Sex and violence, both artfully implied, are the running themes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Its debut in 1960 was the climax of a pre-production hell that was rife with budget constraints, casting problems, and meddling from censors. This seminal suspense film would set the trend for all slasher flicks to come. In an age where at least two to three slasher and suspense films are churned out by Hollywood every year, Hitchcock’s Psycho was the film that no one wanted to be made.
The content was deemed too gory and racy, needless to say that the industry has a completely different attitude about such content now. However, it has been over 40 years since Psycho debuted on the silver screen and the question that begs answering is has it withstood the test of time? Some classics retain their potency well into the coming years while others clearly show their age. So the question that begs answering is which category Psycho falls into; is it as riveting since its debut or has it fallen prey to time and been reduced to being merely quaint?
Hitchcock’s seminal thriller, upon viewing, is anything but a quaint little suspense film. Psycho still invokes a range of emotions that runs the gamut from sympathy, to abject horror. The score, photography, editing, and performances from the cast all contribute to a masterpiece that expertly plays with the audience’s feelings.
The infamous shower scene still invokes the horror of dying so vulnerably, and its effect is greatly magnified by the fact that the audience has come to care for Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). Her motives, and actions are relatable and her general demeanor is one that engenders sympathy. Marion Crane comes across as very self-possessed and passionate but certainly not a brainless slut, though she’s scripted to die in a very messy and infamous scene. Modern day horror and slasher flicks play up the audience’s cynicism regarding the intended victims by imbuing said victim with a host of negative qualities such as promiscuity, naiveté, and narcissism. Hitchcock on the other hands chose to show Marion Crane as a good person committing a crime for noble reasons.
The opening shot of her and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) alone in bed are erotic without being tawdry. The implication is that the couple has just finished making love, yet there remains a longing between the two that is forcefully personified in a kiss following Marion’s vow to remain by Loomis’ in spite of his financial woes. The minimal lighting and tight shots establish a sense of great intimacy, and the two actors smolder in their desire and bitterness at the circumstances that prevent their union. Sam Loomis’ decision to track down his lover needs no further explanation after this scene.
The first twenty minutes are suspenseful in their own right, as one wonders when and if Crane will be apprehended for her pilfering. However, when rewatching the film the suspense is taken up a notch when one realizes that the imposing cop and the smarmy but concerned car salesman are Crane’s last chance at salvation; had she confessed she would have never found herself at the Bates’ motel and in the company of her killer. The shower scene in Psycho has often been likened to an allegory for baptism gone horribly awry; where Marion Crane would have washed away her sins and owned up to her mistakes she ends up being butchered. The extended focus on the blood washing down the drain is symbolic of her life being carried away in a torrent of violence into a dark place from which she will never return.
Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates also holds up, as one initially has a hard time believing that he will eventually be revealed as the iconic cross-dressing serial killer with an Oedipus complex. Norman Bates comes across as a sweetly awkward and attractive man held captive by his duty to an ailing mother at the onset. Even when he spies on Marion Crane undressing he comes across as being cautious, not perverse, though the scene is very voyeuristic in construction. Perkin’s plays Bates without a hint of insanity initially and he maintains this until the climatic reveal.
The oft discussed shower scene is still gut wrenching as the idea of dying in the bathroom in the nude, invoking perhaps and almost infantile vulnerability, hits too close to home. However, there are other scenes just as shocking littered throughout the film that induces similar if not worse reactions. The death of investigator Arbogast is one that comes readily to mind if only because it beats the shower scene in how sudden and unexpected it is. The overhead camera angle that Hitchcock utilized to film the murder both maintained the mystery around Mrs. Bates and allowed the viewer to take a bird’s eye, almost voyeuristic view. The iconic score shrieking violins are as sudden as Mrs.Bates’ appearance and lend to further upset the lull the audience has fallen into.
The subsequent shot of Arbogast falling down the stairs is ambitious but rather awkward looking nowadays and is probably the only scene in the film that seems so. Perhaps what is also unsettling is that the thickset investigator is easily dispatched by an old woman or at least someone who we are led to believe is old and female. The audience does believe that Arbogast can handle, as he states, an elderly invalid however this is Mrs. Bates we’re dealing with here. The other scene that strikes straight to the core is Norman Bates, in drag with a knife and a crazed expression, bursting upon Lila Crane (Vera Miles) as she discovers the desiccated remains of his mother.
In the horror- suspense genre the most disturbing scenarios are the ones implied. It’s the story that isn’t explicitly told, the tale underneath, that haunts the viewer afterwards. Norman Bates’ incestuous relationship with his mother is hinted at ominously with only a few lines of dialogue, the significance of which only becomes clear in the epilogue. This is all that’s needed for the audience to construct their own conception of the twisted background. The murders, similarly, are all filmed with tightly controlled shots and without explicit gore leaving the audience trying to see around the flailing limbs at the enshadowed, feminine demon that stalks the Bates Motel.
Psycho, in a nutshell, is not only the template which every filmmaker interested in the horror or suspense genre should study, but also a thoroughly enjoyable film. It has withstood the test of time and stands as a testament to the importance of quality filmmaking. The scenes still shock, the music still punches up the tensions and the acting is still top notch.