Eyes. Drains. Stuffed birds. Windshield wipers. $40,000. Marion Crane. The Bates Motel. Norman Bates. Mrs. Bates. “She isn’t quite herself today.” A toilet. A study. A stutter. A private trap. A peephole. A kitchen knife. Skree skree skree skree! “Mother, oh God — blood, Mother, blood!” A car. A swamp. The Bates house. A detective. A crane shot. A creased bed. A sister. A boyfriend. A detective. An attic. A cellar. A rocking chair. A lightbulb. A wig. Skree skree skree skree! A psychiatrist. An asylum. A fly. A smile of the damned…. Half a century ago today, on June 16, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had its world premiere in New York City, and in the 50 years since it has become the rare movie in which every image and detail and motif is now, more or less, iconic. Every moment in the movie is a piece of mythological Americana.
In a way that I couldn’t quite say about any other film, I feel as if I’ve spent most of my movie life thinking — and writing — about Psycho. Here’s the essay about it that I did last year as part of EW University; it sums up my essential thoughts and feelings about the movie. Part of the wonder of Psycho, though, is that no matter how many times you’ve seen it (or, as I’ve discovered, written about it), it keeps coming back to provoke and tantalize and haunt you. Its power of revelation never wears thin or gets old. It’s one of the only films in Hollywood history — the others, I would say, are The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Star Wars — that is so alive, with a presence so vivid and immediate and larger-than-life, that it effectively transcends time.
With that in mind, I thought I’d celebrate the 50th birthday of Psycho with some free-floating thoughts and memories of what this movie has meant to me and why. And I thought I’d invite you, down below, to do the same. In its maliciously playful macabre way, Psycho is really the ultimate movie party, a ghoulishly profound gothic trapdoor funhouse that you almost literally feel like you enter each time you watch it. Let’s all go into the funhouse and take another look around.
By the time I saw Psycho, the movie was more than scary — it had become cool. I first saw Psycho at a college film society in 1978, and what I recall even more than the movie was the crowd: very new wave, very downtown (at least, as downtown as you could get at the University of Michigan). I went to campus film showings all the time, but you could sense that this was a hip movie to be at, and I think that was for a few reasons. The song “Psycho Killer,” which had come out on Talking Heads’ debut album the year before, had a big influence on how Psycho would now be seen. David Byrne had written the song to capitalize on his resemblance to Tony Perkins — the slightly spooked, owl-eyed, wiry-necked handsomeness — and in performing it as Talking Heads’ signature number, what Byrne did was to reconfigure the split personality of Norman Bates (his ordinary-on-the-outside, violent-on-the-inside duality) into an emblem of punk attitude. CBGB, where Talking Heads had gotten their start, was sending out signals of cachet to a certain youth segment of the entire country, and when Byrne sang “Psycho Killer,” he celebrated a kind of preppy psycho chic: It was now the fashion for hip dweebs to think of themselves as dangerous, as having hidden depths of crazy-cool aggression. (I’m sorry if that sounds lame, but this was college in 1978, folks. I’m not sure if worshipping Dave Matthews will look any less quaint in 30 years.)
There was a deeper cool connection as well. “Psycho Killer” explicitly made the statement that Psycho was rock & roll. And the thing is, it now was — in a way that no one could have conceived back in 1960, when the movie came out. It took place in an atmosphere of dark and stifling ’50s conformity, when an afternoon tryst had the musky, sinful air of secret depravity, and Marion Crane, stealing that $40,000, was like Doris Day taking a walk on the wild side. In that context, Norman Bates’ knife was the primal force that cut through the repressive ’50s blandness as potently as Elvis had. Sure, Norman was a maniac serial killer dressed in his mother’s Victorian rags, but when he slashed that knife, he brought down a world of civilized propriety that needed to be brought down.
Psycho was Hitchcock “going indie.” He shot it on an exceedingly modest budget, using much of the crew from his TV series, and you have to appreciate the radicalism of that choice at the time. Hollywood filmmaking, as Alfred Hitchcock practiced it, was a deluxe affair. In paring himself down, he was saying that he wasn’t going to hide behind production values — that he was looking to reconnect to something raw, simple, primitive, elemental. I can’t tell you how many filmmakers today I wish would give themselves a similar challenge (top choice: Martin Scorsese). Psycho has the joy of cinema because Hitchcock burned away the commercial-movie fat until there was nothing left but cinema.
Have you ever counted the dirty metaphors? Try watching the movie and ticking off the loopy erotic entendres that pepper the dialogue in the opening 45 minutes (“Wow, it’s hot as fresh milk!”). They’re there in almost every line. And they’re part of what gives Psycho its weirdly corseted porno atmosphere.
Why Psycho is a movie you can watch again and again and again, Part I. Movies, now more than ever, are comfort food; they reassure us with the familiar (hello, Iron Man, Karate Kid, and the Chipmunks). Yet movies can also be darkly artful adventures into the heart-popping unknown. Psycho, uniquely, is both at once. It turns order into chaos, taking ’50s small-town conformity on its trippiest ride. At the same time, it serves up murder, insanity, and the abyss with a puckish playfulness, a formality that says “Have no fear — this is the new order.” And it was. Psycho is a movie that turned the familiar inside out, in the process sowing the destruction of the very studio system that produced it. To watch the film is to be at once profoundly unsettled and ticklishly reassured, and that’s a singular combination that keeps drawing you back.
The shower scene expresses a fear that’s seldom talked about. It’s not just the shock, savagery, and timing, the “78 pieces of film” (as Hitch liked to describe it). If you look at the shower scene literally, it’s a fearsome vision of a “woman” — faceless, gnashing, ramrod-straight — who has absorbed a man’s power. Mrs. Bates, with her taunting rebukes and homicidal rages, is a nightmare image of the America then on the horizon, in which women would now be as powerful as men.
Neither the movie nor Anthony Perkins was nominated for an Oscar. Hitchcock was — he was too much of a giant to ignore. But Psycho was considered overly violent and scuzzy by the Hollywood establishment. They were already on the run from the new world.
Why Psycho is a movie you can watch again and again and again, Part II. It’s the way that Hitchcock places the audience at the center of the movie. At first, we identify with Marion. Then, in the single most revolutionary act in the history of Hollywood cinema, Hitchcock takes the main character of what appears to be a classically structured, three-act narrative and literally cuts her out of the picture. What does the audience do then? There are a lot of theories about this (David Thomson meditates on it thoughtfully in his 2009 book The Moment of Psycho), and the most conventional is that our sympathy shifts over to poor, beleaguered Norman. The truth is that it shifts around — from Marion to Norman to the detective to Lila and Sam. Finally, though, we rise with Hitchcock’s camera above all of them, merging — literally — with the director’s omnipotent view. As that happens, the mystery at the heart of the film (who’s doing the killing?) draws our emotions like a cosmic magnet. The mystery becomes, in effect, the main character, and we merge with that mystery.
Is the psychiatrist scene just bad, or is it bad on purpose? Pauline Kael, who had no great love for Hitchcock or Psycho (it’s her biggest blind spot — unless you count her perverse exaltation of the flagrantly faux-Hitchcock Brian De Palma), described the psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman Bates’ madness as “Hitchcock’s worst scene.” And it may well be. Unless you consider that everything in the scene one might criticize — the glib Freudianism, the prosaic staginess, the percussive overacting of Simon Oakland (“And because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was as jealous of him!“), is done on purpose. I mean, really: Hitchcock hadn’t suddenly lost his mojo. He knew that he owed audiences of the time some explanation of the sick-boy spectacle that they had just witnessed. But he was also setting us up for the kill. The shrink scene is there, in its “scientific” banality, to lull us into a look-it-all-makes-sense complacency, so that Hitchcock can then hit us, full force, with his most poetic scene: the insane asylum, in which the fly buzzes, Norman/Mother smiles, and the madness never ends…
Could a movie scare us today as much as Psycho did? It’s doubtful. The primal shock of Psycho is that it was the first piece of pop culture to make murder savagely up-close and horrifying and real. It made you taste your own fear. But I’ve had one movie experience in my life that may have been comparable: The first time I saw Michael Mann’s Manhunter, in 1986, it terrified me to the bone in the way that Psycho is said to have done to audiences in 1960. And I still think Manhunter is the true heir to Psycho — a movie that turns a deranged serial killer into a creepy-cool spectre of human darkness, one who can spook your dreams.
Why it’s really about the death of God. Like just about all the greatest movies, Psycho works on the level of myth. It starts out as a faintly chintzy morality play in which Marion Crane, though she made a big mistake, will presumably be chastened, redeemed, protected, and rewarded by a universe that saves those who save themselves. It turns into a movie in which no one — not even a sinner who repents — will be saved. And that, for the first time in Hollywood, is a truly godless world. You don’t have to be Carl Jung to see that it was a game-changing reflection of what our world was becoming. Psycho cleaves the 20th century in half, turning order into chaos, ushering us into a new way of seeing, of being. Yet the movie’s ultimate paradox — it’s there in the final shot of the car being dredged out of the swamp — is that it lifts us up by dragging us down. Its monster is all too brutally real. At the same time, that monster really is a ghost — “Mrs. Bates” doesn’t even exist. So why does it trouble our sleep so when she goes bump in the night?
Okay, so what are your memories of Psycho? Your theories about it? How many times have you seen it? What’s your favorite moment? And does it still scare you?