With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock streamlines his attack and gears it toward a new generation of filmgoers. This 1960 motion picture is truly tawdry, an instance of shock cinema that brims with complex psychology and horror. It is Hitch at his most Machiavellian; he demonstrates the magnitude of his toolkit with many tricks to keep the audience one step behind the actual events of the story.
“Psycho has a very interesting construction,” the director would tell François Truffaut, “and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ.” For Hitch, the exercise of this outing winds up being perhaps less complex than a lot of analysis might suggest. His interest is in turning things sideways, in demolishing cinematic expectations.
The movie opens with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) meeting with her boyfriend Sam (John Gaving) for a sexual encounter one afternoon. They want to get married, but there’s no money. Marion goes back to work and a client (Frank Albertson) wants to buy a house for his daughter. He entrusts Marion with the money and she makes a snap decision to steal the $40,000.
She skips town, unbeknownst to anyone, and winds up at the mysterious Bates Motel. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) lives there with his mother and seems to take a liking to Marion, but his mother yells all manner of insults from the house nearby. Back in Phoenix, where Marion came from, her sister (Vera Miles) and Sam begin the prospect of hunting her down.
Most people are already well aware of the secrets within the walls of Psycho. The film comes based at least in part on the case of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin murderer with an authoritarian mother. Hitchcock’s own examination of mothers, maybe best defined in pictures like Notorious and North by Northwest, comes nearly full circle in Psycho.
Of course, this vision of the maternal is extreme. The Bates’ home, revealed perhaps too well in the film’s final exposition at the hands of a psychiatrist (Simon Oakland), is warped beyond repair. Naturally, this insanity requires considerable adaptation on behalf of the audience. Because Hitch asks the viewer to constantly shift loyalties, it would follow that the Bates’ household was built on similar tumult.
Much like Norman Bates feels in relation to his mother, the audience feels estranged in relation to Psycho. There is no anchor in this picture, no place to cleave to for safety. There are no characters viewers know are going to make it through the damp night, especially after the notorious shower scene stabs away all hope.
Still, the viewer is the tenacious onlooker. Hitchcock has toyed with this before, especially in the diagrammed endeavour of Dial M for Murder, and the audience has eagerly played along because of certain expectations of hope. But with Psycho, all hope is done away with in an instant and Marion’s moment of purity – baptism by motel shower, as it were – is mopped grubbily away.
There are many captivating scenes in this film and they have been analyzed at length, but one sequence in particular seems to shed light on all Hitchcock has to say about victimization. When Marion is talking to Bates over sandwiches in his parlour, the shots volley back and forth between characters. On Norman’s side is an unfolded owl, while the frame containing Marion is bare.
The bird motif is seen throughout Psycho, from the picture of a bird that falls off the wall in Room One to a crow in the parlour, but it’s the owl that is most intimidating because it serves as an omen. One wonders if Norman has “decided” – as much as he is capable of making a decision – that Marion is his quarry as she eats dinner “like a bird.”
Psycho is a masterwork of horror and terror, a movie that leaves the audience stranded without a mother figure to hold on to. It is rudderless in many ways and sometimes it exposes too much, but that’s part of its gaudy charm. And for Hitch, it was all about the payoff: “They [the audience] were aroused by pure film.”