A bloodcurdling, game-changing horror film and cinematic landmark
Today is Halloween and I can't think of a more perfect film to watch on this day than “Psycho”. Often called “the granddaddy of today’s horror films”, this game-changing box-office sensation was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before and caused people to flee theaters in terror, faint, and had police calming disturbances. Even my father said “‘Psycho’ was probably the most shocking thing I ever saw in the movies. People shrieked!”. It was so fresh and original it changed horror films, led to the creation of the slasher film genre, influenced (and continues to influence) countless filmmakers, and its approach to story and film craft have immeasurably impacted subsequent films and TV shows – horror or not. A remarkable blend of edge-of-your-seat entertainment and virtuoso artistry, it is truly one of cinema’s greatest films.
Packed with overwhelming entertainment value and consummate craftsmanship, “Psycho” earned four Academy Award nominations and continues to win spots on endless Greatest Films of All-Time lists, ranking on six by the American Film Institute (AFI) alone, including as the #1 Most Thrilling and the 14th Greatest Movie of All-TIme, and The Guardian voted it the #1 Best Horror Film of All-Time (and that’s a tiny smattering). This film's been written about, dissected, analyzed, and psychoanalyzed (yes, psychoanalyzed) a thousand times and ways. I won’t do that, but instead hope to whet your appetite to watch a filmic masterpiece no one should miss.
"Psycho" opens in a hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona, where real estate secretary "Marion Crane" is having an illicit affair with "Sam Loomis". He won't marry her until he’s out of debt, so when faced with an easy opportunity to steal $40,000 cash, "Marion" takes the money and runs, heading to "Sam" in California. But heavy rain and poor night visibility cause "Marion" to drive off the main highway and end up at “The Bates Motel”, where she decides to spend the night. The remote hotel has twelve rooms and twelve vacancies, and is owned and run by “Norman Bates”, an awkwardly shy, gentle type, who lives in the ominous looking house on the hill above the motel with his jealous, overbearing, bedridden mother. He fixes “Marion” a sandwich, and the two have a chat in the motel’s parlor where “Marion” rethinks her situation and plans to drive back to Phoenix the next morning to return the stolen money. But fate has other plans….
If you haven’t seen “Psycho”, I highly recommend not reading the rest of this post until after you see it. Chockfull of twists and turns, it's impossible not to reveal spoilers. While I’ll do my best to reveal only the most blatant spoilers in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section below, I strongly suggest reading about the film after you've seen it so as to be fully surprised, the way its director Alfred Hitchcock intended. You can resume reading this post starting here after watching the movie.
“Psycho” began when Hitchcock's assistant, Peggy Robertson, read a positive review of Robert Bloch's 1959 novel "Psycho" (whose main character loosely resembled Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein). She suggested Hitchcock read the book. He did, and was tantalized by the cinematic possibilities of a sudden murder taking place in a shower. Hitchcock approached Paramount Studios (with whom he had a film deal), but feeling the subject was too repulsive, they rejected the idea and refused to give him a budget or space on the studio lot to film it.
At the time, Hitchcock was also hosting his very successful TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, at Universal Studios. Realizing “Psycho’s” artistic and commercial potential, he insisted on making it and agreed to finance some of the film himself (with money from the TV show). To help cut costs, he hired much of his TV crew, shot it in black and white, and filmed it at Universal. In return for Paramount distributing the film, Hitchcock also forwent his salary for a 60% ownership of the film negative. The low-budgeted "Psycho" cost about $806,000 to make.
Hitchcock forbid any advanced screenings of the film (including for press and distributors) and for the first time in movies enforced a “See It from The Beginning” policy instructing theaters not to allow anyone inside once the film began, enforced by guards at theaters. Despite mixed reviews, the public went crazy for the film. A worldwide blockbuster, “Psycho” quickly became Hitchcock's most profitable film, making $32M in North America from its initial release alone, and reportedly earning Hitchcock over $15M. It is widely recognized as his best and arguably most famous film.
Hitchcock intended "Psycho" to toy with audience expectations and emotions. As he told director François Truffaut in Truffaut’s book “Hitchcock”: “My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound track and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with ‘Psycho’ we most definitely achieved this. It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film”. Hitchcock’s ability to consistently guide an audience exactly how he wanted remains unmatched, and “Psycho” is his magnum opus at doing so.
Among the many remarkable aspects of “Psycho” is how Hitchcock manipulates our sympathies from one person to another all throughout the film. We find ourselves rooting for “Marion” even after she becomes a thief, and then “Norman” as he has to clean a motel room and stand by a swamp. Hitchcock continues to shift our sympathies, including to “Arbogast” who’s looking for the money, and “Lila”, “Marion’s” sister who’s searching for “Marion”. We even find ourselves worrying about the fate of the money itself. As Hitchcock said to Truffaut, “I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ”. Only an expert moviemaker could achieve this so resoundingly.
Hitchcock brilliantly uses all aspects of cinema to their greatest potential (camera angles, lighting, editing, sound, music, and what’s shown and not shown) to create a sublime atmosphere of tension and terror. Take a simple scene such as “Marion” driving her car after leaving the used car dealer. He intersperses shots of her behind the wheel with those of the road ahead, while employing a phenomenal use of voiceover (of her boyfriend, boss, coworker, and the man whose money she stole) informing us what's going on in “Marion’s” head as well as what’s going to happen – all set against the film's nail-biting soundtrack.
As Hitchcock keeps cutting back to "Marion", the camera gets closer and closer to her, the voiceover intensifies, and night begins to fall. When the rain starts, the voiceovers stop and the soundtrack increases. With the downpour, the music fades away, and as she approaches “The Bates Motel”, all we hear is the slight hum of the car, the rainfall, and the windshield wipers. Through sound, framing, and editing, Hitchcock transforms a simple three minute drive into intensely riveting uneasiness. It’s incredible cinema.
For his direction, Hitchcock received a fifth and final Best Director Academy Award nomination. Surprisingly, he’s one of those great artists who never won an Oscar. In 1967, he was awarded the Academy's prestigious Irving Thalberg Memorial Award for his body of consistently high-quality work. You can read more about the life, career, and artistry of the imitable Alfred Hitchcock in my previous posts on “Notorious”, “Strangers on a Train”, “Rebecca”, “The Birds”, “North by Northwest”, and “Vertigo”. Just click on the film titles to open those posts. Hitchcock often makes quick cameo appearances in his films, including “Psycho”, so don’t forget to look for him.
In addition to technical savvy, Hitchcock plays with audience expectations, uprooting them every step of the way with red herrings and shocking surprises (which I’ll discuss more in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING SECTION). The film’s depiction of violence and sex went far beyond anything seen at the time, including the opening scene's implied sex between the unmarried “Marion” and “Sam” (half-dressed together on one bed). This violated the Motion Picture Production Code (which I explain in my "Red Dust" post), which by this point in time was rapidly losing its power. The censors thought they saw exposed breasts and actual stabbings in the film (neither of which are shown, but are implied through editing), and wanted those scenes cut. So Hitchcock told them he reshot footage to comply with their wishes but merely resent the same footage they first saw. Not seeing nipples or pierced flesh this time, the censors were so confused, they approved the scenes.
Another boundary pushing element was the inclusion of a flushing toilet ("Marion" flushes some ripped pieces of paper), never seen before in American films or TV shows (also forbidden by the Code). Unless you saw "Psycho" when it first opened (I wasn’t born yet), it’s impossible to truly digest the colossal shock and influence this film had when first released, and how it led us to the films and TV shows of today.
The use of sound in “Psycho” is extraordinary, from the ways voiceover is used, the crackling sound of the paper bag holding the cash, the gurgling of a swamp, footsteps, a knife penetrating flesh, and even silence. The exceptional sound design amplifies this world in a real and scary way. This includes the film’s legendary soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann, made entirely of string instruments. His chilling score creates a pitch perfect union of music and images that epitomizes terror, and has since become the sound associated with horror films. A stellar example of how music can generate emotion is the way his repeated strings motif cuts right to the bone. Often regarded as the greatest horror film score ever composed, AFI also named it the 4th Greatest Film Score of All-Time. One of the most famous composers in cinema, Bernard Herrmann scored seven Hitchcock films along with countless other classics, and you can read more about his life and career in five previous posts – "The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “North by Northwest”, "The Birds”, "Citizen Kane” and “Vertigo".
Herrmann’s dynamic score starts seconds before the opening credits appear, immediately getting our hearts racing. The exciting opening credits, designed by Saul Bass, feature black and gray lines cutting across the screen with words that appear in pieces, either sliced apart or coming together – a haunting way to introduce a disjointed, erratic atmosphere, perfectly fitting for "Psycho". Graphic designer Bass designed opening credits for two previous Hitchcock films, "Vertigo" and "North by Northwest", and was also hired on “Psycho" as a pictorial consultant to provide storyboards for several scenes, including the film’s iconic shower scene. Because the actual shots in the scene mirror Bass' storyboards so closely, rumors have surfaced that Bass directed it, not Hitchcock (started by Bass himself in an interview after Hitchcock's death). The film's star (Janet Leigh) and assistant director (Hilton Green) have both emphatically said Hitchcock directed it, not Bass. My guess is that Hitchcock (who was driven to making this film because of that scene and always had total control over his films) knew exactly how he wanted the scene shot by shot, and had Bass put it in storyboard form. You can read more about Saul Bass in my posts on "Anatomy of a Murder" and briefly in "Vertigo".
Janet Leigh stars as “Marion Crane”, the woman who due to an impulse, sets herself on a path with devastating consequences. Leigh gives a fabulously underplayed, multilayered performance showing a deep sad yearning in the hotel room with “Sam", a matter-of-fact desperation and contemplation when deciding to steal the money, and a melancholic loneliness and guilt while having a sandwich with “Norman". She brings an enormous inner life to “Marion” which gives a wealth of meaning to lines like her response when “Norman” says "We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?”, and she say, "Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough”.
Hitchcock cast Leigh against type, as she was known primarily for playing wholesome women in light comedies. She liked Hitchcock, as she explained in her book "Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller”: “I loved him [Hitchcock] – just adored him… He was obviously the most prepared director. After I did get the script and I was signed, I went to meet him and he showed me how every shot in the picture was already worked out… as long as what I did fit into his camera and fulfilled the piece of his picture it was supposed to fulfill, he left me pretty much alone”. Her performance earned her a Best Supporting Academy Award nomination (her only) and Golden Globe win.
A very smart child who finished high school at the age of 15, California-born Janet Leigh studied music and psychology in college. When she was eighteen, her photo was spotted at the front desk of a ski resort (where her father worked) by retired movie star Norma Shearer. Taken by Leigh’s beauty and smile, Shearer helped arrange a screen-test for Leigh at MGM, which lead to a contract. Leigh dropped out of school (returning to night classes), began taking acting lessons, and was quickly cast as a lead in her first film, 1947's "The Romance of Rosy Ridge", which was a hit. She continued playing ingénues in all types of films during the 1950's, such as "Little Women", "The Naked Spur", "My Sister Eileen”, “Scaramouche", "Act of Violence”, Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil”, and the blockbuster "The Vikings". By the time of "Psycho", Leigh had already appeared in nearly three dozen films and was a major movie star. “Psycho” became her career defining film and role, and in 1961, she was voted the most popular actress of the year by the Associated Theater Owners of America.
After "Psycho", Leigh appeared in films that include "The Manchurian Candidate", "Bye Bye Birdie", and "Harper", though for the most part, her career took a downturn during the mid to late 1960s. She turned primarily to television, with an occasional film appearance here and there, including her final screen role in “Bad Girls from Valley High”, released posthumously in 2005. After two short-lived marriages, Leigh met up-and-coming actor Tony Curtis at a party in 1950, and the two fell in love. They married in 1951 and became one of Hollywood's hottest couples, gracing movie magazine covers and talked about in gossip columns. They made five films together beginning with 1953’s “Houdini” and ending with 1960’s "Who Was That Lady?”, before divorcing in 1962. They had two daughters, actresses Kelly Curtis and Jamie Lee Curtis, and Leigh appeared with Jamie Lee in two horror films, "The Fog" and "Halloween H20: 20 Years Later". Leigh married a fourth and final time in 1962, which lasted over 40 years until her death. Janet Leigh died in 2004 at the age of 77.
Also in a signature role is Anthony Perkins as “Norman Bates”, the nervous owner and caretaker of “The Bates Motel”. Perkins’ gawky, jittery, somewhat charming demeanor fits perfectly into the role, which he brings so wonderfully to life. His uncomfortableness becomes our uncomfortableness. It’s nearly impossible to talk about his performance or character without revealing spoilers, so I’ll talk more about him in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section for after you watch the film.
New York City-born Anthony Perkins was the son of actor Osgood Perkins. He had an extremely close relationship with his mother to the point that he wished his father dead out of jealously, and when Osgood died of a heart attack, the five year old Perkins was overcome with guilt, thinking his wishes killed his father. Perkins began acting in summer stock theater productions when he was fifteen, including a lead role in “The Actress”, and his film debut came in the 1953 film adaptation of that play. In 1954, Perkins gained attention with his Broadway debut replacing the lead in Elia Kazan's production of "Tea and Sympathy” (which earned Perkins a Theatre World Award). After steady work on TV from 1953 though 1956, his second film was 1956's "Friendly Persuasion", which earned him his only Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor) and a Golden Globe Award for Best New Actor of the Year. That film led to a contract with Paramount, which also allowed Perkins to appear on Broadway, and he earned two Best Actor Tony Award nominations (for 1958's "Look Homeward, Angel” and 1960's “Greenwillow”).
Well aware of Perkins’ homosexuality, Paramount did what they could to keep it from the public and promote him as a straight leading man in films that include "The Tin Star" with Henry Fonda, "Desire Under the Elms" opposite Sophia Loren, "Green Mansions" opposite Audrey Hepburn, and as part of the star studded cast in "On the Beach” headed by Gregory Peck. Also a singer, Perkins released numerous record albums, singles, and EPs in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, with 1957's "Moon-Light Swim" being his biggest hit (#24 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart). He was now a rising movie star and teen idol. Then came “Psycho", which made Perkins internationally famous, and he’d now forever be associated with "Norman Bates". Unhappy at Paramount, Perkins ended his contract and moved to France to work in European-made films such as "Goodbye Again" opposite Ingrid Bergman, "The Trial" opposite Orson Welles, "Five Miles to Midnight" opposite Sophia Loren, "The Ravishing Idiot" opposite Brigitte Bardot, and the all-star “Is Paris Burning?”, often typecast playing disturbed characters. He returned to the US to appear in a TV production of Stephen Sondheim's horror musical "Evening Primrose", and on Broadway in Neil Simon's "The Star-Spangled Girl", both in 1966. His next Hollywood film was the 1968 cult classic "Pretty Poison”.
In the 1970's, Perkins began taking supporting roles, again, often as psychotic characters, and in 1983 he reprised his role as "Norman Bates" in the successful "Psycho II", again in 1986's "Psycho III” (which he also directed), and one last time in 1990's "Psycho IV: The Beginning". He appeared in over sixty-five films and TV shows, others of which include "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean", "Murder on the Orient Express”, “Mahogany”, "The Black Hole", "Catch-22", and the cult film "The Last of Sheila”. He had relationships with teen idol and movie star Tab Hunter, artist Christopher Makos, and dancer-choreographer Grover Dale. In 1973, he married photographer Berinthia "Berry" Berenson (the sister of actress Marisa Berenson), with whom he had two children, actor Oz Perkins and folk-rock musician Elvis Perkins. Even so, many of Perkins' friends and boyfriends claim he was homosexual not bisexual. Anthony Perkins died in 1992 from AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of 60.
In a beautifully colored performance, Vera Miles stars as “Lila Crane”, the headstrong, nearly fearless sister of “Marion”. Miles is expert at playing strong, likable women, and as such, “Lila” fits her like a glove. She shows great concern and impatience with "Sam" when waiting for "Arbogast", and lets us see “Lila’s” inner turmoil, confusion, and anxiety when first meeting the deputy sheriff and his wife. This remains Miles' most famous role.
The beautiful Vera Miles had already appeared in a slew of movies and TV shows when Hitchcock cast her as the female lead in his 1956 film "The Wrong Man" opposite Henry Fonda (including a 1955 episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" directed by Hitchcock). Having recently lost his favorite leading lady (Grace Kelly, who retired from movies to marry Prince Rainier of Mónaco), Hitchcock was on the prowl for his next icy blonde, and put Miles under personal contract with plans to make her a major movie star. She was to star in “Vertigo" but got pregnant and had to back out (and was replaced by Kim Novak). Depending on which account you believe, after that Hitchcock ether got pissed off at Miles, lost interest in her, or realized she had talent but lacked that smoldering icy quality he loved, and he never followed through with trying to make her a star. After her pivotal performance in “Psycho”, Hitchcock never worked with her again, though she later appeared in two episodes of "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" in 1962 and 1965 (neither directed by Hitchcock). You can read more about the life and career of Vera Miles in my post on “The Searchers”, and a blurb about her in “Vertigo”. As of this writing, Vera Miles is 94 years old.
John Gavin stars as “Sam Loomis”, the strappingly handsome, divorced boyfriend of “Marion” who comes to town for hotel rendezvous. First seen shirtless in what was a shockingly sexually frank scene for 1960, Gavin moves from tenderness in that scene, to deep concern when “Lila” informs him of the stolen money, and angry aggressiveness when confronting “Norman” at the motel. This remains Gavin's most memorable role.
Born in Los Angeles to a father of Chilean descent and a Mexican-born aristocratic mother, John Gavin studied Latin American affairs at Stanford University and served in the US Navy during the Korean War as an air intelligence officer. When later working as a technical advisor to a movie producer who was making a film about the aircraft carrier on which Gavin was stationed in the military, the producer arranged a screen test for the tall (6'4"), dark, and handsome Gavin. It led to a contract with Universal, who was hoping for another Rock Hudson. Gavin made his film debut in 1956's "Raw Edge", and after three more back to back films, had a breakthrough starring in Douglas Sirk's 1958 film "A Time to Love and a Time to Die", which earned him a Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe. This was followed by Sirk's 1959 classic, "Imitation of Life". 1960 saw the peak of Gavin's film career with his roles in "Psycho" and Stanley Kubrick's “Spartacus”, in which he played “Julius Caesar”.
Gavin’s subsequent roles required little more than looking good opposite the leading lady, including "Midnight Lace" with Doris Day, "A Breath of Scandal" with Sophia Loren", and "Tammy Tell Me True” with Sandra Dee. Unhappy with the nothing parts he was getting, Gavin left Universal in 1962 and began to work internationally. He appeared in just over forty films and TV shows before retiring in 1981, and his other films include "Thoroughly Modern Millie", "The Madwoman of Chaillot", "Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You", and "Back Street". From 1961 until 1965, Gavin served as cultural adviser to the Organization of American States, and was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, serving until 1986. Post politics, he became a very successful businessman, including a stint as president of Univisa Satellite Communications. He was married twice, including his second marriage to actress Constance Towers. John Gavin died in 2018 at the age of 86.
Martin Balsam plays “Private Investigator Milton Arbogast”, the man hired to retrieve the $40,000. A very natural actor, Balsam lets dialogue flow effortlessly as he listens and responds to his fellow actors. He's got a wonderful ease when first talking to "Lila" and "Sam", and if you watch how he digests and inwardly contemplates what "Norman" says about "Marion", you'll see a fabulous actor reacting with a plethora of authentic emotions. The last scene in which Balsam appears has become one of the film’s most iconic. “Psycho” came near the beginning of his prolific, award-winning, over five decade career.
New York city-born Martin Balsam joined his high school drama club, then studied at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School, and made his Broadway debut in 1941's "Ghost for Sale" before serving in the US Air Force during World War II. Upon his return, Balsam worked in summer stock, continued appearing on Broadway, and was selected by Elia Kazan to be one of the early members of the famed Actors Studio. In 1944, Balsam appeared in a bit part in the film "Winged Victory", and in 1949, began a fertile TV career with a role in "Suspense". After about a dozen more TV appearances, he had a small uncredited part in Kazan's 1954 classic, "On the Waterfront" as “Gillette" (you can read a bit about Balsam in my post on that classic). His breakthrough film role came as "Juror #1" in the 1957 classic, "12 Angry Men".
With a film career now on track, Balsam began appearing in films such as “Psycho", 1962’s "Cape Fear", and 1965’s "A Thousand Clowns", for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. In 1968, Balsam won a Best Actor Tony Award for his performance in Broadway's "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running". Though he worked extensively on TV and on stage, Balsam became a very popular film character actor during the 1970s, in films such as "All the President's Men", "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three", "Murder on the Orient Express", "Little Big Man", "Catch-22", and "The Anderson Tapes". Other titles from his 179 film and TV credits include "Breakfast at Tiffany's", "Seven Days in May", "Hombre", "Marjorie Morningstar”, and as a series regular on the TV sitcom "Archie Bunker's Place”. He was married three times, including his second marriage to actress Joyce Van Patten. His daughter is actress Talia Balsam. Martin Balsam died in 1996 at the age of 76.
Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia Hitchcock (billed as Pat), briefly appears as “Caroline”, “Marion’s” coworker. Wanting to be an actress from a very young age, the London-born Patricia made her film debut at about seven years old as part of a crowd in her father's 1936 British thriller, "Sabotage". She then took to the stage and soon after, moved to the US with her parents. She made her Broadway debut in 1942's "Solitaire". After going to high school in Los Angeles, Patricia studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and worked on the London stage. In her career, she appeared in seven films, including four directed by her father ("Sabotage", "Stage Fright", "Strangers on a Train", and "Psycho"). She also appeared in a dozen TV shows including ten episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents". Her final screen performance was in the 1978 film "Skateboard". She was Hitchcock's only child. She married once in 1952, and decided to stop acting and raise a family after "Psycho" (appearing in just three more projects). In 2003, she cowrote and published a book about her parents, "Alma Hitchcock: the Woman Behind the Man". Patricia Hitchcock died in 2021 at the age of 93.
Three sequels to "Psycho" have been made to date (all after Hitchcock's death), "Psycho II", "Psycho III", and "Psycho IV: The Beginning" (a TV movie prequel). In 1998, director Gus Van Saint remade a color version of "Psycho", copying the original almost shot for shot, and in 2013 (to 2017) ran the TV series, “Bates Motel”. References to the original “Psycho" appear in countless movies, TV shows, songs, and other forms of pop culture.
In addition to Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress, “Psycho” also earned Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography (John L. Russell) and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy, and George Milo).
A monumentally iconic and enduring film that is as entertaining as it is artful, this week’s pick is a must-see for anyone wanting to watch classic films. Get ready for one wild ride and enjoy “Psycho”!
This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform through watching a recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and more. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications of every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
As mentioned above, Hitchcock set out to thwart audience expectations, and did this by having the entire storyline about “Marion”, “Sam”, and the $40,000 turn out to be a red herring, by shifting our sympathies from character to character and not allowing us to take comfort in any one, and especially by killing “Marion” less than halfway through the film. Leigh was the big box-office star of the film, and it was unthinkable that the star of any movie would die so soon, making the shower scene even more shocking. It gave audiences a fearful sense they were not safe and that anything could happen.
The shower scene itself has become one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema and continues to frighten people to this day. It is also a filmmaking triumph which has been written about over and over, copied, imitated, and studied (even I studied it in film school). This 45 second or so sequence is a lesson in camera angles and editing. It contains between sixty and seventy shots without one showing a knife actually penetrating flesh. It's because of how well its shots are put together that we think we see “Marion” being stabbed. As Perkins later said of the scene, “All the violence in it is really more what one brings to it as an audience, rather than what is actually on the screen”. It took seven days to film.
After seeing the shower scene for the first time, Leigh was evidently so traumatized that she rarely took showers ever again (opting for baths instead), and would lock doors and windows first and leave the bathroom door open. Hitchcock knew (and intended that) this scene would be horrific for audiences and made the violence that followed less, because, as he put it, “the harrowing memory of this initial killing carries over to the suspenseful passages that come later”. That scene spawned what we know today as the slasher film.
You’ll notice a lot of birds in the film (particularly in "Norman's" parlor) representing "Norman", his mother (such as the birds of prey), and the fate of "Marion" (like the ominous crow pointed right at her neck). Also, "Marion's" last name is "Crane", which is a beautiful, non predatory species of bird. It's all another example of how much detail and thought goes into an Alfred Hitchcock film.
Another groundbreaking aspect of “Psycho” is how it reshaped the horror film from werewolves, vampires, and other supernatural creatures being the offenders, to having the monster become a human. The most terrifying monster could now be one of us – a neighbor, or someone you meet by chance.
Perkins superlatively walks the line between normal and psychotic, providing clues along the way to his true nature, such as when pausing in choosing a room key for "Marion", or not being able to say the word "bathroom" when showing her the room. And Perkins handles the parlor scene with “Marion" with great finesse, first appearing as a mild-mannered guy with a passion for taxidermy, stuffing only birds because "some people even stuff dogs and cats, but, oh I can't do that", turning serious when talking about "our private traps", and lets his dark side slip out once there's a mention of putting his mother in an institution. Perkins’ disarming personality only makes “Norman” that much more real and frightening, and his character has had major influences on horror films and pop culture. AFI named “Norman Bates” the 2nd Greatest Villain in Movies.
Hitchcock often described “Psycho" as a horror film and a comedy. At first it might not seem like a comedy, but once you know the story you'll see some pretty macabre humor scattered about, such as “Norman’s” lines, "My mother... what is the phrase? She isn't quite herself today” or “We all go a little mad sometimes". His line, "A boy's best friend is his mother" was chosen as the 56th Greatest Movie Quote of All-Time by AFI.
In case you missed it, Hitchcock’s cameo appearance comes seven minutes into the film in the first shot of "Marion's" workplace. He's seen briefly standing on the street through a window wearing a Stetson type hat as "Marion" rushes past him to enter the office.