A quintessential horror movie and arguably the most iconic of all of his films, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho kills its protagonist half way through the story, replaces her with a mama’s boy and transforms itself from a mystery tale into a poignant psychological study.
There is no shadow of a doubt as to Alfred Hitchcock being one of the greatest directors of all time. His films have by now transcended the realm of cinema and become part of a wider cultural milieu – icons on themselves. As the movies reach an ever-expanding demographic and their whodunnit aspect subsides, it gets harder to be shocked by their themes and storylines, slightly diminishing the experience of watching the films, but paradoxically also adding new undiscovered pleasures to it.
On a hot Friday afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona, real estate secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $ 40,000 from her boss’ client. On her way to Fairvale, California – where her boyfriend lives – Marion, tired, pulls over to sleep. Next morning, as she is woken by a patrol officer, before continuing on her trip, Marion decides to stop at a car dealership and exchange her old vehicle for a different one. That night, as it pours down, Marion stops at the Bates Motel, where she meets the owner, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). As Marion takes a shower, Norman’s mother stabs her several times, killing her on the spot. When Norman discovers the scene, although shocked, he cleans the place meticulously before hiding her body in the trunk of her car and sinking it into a nearby swamp.
A week later, as Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) gets concerned about her whereabouts, she meets up with Marion’s boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) in Fairvale, where they are confronted by private investigator Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Eventually they find the Bates Motel and establish that she spent the night there and that Norman is hiding information. After Arbogast is killed by Mrs. Bates and Lila and Sam do not hear from him, they go to the local sheriff, who informs them that Norman’s mother has been dead for ten years. They then decide to confront Norman at the motel and after a little game of cat and mouse, Lila finally finds the mummified corpse of Mrs. Bates in the cellar. As Norman (dressed as an old lady) tries to kill Lila, Sam grabs him. At the courthouse, a psychoanalyst explains that he is trapped in the persona of his mother.
..When Our Conscience does not Let It Go…
Psycho is a Hitchcock’s masterpiece that has been cheated by its classic status. Arguably the best known of his films, this seminal horror picture has entered into the collective imaginary of cinephiles for some time now. Unless you’re a young enthusiast, who hasn’t had much time yet to watch some of the ‘must-see’ films of all time, you probably know the plot twist at the end of the movie. We all know that has been Norman Bates all along: the figure of his mother pacing by the window; the yelling and reproaching of this naughty and lustful boy; the murder of Marion Crane, rendered in a now iconic scene, studied more times than the film itself.
This basic knowledge – aggravated by Norman’s (as his mother) maliciously sinister smile at the end of the film – forces us (perhaps, unintentionally) to see the film with different eyes. As one can’t unlearn what has been absorbed, the psychoanalyst within ourselves takes over and Bates’ behaviour – ambiguous, almost androgynous! – is seen from a therapist’s point of view, rather than a disinterested observer. Plenty of the pleasure of watching the scenes between a seemly insecure man and a confident, and yet guilt-ridden woman is lost by the knowledge of the plot – and the suggestion of similarity between Norman’s voyeuristic attitude and our own act of watching the bizarre events in the movie dissipates.
After the murder, when Norman comes rushing down those steps that connect the motel to the creepy old house, the nuance in Perkins’ performance, as he acts surprised but also guilty for the acts of his mother, is kind of nullified by the fact that we are aware of his violent outburst of rage released upon Marion moments before that. To watch the movie from such an omniscient perspective has its advantages too, as there are layers that can be perceived – and these are indeed interesting – which would be otherwise imperceptible the first time round. However, the tension in his face, and consequently the ambiguity that it suggests, falls flat on the ground when we know the story.
Part of the reason his films are thematically rich is undoubtably due to this duality found everywhere in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. The analogy made somewhere else between Norman’s and Marion’s relationship and a cunning arachnid and a vain insect in the poem ‘The Spider and the Fly,’ by Mary Howitt (1799-1888) is indeed apt to illustrate how charming and sweet (perhaps involuntarily?) he seems to be and to what extent he is prepared to go to achieve the satisfaction of his urges. And though the cautionary tale is directed towards Norman (is this spoilt pup aware of his sheep’s clothing?), the tale lends itself well to Marion’s circumstances too.
It is Norman that invites Marion to his parlour, and in hindsight – as we know he will mention the notion of not hurting a fly – it is indeed frightening. However, ‘Will you walk into my parlour?’ has being playing off since Marion decided to see those $ 40,000 as part of the solution for her life. It goes without saying that she did not deserve to die, but surely her greed played a part when ‘He dragged her up his winding stair, into his dismal den, within his little parlor; but she ne’er came out again!’ From a greatly admired and critically acclaimed filmmaker, the Master of Suspense himself… the story of a little boy who did not want to grow up…