'Psycho' turns 50 today, but it's the most eternal of all thrillers -- the one that changed movies, and the world

psycho-screamImage Credit: Everett CollectionEyes. 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.

psychoImage Credit: Everett CollectionBy 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-hitchcockImage Credit: Everett CollectionPsycho 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.

bates-hotelImage Credit: Everett CollectionWhy 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.

psycho-batesImage Credit: Everett CollectionWhy 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?

Related:
The top 20 horror movies of the last 20 years
Owen defends his best horror movies picks
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Comments (118 total) Add your comment
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  • Casey

    Holy God was that first paragraph annoying as hell!

    • dipshat

      Ha, ha, good point. Still, masterpiece.

      • Casey

        Yeah the rest of the article was great though.

    • Patti

      It annoyed the S*#t out of me too.

    • Sean Elliott

      F-you, guys. Last I checked none of you ever created a paragraph worth publishing, or one clean vivid thought worth extrapolating.

      • Joe

        ooooooooh, big words Sean!

      • Brett

        And Sean? Neither has Owen. And neither have you. It’s the Internet. Develop a thicker skin.

    • Joe

      I was just going to post the same comment! I eventually had to scroll past it all.

    • Moi

      haha I kept reading the words hoping to get to some pow ending but it just kept going and going, brutal.

  • Tammy

    You=’re right on target naming Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” as the heir to “Psycho”. It was and sill is the absolutely most terrifying film I have ever seen.

    • Addison

      Good Article. Psycho is eternally a masterpiece. But Silence of the Lambs was way scarier than Manhunter. Just saying.

      • Laura

        It makes me seem a little odd, but I’ve never seen “Silence of the Lambs”, not because I have any kind of objection to it. But, because I read the book when I was about 12 and it scared the ever-loving c r a p out of me. I’m not sure which of those statements better indicates I need therapy.

      • AcaseofGeo

        Silence of the Lambs scared the living BeJesuz out of me. The book Manhunter was based on, which I read AFTER seeing Silence scared me even more. The Ring is the only movie in recent years to have my heart pounding and a sickness in my stomach. I saw Psycho long after I knew what happened in it. So while I love adore and think Pyscho is one of the 10 best movies ever made, I’ve only ever been able to appreciate it for its nuances, its scenes, its iconography and not as the shocking thriller it actually is.

  • claudenorth

    My favorite scene is the dinner conversation between Marion and Norman in Norman’s office. The acting in that scene is superb, with Anthony Perkins providing glimpses of Norman’s madness while maintaining his vulnerability, and Janet Leigh displaying both fear and sympathy in a wonderfully understated way. Compare the original to the botched version in Gus Van Sant’s remake and you’ll realize how much depth that Perkins, Leigh, and Hitchcock brought to the film.

  • Alicia

    What scares me is not the shower scene. I somehow can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what happened in the shower scene, so that lessened the shock. The scariest moments include the murder of Arbogast, which always makes me jump, Norman’s general creepiness in his conversations with Sam Loomis and with Marion Crane, the “peeping” scene, and, last but not least, the smile of absolute evil given by Norman aka “Mother” at the end of the film. To me, that was the smile that killed Anthony Perkins’ career, typecasting him forever as the unstable neurotic or psycho. Love all the bird metaphors (Marion Crane literally becomes like one of the stuffed birds on Norman’s wall, except he doesn’t stuff her. But close enough.

  • Kevin

    It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I think my favorite scene is when Norman is peeking at Marion through the hole in the wall… it’s such a crazy thing to see in a movie made in 1960. And his reaction to it is brilliant… the hole in the wall already exists, meaning he has done this before, but he then becomes almost repulsed at his own perversion. It’s a simple scene that says a lot about the complexity of human nature and the relationship between our public repression and our private urges/pleasures. To your list of films that transcend time, I would add Jaws.

  • gregc

    Nice article, but would it have killed you to mention Robert Bloch, the author of the original novel? Sadly, I see this all the time. Pretty much every article of PSYCHO reads as the story and characters sprung entirely from the genius of Alfred Hitchcock.

    Hitchcock was brilliant, no mistake, but he didn’t invent Norman Bates, Marion Crane, the Bates Hotel, etc. Robert Bloch did.

    • steveb

      Excellent point, gregc. The book is a monster in its own right.

    • Sal

      There’s a similar article over at Moviefone that does cite the book. However, it didn’t seem to be a popular book, and very few people even know it was based on a book, so it’s not that huge a deal.
      http://www.moviefone.ca/2010/06/15/psycho-50th-anniversary-alfred-hitchcock/

      • Brett

        The question isn’t the popularity of the book, it’s the fact that without the book on which to base the film, there’s no film. Hitchcock didn’t create Norman Bates out of whole cloth. I’m not denying the genius of the filmmaker – clearly, Gus Van Sant took the same source material and made it somehow boring, tawdry and cheap – but the film is nothing without the book from which it drew so much inspiration.

    • Randy

      Thank you for mentioning Robert Bloch. I always thought that the whole “Psycho” thing was Hitchcock’s idea. Love the movie but now I want to read the book.

      • Kevin

        But the book is very different from the movie. The whole set up of not knowing what the movie is really about with the shock of the shower scene was Hitchcock and Stefano’s invention. In the book, Norman is in the first page.

  • JLC

    One of my favorite scenes is best appreciated after you’ve seen the movie once. Lila is searching the house while Sam keeps Norman occupied. She gets to the bedroom and sees the Norma shaped indentation on the bed. The first time you see it, you’re thinking the same thing Lila is thinking. But once you know what that indentation really means….

  • Mike

    Very insightful write-up, though it’s a little sad to see Owen’s best writing has been relegated to EW online. Reading this makes me want to watch the movie again!

  • Anne

    Great article! Really made me want to rewatch =) Agree that it is a masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever, certainly one of the greatest thrillers. It’s completely perfect, and possibly the “best” Hitch, though not my personal fave (I enjoy watching Vertigo and Notorious more). But anyway, brilliant movie. I saw it way to young and it scarred me for life, but also was a big part of developing my love for film.

    • Sean Elliott

      Agreed. “Vertigo” is one of my (eleven) all-time favorite movies, as I think Hitch had never been more daring. Just like the psychiatry scene in “Psycho” was done bad on purpose, the first scene with Jimmy Stewart and Barbara Del Geddes was done bad on purpose; a reveal to how dorky and out of touch Jimmy’s character was, that he was essentially a pushover. I loved all of Hitch’s Freudian layers.

    • TampaMike

      We’re in the same club. I first saw the movie at a SO CAL beach theater when I was probably 7 or 8 years old (in mid-60s). I got through the shower scene somehow, but the staircase scene did me in and I had to leave the theater. I’ll never forget it.

  • Addison

    Wonderful article! I am a huge Hitchcock fan, although “Psycho” is not my favorite (I like “The Birds” and “Shadow of a Doubt” better). But I do enjoy watching the movie. What I always found heart-pounding were the early scenes of Marion on the run, sitting in her car with that envelope of money and her fear of getting caught. Leigh’s acting is superb, you feel her anxiety over the situation.

    • Alicia

      My faves are “North by Northwest,” “Rear Window,” and “The Birds.” Throw in “Strangers on a Train” and “Vertigo,” and “Foreign Correspondent” and “Shadow of a Doubt,” “The 39 Steps,” and yadda yadda yadda. Heck, the guy made more great movies than anyone. But I can watch the first two on my list again and again.

      • AcaseofGeo

        I can watch Rear Window any day any time. I’m not even a big fan of Grace Kelly OR Jimmy Stewart. I love the “scenes of life” as seen through his eyes, and the thought of “what is REALLY happening.”

  • bailoutsos

    Janet’s daughter, Jamie Lee is HOT.

  • MiddleofPA

    No disagreement on the list of great movies, including Psycho. However, I realize it’s become fashionable amongst the academia and literary circuit to bash “Gone With the Wind”, but how can that bigger than life epic be excluded from a list of movies that are “so alive, with a presence so vivid and immediate and larger-than-life…”. It’s hard to argue that GWTW didn’t change Hollywood forever.

    • Kevin

      As a huge movie fan and student of cinema, I have to say that I absolutely HATE Gone With the Wind… it’s like the Titanic of its era, a crappy movie gussied up in fancy surroundings.

      • Alicia

        I love “Titanic,” – it is the filmic equivalent of comfort food. On the other hand, “Gone with the Wind,” does a brilliant job of capturing the highlights of the book so that the fan of both doesn’t even notice how much of the book is not up there on the screen. “Gone with the Wind,” and “Casablanca,” are considered by many critics to be tied for the greatest Hollywood movies of all times (as opposed to the greatest films).

      • Angela

        As a huge movie fan, I have to say that I liked Gone With the Wind a lot. It isn’t perfect (the second half is too long and winded) and much of the “larger-than-life” feel comes with how huge it was when it came out, but it’s still a deserved classic. Also, I love Titanic.

    • Roisin

      Totally agree MiddleofPA. I’m watch loads of films all the time but I always come back to GWTW. I know every line off by heart even though people think it’s crazy. I hate the way some people bash it and even more people have never even seen it saying it’s too long. I tell them they could watch one half one night and the other half another night (which is perfect anyways because it’s split that way on two DVDs). Like I don’t like Star Wars but I’d never bash it, I appreciate that alot of people like it.

      Psycho was truly amazing, I haven’t seen it in a few years so I might get the DVD from my sister later today to watch it again. I know even Hitchcock himself thought ‘Rope’ was a disaster but I like it, it’s not long so I watch it every now and then when I have an hour to waste. It’s amazing to imagine how people didn’t see the homosexual side of it at the time but I suppose people wouldn’t suspect it in 1948. Sorry I rambled, I can’t sleep haha

    • Dave

      GWTW is a great show, same as Titanic. So I enjoy watching them for that. The storyline for both films is o.k. As for Psycho, it’s both a good story and a good show. Even though I knew all about the shower scene and the fact that Norman was the true killer before I watched it, I could still almost feel the suspense and utter suprise and thrill those 1960 audiences felt.

  • Patrick

    A huge thing about this film is that it is the godfather of the slasher sub-genre.

    It rocks so much on it’s own but it’s cool what it influenced.

  • Dennis

    Why do we call macabre violence entertainment? Don’t we have enough of that in the world today?

    • Kevin

      Every party has a pooper…

      • MattCC

        You’re exactly right, Kevin! Obviously Dennis needs to put down his granola and realize that, psychologically-speaking, horror films are as therapeutic to the human mind as years of therapy.

    • Brett

      Why do people call the Jonas Brothers “entertainment”? Why do people watch sitcoms? Why do people do any of the things they do?

  • Jim

    It is also my understanding that the film had two ‘firsts’ in it.
    It was the first legit movie to show a naked female in the shower scene ( even though Janet wore a body suit, it was meant for it to be naked) The fast changing camera however made it impossible to “see her”
    It also was the first film to show a toilet..when she flushes the money..without doubt, a classic timeless movie to be enjoyed by generations to come.

    • Joe

      She doesn’t “flush the money”. She flushes a piece of paper that shows how much of the money she’s spent and how much she’ll need to give back. Sorry, I’m a Psycho nerd. It’s my all time favorite movie. I can’t believe Anthony Perkins didn’t even get nominated for an Oscar. He should have won one for sure.

    • Frank

      She doesn’t flush the money down the toilet, she flushes a piece of paper with the figures written on it.

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