Beginner’s Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Psycho (1960)
What is Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film? Psycho is an easy candidate. The 1960 film changed filmmaking forever, codifying many elements of the slasher horror genre, and frightening audiences for generations. Psycho has been parodied, paid homage to, and referenced by modern directors enough that perhaps its initial shocks and surprises are dulled. Even so, the film is beautifully effective and still plays its tricks with murderous glee. Alfred Hitchcock was a sneaky bastard throughout his career, but Psycho is another beast. Hitchcock had to fight for this film to be made, and put his entire career on the line. Psycho was a stunning departure from his more glamorous 1950s period. It was made on the cheap, using a TV crew, and actors with little star power. Well, all except one: the great Janet Leigh as the poor, unfortunate Marion Crane—a high ranking favorite Hitchcock character for me.
Sometimes when people talk about Psycho they shorten the length of screen time that Marion occupies before her untimely death. And, it is not hard to see why. Marion’s death is ostensibly the most well-known scene in the film; the “shower scene” is one of the most classic onscreen murders. Janet Leigh was the biggest star in the film in an atypical role. Hitchcock deliberately cast a marquee name so that her death is a major twist. Memory can fast forward through the first half of the film because the “shower scene” is so ingrained into our collective brains.
Marion Crane, however, completely dominates the first half of the film. Hitchcock accounts for almost every second of the time we spend with Marion. The film starts with a title card, telling the audience the exact location, the exact date, and the exact time. Starting from there we follow Marion for close to 36 hours—and we experience every moment of this period. The structure of the first half is really striking. Marion starts in a hotel, then to work, then to her home. She goes on the run, sleeping on the side of the road, trading in her car, going to the bathroom to count the money, and then drives again, landing at Bates Motel. In the car, she imagines the fallout to her leaving—Leigh’s face displaying varied emotions in tight close up. With Marion as the driving force of the narrative, Hitchcock is invisibly setting up her death so that we really feel her absence.
This is one of the changes that Hitchcock made in his adaptation of the novel by Robert Bloch. Joseph Stefano wrote the screenplay, but it’s well documented how much control Hitchcock had over his films. The novel begins with Norman Bates (here played by Anthony Perkins). I haven’t read the book but opening the film with Marion gives her more agency. She’s not just a victim, but a whole character. Marion experiences an entire arc—first committing embezzlement for love, then resolving to face the consequences.
Some critics have interpreted Marion’s murder as Hitchcock punishing her for the crime—and perhaps for carrying a secret, sexual romance with Sam Loomis (John Gavin). I don’t agree with the “punishment” interpretation, because Hitchcock does show Marion deciding to return the money. Hitchcock doesn’t really care about the money; poor Marion was just a lost soul in the wrong place at the wrong time. That Marion commits a crime for love, but is murdered for a separate reason, is cruel and ironic. I don’t think Hitchcock wants us to believe that Marion deserved to die.
Cruel irony is one of Psycho’s greatest powers as a film. A policeman tells Marion to stay in a hotel for safety. The hotly pursued $40,000 is thrown in the trunk of a car that is sent to the bottom of a swamp. Sam decides to marry Marion after all but minutes after her death. Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) knows something is wrong, but she couldn’t even imagine what she’s stumbling into. Private dick Arbogast (Martin Basalm) is killed right before he solves the case. The setup allows for a common thriller plot—girl on the run with stolen money—to get sucked into a far more horrifying and sinister narrative. Marion, her sister, her boyfriend, the private eye—they are all characters who don’t quite know what movie they are in. They are following the rules of a more conventional film but Hitch done changed the game.
I haven’t talked much about Norman Bates, but what more can I say that hasn't been said before? Norman is a horror icon, a character that both catapulted Anthony Perkins’ career and ruined it. Norman is an interesting character, and Hitchcock pulls off a protagonist switch by getting the audience to sympathize with the character who just killed our previous protagonist. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking and Hitchcock once again exerts complete control over his film and the people watching it.
Psycho does feature some amazing sequences after the shower scene. Arbogast’s murder is uniquely designed. And, there’s a beautifully blocked scene where Sam and Lila talk to a police sheriff at his home; Hitchcock keeps the sheriff’s old wife in the frame at all times as a subtle reminder of Norma Bates. The film’s legacy is wide reaching. From Bernard Herrmann’s instantly recognizable score to Saul Bass’s opening credits, the film made a permanent mark on cinema history. The film still fascinates audiences enough to sustain a drama series on A&E for five seasons (the wonderful Bates Motel). Alfred Hitchcock directed Psycho with a cutting precision, playing jokes both on the characters and the audience. Sometimes we’re in on the joke, but mostly we’re not.