Psycho at the movies
What more can be said about this 1960 classic? Many of the things in the film are so well-known, they are part of our movie lexicon– our culture lexicon, even. There’s something about this film that makes it seem dangerous. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the simple nature of the movie or maybe it’s the black and white. Either way, it’s a great movie.
The New York Post said that the black and white made Psycho look harsher and more gritty. I agree with that, especially when it comes to the outdoors scenes. It also secures a generic nature to the film, making the story appropriate for any little town, anywhere. The movie begins with an exact date and time, but it zooms in on a generic building in a generic town, as if to say that it could be set anywhere. This setting and introduction sucks in the audience and helps them identify with the main character.
Even when Marion becomes a crook and a liar, we still identify with her. Why? Maybe because of the way her boyfriend treats her at the beginning of the movie. He’s a jerk. Maybe because of all the contrasting personalities around her, like the arrogant businessman, who acts like a jerk. Everyone wants to see jerks get what’s coming to them. There are a LOT of jerks in this movie. Maybe the more jerks there are, the more with sympathize with Marion.
Norman Bates himself is given a sympathetic introduction too. His “mother” yells at him, which starts him down the path into becoming the main character. All his eccentricities seem to make him a character worthy of other emotions, besides fear. This is assured once Norman kills Marion. We watch as he cleans up and rolls Marion’s car into the swamp. The camera pauses on the car as it stops sinking into the muck. Norman looks nervous. What are you feeling at that moment? I think Hitchcock wanted the audience to be nervous too, in their quest to understand and sympathize with him. There’s no reason to pause the sinking otherwise. I’ve always thought the car sinking was one of the most clever and amusing parts of the movie.
It is also interesting how Hitchcock eliminates the money from the plot by having Norman toss it in the car. He doesn’t want to complicate Norman’s motivation. He’s not out for money. He wants the crime to be psychologically motivated. A crime of passion, not greed.
Just like in other Hitchcock films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo, there’s a lot of duplicity going on. Besides the obvious Norman/Mother split character, Marion and her sister share a lot of similarities and differences. Mirrors also help aid the duplicity, by slighting warping the perspective for the audience. The mirror motif has inspired long research papers from major Universities that I won’t go into here. Needless to say, the mirror plays an important role in the use of perspective, false identity and fractured personality.
I think only Silence of the Lambs used the female/male juxtaposition and character conflict better. Both films have a lot in common, and both male characters seem to be in a dominant position, although are portrayed as weakened. In Norman’s case, his business is failing and he seems to have no life, but he still acts innocent, shy, like a nice person. As he steps behind the motel counter, he gazes at Marion like Lector stares at Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. Lector is also in a weakened position, although seems not to be phased by it, like Norman. I would say his discomforting gaze is more effective though.
Overall, this is another Hitchcock classic. It’s well-made. It has great characters. It has an interesting plot. What more could you want? How about deep themes? It has those too, which always intrigues me. There have been several books comparing Psycho to other movies, like House of 1000 Corpses and even Friday the 13th. Psycho set the mold for a lot of things, so of course there’s going to be comparisons. Even the ending works as a modern influence. I’ll never forget the picture of Norman possessed and the incomplete ending, which leaves us with Marion’s car being pulled out of the swamp. Dawn of the Dead later did the basically same thing, giving us an incomplete ending. Psycho has classic elements, but also feels modern and contemporary, with its continued influence and important place in movie history.