Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenwriter: Joseph Stefano
By Roderick Heath
In the late months of 1959 and through 1960, a battery of films hit movie screens that essentially initiated modern cinema. Amongst the films made the young lions of the French New Wave and the fanfare for the Italian ‘alienation’ mode, Psycho seems in odd company, as a work of commercial showmanship rather than radical aesthetic reinvention, and made by a filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, who had just turned sixty, a well-established celebrity rather than a fearsome young gun. But in other ways it’s inescapable. Like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, it revolves around the unexpected hole left in both the lives of people and narrative film when a protagonist suddenly becomes absent from their own story. Like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, it pensively regards a coming age of monstrosities lurking behind the seemingly tawdry, shiny business of post-war life. Like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, it anxiously contemplates the bodies of entwined lovers doomed by forces far beyond their control. Like all these films it’s bewildered by the blank and artless affect of modernity and scratches at its shiny surface, seeing bleak and septic truths in places where the old darkness still crouches.
Psycho, although not representing any great break for its director in style or subject, nonetheless offered a ruthlessly compressed and expressive ideogram of cinema form and function, so complete and effective that it forced a reorganisation of whole continents in pop culture. Psycho shocked. For a brief moment, Hitchcock had people wondering if he’d gone too far. And he had. He also dragged everyone over the line with him. More immediately, much as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) had done four decades earlier, Psycho redefined the Horror film. Hitchcock had never ventured into the genre overtly before despite occasionally skirting it, in the old dark house melodramas of Rebecca (1940) and Under Capricorn (1948) with their elusively haunting presences and literal skeletons in the closet, in the duplicitous landscapes of mind and body in Spellbound (1944), and the many sequences of intimate violence he was so skilled at portraying, pocking his oeuvre. Hitchcock had tackled the theme of the serial killer early in his career with The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926), but there had concentrated not on the killer or victims but on the elusively attaching spectre of guilt. And yet Psycho and The Birds (1963) are surely the greatest one-two punch in the genre. They’re deeply entwined in their imagery, characters, and metaphors, their anxious sense of the nomadic meeting the intractability of parochial identity in the midst of life’s violent flux.
Hitchcock would have seen the early classics of the Expressionist movement, as his tenure learning his craft in Munich in the early 1920s fully immersed him in that aesthetic and its underpinning ideas. Whilst Hitchcock brought aspects of the style to his films, he quickly learned to mediate it through a harder, more three-dimensional way of looking at the world, and at film. Hitchcock’s world pretends to be entirely stolid, until suddenly it isn’t. When he finally strayed properly into Horror, Hitchcock helped give it something it needed, a new blueprint, a sense of connection with a real and immediate sense of danger living in the world, in a way the genre had never quite known before. In return it gave him something he needed as imitators crowded him and cinematic tastes changed: a jolt of new ferocity and aesthetic danger. Hitchcock did not expel the lingering influence of the old Expressionist style from his film, but does something more interesting, having it loom as large and weird as the Bates house over the motel, which, with its straight, flat surfaces and forms, invites the clear-lit gaze of his TV-trained crew; two modes of cinema are placed in close and incongruous conflict. Caligari and his world illustrated the workings of a pathological mind, an idea Psycho demonstrates to the audience in a more complex dance of artifice and authenticity. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Psycho revolves around the revelation a seemingly average and likeable young man is in fact insane. But the projection of his lunacy here is a worn guise rather than incarnated in the drama. Symbols are cast aside. The killer is loose.
The starting point was Robert Bloch’s clever if flimsy novel: Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano methodically stripped out the book’s prologue introducing Norman Bates and his strange little world. Hitchcock starts instead with fastidious declarations of date, time, place flashed on the screen, as the camera turns surveying the boxes and oblongs of the Phoenix, Arizona cityscape. The precision mimics true crime reportage, whilst the visuals reproduce the voyeuristic temptations of Rear Window (1954) in miniature, camera zeroing in on a hotel room where a treat waits, a couple just done screwing. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a sexy, young, yet also already distinctly rather world-weary couple, having a quickie on Marion’s lunchbreak. Hitchcock’s rueful idea of what the rest of the world’s doing when he’s busy drawing up a storyboard. Sam, chafing under the load of debts inherited from his father in addition to a hardware store, having a quickie with his lover on one of his business trips to Phoenix. Marion, a real estate agent’s secretary who’s reached the end of her tether in regards to their relationship, and once the carnal ecstatics are exhausted solicitude takes over. Watch Marion primly tucking in her shirt as she inveigles Sam to come to her house and have dinner with her and her sister, “respectably.” The last, waning days of the old propriety and the first salvoes of the sexual revolution in the mix. Soon the old propriety will have its revenge. Sam is filled with sour bawdiness (“We send sister to the movies, turn mother’s picture to the wall.”) but also acquiesces to Marion’s aspirations. Romantic failure is economic burden – Sam is also paying alimony to an ex-wife. Everything has a cost and profit value, a transaction on multiple but ever-linked indexes, of money and morality, social and emotional.
New starts are possible. Sam sees the possibility of economic freedom soon. Just hold the line and grit your teeth. But Marion desperately wants to make something happen now; the coffers of hope and joy are totally empty. Cravings for respectability fire transgressive impulses. Marion returns to the office, lunch uneaten (noted acerbically on the bedside stand back in the hotel room, forgotten whilst other appetites are sated). Her fellow secretary Caroline (Pat Hitchcock) is the image of Marion’s anxiety, the type of woman who took tranquilisers to make it through her wedding night unscathed. In comes her boss Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), who seems the image of a solicitous prig who’s probably in big with the local Rotary club, with a big new client, the drawling, boastful, cowboy-hat-wearing Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson). Cassidy flirts shamelessly with Marion, trying to excite her with his big wad. Cash, that is – $40,000 dollars, ponied up to buy his about-to-be-married pet daughter a house for her wedding day. No wonder Marion has a headache. Cassidy has the manner of a small boy caught drawing rude words on the school room blackboard, gleefully exposing Lowery’s promised horde of a hidden bottle. Everybody’s got their little secret. But Marion sees through Cassidy; a few more belts of bourbon and he’ll be trying to grab her ass, no fear. Marion’s patience snaps, along with her judgement. She resolves to flee town with the cash, head out to Sam in his home town of Fairvale, California, and get on with life.
Hitchcock needs no dialogue to depict Marion’s choices, just the sight of her changing and packing with the cash on her bed. Just as loud is the declaration of how love and sex are entwined with finance. On the way out of town she gives a smile and nod to Lowery as he strays by, only to provoke his momentary bewilderment as to what his secretary’s doing out and about. Fear falls with the chugging, jarring strains of Bernard Herrmann’s music which mimic the panicky scuttling of her nervous system, and now Marion is citizen of a new world. Her journey across the Arizona landscape, out in the sun-baked hills and long, straight highways, becomes a big wide trap, where the oncoming headlights sting like lamps in a third degree routine and the eyes of a highway patrolman (Mort Mills) are big, black dishes of emptiness: Kafka on the range. The cop, who only stops to make sure the lady asleep in her car on the roadside is all right, gets too interested, so Marion resolves to sell her car and get one with California licence plates. Many Hitchcock characters had been wrongfully accused, victims of appearances and bad luck, sweating their way through survival situations where they must project the appearance of innocence in a state of irony. Or, if they were breaking the law, usually had a good reason for doing it – to help someone in a jam, to help a lover, to expose a hidden menace. Personal transgression in Hitchcock is a lynchpin theme, but so too is personal morality, the compass of private judgement that often points in the opposite direction to the blank regard of state authority.
But Marion is one who’s actually committing a crime (anticipating her sister in weirdness, Marnie), and she’s not very good at it, although she has verbal wherewithal to get her through gruelling exchanges. Her attempts to fend off the intrigued cop and the friendly used car salesman (John Anderson) only drum up suspicious questions, concern and probation commingling. The toilet of the used car lot becomes a strange stage for a reckoning, Marion’s image reflected in a grimly rectangular mirror, counting through cash in a step that puts her further outside the wall. In Cocteau she might step through the mirror into a dream veldt. In Psycho the walls have eyes, but no portals. Hitchcock invites the viewer into Marion’s head to listen to her sorting through unseen scenarios as she imagines the processes of discovery and retribution set in motion in her wake. Hitchcock wasn’t usually one to use such a method, but he needs the audience identification with Marion to be deep and abiding, as well as to trick the audience into thinking such machinations might be important. Marion gets a definite kick out of imagining Cassidy’s aggrieved and hypocritical protestations (“and even flirtin’ with me!”) as she plays through such scenes in her head; she pegs California Charlie as a bag of clichés (one of Stefano’s subtler, wittier touches in how she imagines the salesman repeating his “customer high-pressure a salesman” line like a proud parent).
Rainfall pounds down upon Marion in her car, and in the dark she accidentally leaves the highway, finishing up on a detour. Here only one light beckons, the sign of the Bates Motel, a few small rooms under a looming house. The infrastructure of modernity, the low, rectilinear, interchangeable motel rooms, underneath an outpost of Gilded Age pretence, jagged gables and ovular frames all in a Freudian muddle. Shadows passing behind the windows describe the outline of an old woman, just the sort of inhabitant you might expect to see haunting such an abode. Marion’s westward jaunt from Arizona into the California hinterland feels odd in movie lore, like someone’s finally made that last leap from heartland to west coast many a Western film’s heroes never get around to. The Bates Motel is the place where the Old West trail ran out, lost in a septic trap of time and mind, where lost souls find their rest. The improbably agreeable and handsome young owner-manager dashes down and introduces himself as Norman Bates. Norman’s apparent, cheery forthrightness counters Marion’s caginess in writing a false name in the register. Soon Norman’s inviting her come eat with him, but hesitates on the threshold of her room, before suggesting they repair instead to the parlour behind his office. This little abode sports the unnerving products of his favourite pastimes, stuffed birds peering down from vantages, the creatures Norman readily compares Marion to, if only quoting cliché, as he watches he eat.
Marion and Norman’s conversation is the epicentre of Psycho, an epic sequence of suggestion and revelation that slowly pivots the storyline’s focus from one character to another. Most directors would slink through a scene like this in a succession of shots merely servicing the dialogue exchange, but Hitchcock turns it into one of his most symphonic displays of constant, cumulatively unsettling reframings matched to the rhythms of Perkins’ performance. The stuffed birds and dark corners of the room plucked out of obscurity and soon appear in mysterious psychic dialogue with Norman, who sits like a witness in the dock, only as the camera drops lower and moves in closer to vote him visual power. At the end of it, there’s no dissonance when Hitchcock remains with Norman rather than continues to follow Marion, whose viewpoint has dominated the film completely until now. Hitchcock forces the viewer into complicity with Norman whilst inserting a level of irony: now Norman is the one peering at Marion, through the safe glaze of a peephole that mimics the movie camera lens, the earlier invitation to gawk at Leigh in her bra turns into a needling accusation. Marion’s encounter with Norman, who seems to charm her sufficiently at first she has no qualms about inviting him into her room, if only silently, shades more into a woman’s startled and fascinated witnessing of a kind of living cautionary tale. By the end of their talk Marion is resolved on stepping out of what Norman calls a private trap, the sort of situation people voluntarily persist in for the sake of some obligation despite resenting it. Norman’s concept of the trap is sheltering as well as limiting.
Today the specific twists of Psycho aren’t just well-known but so deeply enshrined in pop cultural lore it’s just about impossible to reckon with how sharply they landed in 1960. Hitchcock would later tell François Truffaut that it was the shower murder that made him want to film Bloch’s novel, but the narrative’s innate ambiguity must have had some appeal too, especially once the prologue was cast aside. Psycho represents a perfect and logical extreme for Hitchcock as a filmmaker who liked to tease and confound an audience as well as please it. Vertigo (1958) had allowed a similar level of opacity over genre as well as story before, but Psycho allowed Hitchcock to extend the game right until the end, as well as proving more functional in his chief business of attracting and exciting an audience. The film is a merry dance through genres and all attendant expectations, starting off in a key of everyday frustration. Sexy melodrama, before Marion’s thievery kicks off a seemingly low-key thriller with the constant, jangling threat of becoming something more. And then, the silhouetted, knife-wielding killer walks in, coming up to Marion as she has a shower, and brutally knifes her to death. One movie has collided with another, one pathology with another. The dizziness is stylistic as well as narrative. The real estate office, the sunstruck car yard, the interior of the motel are all harsh, ahistorical, antiseptic. Norman’s parlour is touched with hints of Expressionist fervour in the pools of light and dark. The house above, a Gothic emblem, derived from an image by that poet of American solitude, Edward Hopper.
Then, of course, the shower scene. Marion fights for life but never stands a chance. The brilliant cruelty lies in the way Marion is enjoying her shower, seemingly not just cleaning her body but also a symbolic act of purifying herself following her resolution to go back and face the consequences of her crime; confession delivers salvation, an amniotic state of grace. But the spectre of punitive morality is quite literally standing behind her, Norman wearing the guise of his mother, incarnation of pious hypocrisy and stunting puritanism. Not that this is made clear yet; all that’s seen of the assailant is a black spot where the face should be and a thatch of stringy hair. The killer is the dark thing that lay in the highway cop’s glasses. Hitchcock continues to fascinate artists well beyond the parameters of his own form as well as critics because he had one, near-unique talent: performing little ballets of visualisation that creates epiphanies in the midst of more serviceable narrative cinema, without seeming to create a tension between the two forms. Precisely this ability taunted some viewers; it’s why some like Graham Greene dismissed him as a purveyor of gimmicks, exactly the same reason why the New Wave critics and others heralded him as someone who grasped the raw nerve of cinema. Psycho is filled with such touches, and the shower scene is the ultimate example. Hitchcock doesn’t just invent the slasher film in the course of a few seconds or bring a new edge of pyrotechnic pizzazz to editing a straightforward moment, but hacks up the very idea of the movie actor and the female body into a succession of images that are also lodestones. A huge close up of Marion’s screaming mouth, a lunging close-up of the knife grazing her navel.
Even greater, perhaps, is the immediate aftermath of the murder, when the film stops dead in a kind of stunned and meditative regard. A colossal eye, glimpsed in a slowly gyring camera movement, a universe unto itself, an experimental photograph, a Japanese ink sketch. A long, slow, mysteriously dreamy retreat that suggests a recapitulation of the spirographs in the iris credits of Vertigo, the death plunge but played in reverse, leaving behind the secretive space of the dead eye until pausing the regard the blank, voided face of the dead woman. Marion Crane, whose fate we were utterly compelled by just a few seconds before, has vanished, leaving a hunk of carrion. Hitchcock rhymes the shot with the blood gushing down the plughole. Marion’s lifeblood is descending into an abyss. Did Marion go there too? This protean moment feels like the basis of Brian De Palma’s whole career. David Lynch’s too. Camera lifts away and slides over to regard the newspaper that contains the bundled money that brought her to this end, before moving to the the window to gaze at the Bates house as Norman’s cry rings out aghast: “Mother! Oh god Mother! Blood! Blood!” The chain of association seems blatant, and that’s also what Hitchcock uses to screen his most malicious secret. Just as the audience was invited in to experience Marion’s crime, now it’s drafted into empathising with Norman in his.
Just as Marion was forgivable in the way she wanted to deliver herself and Sam from fate, Norman compels with the diligence of his act of seemingly selfless protection and concealment for the sake of his deranged and murderous mother. His cool, his logic, his care, all demand admiration, empathy. Marion and her car pushes into the neighbouring swamp, where it lingers with taunting buoyancy for a few moments before sinking into the murk with a satisfying plop. As original and radically reorientating as Psycho is, it nonetheless employs some hallowed genre rudiments, particularly the motif of the lonely traveller washing up in a backwater and the old, dark house that stands on the hill, clasping its secrets and surely and tidily as the musty Victoriana bric-a-brac that litters its rooms. The figure of the traveller who’s stumbled past a point of no return is an essential starting point in so many Horror tales. What is Marion but a very modern version of the Gothic Horror character abandoned at a creepy destination by the nervous coachman? Terence Fisher worked the same motif in the more traditional mould with his near-simultaneous The Brides of Dracula. It’s not hard to see why this is such a familiar aspect of the genre, and how precisely Hitchcock grasps it. Everyone’s gone for a long drive in the country or a road trip to locate some obscure place in their past or to plant down a future and felt the odd sensation of straying beyond the pale, discovering signs of a way of life you thought had vanished subsisting in stray corners of a roadside grove or fluttering field.
Since fairly early in his American sojourn, from the time of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock had found energy and purpose in escaping Hollywood’s climes for contemplations of Americana, contemplations half-charmed and half-perturbed. Such forcibly affected normality had to hide as much strangeness just as surely as the waistcoat-wearing rose gardeners and tea-sippers of London. Norman is on the face of things an exemplar of mid-century American values, a good-looking young man who loves his mother and diligently runs his private enterprise, standing outside of but not disdaining the great national business. Norman’s strangest crime from the viewpoint of the society Hitchcock depicts is to be ignorant of money as a motive; he scarcely seems bothered by being tethered to a bare living running a tacky little motel, and never thinks to check Marion’s belongings for dough. The purloined wad of cash, that spur to offence and flight, goes in the swamp with everything else that was Marion Crane. It’s this aspect of Norman that allowed him to become a sort of antihero in a later string of sequels in the 1980s; mad and dangerous as he is, he’s also uniquely incorruptible, an eternal innocent. The force that compels him is no less universal than the desire to outdo fate. But it is in his case a far more intense and destructive struggle, an agonised wrestling match with the fact that the enveloping certainty and sense of belonging that is childhood can never be regained.
Hitchcock certainly laid foundations for the future of Horror cinema, but also might have helped initiate a new interest in the contemporary American landscape, one the oncoming American New Wave would exalt. Psycho could count Easy Rider (1969) or Five Easy Pieces (1970) amongst its progeny as much as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Halloween (1978), through its fixation with the tension between the ensnared and the astray, the expanse of the land and the inward-turning gyre of social setting. Psycho is intensely aware of the landscape as stage, from the opening that surveys Phoenix in seeking out the right portal into a story, to the glimpses of the sunstruck countryside and the starkness of downtown Bakersfield where black eyes peer across hot asphalt. The motel and the Bates house stand in intimate theatrical relationship where spiteful conversations echo down and illusions play in the window frames, actualisations of a schizoid mind, one zone arguing with another, the grafted antiseptic well-lit boxes forced to overhear the rants of the creaking house with its memory of ancient neurosis. Hitchcock’s gamesmanship isn’t subtle, his caressing camera movements sneaking about like a rubbernecker but retreating to vantages that make a show of concealing the reality of Norman and his mother. The showmanship stops being method and becomes instead subtext, watching worlds, people, personalities collide and graze and threaten to merge.
Meanwhile Sam Loomis sits in the office of his hardware store penning a missive to his absent lover he’ll never see again, asking her to join him, whilst an old woman in the store buys insecticide and worries whether it’s painless. Instead of Marion, Sam gets Lila Crane (Vera Miles), looking for her vanished sister, followed quickly by Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Lila, as tense and questing as her sister with an extra bolt of vehemence to her character, has to force action, to push through just as her Laurie harangued her beau in Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and for not dissimilar reasons, having to put a torch to the cause of masculine obsession. “Patience doesn’t run in my family,” she tells Sam, to nobody’s surprise. Psycho moves restlessly through a range of protagonists, most of whom are in turn also potential villains, distressing, stealing, exposing, tormenting, killing. Identities blur, opposites always hinting unity. Sam and Norman are near-doppelgangers, lanky, dark-haired American lover boys, both chafing under the lingering rule of failed and deceased parents, both defined by their different propensities in penetrating Marion’s body. Lila steps into her sister’s shoes and enacts a parody of marriage with Sam so they can investigate Norman (another prediction of Marnie). Arbogast’s face, shot in pugnacious close-up by Hitchcock as he first enters the film, echoes the looming visage of the highway cop and brings the same aura of authority incarnate in all its faintly bullying self-importance, although Arbogast has freedom of discretion that sets him apart from the lawman. Ironically, it’s only because of Marion’s transgression that Norman suffers his downfall, the reason why people are just a little too determined to pick up her trail.
Arbogast interviews Norman, recognising Marion’s flimsy pseudonym in the register and slowly draws out Norman’s admission she was there, teasing at the discrepancies in his accounts but not suspecting him of anything except for very ordinary indiscretions like possibly sleeping with his guest, a notion that of course shocks and annoys Norman. But only Arbogast’s request to talk to his mother in case she talked to Marion ends the conversation. Arbogast reports back to Lila; the stern private eye is now empathetic, offering consolations and salves before deciding to return and try to satisfy the nagging ambiguity. He enters the Bates house and climbs the stairs to interview Mother Bates. But someone waits for him above, someone who comes out and stabs him at the top of the stairs. Arbogast slides back down the stairs and crashes to the floor, his assailant upon him in a moment with startling speed, delivering the coup-de-grace with brutal speed. A briefer, less eruptive episode of violence than the shower scene, but just as spectacular in its way, with Hitchcock’s camera chasing Arbogast down the stairs as he stumbles backwards, blood spattered on his face, arms flailing. A weird effect, one you can’t imagine any other director trying even today unless performing rank imitation, one that makes perfect sense in a mechanical sense and yet delivers an unreal effect, pushing Hitchcock’s desire for inspiring a physical effect upon the audience to the edge of surrealism. Where Marion falls to pieces in the editing room, Hitchcock’s camera pins Arbogast centre-screen, inescapable in his gruelling panic and literal plunge to earth.
One significant disparity between Psycho and much of the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre lies in the speed with which its violent set-pieces whip by, by comparison with such displays as the concert sequence of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) or the finale of North by Northwest (1959). Psycho’s spurts of carnage are abrupt, jagged, still discomforting nearly sixty years later precisely because they arrive and depart with such speed. There’s little of the usual sense of luxury in Hitchcock’s fascination for the raw textures of cinema, no sense of delving into a dreamy netherworld as in Vertigo, although its portrait of reality is just as stylised in its way and its plunge just as deep; nor anything of the drawn-out rituals of stalking and slaying that its many progeny would soon evolve. Every shot in the film is cut to the bone in terms of declarative function. Part of this was doubtless due to Hitchcock’s determination to make the film as quickly and efficiently as possible one a lean budget, but it’s also demanded by the subject matter. Death comes on hard and fast in Psycho, and when it’s done there’s nothing left but the empty, staring eye. Psycho made the knife-wielding killer the new axis of the Horror film. The moment was ripe for this, as a new sociological awareness began to put the concept of the psychopath and the thrill killer into the popular consciousness; behind Psycho lies the well-known inspiration of Ed Gein and also his tabloid kin like Charles Starkweather.
Serial killers had appeared in Horror movies before, but usually signposted as something bizarre and alien, played by the likes of Tod Slaughter and Rondo Hatton, presented as misshapen fiends bursting out of some usually safely locked psychic bole. Even the attempts to render more authentic portrayals usually wound up a bit absurd. Watching John Drew Barrymore just a few years earlier playing his mother-fixated whacko killer in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) with bug eyes and fever sweats that would get him arrested by a cop on general principle gives some real appreciation for just how completely Hitchcock and Perkins reconstituted the portrayal of such a character. Perkins’ intricate performance is marked out not just by for his skill in encouraging audience compassion for Norman but in also laying bare his psychopathology without either giving away the game whilst also completely avoiding any sense of winking at the audience. The closest he comes is the ever-so-slight glint of steely humour when he tells Arbogast, “She might have fooled me, but she didn’t fool my mother.” Whilst Psycho certainly gave birth to the giallo and slasher modes in the next twenty years, the films that followed in its wake would often avoid Psycho’s distinctive strategy in making its monster also its most human figure.
Most such progeny would labour to put back on the mask of detached symbolism Bloch, Hitchcock, Stefano, and Perkins all worked hard in their ways to strip off, resulting in black-faced murderers like Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees, and the incidental, interchangeable slayers of Mario Bava’s founding giallo films. Only Dario Argento would take up the notes of gender chaos Hitchcock breached, but rarely with much interest in psychological depth, instead offering it as a specific device to assault his heroes and audience. Psycho’s approach is ironically, for all its modernity, more reminiscent of the classic Universal Horror films like Frankenstein (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941), where the central tragedy lies precisely in the fact that the tantalisingly vulnerable lies cheek by jowl with reflexive savagery, all in the same frame; men turn inside out under the pressure of the contradictions inherent in their being. Psycho aches with a sense of the state of humanity being, as Norman’s famous speech to Marion codifies, one of flailing isolation and permanent internal war. It’s a war that also afflicts societies, one that beliefs in official moralities and systems can both pacify and enrage. The film makes sport of just about every social piety in the book – the earnestness of the young man who loves his mother, the loyalty of the girl Friday secretary, the probity of the Midwestern businessman, the assurance of the psychiatrist.
Psycho is often faulted for a segue into plummy hype that would seem more at home in an episode of Hitchcock’s popular TV show, when Lila and Sam, concerned for Arbogast after he fails to get back to them, visit the Fairvale sheriff Al Chambers (John McIntire). Chambers drops the jarring revelation that Mother Bates has been dead for years, and questions just who might be buried in her place if she’s still in her house with Norman. Certainly this moment sets up the last phase of the film with the lingering ambiguity stoked to a new high, and Hitchcock sneaks in a sideways swipe at the lore of gossip as Chambers’ wife (Lurene Tuttle) informs Lila that Norman’s mother and her lover were found dead together “in bed.” The eternal partner to transgressive behaviour is the obsessive interest in it by social guardians. There might also be a hint of satirical intent in the scene overall, just as there is more tangibly in the final summation of the psychiatrist Richman (Simon Oakland) called upon to explain Norman’s particular pathology. Such moments graze awkwardly against the terse energy of the dialogue scenes between Perkins and Leigh, Balsam, and Gavin. The infrastructure of the thriller itself is being tested throughout Psycho, Hitchcock mocking his own formula and the need for neat demarcations an increasingly TV-dominated mindset was encouraging, a mindset he had seen the potential in earlier but also knew was often at war with the spectacle of cinema that was his faith. You can almost hear the director clucking in amusement at the audience feeling like the TV commercial break should come after the sheriff’s hanging question.
Emphatically, for The Birds Hitchcock would abandon any need to explain his invocations of chaos, and whilst he’d return to the Freudian fold for Marnie, it would be as fuel to an overtly artificial creation of a modernist-tinged, full-colour Expressionist melodrama. Psycho on the other hand turns its own black-and-white palette, harsh as any bleach or carbolic mixture used to scrub those bathroom tiles so bright, into part of its purely efficient structuring. Hitchcock makes a show of his concealments, but only to reinforce how nothing can hide. Mind and soul are slowly baking in a hot glare, the glare of the California sun, the neon light, the peering eye of state and authority, the shock of the atom bomb’s glare, exposed and helpless as naked flesh under a hard silver knife. Nothing to do but turn inwards, to seek refuge in backdated certainties, musty creeds, incestuous securities, a closed loop of experience. Post-war America has found the end of its frontier, the end of its logic, and there’s nothing left to do but spin into the drain where the monsters dwell. Horatio Alger’s nightmare. Lila and Sam’s venture out to the Bates Motel sees the duo declaring readiness for anything they might find, but no-one can ever really expect mummified corpses and knife-wielding cross-dressing psychotics amongst the bric-a-brac and dried turnips.
Lila’s adventure around the Motel and the house make for some of my favourite moments in Psycho, for the sense not just of rising suspense as she tries to delve into Norman’s secrets whilst Sam keeps him talking, but the way the film’s sense physical and psychic landscape collide with pungent flavour. The Bates house is Hitchcock’s remembrance of the old Expressionist credo of film setting as explanation of film theme, as much as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s backdrops or Metropolis’ (1926) mimetic cityscape. Lila skirts the rear of the cabins where old car and piled detritus lie, and penetrates the house where the old-world charm is suffocating and the zones of adulthood and childhood are still rigidly demarcated. Mother’s room with its plush, rococo intimations of decadence and sensual delights, Norman’s still-occupied childhood bedroom where beloved toys sit cheek-by-jowl with purloined Victorian pornography books for useful education. The imprint of Mother’s body in her bed describes the immediacy of her influence and the literal hole left by her absence. Cross-cutting to Sam grilling Norman, until Norman realises he’s being distracted and knocks Sam out during a tussle. Lila’s use of the cellar stairs to hide from Norman leads her to Mother, as the door to the cellar beckons as the last, unpenetrated space of mystery, the deep pit of the mind-as-architecture where Mother is seemingly set up in a chair to keep her away from prying eyes.
For good cause, Lila finds as she turns her chair and is confronted by an eyeless stare and the withered, toothy grin of death, the preserved but desiccated form of the body – the perfect one according to puritan ideal, removed of all blood, thought, passion, temptation, captive and ever true. With the twist that far from being the mother who enforces the regime of nightmarish repression, it’s the son over himself. Has a film ever encoded a spoiler so brazenly upfront as the very title Psycho? A sudden gust of revelation and action: the sight of the corpse’s face, Lila’s answering screaming, her flung hand striking a bare, scourging light bulb and knocking it into a jangling dance, and Norman’s entrance clad in floral nightgown and wig, grinning with relish with colossal knife in hand. His appearance holds a charge of bizarre comedy, but it’s submerged in the disorientating rush, perhaps one reason why Hitchcock seems determined not to linger on it. In a blink, Sam appears, grabbing Norman and forcing him to his knees with superior strength, as Herrmann’s screaming strings begin to wind down like a phonograph reaching its limit, in time with the slowing pendulum of the light, reality recomposing itself with nauseous uncertainty.
Clinical deconstruction of the saga takes place in Fairvale’s police station, where reporters and gawkers wait outside and Richman boils down the mystery for easy consumption for Sam, Lila, the local law enforcers, and the viewer, in a broad parody of psychotherapeutic jive and the expected thriller winding-down explanations. A spare yet endlessly resonant epilogue sabotages it all. Norman, now entirely subsumed by the personality of Mother, sits alone against a blank white institutional wall with blanket drawn over his head, drawing into him/herself with the aspect of a yogi scissoring himself out of reality. Mother planning to still win a victory over the watching eyes, the delving smart-alecks, the coolly abiding cops, by appearing completely passive and peaceful. She wouldn’t even harm a fly. The psychiatrist might explain why, but can never really touch that infinitely strange and churning space that is the mind; Mother is exultant, unbound, a world-spirit projecting herself out from a cage of flesh and brick to find new psychic accords in a mad age. Hitchcock projects the ghostly image of the real corpse’s face upon Norman’s, and then dissolves to the sight of Marion’s car being dragged out of the swamp, looking a little like a decayed skull itself, covered in filth. Foul deeds will rise and all that jazz, but with the light falling upon the submerged and the repressed, out comes the stink.