Psycho was Hitchcock “going indie.” He shot it on an exceedingly modest budget, using much of the crew from his TV series (a fact that, for some reason, never makes it into Hitchcock), 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, Twilight sequels, The Hangover, Pt. 3, and next summer’s reboot of the already-rebooted Superman). Yet movies can also be darkly artful adventures into the heart-stopping 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 one fear that is 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. Yet Psycho was considered overly violent and scuzzy by the Hollywood establishment. They thought it was Hitchcock dabbling in tabloid vulgarity, but really, 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 (it’s her biggest blind spot — unless you count her perverse exaltation of the flagrantly faux-Hitchcock Brian De Palma), thought that Psycho was cheap and offensive, and she 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 that 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 bearings. 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 supposed to look like banal television (and it’s the only scene in the movie that does). It’s there, in its “scientific” blandness, 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 that Manhunter is the true heir to Psycho — a movie that turns a deranged serial killer into a creepy-cool spectre of human darkness (and also draws you to him with a hint of sympathy), one who can spook your dreams.
Why it really is 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. Psycho cleaves the 20th century in half: It turns order into madness, 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, yet at the same time that monster is just a ghost — “Mrs. Bates” doesn’t even exist. So why does it trouble our sleep so when she goes bump in the night?
Okay, what are your memories of Psycho? Your theories about it? How many times have you seen it? What’s your favorite moment in it? And does it still, after all these years, scare you?
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