"We all go a little mad sometimes", Alfred Hitchcock, American Landscape, Anthony Perkins, Film, film review, Hays Code, High Anxiety, horror, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, Marion Crane, Mel Brooks, Motion Picture Production Code, Psycho, Psycho Shower Scene, Psychosis, Sexuality, Taxidermy, Vera Miles, Vertigo
It’s easy to forget that Psycho is actually a good movie. It’s easy to forget because like many great films, it has been borrowed and parodied so much that the climactic scenes have almost become parodies of themselves. The classic “Shower Scene” remains the sole focus of many casual movie-goer’s attention and I cannot even count the number of times I have seen this parodied in cartoons, comedy spoofs, and television sketches. However, it should be noted that the best example of parody of the now iconic shower scene is from Mel Brook’s High Anxiety when the busboy “stabs” Mel Brooks with a newspaper leaving Brooks one of the best reaction lines in cinema history:
Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke: That kid gets no tip.
Alfred Hitchcock is a director who, while his work has become rather wrapped up in trendy adoration, managed in his time to produce some of the best movies in the world. His movie Vertigo alone recently replaced Citizen Cane as the American Film’s Institute’s number film of all time, and when you remember that Orson Welles held that spot for almost four decades that shift is not just dramatic it’s monumental. I avoided Hitchcock for years largely because of the hype that surrounded the man and his work, but also because the man himself had become a bit of a cartoon character. His appearances on The Simpsons, American Dad, and Family Guy and even the Twilight-Zoneesque Alfred Hitchock Hour all just seemed a bit much for me and so I avoided him until I met a friend who opened my eyes to the man’s work.
It started with Strangers on a Train. Technically speaking Psycho had been the first of his movies that I had actually sat down and watched all the way through, but Strangers was the first of his films that I sat down with the intent of actually watching Hitchcock and what he could do with cinema. After writing about the film I decided to watch Vertigo after years of hearing about it from my little sister and like Strangers I was blown away by it. This buildup of momentum is partly responsible for my sitting down again to really watch Psycho, the other part is the fact that I’ve been spending more and more time at the Tyler Public Library and they have an entire wall now of DVDs. I checked out Psycho and The Last Picture Show but only had time for the former. My apologies to Mr. Bogdonovitch.
I watched Psycho for the third time recently and, apart from having the first half of the movie regularly interrupted by my dad who was reading funny memes on Facebook, I was struck by how good a movie it actually is. Given what I’ve noted about Hitchcock’s reputation earlier this sentence may seem a bit strange, but there again I’m working on the premise that Psycho is often self-parody. This is fallacy. Psycho, like most Hitchcock movies, is actually a brilliant movie largely because after the jump-scare moments like the shower and the detective being stabbed on the stair case have been observed, the real genius of the movie is how unexpected these murders are given what has happened up to this point.
The film begins in Phoenix Arizona in a cheap hotel room where Marion Crane, and her boyfriend Sam Loomis, have clearly spent the afternoon making love. Sam’s divorced and works in a supply goods store, and while it’s clear he loves Marion and wants to marry her, his problem is his ex-wife who is enjoying the benefits of alimony. There’s a brief exchange that opens the film and the viewer is able to see right away the tension:
Sam Loomis: You never did eat your lunch, did you?
Marion Crane: I better get back to the office. These extended lunch hours give my boss excess acid.
Sam Loomis: Why don’t you call your boss and tell him you’re taking the rest of the afternoon off? It’s Friday anyway, and hot.
Marion Crane: What do I do with my free afternoon? Walk you to the airport?
Sam Loomis: We could laze around here a while longer.
Marion Crane: Checking out time is 3 P.M. Hotels of this sort are interested in you when you come in, but when your time is up… oh Sam, I hate having to be with you in a place like this.
Sam Loomis: Married couples deliberately spend occasional nights in cheap hotels like this.
It’s important to note that this opening scene does more than just set the characters and their motivations however because the visuals of this scene are striking for the time. Before Psycho came out there was what some would call an obstruction to movie makers known as the Motion Picture Production Code, often referred inaccurately to as the Hays Code. This was largely a censorship campaign spearheaded by the Catholic Church by an organization known as The National Legion of Decency or The Catholic Legion of Decency. This group had largely focused itself on maintaining the so-called “decency of the arts” viewed by the public, and because film was becoming more and more of a standard of entertainment this group pushed for movie makers to be limited in what they could include in their films. Before this, elements such as violence, sexuality, homosexuality, and just about everything that makes life worth living was used and explored in cinema, but once the NLD or CLD, whichever you prefer, pushed film production companies with lawsuits and pernicious rhetoric the film industry created the Production code which limited what you could show on air.
A good example of this is the fact that a kiss could only be a few seconds long. When you consider that Psycho opens up with Janet Leigh wearing just a bra and a skirt Hitchcock’s film becomes something scandalous and/or progressive. Marion leaves the apartment thinking about Sam’s problems with his debts and his ex-wife and returns to work as a secretary in a real estate agent agency. She’s back for five minutes when her boss enters the office with a man who has with $40,000. By todays standards that’s still a lot of money, but courtesy of Dollar Times the current value of that money would be $321,802.72.
The money becomes what pushes the plot through the first half of the film for Marion recognises this is her chance to help Sam and escape her life. Before I stray further however the exchange that takes place between Marion and Tom Cassidy is important for it helps establish much of the later horror of the movie. Cassidy clearly thinks Marion is attractive, leaning on her desk and drops it before her.
Tom Cassidy: I’m buying this house for my baby’s wedding present. Forty thousand dollars, cash! Now, that’s… not buying happiness. That’s just… buying off unhappiness.
[waves money in front of Marion]
Tom Cassidy: I never carry more than I can afford to lose! Count ’em.
Caroline: I declare!
Tom Cassidy: [staring at Marion] I don’t! That’s how I get to keep it!
George Lowery: Tom, uh… cash transactions of this size! Most irregular.
Psycho is a film that is carefully loaded with character, and by that I mean each person the viewer encounters possesses their own eccentricities. Tom Cassidy is a bit of a hyperbolic personality, but what’s important is that, while watching him and the way Hitchcock presents his character he feels real to the American experience. There are men in the south who wear cowboy hats and walk around waving their money, and I say that having lived here for as long as I have. Likewise, a later character that Marion encounters is a used car salesman who, while at first appearing cartoony actually only furthers the realism that Hitchcock is trying to establish:
California Charlie: I’m in no mood for trouble.
Marion Crane: What?
California Charlie: There’s an old saying, “First customer of the day is always the trouble!” But like I say, I’m in no mood for it, so I’m gonna treat you so fair and square that you won’t have one human reason to give me…
Marion Crane: Can I trade my car in and take another?
California Charlie: Do anything you’ve a mind to. Bein’ a woman, you will. That yours?
Marion Crane: Yes, it’s just that – there’s nothing wrong with it. I just…
California Charlie: Sick of the sight of it! Well, why don’t you have a look around here and see if there’s somethin’ that strikes your eyes, and meanwhile I’ll have my mechanic give yours the once over. You want some coffee? I was just about…
Marion Crane: No, thank you. I’m in a hurry. I just want to make a change, and…
California Charlie: One thing people never oughtta be when they’re buyin’ used cars, and that’s in a hurry. But like I said, it’s too nice a day to argue. I’ll uh – shoot your car in the garage here.
These impressions of people from afar and out of context seem odd or fantastic, but that’s largely the point. Marion’s character, along with Sam Loomis is rather mundane, and by that I mean the viewer doesn’t really have that much difficulty recognizing them as people they would encounter. Their motivations are recognizable, likewise are people like California Charlie and Tom Cassidy. These are people steeped in commerce and money and real life, and thus their motivations areen’t that difficult to figure out. Hitchcock, if I can write this without sounding like a kissass as best I can, is really clever to keep building these characters up because when Norman Bates finally makes his grand appearance on the scene at first his eccentricity just seems to be part of the general atmosphere.
Just the initial introduction of Norman is rather strange, but when he offers Marion dinner his eccentricity seems almost common-place:
Marion Crane: Taxidermy. That is a strange hobby to fill.
Norman Bates: A hobby should pass the time, not fill it.
Norman Bates: You-you eat like a bird.
Marion Crane: [Looking around at the stuffed birds while eating] And you’d know, of course.
Norman Bates: No, not really. Anyway, I hear the expression ‘eats like a bird’ – it-it’s really a
Norman Bates: fals-fals-fals-falsity. Because birds really eat a tremendous lot. But -I-I don’t really know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things. You know – taxidermy.
It’s a bit of serendipity, but it seems like every portrayal of a serial killer involves an obsession with skin. Whether it’s Bloodyface on the second season of American Horror Story, Jame Gumb in Silence of the Lambs, or even just Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the narrative of killers obsessed with skin is a recurring trope in horror stories. Technically it all goes back to Ed Gein, but that’s for a later essay. The point is that this brief moment from Norman precedes the later dialogue which will reveal his psychosis. Marion and Norman discuss his mother who Marion hears all the way from the Motel and during the conversation Marion makes a small mistake:
Norman Bates: It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?
Marion Crane: Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough.
Marion Crane: Do you go out with friends?
Norman Bates: A boy’s best friend is his mother.
Norman Bates: The rain didn’t last long, did it? So… where are you off too?
[Marion looks uncomfortable]
Norman Bates: Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.
Marion Crane: Oh, I don’t know. I guess I’m looking for a private island someplace where I can be alone and no one can find me.
Norman Bates: What are you running away from?
Marion Crane: Why do you ask that?
Norman Bates: No reason. No one really runs away from anything. It’s like a private trap that holds us in like a prison. You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.
Marion Crane: Sometimes… we deliberately step into those traps.
Norman Bates: I was born into mine. I don’t mind it anymore.
Marion Crane: Oh, but you should. You should mind it.
Norman Bates: Oh, I do…
Norman Bates: But I say I don’t.
Marion Crane: You know… if anyone ever talked to me the way I heard… the way she spoke to you…
Norman Bates: Sometimes… when she talks to me like that… I feel I’d like to go up there… and curse her… and-and-and leave her forever! Or at least defy her! But I know I can’t. She’s ill.
Marion Crane: Wouldn’t it be better if you put her… some place…?
[Marion does not finish the sentence as she thinks of the right thing to say. Norman leans forward with a conserned look on his face]
Norman Bates: You mean an institution? A madhouse?
Marion Crane: No, I didn’t mean it like…
Norman Bates: [suddenly angry] People always call a madhouse “someplace”, don’t they? “Put her in someplace!”
Marion Crane: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound so uncaring.
Norman Bates: What do you know about caring? Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing, and the tears, and those cruel eyes studying you? My mother THERE?
Norman Bates: Oh, but she’s harmless. She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.
Marion Crane: I’m sorry. I felt that… well, from what you told me about your mother is that she might be hurting you. I meant well.
Norman Bates: People always mean well. They cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads and suggest, oh, so very delicately!
Simply reading this exchange doesn’t give the right justice to the performance of Anthony Perkins who, with seemingly little effort, manages to give one of the most frightening performances of any actor’s career. I haven’t gotten to the shower scene, or the plot twist that made Psycho such a shocker to audiences, and I’ll have to explore these ideas in a later essay. But what I simply wanted to explore here was the idea that Psycho is a film so defined by the shower scene that all the earlier and later performances have been seemingly abandoned and forgotten. I am not suggesting that the shower-scene doesn’t possess a power to terrify a first-time viewer, or that it didn’t scare legions of casual movie-goers when the film was first released, or that it didn’t scare me. To this day I’ll never forget my seventh-grade English teacher telling the class that she screamed when Janet Leigh did, and I’ll never forget the dramatic screeching of the violin’s as Norman Bates’s blade sunk into Marion again and again.
But fear is fleeting, and once the actual terror has past Psycho is still an amazing film for the minor and major performances that present a real sense of humanity. Hitchcock as a director was a master of his craft because he managed to produce some of the most iconic shots and images pushing the bounds of what could be done in film. A nice shot only goes so far though. In order for a film to be great there must be balance of humanity. In Psycho the viewer sees a man struggling to make ends meet, a big-talking Southern blowhard, a smooth talking car salesman, and finally a troubled young man whose normalcy and eccentricity blinded a generation of moviegoers.
Like I said before, it’s easy to forget how great a film like Psycho actually is, because it does everything it can to portray humanity the way it actually exists. And in such comfort people forget that life can make such frightening turns.
Here is an original review of the film by the New York Times:
Here also is a link to an article done by The New Yorkeer which explores the cinematic success of Psycho as a film:
And finally I’ve included links to a few other sites which explore some of the small eccentricities that have given the film the impact that it has today. Enjoy.