Psycho is a 1960 American suspense/horror film directed by Alfred Hitchcock
starring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Janet Leigh. The screenplay is by Joseph Stefano, based on the 1959 novel Psycho by Robert Bloch loosely inspired by the crimes of Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein.
The film centers on the encounter between a secretary, Marion Crane (Leigh), who ends up at a secluded motel after embezzling money from her employer, and the motel’s disturbed owner-manager, Norman Bates (Perkins), and its aftermath.
Psycho initially received mixed reviews, but outstanding box office returns prompted reconsideration which led to four Academy Award nominations. It is now considered one of Hitchcock’s best films and praised as a work of art by some critics. Ranked among the greatest films of all time, it set a new level of acceptability for violence and deviant behavior in American films. After Hitchcock’s death in 1980, Universal Studios began producing follow-ups: three sequels, a remake, and a television movie spin-off.
In Psycho, Hitchcock subverts the romantic elements that are seen in most of his work. The film is instead ironic as it prevents “clarity and fulfillment” of romance. The past is central to the film; the main characters “struggle to understand and resolve destructive personal histories” and ultimately fail.Lesley Brill writes, “The inexorable forces of past sins and mistakes crush hopes for regeneration and present happiness.” The crushed hope is highlighted by the death of the protagonist, Marion Crane, halfway through the film. Marion is like Persephone of Greek mythology, who is abducted temporarily from the world of the living. The myth does not sustain with Marion, who dies hopelessly in her room at the Bates Motel. The room is wallpapered with floral print like Persephone’s flowers, but they are only “reflected in mirrors, as images of images—twice removed from reality”.
In the scene of Marion’s death, Brill describes the transition from the bathroom drain to Marion’s lifeless eye, “Like the eye of the amorphous sea creature at the end of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, it marks the birth of death, an emblem of final hopelessness and corruption.” Unlike heroines in Hitchcock’s other films, she does not reestablish her innocence or discover love.
The film often features shadows, mirrors, windows, and, less so, water. The shadows are present from the very first scene where the blinds make bars on Marion and Sam as they peer out the window. The stuffed birds’ shadows loom over Marion as she eats, and Norman’s mother is seen in only shadows until the very end. More subtly, back-lighting turns the rakes in the hardware store into talons above Lila’s head.
Mirrors reflect Marion as she packs, her eyes as she checks the rear-view mirror, her face in the policeman’s sunglasses, and her hands as she counts out the money in the car dealership’s bathroom. A motel window serves as a mirror by reflecting Marion and Norman together. Hitchcock shoots through Marion’s windshield and the telephone booth, when Arbogast phones Sam and Lila. The heavy downpour can be seen as foreshadowing of the shower, and it letting up can be seen as a symbol of Marion making up her mind to return to Phoenix.
There are a number of references to birds. Marion’s last name is Crane and she is from Phoenix. Norman comments that Marion eats like a bird. The motel room has pictures of birds on the wall. Brigitte Peucker also suggests that Norman’s hobby of stuffing birds literalizes the British slang expression for sex, “stuffing birds”, bird being a British slang for a desirable woman. Robert Allan suggests that Norman’s mother is his original “stuffed bird”, both in the sense of having preserved her body and the incestuous nature of Norman’s emotional bond with her.
The sex and violence in the film were unlike anything previously seen in a mainstream film. “The shower scene is both feared and desired,” wrote French film critic Serge Kaganski. “Hitchcock may be scaring his female viewers out of their wits, but he is turning his male viewers into potential rapists, since Janet Leigh has been turning men on ever since she appeared in her brassiere in the first scene.”
In his documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek remarks that Norman Bates’ mansion has three floors, paralleling the three levels of the human mind that are postulated by Freudian psychoanalysis: the top floor would be the superego, where Bates’ mother lives; the ground floor is then Bates’ ego, where he functions as an apparently normal human being; and finally, the basement would be Bates’ id. Žižek interprets Bates’ moving his mother’s corpse from top floor to basement as a symbol for the deep connection that psychoanalysis posits between superego and id.
- 10 Interesting Facts About Psycho (offtherecordontheqt.wordpress.com)
- Psycho Path: Tracing Norman Bates’ Twisted Trail Through Page and Screen Part 1 (dreadcentral.com)
- Doctor Gash’s Top 10 Greatest Horror Movies… EVER! #6 – Psycho (dreadcentral.com)
- Hitchcock (2012) (journeysinclassicfilm.com)
- Film Review | Hitchcock (theblend.ie)
- Psycho (1960) (journeysinclassicfilm.com)
- ‘Hitchcock’: Enter the world of Alfred Hitchcock (rappler.com)
- ” We all go a little mad sometimes, don’t we?” (letsputbabyinthecorner.wordpress.com)
- REVIEW: Hitchcock (comicmix.com)
- Guest Blog: Celebrate Alfred Hitchcock Day with Stephen Rebello on 6 Great Reasons Why Hitchcock Is Still the Master of Suspense (dreadcentral.com)