Dir. Alfred Hitchcock – 109 minutes.
Starring – Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsham
I think I was about 15 at the time when a friend and I went to the local cinema in Halifax to watch a new action movie called North Sea Hijack. We already had prior knowledge that a certain current James Bond actor was playing the lead role, but what caught the two of us well and truly by surprise was a few minutes into the film when the movie’s bad guy appeared on screen…….. “Hey look, it’s Norman Bates!!’ No word of a lie, we really did shout that out in unison. Even at the young age a certain movie and it’s star bad-guy had entered our pop culture brains.
I’ve often wondered what it must be like for an actor to become so defined by one particular role that it completely overshadows anything, and I mean anything that he or she could ever do again. There are throughout movie history many actors who have never shook off the shackles of their synonymous roles. William Shatner and Bela Lugosi are two names that immediately spring to mind who are arguably better known by their screen names than their own. Sometimes this typecasting comes with more than acceptable riches to go along with the fame which makes the inability to persuade an audience to accept them in other roles a little more bearable. Sometimes the riches aren’t enough. Some actors embrace, or at least become comfortable with their typecast role. Some don’t.
“Yes Mother, I’m in the North Sea. I’ll be home soon”
Anthony Perkins is another name that can no doubt be added to what is an extensive list. In his case, it was mainly a problem of his own making that his role of Norman Bates in Psycho was an almost note-perfect perfect portrayal of a tortured psychopathic killer. Unfortunately, it was also a role that defined his career and for some fans the actor himself – despite a string of awards and noteworthy performances that succeeded Hitchcock’s seminal masterpiece.
Moreover, for many years he went as far as possible to distance himself for many years from the movie, even going as far as banning interviewers from asking him questions that had anything even remotely to do with the film or his part in it. In fact it took him 23 years to find some acceptance of the cards he had been dealt when he began work on the first of two less than exceptional sequels.
So what is so special about the movie and the role that helped define Perkins along with his co-star Janet Leigh, but also the director that 53 years after it’s creation is still ranked in the top 5 of many people’s favourite horror movie?
To begin with, I’m not going to debate about whether or not Psycho is a horror, thriller, psychological thriller, or whatever genre title people would like to provide. It is already a well-worn argument that has qualified support and reasoning on all sides, as is the debate as to whether it should be referred to a ‘Slasher’ at all.
Well, seeing as this is my review and my blog, I shall indeed propose that not only is it horror, it is rightly considered in some quarters (including yours truly) that this is the very first film that could rightly be called a Slasher movie. What is not open to debate is the impact that Psycho has had, not only within the horror/thriller genre, but also in wider popular culture with the movie and certain scenes within it being constantly referenced, revered and pastiched in equal measures. In one fair swoop Hitchcock provided respectability and even critical acclaim on a film genre that until that point had wallowed in the world of B-movies.
At its core, Psycho is essentially a masterclass of storytelling. It begins with an office worker Marion Crane (played by the excellent Janet Leigh) who is clearly unhappy during one of their lunchtime assignations that she and her boyfriend cannot afford to get married. This problem seems to be potentially rectified when, on returning to the office she is entrusted with a huge amount of a client’s money to put into the bank.
It’s not made explicitly clear in the film whether Marion has planned for some time to steal money from her employer or whether this was a spur of the moment whim – nevertheless, steal it she does and absconds from the town immediately.
This is Hitchcock’s first touch of genius, because for the first 20 minutes or so of the movie we have been completely absorbed into Marion’s world. We start to feel sympathy almost for her as she nervously skips town, even more so when after pulling over on a deserted highway to sleep and then awoken by a suspicious traffic policeman. He knows something isn’t quite right about this woman driving alone (remember, this is the early 1960’S) and so follows her to a nearby town. Here she exchanges her old car, buys a new model and drives away into the early evening.
A she drives onwards through a torrential rainy night she realises that she needs to rest and so pulls into the remote Bates Motel. Here we are immediately introduced to a shy yet polite young owner, Norman Bates who offers Marion one of the many spare rooms in the Motel. As they chat Norman tells her that since the recent diversion of the main highway they don’t really see much business anymore.
At first Marion feels in control of the conversation with is pleasant but very nervous young man, even after he also starts telling her about his mother, who Norman reveals suffers from some sort of mental illness. However, his up to now friendly and unassuming manner abruptly changes when Marin politely suggests that he should think about putting her in an institution.
“Tea, Coffee, very sharp kitchen knife?”
At this point we the audience are starting to feel that something isn’t quite right, both with the Motel and its young owner. Marion thinks so too as the experience has influenced her to return back to the city and face the consequences of returning the stolen money.
After setting on returning in the morning she decides to take a shower………
The shower has been running for a few moments when we see a blurred figure enter the bathroom…….
the figure comes up close to the shower curtain……….
suddenly it pulls away the curtain where the silhouetted figure of a woman is revealed……
we then see the figure raise its arm…….
in its arm is a large kitchen knife…….
Marion is stabbed and slashed to death.
These are Hitchcock’s second and third moments of genius. Firstly, the movie’s central character has been killed off in the first 3rd of the film – this kind of thing never happened in the movies. The shock at the time, putting aside the manner of the death from the audience was huge. Remember, this is a world where cinema spoilers were at that time virtually non-existent, nowadays movie industry advertising through trailers and social networking have ensured that most plot lines AND SPOILERS are in the public domain. However, in 1960 audiences were bewildered that the protagonist didn’t follow the usual arc from safety, through danger, to a final comforting ending of absolution and closure. This shock had been reinforced by Hitchcock’s cunning advertising campaign – just look again at the movie poster at the top of this blog. Marion’s character (in her underwear of course) is the foremost figure with the small picture of Norman to the side of it, almost as an afterthought. Even the figure of her boyfriend gets a larger treatment, even though he barely appears in the film at all. Genius.
That third stroke of genius was the pivotal moment of the movie, which is of course the shower scene. It’s a clip that in itself has been referred to and referenced perhaps more times than any single scene in cinematic history. It has been analysed by people far superior to myself in the ability to dissect its appeal and power, so I won’t spend too much time here talking about it. I will say that it is 3 mins and a few seconds of pure, undiluted
perfection – from the slow haunting build up, to the violence of the attack itself, ending in the camera panning down to the blood draining away and then holding on Marion’s shocked face as her life ebbs away. And off course there’s that screeching Violin & Cello soundtrack. Stunning stuff.
Immediately after her the death by slashing, we hear Norman shouting from his house above the motel ” Mother, oh god Mother, blood!!!” He then comes rushing into the bathroom and after discovering Marion’s corpse puts her body in her car which he hides away in a swamp nearby.
Soon after, a detective who has been charged with the task of tracking Marion and the stolen money after talking to her boyfriend and sister (Sam & Lila) eventually locates the Motel.
His suspicions are aroused by the evasiveness of Norman, so much so that he returns later to the Bates residence after telling Marion’s sister that he was going to talk to the owners mother. Here he is murdered on the stairs, again by the shadowy female figure, who has emerged from an upstairs room.
Sam and Lila, after losing contact with the detective decide to take matters into their own hands and make their own way to the town near the motel. Here they start asking questions about Norman’s mother…..
For the two people in the world that have yet to see this masterpiece, I won’t discuss any more specifics of the plot……. well except for the picture below….
” I’m a bit mad you know”