US Release Date: 09-08-1960
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
- Anthony Perkins, as
- Norman Bates
- Janet Leigh, as
- Marion Crane
- Vera Miles, as
- Lila Crane
- John Gavin, as
- Sam Loomis
- Martin Balsam, as
- Milton Arbogast
- John McIntire, as
- Al Chambers
- Simon Oakland, as
- Dr. Fred Richmond
- Frank Albertson, as
- Tom Cassidy
- Pat Hitchcock, as
- Vaughn Taylor, as
- George Lowery
- Lurene Tuttle, as
- Mrs. Chambers
- John Anderson, as
- California Charlie
- Mort Mills as
- Highway Patrol Officer
Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in Psycho.
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is one of the most influential and iconic movies ever made. More than any other film, I think, it was the one that ushered in the 1960s. It's the mother of every slasher film ever made and Norman Bates is one of the most memorable villains ever to cast a tormented shadow across the silver screen. From the classic opening title sequence by Saul Bass to the final terrifying close-up of Anthony Perkins, Psycho offers a masterclass in suspense and horror. The infamous shower scene lasts just three minutes but it includes more than 50 cuts. Frame for frame it's arguably the most famous scene in movie history and Bernard Herrmann's screeching string-section score is equally unforgettable. During those three minutes American audiences lost their innocence. The Movies would never be the same.
Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a working girl who absconds with $40,000 one Friday afternoon. Hitchcock directs with his usual concise inventiveness. Marion leaves the office on her way to the bank. We learn of her theft in the very next shot. The camera reveals the envelope stuffed with cash lying on a bed. Next we see Marion packing for a trip. As she makes her getaway she has nothing but bad luck. Her boss sees her driving even though she told him she didn't feel well and was going home to bed. Next she falls asleep in her car by the side of the road and draws the attention of a traffic cop. Her nervous behavior makes this policeman suspicious and he follows her. He witnesses her purchasing a new car and paying with cash but he lets her go. What lies ahead is much worse.
Today, of course, we all know Marion's fate. It's nearly impossible to see this movie for the first time without knowing about the shower scene. But imagine yourself in the audience in 1960. The point of Marion's bad luck is to distract the audience. By diverting their thoughts to Marion's crime and her odds of getting caught the audience has very little time to see the killer coming. And besides, who ever heard of the star of the movie dying in the first hour?
Janet Leigh is terrific as Marion Crane. Her wide-eyed expression of guilt is countered by a steely inner resolve. In her blind flight from the law she runs smack into something much more dangerous. The final shot of her eye in extreme close-up is brilliant. But as good as Leigh is, it's Tony Perkins who gives the most riveting performance. He's perfect as the unassuming young man with a dark, twisted secret. At first you feel sorry for this lonely, tortured soul. “A boy's best friend is his mother.” He tells Marion. At first Norman seems friendly enough but as the night progresses cracks begin to show in the mask he's wearing.
As groundbreaking as Psycho was it is also indebted to the past. It borrows horror movie tropes that had been established long before 1960. For example, Marion arrives at the Bates Motel at night during a thunderstorm. Lightning illuminates an ornate mansion looming on a hill just behind the motel. It's the classic “dark and stormy night” scenario. But Hitchcock turns the cliché on its head with the shower scene. It's very modern and brightly lit with an almost clinical eye. Nothing like it had existed on film before.
Psycho is the most famous movie the master of suspense made during his long and illustrious career. It came at the absolute peak of his success. It followed two other classics. He directed Vertigo in 1958, North by Northwest in 1959, and Psycho in 1960. What an amazing feat. Vertigo is more hauntingly artistic, North by Northwest is more purely entertaining, but for my money, Psycho is Alfred Hitchcock's greatest masterpiece.
Janet Leigh in Psycho.
Psycho is quite simply, one of the most famous movies ever made and mainly because of that one scene. As Patrick said, even if you've never seen it, you are probably already familiar with those 3 minutes in the shower. That moment has been parodied and imitated many times, but never bettered. It's a shocking scene that still works more than 50 years on and will continue to work for as long as there are eyes to watch it. And, as modern filmmakers should take note, it features almost no gore and just a surprisingly small amount of blood. It's the vulnerable shower location, the quick cuts, the hints of nudity, the flashes of the knife, and that screeching soundtrack that all work cumulatively to create a classic cinema moment.
That one scene overshadows the film so much that it's easy to forget just how good the rest of it is. It's brilliantly shot and littered with classic moments. It was filmed in black and white because no one had any faith in the project except for Hitchcock and so he directed it on the cheap. Instead of being a handicap though, Hitch turned this to his advantage. Now it's impossible to picture it any other way. It adds to the atmosphere greatly, especially in the dark and stormy night scene that Patrick mentioned. But it also adds to other, quieter scenes, such as the one that finds Norman standing beneath a tree by the swamp. He turns as a vehicle approaches the motel. It's a minor scene, but it's shot perfectly. Or take the scene in Norman's parlor with the stuffed birds looming over Marion. It's another moment that just works better in black and white.
It's also easy to forget that no matter how much that shower scene still retains its ability to shock, its effect today is nothing to what it was in 1960. Psycho is one of the films that helped push the boundaries of the dying Production Code. The scenes of Janet Leigh in her slip and brassiere while mild to modern viewers, was quite risque for a mainstream Hollywood movie of the era, especially when she's wearing them while lying in bed with a shirtless man with whom she had obviously just had sex. Another moment that had trouble with the censors is quite laughable. The MPAA was willing to let the murder scene go without complaint, but they did object to Marion visibly flushing scraps of paper down the toilet.
The performances, especially by Leigh and Perkins, are every bit as good as Patrick said. Perkins starts off portraying Norman as a nice, diffident young man. A little lonely. Maybe a little different from spending so much time in an almost abandoned motel, but basically a good guy and a sympathetic character. The darkness creeps into him as the film progresses and Perkins puts up and takes down the facade of normalcy quite brilliantly. "We all go a little mad sometimes." he says in one of the film's best lines, only he goes a little more mad than most.
Whether you're seeing this movie for the first time or after multiple viewings, Psycho still manages to entertain. It may mainly be remembered for that one shower scene, but the whole thing is, as Patrick noted, a true masterpiece. There have been many horror movies since 1960, but rarely have they been raised to the level of art as this one was.
John Gavin and Janet Leigh in Psycho
Although the shower scene is the film’s most iconic, I found the scene where Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins talk in the parlor to be creepy as hell. Imagine you sitting where she sat while this strange young man goes on about taxidermy and complaining about his mother in one breath and defending her with his next. It is the middle of a rainy night. Norman casually mentions that both of his mother’s husbands have died but not how. The oddest line in the scene is the famous one Patrick mentioned, “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” Why did Marion not lock and bolt her door knowing that creeper was around?
Norman is clearly disturbed and he does not stand up to any sort of questioning. After a few moments talking to Marion or the detective, it becomes obvious that he has a darker side. I always thought that Norman struggled to control his inner demon but with this viewing I realized that he struggles to maintain the façade of innocent young man. That is the act, while his dark side is the real Norman. I agree completely with my brothers that Perkins is brilliant in the role.
Patrick wrote how Psycho used old horror movie tropes and invented some new ones. Just as with the victims of Jason and Michael Meyers, the first to die are usually the girls who have sex. Apparently, sexually active single girls attract serial killers. As Scott wrote, Marion is having an affair. By today’s standards that is not a moral flaw but in 1960 she would have been considered a loose woman. Add her theft and her doom is sealed. Scott also mentioned the nude scene, which likewise became standard horror practice.
With Leigh’s breast only covered by steam and her scene laying post coitus on the bed with John Gavin, Psycho was definitely a huge step forward in cinema maturity. Not only did this film show us things to come, it discussed insanity in a dark way that had never been done before on film. Movies had featured killers before but never one so psychoanalyzed. I never realized just how much Dressed to Kill (1980) stole from this movie.
I like the opening scene where we meet Sam and Marion in a hotel room. He is a miserable divorced man who has sex with Marion during his visits to town. She wants to get married while he is hesitant after getting burnt by it. Both are single adults but obviously want to keep up appearances and their fling from prying eyes. Like Norman they present themselves as one thing when out in society or at their place of employment, but act otherwise in the confines of their hotel room. It is not a coincidence that Hitchcock starts the film with Marion finding pleasure in a hotel room and later her fate in one. Clearly, his point is that hotel rooms are places for secrets.
As the saying goes, “Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery” and Psycho has had many imitators. I was reminded of the "B" horror thriller Vacancy (2007) but there are so many others as well. Psycho is easily one of the top 10 most influential films of all time.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1960)