As 'Hitchcock' arrives, here's a look back at the mystique of 'Psycho'
This post combines two earlier pieces that I wrote about Psycho: one published on June 16, 2010, to mark the film’s 50th anniversary, the other as an essay for EW University.
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….
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released in the summer of 1960, and in the half a century 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. Part of the film’s mystique is that no matter how many times you’ve seen it (and it may be the ultimate movie that you can watch over and over again), 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, its experience so vivid and immediate and larger-than-life, that it effectively transcends time. (One of the reasons that Hitchcock, the broadly infectious, once-over-lightly new biopic about the making of Psycho, gets away, to a degree, with its filigree of factual distortions is that both Hitchcock and Psycho are now such a part of our pop folklore that to approach this chapter of film history even in a slightly exaggerated manner is to touch a certain truth.)
In the infamous shower scene, when that big, fat kitchen knife, wielded by a mysterious Victorian shrew named Mrs. Bates, came slashing down, over and over again, into the body of Marion Crane, it was also slicing through years — decades, centuries — of popular expectation that the hero or heroine of a fictional work would be shielded and protected, or would at least die (usually at the end) in a way that made some sort of moral-dramatic sense. In Psycho, murder made no sense at all; the suddenness — and viciousness — of it tore at the fabric of our certainty. What it suggested is that none of us, in the end, are ever truly protected. Hitchcock seemed to be pulling the rug, the floor, and the earth right out from under the audience. He opened an abyss, exposing moviegoers to a dark side that few, at the time, could ever have dared to imagine.
It’s a fair bet that you, like me, are too young to have seen Psycho when it first came out. And for anyone who didn’t see it then, it’s probably safe to say that none of us can ever fully know what it felt like to experience the shock — the original, jaw-dropping blood terror — of Hitchcock’s game-changing masterpiece. Psycho was adapted from a novel that was based on the case of Ed Gein, the demented murderer and graverobber from rural Wisconsin who became the first — and still most legendary — of all modern serial killers. (Twenty-four years later, he inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well; he was the sick puppy who kept on giving.) But it’s doubtful, in the early ’60s, that almost any American had even heard the term “serial killer.” We were still a long way from Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, or chianti jokes.
You could easily claim that Psycho, more than any other film, is the movie that changed movies — that it broke down, and reconfigured, popular storytelling by shifting it from a form in which lives were orderly and cohesive, bound by the symmetrical conflicts associated with classic Hollywood, to one in which lives were loose, random, unpredictable, and violent, subject to the messiness we associate with the Hollywood films of the ’70s, after the collapse of the studio system. Yet the most measurable and seismic effect that Psycho had was on the horror genre itself. Before Psycho, horror movies were “monster” movies. They were fantasies in which men battled supernatural creatures — or turned into them. The monsters could be big (Godzilla) or small (The Fly), sexy (Dracula) or ugly (Frankenstein); they could be spectral and profound (I Walked With a Zombie) or literal and rubbery (The Creature From the Black Lagoon); they could come from outer space (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or they could be the beast within (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde). But they were all, one way or another, not quite of this earth. Psycho revolutionized all that. Here was a horror film in which the “monster” lived inside the head of one man — poor, schmucky, fearful Norman Bates, the mama’s boy with a black secret. In truth, there was no monster at all, no shrieking outsize “mother.” There was just Norman and his rage. Yet Hitchcock’s genius is how deftly he created the illusion of a monster. The Bates house, that looming Gothic mansion full of cryptlike rooms and stuffed birds, was, in effect, a symbol of old-fashioned 19th-century terror. It was a Hollywood funhouse with a secret trap door.
Once inside the house, Hitchcock, drawing his camera back and up, up, up high, teased the audience with a great Freudian metaphor. Though he never, right up until the end, let us get close enough to see Mrs. Bates, what we did see was Norman carrying her around — which, of course, is exactly what the real monsters of our time do. They carry their demons around, making them real, becoming slaves to them instead of mastering them. They become souls in demon drag.
By making the audacious claim that the darkest monsters — brutal, homicidal, and unknowable — live directly inside us, Alfred Hitchcock, in the grandest stunt of movie history, did more than kill off his heroine. He made a show of killing God; he expressed the horror of a world that had seen enough real horror (the trench slaughter of World War I, the Holocaust, the dropping of the A-bomb) not to need any more monsters. And that’s why the horror films of today are forever in his debt, and in his shadow. Every time you see a slasher movie with Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, or whatever new name they come up with for some masked lunatic with a big blade, you’re watching a remake of Psycho, an attempt to recapture its fear and insanity. But, of course, that can never happen again. Because now we know what’s coming. The movies, it turned out, could only kill God once.
In its maliciously playful and macabre way, Psycho is really the ultimate movie party, which is one of the reasons that you want to keep going back to it. Here are a few of the many thoughts I’ve had about it over the years:
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. The film unfolded 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.
NEXT PAGE: Hitchcock goes “indie,” dirty metaphors, and why Psycho is a movie you can watch again and again
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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