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.