*IF YOU’VE NEVER SEEN “PSYCHO”, READ NO FURTHER! THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!*
Had to get that out of the way, because it’s pretty much impossible to write a meaningful essay about Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, “Psycho” without spoilers. I grew up with this movie; probably first saw it sometime before my teen years, but always on television. I was born about a decade or so too late to experience it theatrically, so I never really thought of it as a theatrical release. It always fit comfortably on a TV-sized screen (when I was a kid, that was about 25”/64 cm). Still scared the hell out of me, of course, but it was a ‘comfortable’ sort of scary. My sisters and I watched the film countless times, and I’ve pretty much committed every line to memory (“Commit myself? You sure talk like a policeman”), but for this rewatch, I decided to set up my recently acquired digital projector and 80” pullout screen in my completely darkened home office for something a bit closer to an authentic theatrical experience. Under these circumstances, this now sixty year old film really came alive for me…
Forget what Yoda said; size does matter. Part of the power of watching movies on a bigger screen (or digital projection) is that you are completely enveloped in the story. With darkness all around, your attention is focused away from self and surroundings. It’s like being inside of someone else’s dream. Black and white movies also hold a special power as well; their starkness and silvery tones highlight emotion and character interplay. The bigger these black and white characters appear, the more you’re pulled inside of their heads. “Psycho” was made when color was easily available, but for budgetary and other reasons, Hitchcock chose to make this film in black and white. After years of color sequels and spinoffs (more on that later), the original’s silver/gray tones almost feel like a novelty. After a few minutes of watching “Psycho”, you forget how distracting the excess information of mere color can be..
I tried to capture a glimmer of my ‘home theatrical’ experience (above), but through an iPhone lens, a massive 6 ft. screen’s scope is reduced to a few inches, I’m afraid. In the dark, my attention was again held hostage again by the frantic-sounding, all-strings score by Bernard Herrmann (“Citizen Kane” “Taxi Driver” “Twilight Zone” to name a few). Saul Bass designed the animated credits, which are seen as lines of momentary stability and lucidity broken up into insanity.
Note: Saul Bass’ credits design might be familiar to fans of mid-1950s-1960s films, which often used his minimalist, block-style animated credits. Bass worked with directors such as Hitchcock (“Vertigo” “Psycho”), Stanley Kubrick (“Spartacus”) and Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas” “Cape Fear” “Casino”). He passed away in 1996. The opening credits of the TV series “Mad Men” pay homage to Bass’ style.
In Phoenix, Arizona a camera goes from a cityscape into a hotel room window (a seamless shot) where we see two thirtysomething-lovers, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her almost-divorced boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) lounging on a bed after an afternoon of passionate, hurried lovemaking during Marion’s ‘extended lunch break’. Marion is gently but desperately pressuring her hardware store owner beau Sam into getting married and becoming “respectable.” Facing a debt-filled future together, the two almost end their relationship, but quickly change their minds, with Marion reluctantly agreeing to wait for better circumstances…
Note: This was a shockingly lurid opener for a movie shot in uber-conservative 1959. The cool, breathy-voiced Janet Leigh (mother of future horror icon Jamie Lee Curtis), in her bullet bra and half slip, was an utter knockout. John Gavin provides a bit of beefcake for the sequence as well. Seen today, Marion and Sam’s then-suggestive dialogue (“Yeah, but when you do, you’ll swing”) seems particularly chaste, but this was all deeply risqué for 1959.
A flustered Marion quickly composes herself as she settles back into the office (director Hitchcock is visible outside the office window), where her boss, Mr. Lowery (Vaughn Taylor) is entertaining a promising new client; a wealthy, obnoxious, longhorn businessman named Cassidy (Frank Albertson) who’s buying a house for his daughter’s pending nuptials. Shamelessly hitting on Marion, Cassidy openly boasts about the $40,000 deposit he’s putting down for his little girl’s new house. Lowery asks Marion to take the embarrassing envelope full of cash to the bank immediately. Feigning a headache, Marion asks her boss if she can go home after the deposit errand. With the $40K still in her possession, an impulsive Marion “breaks bad” and decides that wad of cash can solve all of her lover’s financial woes if she takes it and splits for Fairvale, California (Sam’s hometown). After falling asleep on the roadside, Marion is tailed by a suspicious cop as she hurriedly trades in her car for a new one (using a tiny chunk of the illicit cash for the transaction). As Marion drives on, we “hear” her imagined dialogue of those affected by her embezzlement; she accurately gauges the surprised reactions of Sam, her boss, Mr. Cassidy and even the cop who’d pulled her over. It’s when Marion is alone inside of her newly acquired car (shot with obvious rear-projected backgrounds) where her paranoia begins to deepen (on a larger screen, you really get in Marion’s mind space). As Marion drives on to Fairvale, she is caught in a sudden, heavy downpour…
Note: When we first see Marion in the film, she is wearing a white bra and half-slip; they’re white because she’s ‘innocent’ and hasn’t committed any crimes yet. But later, as she packs at home for her extended road trip to California (still in possession of the embezzled money), her underwear changes to black…she’s gone from being a ‘good girl’ to a ‘bad girl.’ At this point in the movie it’s very easy to be lulled into believing we are watching Marion’s story, but that’s not exactly true, of course…
Needing to find a place to stay, the fugitive Marion drives off the main highway towards the rundown, remote Bates motel. Pulling up to the front office, Marion sees a light on in the house overlooking the motel. Peering into the house’s window through the rain, she glimpses a silhouette of an old woman walking by the window. She honks her car horn, and within moments a lanky young man comes running down to the motel’s office. The affable young man is Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, in a career-defining role), and he takes Marion’s luggage and assigns her the cabin closest to the office. Marion tells Norman she’s from “Los Angeles”, and falsely signs in as “Marie Samuels”, using her boyfriend’s first name as her last.
Note: Rewatching the scenes of Marion pulling into the motel on a much bigger screen, I was amazed at some of the detail I’d previously missed. The silhouette of “mother” walking across the upstairs window is clearly a tall thin man in a wig now; this was a previously ambiguous detail I’d never quite discerned in earlier years of watching the movie only on relatively modest-sized TV screens. Perhaps if I’d first seen “Psycho” theatrically instead of on an old 25” Zenith, the surprise ending would’ve been ruined…? The scenes of the silvery nighttime storm clouds rolling across the sky are particularly gorgeous as well; kudos to cinematographer John L. Russell (a director of photography who’d worked primarily in early television and low-budget sci-fi movies, such as “The Man From Planet X”).
Sensing Norman’s loneliness, Marion gently accepts the shy young man’s kind offer of sandwiches and company in lieu of searching for a diner in the rain. As Marion goes to unpack in her room, she hears Norman being loudly and mercilessly berated by his cronish-sounding mother through an open window. Norman’s mother seems intensely jealous of her son’s innocent offer of food and conversation. As a humiliated but defiant Norman returns with the sandwiches and milk, Marion is embarrassed. Norman apologizes for his mother, saying, “She’s not herself lately” (a bit of dark foreshadowing). The two then retire into the parlor behind the office, where Norman keeps a large collection of stuffed birds, as his hobby is taxidermy. Gently probing Marion about where she’s heading, Marion relaxes her guard a bit, telling him she’s looking for “a private island”. The conversation becomes deep, intense and even uncomfortable, as Marion innocently wonders why the put-upon Norman doesn’t just put his infirm, unbalanced mother “some place”? The mere suggestion of committing his mother infuriates Norman, and his kindly manner disintegrates. As soon as his facade drops, it’s back up, and he boyishly chuckles away his earlier anger. Perhaps a bit wary of Norman’s bipolar temperament, Marion very tactfully excuses herself, saying that she has a long drive “back to Phoenix”, contradicting her earlier lie about being from Los Angeles.
This prolonged conversation between Norman and Marion is so perfectly acted and natural, that it’s easily my favorite scene in the entire movie. It perfectly captures that odd chemistry and even intimacy one experiences when opening up to a near-stranger.
Note: Writer Joseph Stefano (“The Outer Limits”) adapted the screenplay from the novel by horror author Robert Bloch, who also dabbled in science fiction as well (TOS Star Trek’s “Catspaw” and “Wolf in the Fold,” which saw a spaceborne Jack the Ripper roaming the cosmos…). While the story remains fairly true to Bloch’s novel, Norman Bates is radically reimagined from a slovenly, disheveled middle-aged creep to the far more boyish and affable (yet still awkward) Anthony Perkins. As written in the novel, Bates’ appearance would’ve screamed ‘villain’ back in the prim, proper late 1950s.
The scene that follows is one of the most disturbing for multiple reasons; it is the infamous “shower scene” where we (literally) follow Marion into the shower (one of the most intimate human acts next to sex and using the toilet). We see Marion washing her sins away, now that she’s resolved to drive back to Phoenix to try and make amends. As she rinses, we see an indistinct figure appear through the shower curtain behind her… a tall, back-lit, silver-haired woman flings back the curtain and begins hacking into the vulnerable, terrified Marion with a knife! Through a flurry of rapid cuts (forgive the pun), we see mother’s stabbing motions, closeups of various parts of Marion’s body, and monochromatic blood (chocolate syrup) washing down the drain, but no actual viscera. We never actually see a knife penetrate Marion’s flesh. Through very clever editing and Bernard Herrmann’s strings mimicking the slashing of knives, the murder takes place largely in our minds. It is without a doubt, one of the most brilliantly filmed and disturbing acts of femicide ever seen in a horror movie, and most of it takes place in the viewer’s head.
We then see only the exterior of the Bates house, as Norman confronts mother, and screams “blood!” before running back to the motel. There, he finds Marion’s slumped body, drained of life, on the bathroom floor of cabin 1. Being the ‘dutiful son,’ he immediately erases all evidence of mother’s crime–meticulously cleaning the bathroom, wrapping Marion’s body into the shower curtain before stuffing it into the trunk of her car, which he sends sinking into a murky (conveniently) nearby swamp. Also packed into the car was all of Marion’s luggage, including a bound newspaper which had the embezzled $40,000 tucked into it.
Note: Almost as shocking as the shower murder of Marion Crane is the stunning revelation that this wasn’t her movie at all—she was, in fact, only a guest in Norman’s bizarre, pathologically lonely world. This is one of the movie’s biggest bait-and-switches, and it does so with aplomb. You follow the beautiful butterfly into the web, only to realize it’s all about the spider.
Back at Sam’s hardware store in Fairvale, Sam is confronted by a worried young woman named Lila (Vera Miles), the kid sister of Marion Crane. Lila knows about her sister’s torrid affair with Sam, and is worried that he is hiding her somewhere. A very confused Sam soon realizes that his lover Marion is in some kind of legal trouble. As the two talk, a quizzical, middle-aged man overhears them and invites himself into their conversation about Marion. The stranger is a private investigator named Arbogast, and he’s been hired by Marion’s office to look for her. As Sam and Lila unite in their mutual distrust of Arbogast, he quickly assuages their apprehension by assuring them he’s on their side and that they all want nothing but Marion’s safe return. Arbogast gives Sam and Lila his card, promising them that he will find Marion…
We follow Arbogast to various inns, hotels and motels, eventually reaching the Bates motel, which he almost overlooked due to its remote location. Arbogast finds Norman, cheerfully changing linens and asks the young man about the missing Marion. As Arbogast reassures the suddenly stammering, nervous Norman that he’s “not the police,” he nevertheless catches the young man in several lies before Norman accidentally lets slip a mention of his mother not being “fooled” by Marion. Arbogast then asks if he can speak with Norman’s mother, but Norman suddenly becomes tightlipped, stonewalling the investigator. Arbogast agreeably decides to leave, but later calls Lila from a phone booth, telling her he has a “gut feeling” Norman’s mother might know where Marion has gone. Promising to call Lila back in an hour, Arbogast returns to the Bates motel, but Norman isn’t around. Walking up to the main house, Arbogast finds the front door unlocked. Walking inside, he carefully makes his way up to mother’s room. Just then, a tall, indistinct silver-haired woman rushes out and stabs at the detective! He falls down the stairs, only to have mother quickly follow and hack the private investigator to death…
Note: The careful concealment of Arbogast’s murderer is achieved by first locking the camera on a perch well above the staircase, so we can’t see mother’s face when she first exits her bedroom to attack. Arbogast’s fall down the staircase is almost comical, as he flails his arms wildly against an obviously rear-projected backdrop. Arbogast’s final attack at the bottom of the stairwell keeps his murderer’s face concealed by focusing on his squirming torso instead of his attacker.
With Arbogast’s check in several hours overdue, Sam and Lila decide to go to the see Fairvale’s Sheriff Chambers (John McIntire) in the middle of the night. Despite the lateness of the hour, the sheriff and his wife are hospitable to Sam and Lila, offering them comfort as Chambers calls Norman, only to hear him lie that Arbogast never returned. Lila tells the sheriff that Arbogast was following up a lead on “Mrs. Bates.” Mrs. Chambers excitedly chimes in, “Norman took a wife?” Lila tells her that she was referring to Norman’s mother. The sheriff and his wife exchange looks. Norma Bates, mother of Norman, has been dead and buried in Fairvale’s Greenleaf Cemetery for the past ten years (!).
Back at the Bates’ house, Norman promises to physically carry his willful, obstinate mother into their fruit cellar to hide for a few days, just until the investigation of Marion’s disappearance blows over. She yells in protest, but he carries her downstairs anyway…
Note: Much like with Arbogast’s murder, we only see Norman carrying a woman’s limp body, but we never see her face–only the top of a gray wig, with the camera perched in the ceiling overlooking the staircase.
With the sheriff unable to do little more than file a missing person’s report, Lila and Sam take matters into their own hands. They decide to head back to the Bates motel. Sam had already been there once, calling out for Arbogast, but Norman didn’t meet him. Together, Lila and Sam check in as a married couple. Afterward, they sneak away to Cabin 1 and find faint traces that Marion was there, including a slip of paper from the toilet with a figure subtracted from $40,000 (the amount paid for her new car). The two of them hatch a dangerous plan. Sam keeps a visibly nervous Norman distracted with chitchat, while Lila slinks away to the main house to confront Mrs. Bates. As Norman grows increasingly irritated with Sam’s relentless questioning about the missing $40,000 (of which Norman is honestly ignorant), Sam directly challenges the young man, stating that they’ll ask Norman’s mother directly. Immediately realizing he’s being used as a distraction for Lila, Norman wonders aloud about “that girl” Sam came with, and the two men get into a scuffle–with the wily Norman knocking Sam unconscious with a nearby vase.
Back at the main house, Lily finds Mrs. Bates’ room empty, save for an impression in the bed. Quickly looking out a window, Lila sees Norman running up the steps to the main house! With nowhere else to hide, Lila finds the door to the fruit cellar below the staircase and rushes in, just as Norman enters the front door. In the shadowy dark cellar, Lila sees the back of an old woman’s gray head, sitting in a chair. Tapping the woman’s shoulder, the mummified corpse of Norma Bates spins around on momentum…revealing a skull-face with wrinkled, shrunken skin! Lila screams! Before she can fully absorb this newfound horror, Norman suddenly enters carrying a large knife, wearing his mother’s dress and gray wig. Norman is Norma. In his mother’s voice, he howls, “I’m Norma Bates!” As the thoroughly unhinged Norman/Norma moves in for the kill, a recovered Sam bursts into the cellar and wrestles the knife from his hand. As he disarms Norman/Norma, Sam also pulls the dress and wig off of the silently screaming, deranged young man…
Note: Norman’s odd ‘silent scream’ (his mouth agape without sound) looks as though it was meant to have either Jeannette Nolan’s or Virginia Gregg’s screaming dubbed over it. Nolan and Gregg were two of the uncredited actresses who performed the voice for Norma Bates. Actor Paul Jasmin was a third uncredited voice for Norma, so perhaps he was the ‘screamer’? Intentional or not, the soundless scream still works–it’s as if Norman/Norma screamed himself into a silent cry of pure anguish. It’s also easy to see why the film’s shocking ending was kept so secret, with theatre owners having to promise not to let any patrons in after the film started…a ‘promise’ (i.e. publicity stunt) few of them took seriously.
Back at the Fairvale police station, Sheriff Chambers tells Sam and Lila he had no luck reaching Norman, who seems to be catatonic, until the police psychiatrist, Dr. Fred Richman ( Simon Oakland) walk in. Asked if he could get Norman to talk, Dr. Richman replies that he got the “whole story”, but he got it from Norma Bates, not Norman. He then goes into an almost embarrassingly naked monologue of pure exposition, telling the tale of how a young, jealous Norman poisoned his mother and her lover (previously assumed to be a double-suicide), but couldn’t live with the guilt of matricide, so he stole her body from its coffin (replacing it with weights), applying his knowledge of taxidermy to preserve her corpse as long as possible. He then gave his mother part of his own mind–giving her half of his own half as penance. Norman would also wear her clothes and a cheap wig to keep the illusion of her being alive. But whenever Norman met a woman he was attracted to, he assumed her personality would be as jealous as he was of her, thus activating the “mother” part of himself and killing the object of his desire in a jealous rage. Norman’s psychosis also explains two other cases of missing young women in Fairvale’s ledgers. Dr. Richman says that as far as he’s concerned, “Norman Bates” no longer exists…
Note: Yes, Dr. Richmond’s speech is pure raw exposition, no question. But there are there times in movies and TV shows where characters have to do these blatant info dumps (as mission briefings, captain’s logs, what have you), otherwise the story reaches an impasse. The trick is to dress it up in such a way to where it doesn’t feel like we’re being spoon-fed whole chunks of story. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay is arguably less-than-successful in this one moment, but luckily, Simon Oakland’s performance as Richmond is so riveting that we don’t really care.
The last scene is of Norman/Norma, alone is his/her holding cell:
And that folks, is how you end a horror movie…
A smaller but still silver-screen presentation.
Seeing “Psycho” on a larger screen than I’ve ever before experienced (6 ft./2 meters), in the total darkness of my home office, was an experience I wish I could somehow convey to all fans of this movie. The silvery severity of black and white images really pulls you into the characters’ psyches in ways that sometimes distracting color cannot.
If you have a digital projector, don’t be afraid to use it on an occasional black and white classic as well. I can’t wait to try this on 1994’s “Ed Wood” (though I did see that one theatrically during its original run, over 26 years ago). I’ve waxed poetic about digital projection on this site before, but if you’re patient (setting up for a movie takes a few minutes), have a couple hundred bucks to spend for a solid, low-end projector & collapsible screen (or if you have a big, white wall in your house)? Then at-home digital projection is the best way to get your big screen fix during the era of COVID-19 without risking your health at a local multiplex.
Rather than go into a lengthy review of each Psycho off-shoot, I’ll just give quick thumbnail-sketch impressions of each, beginning with “Psycho II” and ending with the recent TV series “Bates Motel” (2013-2017). One not even worth mentioning is the same-named 1987 TV-movie “Bates Motel”, which was an NBC comedy pilot barely related to the “Psycho” franchise. Best forgotten.
Let’s check in…
“Psycho II” (1983): A truly worthy sequel.
“Psycho II” is the only one of the canon that feels like an honest, legitimate sequel to Hitchcock’s original. Nearly everything about it works, save for some needlessly updated gore. Working from a thoughtful, clever screenplay by Tom Holland (“Fright Night” “Child’s Play”), director Richard Franklin beautifully and faithfully recreates the Bates family home and motel. A middle-aged Norman is pronounced ‘cured’ and released from the sanitarium after 22 years, but a deeply vengeful Lila Loomis (she married the late-Sam Loomis) sends her daughter Mary (Meg Tilly) in to try and drive poor Norman back into insanity. Gorgeous color cinematography by Dean Cundey (“Halloween” “Back to the Future”) actually complements this sequel’s generally warmer tone. A haunting score by Jerry Goldsmith opens with a main title track that is the aural equivalent of awakening from a bad dream. The priceless twist ending is pitch black in its humor– utterly hysterical.
“Psycho III” (1986): Diminishing returns.
Anthony Perkins himself took the directorial reigns in a needlessly stylized, almost Mario Bava-looking sequel that, at times, feels more like an overproduced “Friday the 13th” movie than a successor to the Hitchcock classic. The story sees Norman falling for ex-nun Maureen (Diana Scarwid) just as seedy grifter Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey) aims to blackmail the luckless motel manager, who has resumed manifesting his “mother” persona with deadly consequences. Despite some interesting moments and character bits, “Psycho III” is an elaborate, overly-stylized and utterly unnecessary cash grab of a sequel.
“Psycho IV: The Beginning” (1990): That’s more like it.
“Psycho IV” is the Mick Garris-directed prequel/sequel that managed to bring “Psycho” back from the brink of self-parody. It helped that original screenwriter Joseph Stafano returned to script this modest but surprisingly effective made-for-cable movie. A married Norman Bates, now living in a nice home with his nurse wife, calls in to a late-night psychiatry radio show to tell his full story. Told mainly in flashbacks, we see the teenaged Norman (a perfectly cast Henry Thomas) being routinely ridiculed, emasculated and sexually tormented by his overbearing but surprisingly attractive mother, Norma (Olivia Hussey, effectively cast against-type). We see the early circumstances that drove the otherwise meek young Norman into murder and insanity, as the older Norman seeks to purge himself of his ugly past, once and for all. The only downside to this otherwise excellent film is that is largely reiterates things already inferred from the original film’s dialogue. That said, it’s still a solid prequel/sequel.
Note: Having a TV-made sequel is coming full circle for this franchise, since “Psycho” was originally conceived by director Hitchcock as a modest, special-length episode of his own “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV show (1955-1965), and was filmed using much of the crew from that long-running series.
“Psycho” (1998): Something went horribly wrong with the cloning process.
This was the second “Psycho” movie that I actually saw theatrically (“Psycho II” being the first), and it is easily the worst. Reusing Joseph Stefano’s entire original 1960 screenplay verbatim (updating only a handful of words) as well as all of Hitchcock’s camera setups, the only ‘original’ thing the otherwise talented director Gus van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”) offers is a new cast– none of whom are superior to their 1960 counterparts. Anne Heche is utterly unconvincing as Marion, Viggo Mortensen looks bored as Sam, Julianne Moore is wasted as Lila, and (saving the worst for last) Vince Vaughn is just nightmarishly miscast as Norman Bates. Vaughn’s Norman comes off as more serial date rapist than desperately shy introvert. This unoriginal, uninspired waste of time is the cinematic equivalent of copying off of your smarter classmate’s homework.
Checking into “Bates Motel” (2013-2017).
“Bates Motel” is the A&E-produced reboot TV series that ran for five seasons, making it arguably the most successful of the sequels/spinoffs from the original film. A younger Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) and her awkward teenage son Norman (Freddie Highmore) escape a violent past and head for a new life together running a small motel in the Pacific Northwest (a move from sunny California dictated by the series’ drizzly British Columbian shooting location). Things get more complicated as Norma’s ‘other’ son Dylan (Max Thieriot) arrives, and Norman befriends a shy girl from school named Emma (Olivia Cooke), who harbors a big ol’ crush on everyone’s favorite mama’s boy. With a shady past of his own, local sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) takes a keen interest in the affairs of the Bates family–and Norma herself. Lots of soap-opera shenanigans wholly unrelated to anything in the original are offset by a truly great cast who manage to make this semi-gothic nighttime drama better than the sum of its parts. However, as a reboot of Hitchcock’s classic, “Bates Motel” predictably falls short. Telling its tale over five seasons toward a largely predictable finish, it’s also a bit too much of a good thing.
The original 1960 version of “Psycho” is available for streaming/rental on Peacock.com, Prime Video and YouTube; it is also available on Blu Ray and DVD via contact-free shipping from Amazon.com (as are its sequels). The five seasons of “Bates Motel” are available for purchase-streaming on Prime Video. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are now nearing 217,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no widely available vaccine or proven effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Take care and be safe!