Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has embedded itself in the psyche of modern society. Very few people wouldn’t understand what you meant if you mentioned that shower scene and fewer still would be unable recognise the film’s piercing theme.
Why has it struck such a nerve with viewers? It could be something to do with how easy it is to relate to the film’s protagonist Marion (Janet Leigh) and her dreams of escaping her office job or how normal handsome motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) appears to be before becoming a sinister accessory to murder. Perhaps the reason lies somewhere between the two.
When she is entrusted with paying a large cash sum into the bank by her boss, Marion Crane decides to take the $40,000 and leave her life behind to join her lover Sam Loomis. Undertaking a torturous and worrisome drive away from town she is plagued by fears that everyone suspects her. Whispered accusations flitter through her mind and casual glances instil panic in her already troubled self. Seeking solace she decides to check in to the Bates Motel in the hopes of sleeping off her worry, but little does she realise that her worries have only just begun.
Psycho slowly unravels to unveil very human emotions and psychotic troubles that riddle Bates’s mind. Its classic scenes, masterful characters and truly memorable soundtrack make for a thoroughly captivating film. Arguably Hitchcock at his finest, Psycho makes fantastic use of lighting and its scenes are framed superbly. The infamous shower scene notoriously took a week to film, uses 70+ shots and lasts a mere 45 seconds but those 45 seconds changed cinema forever.
Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates laid the groundwork for later psychotic leads in countless horrors and thrillers and his adept handling of the troubled Bates is impressive. The film itself sowed the seeds for the must-have twist in horror films. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it a major clue is given subliminally in the film’s title – for those who have seen it, what a twist it was. Although perhaps seemingly mild-mannered by today’s standards, the twist is not only ingenious but is also highly fitting to the film.
If you look beyond the storyline and world-famous scenes there is great attention to detail thanks to Hitchcock’s dedication to his craft. Times when there appears to be lapses in continuity only underline the themes of the film (Marion wearing a white bra before stealing the $40,000 and then wearing black underwear afterwards showing her changing morals providing a good example). Overarching links between Hitchcock’s films are apparent, with the repeated bird imagery acting as a large prelude to his next film, The Birds.
The suspenseful chase to find the cause of Marion’s disappearance is greatly paced and the imposing presence of Bates’s house on the film is compelling. His enigmatic mother adds further mystery to the story and it is thanks to such enigmas and its now iconic scenes that Psycho has classic written through its core and isn’t a film to be missed.
Best song: Not a song as such but the shrieking string accompaniment to the shower scene is iconic.
Best line: ‘A boy’s best friend is his mother’. … and so the creepiness begins.
Best performance: Marion (Leigh) and Bates (Perkins) are superb. Hitchcock apparently thought little of John Gavin’s portrayal of Sam.
Watch this if you liked: The Birds, any slasher descendant.
Spine-chill factor: 6 / 10 – due to Bates’s character alone.
The serial killer Ed Gein inspired the book the film is based on. He also inspired Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.