Right from the beginning, Psycho draws the viewer in. The opening credits are chillingly brilliant. Bernard Herrmann‘s score playing over the title sequence gives the viewer a weird sense of terror before the first scene has even started.
Additionally, despite director Alfred Hitchcock choosing to shoot the film in black-and-white to save costs and keep the shower scene from being too gory, I’ve always found that the lack of color works in Psycho‘s favor. I don’t know why that is, but I think it’s similar to foreign film and subtitles. If the film is great, the viewer is not going to care about reading dialogue. As long as the viewer is invested in what is happening on screen, they won’t care about stuff like subtitles or color tones. Psycho is built around a great script, a great set, and great casting. Let’s dig in deeper and figure out why I truly believe Psycho is a perfect film.
What Psycho Means to Us
The prototypical slasher film, and one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest. What the hell do you say about Psycho? When a movie is so pivotal and famous and you’ve seen it enough times – well, you can really only talk about what you love about it.
I love that the rug gets pulled out from under you about halfway through. I love that Norman is the most likeable character out of the bunch. (And the creepiest – that half-smile just makes you shudder sometimes.) I love the conversation between Norman and Marion over sandwiches (“I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out.”). I love the bit where the car doesn’t sink all the way into the swamp at first and Norman gets that ‘oh shit, what am I going to do now?’ look on his face. I love little details, like the way the cabin is all cute and well cared for – but the toilet is a little beaten up. The way Janet Leigh uses her eyes, like a trapped animal. The one shot where Arbogast is pulling away and the headlights illuminate part of the motel as well as Norman – but the light never reaches Norman’s face. And when the light moves away – Norman smiles. All those shadows.
Weirdly, this feels more ‘real’ to me than some of Hitchcock’s other films, despite being shot in black and white. Compared to films like Rear Window and North by Northwest, Psycho feels more raw and, I dunno, less stiff. I love those movies, but Psycho is more immediate and visceral. You’d never see a toilet in Vertigo.
I’m rambling on here, but I really love Psycho. The biggest revelation for me the last time I watched it was that I really LIKE Norman. I’d want to hang out with him. He seems like a nice guy.
But man, his mother is MURDER.
Psycho was a film that I saw when I was far too young. It, along with its sequel, seemed to be on regular rotation in my household. This was before I even hit my teenage years. Back in those days I always preferred Psycho II. I think that was mainly due to it being in colour and having a more modern feel to it. Fast forward around twenty years and on rewatching the original I had a completely different view. My (slightly) more mature mind really appreciated the beauty of the film. From the framing and use of light, to the undeniably iconic score. As well as Anthony Perkins’ sublime performance. It’s just a masterclass in filmmaking and easily my favourite Hitchcock movie. Add to all that one of the greatest twists in cinematic history and you have not just one of the greatest horror movies of all time, but one of the greatest movies ever made, full stop.
Casting Norman Bates
A couple of years after watching Psycho, I decided to read Robert Bloch‘s novel the film is based on. The film is mostly a straightforward adaptation of the book with one major difference: the characterization of Norman Bates. In the novel, Norman is a short, overweight, middle-aged man who is not visually appealing. Meanwhile, Hitchcock cast Anthony Perkins in the role immediately making Norman younger, taller, and a total heartthrob (Perkins’ Norman was the original Joe Goldberg, folks).
The change in appearance was reportedly made because Hitchcock wanted the audience to be able to sympathize with, and genuinely like, Norman. On that front, Hitchock and Perkins both succeeded. Perkins plays Norman as someone who is calm and collected, but also seems a bit off. As a viewer, one wonders whether Norman’s awkwardness with the other characters is simply due to him living by “himself” and not talking to strangers regularly or is caused by something else lurking beneath his friendly demeanor.
I think a lot of Psycho‘s enduring success in the decades since its release can be attributed to Perkins’ performance. Perkins reveals so much about who Norman Bates is with just his facial expressions and mannerisms. One of my favorite scenes is when Arbogast catches Norman in a lie and all Norman does in response is give Arbogast a small ‘you-got-me’ smirk. It’s small things like that that make you realize that Norman may not be as friendly or innocent as you might initially assume. I’m still shocked Perkins was never nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance because it is one for the ages.
The Shower Scene
This is Psycho‘s famous scene and for more than one reason. The first would be that when Marion flushes the ripped up paper down the toilet, it was the first time a flushing toilet had appeared in a mainstream film or TV show in the United States. (What a trendsetter you were, Hitchcock!)
However, more importantly, this scene is the reason why Hitchcock refused theaters for allowing late entry to showings of Psycho. Janet Leigh, who played Marion Crane, was billed as the star of Psycho, yet she only shows up for roughly the first third of the movie before being stabbed to death in the shower. Hitchcock believed that if people showed up late and didn’t get to see Leigh in the film they would feel cheated. Despite hesitation from theater owners that this would lower business, they abided and Psycho became the second highest grossing film of 1960 (damn you, Spartacus).
I’d be remiss to not mention Herrmann’s score, titled “The Murder,” for this scene. According to Los Angeles film composer Kathryn Bostic, the stabbing strings allowed the audience to feel Marion’s agony, “and her horror. You felt it from her.” I cannot think of anyone who pretends to stab someone with a knife and doesn’t try to do their best imitation of this scene with their vocals (eee-eh-eee-eh). The fact Hitchcock originally wanted all the motel scenes to play without music is crazy in hindsight. Thankfully, Herrmann was able to get Hitchcock to try the scene with his score which lead to the audience hearing one of the most famous scores in film history.
The Legacy of Norman Bates
My love for Psycho is very closely tied to the recent Bates Motel contemporary prequel series that aired on A&E from 2013 to 2017. I can’t say for sure, but I think I may have actually watched Bates Motel season 1 first and Psycho second. I still own the Universal 100th Anniversary DVD of Psycho which is how I saw the film for the first time in August of 2013. I remember being attracted to show because of Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore. Farmiga basically developed Norma Bates from scratch since there was no real source material or previous portrayals to pull from. Highmore owes a lot of his performance to Perkins. Bates Motel portrays Norman as a tall, socially awkward, yet handsome teenager. I love Highmore as Norman—the fact he was never nominated for an Emmy in the role still makes me mad to this day—but Perkins created the performance. Highmore simply brushed it off, gave it a new coat of paint, a few personal touches, and then introduced it to a new generation of fans.
One thing I will give Highmore’s Norman credit for is really leaning into the angle of not wanting to hurt anyone. Since the show is a prequel, the writers can show how manipulative Norma was to Norman and how that only further increased his psychotic breaks. Even in Psycho II (which is pretty darn good), the film focuses on Perkins’ Norman’s struggle to assimilate back into the world following his release from the mental institution, all the while wondering if he has truly left the “Mother” persona in the past.
Psycho is a franchise that will continue to be remade or reimagined every decade or two. Perkins will always remain the original Norman Bates, but as Freddie Highmore has shown us, it is possible to pay homage to the 1960 version while bringing something new to the role. I look forward to seeing who steps into the character (and dress and wig) next.
Are you a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? Do you have a fun fact or piece of trivia on the film? Share it in the comments below!