After years of watching Psycho on TV, thanks to TCM, I finally got a chance to see it on the big screen. Over 60 years later Alfred Hitchcock's thriller has lost none of its power to unsettle and implicate the audience.
At a Pop Culture conference I attended a few years ago I stumbled upon a panel discussion on Psycho. One presenter argued Psycho should be considered a comedy! While Hitchcock typically injected humor into his films and Psycho does contain moments of levity, no one leaves the theater laughing.
Another speaker did a gender analysis. In 1960, with the Cold War turning hot and with Vietnam War a few years away, some psychologists viewed moms as a threat to American masculinity. The logic being that if young boys get too attached to their mothers they might end up like Norman Bates. An intriguing analysis, but I believe Hitchcock offered something more than armchair psychoanalysis.
Cultural interpretations aside, Psycho remains a masterpiece of modern cinema. Saul Bass's opening title sequence and Bernard Herrmann's ominous score set the tone from the outset. Then the camera pans down to a hotel room where an illicit act has taken place, at least for 1960, a secretary Marion (Janet Leigh) and a divorced man Sam (John Gavin) are having an affair. They want to marry, but financial obstacles stand in their way.
Later that day, Marion runs off with a cash deposit her office entrusted to her in hopes of eloping with Sam. In another film, we would have the basic plot: Will Marion escape and build a new life with Sam? Almost immediately her plans go awry: her boss spots her and then she is pursued by an intimidating cop. She trades in her car and ends up at the Bates Motel.
Then we meet Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) a seemingly decent young man. Intrigued by the attractive woman in his lobby, Norman makes awkward attempts to converse with her. With a grotesque bird of prey looming above him, Norman speaks glowingly of his mother, while also sensing Marion's not the innocent she presents to the world.
Then the course of cinema history changes. While the shower scene's been copied a million times in every slasher film, the terror of that moment lingers.
For myself, the real horror comes during the quiet aftermath: a zoom out from Marion's lifeless eye resembles the stuffed birds in the lobby. A stark silence fell across the theater, as I'm sure it did in 1960. At that moment Hitchcock intrudes upon and implicates the viewer; forcing the audience to ponder what just took place.
The second act follows Norman's clumsy attempt to cover up the murder as Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Sam slowly discover the truth. It's hard not to sympathize with Norman Bates. The idea of a sympathetic killer, a victim in their own right, suggests there are no laws to the universe.
Many object to the procedural ending when the psychiatrist provides a rational explanation of Norman's troubled psyche. The scene reminds me of when something awful happens, say a mass shooting or an act of terrorism, and the media trots out experts to explain the unexplainable. We just get the illusion of order being restored, but is it really?
Hitchcock's final close up of Tony Perkins negates everything the psychiatrist just said. In reality, no one can definitively explain why people do the things they do. Despite all our tools and technology the human mind remains a haunting mystery. Therein lies the power of Psycho.