So, $40,000, a pretty young woman, and a vulnerable man psychologically dominated by his own mother? Simple, unorthodox, brilliant.
In 1960 Alfred Hitchcock created a cinematic masterpiece, opposing all advice and direction he was adamant that Psycho, based on the book by Robert Bloch, would be his next film, a risk following the staggering success of his previous work, North by Northwest.
This particular picture from the film industry’s one and only master of suspense took what were then viewed as obscene risks, using alternative techniques and visuals in order to make his film as intriguing and eye-catching as possible; a few of these techniques however, baffled the contemporary audience.
The first introduction of a toilet in an American film for example, caused confusion and controversy, along with the suggestive nudity of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in that oh so famous shower scene we all know and love. Psycho is swimming in the brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock, a sheer masterpiece that has redefined the horror genre until this very day.
Psycho kicks off in Phoenix, Arizona, with Marion Crane accompanied by her lover Sam Loomis, (John Gavin) in their hotel room. As she rushes back to work following a lunch break with her secretive romance, she is handed $40,000 from her boss and asked to cash it at the bank. Impulsively, albeit misguidedly, Crane takes the opportunity to flee Phoenix and head for Sam’s store in California, spotting the opportunity to start a new life. Thwarted by the weather, she stops off at ‘Bates Motel’, a seemingly abandoned yet harmless looking place a short distance off the main highway. Innocently greeted by owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), we watch intently as the greatest horror film unfolds before our very own eyes.
Perkins’ performance in this film is one of the key aspects that render it a ‘timeless classic’. Innocent yet so brutal, confused and so alone, Bates comforts Marion by providing her with a bed, shelter and an ever so affectionate plate of sandwiches to make her feel at home. Admittedly they warm to each other, teasing the audience into one of Hitchcock’s typical romances, yet the cracks begin to show as he begins to unravel the relationship with his dominant mother; how he is “trapped, and can’t get out.”
Tired from her journey and slightly shocked by this ‘stranger’s’ willingness to unravel his most sensitive issues, Crane heads back to her room, monitored by the watchful eye of Norman through the hole in the wall as the raging sociopathic urges arise from inside him.
The scene to follow is one that shocked the world, with Hitchcock putting his entire reputation on the line in order to create a shock value that trumped any previous attempt to frighten the audience. Through the watchful eye of Norman, described at the time as ‘Peeping Tom’ behaviour, Marion undressed and steps into the shower. Hitchcock’s clever use of cinematography ensures that we do not see the actress nude, the shots are only a suggestion of nudity leaving the audience and their imagination to fill in the gaps—a somewhat fragile claim that the producers overlooked. And then finally, accompanied by the slashing tones of Bernard Herrmann, the actress is stabbed to death by a dark, ominous figure.
Elegantly done, Hitchcock shot the film in black and white (not only because of its small budget) but because he thought the audience would not be able to stand the amount of blood that appears on screen in colour—very considerate, don’t you think?
Admittedly the story doesn’t end there. Bates kills once again before imminently getting caught by the police, however I think it is fair to say this film will not be remembered for its short-lived climax, but for the iconic bathroom scene—the legacy of which will live on in the minds of movie fans forever more.
Psycho would pale in comparison to the gore, violence and mutilation seen today but that’s what Hitchcock is all about. He is the master of subtlety and his use of suggestion and subversion shows the audience that the innocence of the eventual murderer is scariest thing of all.
All images via Cinephilia and Beyond and courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Source: Cinephilia and Beyond