Yes, it’s true. Until last week I had never seen Psycho. The release of Sacha Gervasi’s new film, Hitchcock, was the final push I needed. How I’ve let this film pass me by, I’m not sure. Maybe I felt I knew enough – I’d certainly seen the often talked about shower scene plenty of times and I knew who the killer was. However, after finally watching Psycho, I now know there’s much more to it than I’d previously thought.
I say there’s more to Psycho but it’s still a fairly simple story: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a small time secretary who seizes an opportunity to steal a large sum of money and flees town only to meet an untimely end at a motel. An investigation is soon underway to find her, though primarily for the stolen money, but after the PI goes missing as well, Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), and lover, Sam (John Gavin) finally reveal the killer and the sinister truth behind it all.
The decision to kill off Leigh’s character was obviously not going to surprise me, but what did was how important her character is narratively for the first half. As the central focus, the audience sees her pained relationship with divorcee Sam, and with the main problem being money, her spur of the moment theft becomes understandable if not necessarily forgiveable. As Marion drives, we hear her inner thoughts of what might happen when her crime is revealed. Since these imagined scenes are not played out later, they need to taken as fact, thus placing importance on the Marion’s thoughts over physical truth. Okay, that sounds a bit silly but I really like how important this character felt to the film even though she’s killed off way before the finish line. She is more than some screaming blonde, she’s the driving force. And that’s what made the early killing so effective and controversial.
I felt the second half didn’t quite live up to the first. Not that it was bad or ruined the film in any way but perhaps the climax just came a little early. While I watched with more anticipation up to the shower scene, the latter half was spent waiting for Bates to be captured.
As I said at the beginning, I already knew Norman Bates was the killer, at least, I was pretty sure he was. The way Psycho builds the Mother character is done so well, I doubted my own memory, wondering if it was just the name “Bates” I remembered. The voices coming from the house are perhaps a bit distracting – pretty sure sound doesn’t carry that way – but it definitely works to create the impression of the Mother. More so, I would suggest, than the costuming. The scene that particularly stumped me was Norman taking the corpse down into the cellar. Here was a physical object, seemingly a person, that couldn’t be as quickly reasoned away as the rest. Of course Norman could put on a silly voice and wear women’s clothing but, with no one to watch this charade of taking a body or doll out of sight, what would be the point of moving it? Confusion and doubt set in. Perhaps the mother existed and was involved after all.
When Miles’ character reveals the corpse near the end, it solved this little riddle for me. I understood everything before the psychiatrist explained, but was thankful for the conclusion anyway. Since the mother-obsessed son is not a new concept, the groundwork is clearly seen from the moment Norman starts to relate stories of his mother’s relationships to Marion. I am still slightly reeling from the characterisation though, since his introduction painted him as such an adorable and dorky guy. His innocent face was so cute. To have that replaced by the sinister grin at the end remains deeply unsettling, not helped by the creepy female voice over. While the plot and setting are solid and the music undoubtedly iconic, the acting is what made Psycho a hit for me.
If you haven’t found the time to see Psycho yet, I would encourage you to do so as soon as possible. Not only is it a highly regarded top film, but it holds up really well – even if you feel you know all there is to know. Now to find time to watch Hitchcock, or perhaps one of these bizarre looking sequels…