sequence, when Perkins leans in to look at the signature. The camera is underneath him, looking up at his chin. Perkins leans in, keeping his face in frame, then stands up, and the camera follows him, all in one smooth take. (Note: Universal Pictures owns all rights to this movie. If you haven’t seen it, please purchase or rent it!)