Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is a classic thriller, one of the best movies of all time, and was a groundbreaking film when it was made. It was the first major Hollywood film to have one developed main character for its first half, Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, and another for its second half, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.

From the opening scenes, the viewer suspects he may be in the wrong movie, a sexy crime rip-off tale in the James Cain or Elmore Leonard vein. Marion Crane, a young Phoenix, Arizona real estate office secretary, is having an affair with Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a shady divorcé who lives in the back room of a hardware store in Fairvale. Later in the day, a large cash purchase gives Marion an opportunity we feel she has been waiting for and planning for, at least subconsciously, for a long time. Entrusted with $40,000 to deposit in the office's safe deposit box, Marion instead makes off with the money, hoping to start a new life with Sam.

The audience starts to notice something, though, as Marion makes her tense dash to Fairvale. The messenger is Bernard Herrmann. The message: something's going on. The slashing, swooping music which accompanies her windshield wipers in the rain is too intense to be simply echoing her guilt. Marion Crane is in trouble. If she's not going completely insane, something's about to happen to her which is far worse than the possible consequences of her theft.

Exhausted from traveling and agonizing over her crime (and taking a little satisfaction in it, too), Marion pulls into the Bates Motel ("twelve cabins, twelve vacancies") for a good night's sleep.

It might be interesting to see a film where she gets it. Psycho is not that film.

Instead, Marion comes in contact with a morass of contradictory values, questionable upbringing, perverse sexuality and violent tendencies which make up a man named Norman Bates.

For those who haven't seen the film, I won't ruin the ending. It's a surprise and a shocker in this classic tale, though guessing at it doesn't ruin it.

Janet Leigh is really the perfect Marion Crane. She projects a dangerous, flirtatious sexuality, an intelligence and a pathos which make her the ideal match for our Norman. Perkins is also excellent as Bates, a grinning, good-humored but troubled small-town good kid, a little eccentric, perhaps, but he's been through so much, after all, with the death of his mother and her fiancé, and them moving the highway and all. Vera Miles and John Gavin are competent, but the real supporting sparks come from character actor Martin Balsam as private detective Arbogast, with a cool, diffident manner and a doggedness which, though it does him credit, leads to some unfortunate turns of event as well.

Psycho is one of Bernard Herrmann's most recognizable scores, violating all over the place the often-repeated dictum that movie music should not be noticed. What a silly dictum. Psycho wouldn't be half the movie it is without Herrmann's tightly controlled musical insanity.

Psycho satisfies in underground and above-ground ways, consciously and subconsciously. Some of it is corny, but it still gets under your skin.

Links for Psycho

Remade as Psycho (1998)

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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