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How Anthony Perkins defined the cinematic psycho

American actor and director Anthony Perkins has appeared in several stellar productions over the course of his illustrious career, including works like William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion and Orson Welles’ The Trial. However, the performance that defined his career came in 1960 when he played the iconic role of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal psychological thriller Psycho.

Hitchcock’s vastly influential masterpiece has shaped popular culture’s perception of the genre for more than 60 years now, and it will probably continue to do so for a long time. With its revolutionary editing (particularly the shower scene with around 90 cuts in 45 seconds) and chilling exploration of human insanity, Psycho’s narrative accomplishments, and use of an alternate cinematic grammar, would be adopted by newer generations of filmmakers like the French New Wave artists.

Based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, the film explored the terrifying idea that “that the man next door may be a monster unsuspected even in the gossip-ridden microcosm of small-town life.” In the book, Norman Bates was portrayed as a fat, middle-aged and highly unstable man who was considered to be unsympathetic by writer Joseph Stefano. Stefano changed his mind when Hitchcock suggested Perkins for the role, realising its amazing fit.

Although Perkins had already starred in various films and Broadway productions by the time he started working on Psycho, he hadn’t really handled such a nuanced role before that. Audiences considered the actor to be handsome and sensitive, something that Hitchcock used to his own advantage in order to subvert the voyeuristic expectations. The killer next door was infinitely scarier when he looked like a normal person instead of the psychopath that Bloch described.

In an interview, Perkins explained why Hitchcock’s masterpiece is still so effective: “The realer it is, the scarier it is, which is why Psycho was so scary. It wasn’t about the supernatural. It doesn’t depend on the un-dead or the unknown or the otherworldly or the people from Mars with three heads. There’s no place to hide in Psycho. It’s all so real.”

In its list of the 10 most iconic psychopaths in cinema, the FBI included the character of Norman Bates and rightly so. Norman exists outside the limiting confines of society, an eternally transgressive character who unsettles all of us with his schizophrenic delusions and violent oscillations between different personalities (most notably his mother). The result is an extremely frightening conceptualisation of evil that insists that humans have the capacity for inciting such terror.

For his performance, Perkins was awarded the Best Actor Award from the International Board of Motion Picture Reviewers, but his real prize is his immortalisation in popular culture. Perkins borrowed from the source material but managed to make the character his own, constantly improvising and adding small details like the habit of consuming candy corn.

Due to the psychologically rich profile of the character and Perkins’ successful attempt at translating the madness to the cinematic medium, Norman Bates will continue to haunt us forever. “Well, there was one time,” he recalled. “I think I was coming home from the theatre. I was by myself, and some guys approached me, like they were about to mug me. And I said, ‘Don’t you know who I am? I’ve been giving you nightmares since you were kids!’ And they said, ‘Oh yeah. Norman Bates! Wow!’ And they left me alone.”