As this is posted, it’s 62 years since the US nationwide release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s arguably his best-known film, and some think it is also his best film. Even if you don’t agree with that, it’s hard to deny the film’s impact.
You’ll likely know that Psycho is based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name. Both Bloch and Hitchcock took their inspiration from the murders committed by real-life killer Ed Gein, who was convicted of only one murder in 1957, but who had committed several others. Those murders were lurid enough as it was, but Gein’s diagnoses of schizophrenia, and the exploration of his mental health, were of equal interest.
The issue of mental illness – even psychopathology – is arguably one of the elements that add suspense to both the film of Psycho and the book that inspired it. Mental health and mental illness weren’t understood at that time as well as they are now, so as viewers see what Norman Bates is like, and why, the story gets progressively eerier. I’m no film critic, nor do I have a sophisticated knowledge of the cinema, but in my opinion, Anthony Perkins conveys the Bates character very effectively. One can see how someone might find his outwardly shy, pleasant manner appealing. At the same time (and credit also goes to Hitchock’s decisions about lighting, camera angle and so on), we also see something more sinister, and as the story goes on, the tension builds as that side of the character comes out.
The house and motel themselves also add to the story. In both the book and the film, they’re more or less out of the way and off the proverbial beaten path. So there’s a sense of isolation about the setting. There’s a sense of foreboding right from the beginning, and that doesn’t ease as the story goes on. In the film, again, credit goes to Hitchock’s choices about lightning, camera placement and set design, among other things. In the novel, too, though, the house and motel are not modern and hardly luxurious. There’s something a little creepy about them from the beginning.
Then, of course, there’s the action itself. When Marion Crane (she’s Mary in the book) goes on the run with money she’s stolen, we want to know whether she’ll make it to California. When her fate gets mixed up with Norman Bates’ fate, we want to know what’s going to happen next. And there’s the police investigation. The police get involved in the story in a few places, and part of the suspense and interest come from the question of whether they’ll find out the truth about a number of things. In both the book and the film, there are suspenseful plot elements that invite the reader/viewer to wonder what’s coming next. I won’t go into the plot too deeply, in case you haven’t read the book or seen the film. But it does encourage the reader/viewer to be drawn into the story. And, of course, there’s the Bernard Hermann score…
It’s easier to point them out in the film than it is in the book, but there are also several moments (in the film, they’re ‘jump scare’ moments) that jolt readers/viewers. Unexpected things happen (they were especially unexpected when the film and book were first released), and the final reveal was particularly shocking at the time the book and film came out.
Also shocking was the implied sexuality in the story. If you watch the film carefully, you’ll see that, even in the famous shower scene, there’s much more implied nudity than actual nudity. Hitchcock had to make sure it would get past the censors, and it almost didn’t. There are other places, too, where there’s implied eroticism (there’s a scene at the beginning of the film, for instance, that shows Marion (portrayed by Janet Leigh) in a bra and panties – a first in film). But that’s much more in the imagination than it is in the actual story. Even so, it was one of several controversial aspects of the film. It was also, for instance, the first film in film to show a flushing toilet.
I don’t need to list the films that have borrowed ideas, scenes, and more from Psycho. Suffice it to say that many filmmakers have been inspired by Psycho’s cinematography, action sequences, and plot points. For example, some of the scenes in Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill were suggested by Psycho. The Halloween film series was also inspired by the film, as was part of Robert Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath.
Not everyone agrees that Psycho is Hitchcock’s best film, but it’s very likely his best known film. It’s a crime film, a psychological thriller, and a romantic suspense film. And over sixty years after its release, it’s still being studied, talked about, written about, and viewed. That in itself says something about it.
If you’ve seen Psycho, what are your thoughts about it?
ps Thanks, Wikipedia, for the great picture of the Bates motel and house!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leon Payne’s The Psycho, made popular by Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
8 thoughts on “You Think I’m Psycho, Don’t You, Mama*”
It’s a while since I’ve seen the film, Margot, but I still think it would pack a pretty mighty punch – so much is innovative and shocking in it. Interesting to see you discuss it alongside the book, which I haven’t read.
I think the film would pack quite a punch, too, KBR. Hitchcock did what I think was a brilliant job at innovation, so that it still feels relevant even after 62 years. If you do get the chance to read the book, I’ll be very interested to know what you think of it.
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It’s been a few yours since I saw the film/read the book. I have seen the recent TV series of Bates Motel which was obviously derived or inspired by it. I’ll have to have a rewatch sometime. I think my personal favourite of Hitchcock’s films is The Birds.
Oh, The Birds is a good watch, Col! Hitchcock did a fine job with that one, I think. I’ll be honest; I’ve not seen Bates Motel, although I’ve heard it’s good. I think in a lot of ways, Psycho was ahead of its time, so to me, it’s worth more than one view.
Htchcock’s best (of the ones I have seen). Perkins is so good. Reminds me that i have the book on the shelves.
Oh, I agree completely, Neeru. Perkins is fantastic in the role of Norman Bates, isn’t he? And I think the movie is excellent, too. If you do get the chance to read the book, I’ll be interested in what you think of it.
I loved both book and film. The film is scarier, but then I always find visual stuff scarier than written. The book, I felt, has more psychological depth, partly because it’s just easier to convey that in words, and partly because film censorship of the time meant some stuff didn’t make the cut, like Norman’s obsession with porn. I thought Perkins was brilliant in the film, but when I read the book I realised how much Hitchcock had changed the appearance of the character, clearly feeling his male lead had to be attractive, even if creepily so. In the end I’d be hard put to choose a winner between them. Not Hitch’s very best, though, for me – that honour goes to Strangers in a Train!
I love Strangers on a Train, too, FictionFan! My personal vote goes to Shadow of a Doubt, but Hitchcock really did so many great films. You make an interesting point about the difference between Norman’s personality and appearance in the book, and what we see in the film. As you say, Hitchcock had his reasons, but I wonder what might have happened with the film if he’d been more faithful to the book in that way. Well, in any case, I agree that both book and film are excellent – really worth reading/watching for those who haven’t done so!
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