Alfred Hitchcock was looking to make a smaller picture after several larger films (Vertigo in 1958, North by Northwest in 1959), but he probably never suspected that his small-scale horror film would become one of the most iconic films of all time. Starring Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, Hitchcock created the slasher film and singularly influenced every horror movie that came after it.
Marion is in trouble. She is trapped in a doomed relationship and short on cash. She rashly takes a substantial amount entrusted to her care from work and plans to run away. That’s the first half hour of the film. And yet none of that matters.
She checks into a small motel as she is trying to disappear and runs into an interesting young man, Norman Bates. Norman is troubled by his mother. She calls Norman weak and a poor excuse for a son, and Norman agrees with her. This spooks Marion who realizes that her problems are not that insurmountable. She resolves to return home, but later that night, Mrs. Bates breaks into her room and stabs her to death in the shower. That’s when the real movie begins.
It’s all an elaborate hoax of a first act. Marion is just there to gather some sympathy and interest as we are led into Norman Bates’ world. The mystery of Mrs. Bates then takes hold as Marion’s sister and lover begin to look for her. Who is Mrs. Bates? What is the matter with her? What about Norman? Will they get caught? Do we want them to be caught?
To spoil the surprise of anyone who has not seen the film, Mrs. Bates has been dead for quite some time, killed by Norman. Plagued by guilt, Norman has recreated her personality in his head, having active conversations with her, even dressing up like her and killing anyone who poses a threat to ‘her son’ while keeping her body perfectly embalmed in the mansion.
The infamous shower scene and shocking psychotic twist ending created an instant audience infatuation. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. Even today, it is amazing to experience the twists and turns of the film.
The execution of the story spoke to the artistic possibilities of horror. Hitchcock was a master filmmaker, respected and influential. He used the finest aspects of filmmaking, utilizing depth of field, camera movement, dialogue, story, focus, lighting and all that cinema had to offer to tell stories. His abilities gave what might have been considered a B-film weight and prestige. The shooting is beautiful, the camera action motivated and the editing (particularly during the shower scene) adds visual interest. Psycho proved that horror did not have to be the refuge of the poor studios and specialized audiences, but that it could be a mainstream form of art and entertainment.
Beyond the financial success and shock factor that made the film an instant classic, Psycho has endured today because of its story. Norman Bates is a cultural icon not because he is the villain of the story but because he is so sympathetic. He is good looking, friendly, beat down by his mother and just trying to do the right thing (protect her). He is not a monster, but hidden deep within him, one lurks. It is that duality that makes him so interesting; one part good, one part evil. And as the mystery of what happened to Marion Crane envelops the viewer, we see more and more of ourselves in poor Norman Bates and recognize the potential monster living in ourselves. He represents our innocence and evil, living at the same time, something endlessly fascinating about the human condition.
Pity sad Norman Bates and pity us for we are the same. Who knows when we might snap just like him. While blood and shock brought us into the theater of Psycho, Norman sticks in our mind and never lets us forget the small Hitchcock film that changed cinema forever.