The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: A thirty-something secretary steals $40,000 from her employer’s client, and subsequently encounters a young motel proprietor too long under the domination of his mother.
Jason: I’ve seen Psycho countless times, and every time I see it, I notice something new—particularly this time, after all the Hitch study we’ve gone through. To me, Psycho is a legitimate masterpiece, not only because of its groundbreaking status as “the granddaddy of today’s horror films” but mostly because of its incredibly sad, tragic resolution and the way it completely involves you, the viewer, in the story. I think Psycho was revolutionary in film for several reasons, and we’ll talk about all of those reasons as we discuss it, but suffice it to say, this is my absolute favorite Hitchcock film, and that’s saying a lot, after the resonance of films like Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt, and Rear Window.
James: Psycho does seem to be the first true horror movie, as we know it today. I’m surprised how little I remember about this film. But I’m still taken aback by how modern Psycho feels. During most of the horror scenes, I felt like we were in the now. There’s incredible tension and frights in this film, and the action is surprisingly dramatic. Who knew that we would see a knife-wielding lunatic murdering a woman in a shower just a few years after Hitch ventured no further than kisses cut to no more than 3 seconds?
Jason: You mention how modern the film feels, and that’s one of the ways the film breaks barriers. I mean, look at the opening scene. We swoop in on a Phoenix hotel room, in which two lovers are dressing after a sultry lunch-break rendezvous. This scene is leaps and bounds beyond the chaste kissing scenes we’ve seen in Hitch movies as recent as North by Northwest. It’s as if we’ve graduated into an entirely new age of filmmaking. It’s as if Hitch has suddenly recognized the social climate around him. There’s an erotic thrust to this whole sequence that really sets the stage for the rest of the film in a fascinating way. It’s shocking in its own right, and you have to wonder if it unsettled 1960 audiences right from the start.
James: That opening scene certainly sets the groundwork, doesn’t it? Although it’s not particularly shocking to modern viewers, just seeing Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in her lingerie must have been quite a shock back then. And then to find out that Marion has just enjoyed a sweaty rendezvous with her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin)—what a great way to show the audience that they aren’t watching their father’s horror movie. By the way, I really like the fact that these two get it on during Marion’s lunch break, for some reason.
Jason: Did you notice that Marion’s lingerie is white in this scene, but later at the motel, after she steals the money, she’s wearing black lingerie? Similarly, early in the film, she has a white purse, but later it’s black. The change obviously symbolizes her moral about-face, but I still find it interesting that in the naughty opening scene, she’s wearing the color of purity.
James: That’s an awesome observation. I totally dig that little touch with the color. But then to see her go back to work, after hearing her lover discuss his money problems, and to have $40,000 drop in her lap—great setup. At what point do you think Marion knows she’s going to take that money? If she knows right away or at any time while in the office, she acts very smooth about it.
Jason: I think she makes the decision right as that creep Cassidy (Frank Albertson) is waving the money in front of her. Her decision is obviously a result of her desire to escape to Sam with money to secure their future, but at the spur of the moment, it’s because of Cassidy’s leering drawl and also the fact that he talks about the cash so casually, as if he can easily spare it.
James: You know, this is perhaps the most perfect MacGuffin we’ve seen yet. I mean, the money gets her to run, but in the context of the whole movie, it’s not a real issue at all. If I were explaining the meaning of the “MacGuffin” to someone, this would be my example.
Jason: It’s a perfect MacGuffin, yep. The great thing about it is that as an audience, we’re totally absorbed by it for the first third of the movie. It’s the complete focus of the entire film, and so the shower murder comes as a spectacular surprise. Can you imagine seeing this film for the first time, in 1960? I would be utterly unprepared for the murder, and not just because of this plot setup. There are a number of reasons why the murder is such a total shock. Let’s take a while to talk about the film’s buildup toward the murder and how Hitchcock manipulates us so that it comes as such an overwhelming surprise.
James: Well, this film is all about surprises. Seems that at every turn, the film takes an about-face and moves in a different direction. The film’s buildup is just about flawless. Marion gets away with stealing the money, but she’s a wreck, reacting badly when she thinks the cops are on her tail. She’s on the run, and really awkward about it, so we feel the suspense of all that.
Jason: There’s so much suspense in this part of the film, and it’s nowhere to be found in the original Robert Bloch book, which I read last month. I’ll talk about more differences between the book and film as we move along, but for now, I think it’s brilliant the way Hitch and screenwriter Joseph Stefano turned the early portions of the book into such a strong film narrative. Everything is focused on Marion. (In the book, we’re learning about Norman from the beginning.) By focusing solely on Marion’s every move, we’re completely wrapped up in her motives and desires. We watch her packing in her bedroom, in micro detail, and we see every sidelong glance at the envelope full of money on her bed. Driving through Phoenix on her way out of town, we feel the fear she feels when she encounters her boss and Cassidy crossing the street in front of her. While she heads northwest, we’re privy to the thoughts bouncing around in her head. We’re right there with her. And even though she’s committing a crime, we’re rooting for her. We’re rooting for her strongly. And this stuff is only the first of Hitchcock’s manipulations.
James: I’ve never read the book, but I think it’s cool that Hitchcock would spin it so that there’s more mystery and that the story starts off as something a bit more traditional. But you’re right, I totally feel her panic when the cop confronts her, or the constant uncertainty she feels about having the cash in that envelope. Great stuff. What an amazing setup. This could’ve been the setup for any number of films, but what struck me was that Hitchcock took so much care to divert our attention. Or to make us think we knew where this film was going. He didn’t rush through these scenes to get to a certain point. He gave them all his attention. It makes for a much more powerful film. Although I wouldn’t say I really knew her that well, it was nice to feel something for a character before she died. That’s something that modern horror flicks miss: If you relate to or feel for a character, the horror is amplified.
Jason: The whole extended sequence with the cop and the used-car lot is more perfect audience manipulation. Hitch is involving us more and more in her flight. And is there any more vivid representation of Hitch’s feelings about policeman? I mean, this cop is downright menacing, judging by appearance. He’s this faceless, stern object of authority. And yet he’s not doing anything wrong. Sure, he’s suspicious of Marion, but who wouldn’t be? She’s even a little bitchy to him when he wakes her up on the side of the road. He follows her to the car lot, curious about what she’s up to, and it’s interesting how Hitch makes him the bad guy, even though it’s really Marion who’s on the wrong side of the law and morality.
James: I loved that aspect of the cop being the bad guy. And man, I didn’t like him at all. I was like, “Why is he pestering her?”
Jason: And I think if I were trying to ditch a car, and suddenly there’s a cop watching me from across the street, I’d drop the idea immediately and drive on. Why bother swapping cars if a policeman sees you do it? Marion comes across as rather clueless here, digging herself more and more deeply into trouble.
James: I’m with you, she really should’ve left the car lot without getting the new car. Hahaha! But it does show that she’s not really a bad person and doesn’t do this every day.
Jason: I really tried to put myself in the shoes of 1960 audiences, going in blind to see this. Hitch obviously thought carefully about this whole first third. He’s got all these screenplay manipulations, and plus, he’s cast his major star in the role of the doomed woman. Audiences would have totally expected Marion to survive, they wouldn’t even have begun to question her survival. They’re completely wrapped up in her story, and little do they know that it’s all going to mean nothing, and they’re going to be rocked off their foundations. What an amazing structure this film has.
James: So now we get to the Bates Motel.
Jason: I want to mention the great horror-film moment of Marion approaching the motel. It’s a dark and stormy night, the rain is pouring down, we just get the stark sound of the windshield wipers and the rain, and there’s a huge gothic mansion behind the motel. It’s just such a perfect, unnerving moment.
James: And when we finally meet him, I love that Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) comes across as a friendly hotel manager, as likable as anyone you’d ever meet. In a way, there’s a role reversal going on. Norman seems to be this nice, gentle guy talking to this otherwise nice young woman who just committed a crime. And interestingly, just after Marion makes her decision to take the money back, Norman turns evil. (Of course, at that point, we think the villain is Norman’s mother.)
Jason: What did you think when Norman tells Marion that she’s only 15 miles from Fairvale? That made me stop and wonder why she’d still stay overnight there. I mean, her lover is 20 minutes away, and as we see in a moment, the rain clears up rather quickly. Why does she stay? There’s a meaning here that I’m not quite getting. Is she resigning herself to some kind of punishment for her immorality?
James: I think there’s something to the idea that Marion stays to punish herself in some way. Or maybe she realizes she’s done wrong or that she’s not 100 percent sure she’s doing the right thing, so she stays the night to figure it out? I mean, at this point, no one knows what she’s up to. At this point, she could still turn around and fix it all with a lie. But once she gets to Fairvale, she’s in deep.
Jason: Good point. We also hear Mother for the first time in this sequence. Marion eavesdrops on the conversation Norman has with her up at the house. Mother sounds stark, raving mad, blathering about promiscuity and sex and impure thoughts. Are you able to step back and regard Mother as a real character? Or is there something “off” about the voice, and the fact that we don’t see her? Would that have alerted audiences that something’s up?
James: I tried to watch this film as if the mother were real, and the voice didn’t sway me one way or the other. If you didn’t know it was a man, you probably wouldn’t second-guess it at all. But watching Psycho as if the mother is the nutcase just adds one more level to this film’s twists and role reversals.
Jason: But, yeah, her shrill voice, from way up in that haunted house, is pretty off-putting.
James: The scene in the parlor is the best in the film. And for studious Hitchcock fans, seeing the obvious symbolism of the stuffed birds is a dead giveaway that trouble is brewing. Those birds totally elevated the scene for me because on the surface, Bates is this nice young man. He’s helpful and friendly—a little off, perhaps, but perfectly nice and warm. We see that he’s living with his mother, and that Marion is even reaching out to him to offer support and understanding. Here’s where we see the role reversal starting, as Marion even says that she’s going to go back home and right her wrongs. But we also see just a hint that Bates can be quick to anger about his mother. I loved the subtlety of Perkins’ performance here. He just gives tiny signs that he’s not right in the head, but if you hadn’t seen the film before, he might just appear to be the doting son. It’s a perfect scene in every detail, especially since it leads to him peeking through a peephole to watch Marion undress. Here’s this guy who seems to be Wally Cleaver at first, but we slowly begin to see that he’s not what he seems. Yet at the same time, it’s only hinted at and doesn’t really reveal anything about what’s yet to come.
Jason: Yes, the parlor scene is pivotal. Hanging over everything, as you say, are the birds. Frozen in life (just as Marion will be pretty soon, on the bathroom floor), preserved with sawdust (just as Mother is up at the house), birds are the central symbol of the film. Marion herself has a last name that’s that of a bird. She comes from Phoenix (the bird rising from the flames). Norman tells Marion she “eats like a bird.” There are pictures of birds in her motel room, one of which will fall to the floor just as Norman discovers her murdered body . . .
James: I’m curious what the bird picture falling to the floor symbolizes. It must mean something, but I’m not seeing it.
Jason: The symbol of the bird, which Hitch has always used as a signal for chaos or fear, is also an age-old symbol for the lifeforce. When that picture falls, it’s an acknowledgment that Marion is dead—that the Crane from Phoenix has fallen.
James: Ah, gotcha.
Jason: But the writing in the parlor scene is exquisite, and none of it is in the novel. This writing elevates Psycho from mere horror film to the level of philosophy. “We’re all in our private traps . . . clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.” Marion responds, “Sometimes, we deliberately set those traps.”
James: The parlor scene is intense. There’s so much going on even though it’s just conversation.
Jason: I know, there are some fascinating moments in this whole sequence. Like you, I love how it’s a completely static scene, and yet we’re glued to the screen because of the words they’re exchanging. When we first learn of Mother, Norman says, “She isn’t quite herself today.” Well, there’s a clue right there about the ending of the film. And more: “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” I love the tension that develops when Marion suggests that Norman put his mother “some place”—that is, an institution. Norman responds almost viciously, “What do you know about caring? Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing, and the tears, and those cruel eyes studying you? My mother there? She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.” (How true that is!) Marion apologizes, and he says, “People always mean well. They cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads, and suggest oh so very delicately.” These are tense moments, even if you don’t know what’s coming. But Norman’s best line here? “We all go a little mad sometimes.” That’s probably what convinces Marion to make her decision to return to Phoenix.
James: All the lines you mention are perfectly delivered, and perfectly written. It’s as if they’re lyrical. Or poetic. But when Norman insists that a boy’s best friend is his mother, man, that almost gave me chills. And looking back on it, it’s so perfect that he doesn’t just boil over right there and kill her. I mean, he keeps his anger in check. Only later, after he becomes his mother, can he kill her.
Jason: I don’t think it would have been possible for Norman to murder Marion as Norman. In the Norman personality, he’s essentially an okay guy. It’s when Mother takes over his personality that the murderer comes out. It really is Mother who kills Marion.
James: Okay. But the fact that he looks through that peephole, and then the murder happens … it’s almost as if Mother is killing this girl for letting Norman, her son, see her half naked. As if she’s punishing Marion for her son’s weakness, while also punishing Norman for wanting another woman who isn’t his mother. That’s a mess, I know, but this whole murder-for-sex thing is interesting. It makes me wonder whether Norman would’ve killed her had the hole not been there.
Jason: Totally agree. Mother is punishing Marion for the effect she has on her son. Brilliant. Yes, the peephole is essential to what happens. It makes you wonder how many previous times this dynamic has played out. How many people has Norman (or rather Mother) killed for the same reasons? Every time he feels a sexual urge, he becomes Mother and becomes homicidal?
Jason: Anyway, it’s in the parlor that Marion decides to return the money she’s stolen. But what is Hitch saying, then, when—even after she repents and sees the error of her ways—he goes ahead and kills her?
James: Now that I think about it, it’s interesting that we heard Mother yelling at Norman about sex and impure thoughts, and yet Marion was the one shown in her skivvies earlier in the film. So in a way, her murder isn’t about stealing the money, but more about her promiscuity. It’s almost as if she’s being punished for one sin but not the other, since no one (particularly Norman) even knows about the money. As far as the movie goes, it’s as if Hitch is saying that one sin is worse than the other. Does that make sense?
Jason: I guess I’m trying to look at what Hitch and Stefano (actually, Bloch) are trying to say. More of a God-like perspective. Why kill her off just after she’s realized her mistake? You bring up an excellent point about the connection between Mother screaming about sex and promiscuity, and I think there’s something to that. Marion’s murder isn’t an atonement for her theft of the money but rather for her lifestyle. It’s more based in shame and sex. Wow, that’s quite a statement.
James: I think the fact that she realizes her mistake and then is still killed only reaffirms our feelings that she’s being killed for her lifestyle. Here she is, clean as a whistle now as far as the stealing goes, but she’s still murdered. That just hammers it all home.
Jason: Then, is there a deep-rooted sense of “the sin of sex” in this movie? On one hand, Hitch is being very forward about his own attitudes about sex in film, showing a real bravery by depicting that early “afterglow” sex with such bluntness, but on the other hand, he’s essentially murdering his main character for her casualness about sex.
James: Very interesting.
Jason: Ready to talk about the shower murder? I want to do this methodically, just as Hitch did when he filmed it. First of all, I read that this was the first time a flushing toilet ever appeared in a film. Ever. That alone must have contributed at least a little to the film’s aura of “anything can happen.” Must have unsettled the audience a bit. So she removes her robe and steps in. Take it from there, buddy.
James: You know what I love about the shower scene? The fact that Marion is “cleaning away her sins.” She’s smiling and having a good time. She feels good about herself because she’s about to right the wrong she committed at the beginning of the film. I love the idea of that, for some reason. Then the surprise: The mother comes and kills her. How startling! That’s a complete surprise that works every time, even though I know it’s coming.
Jason: You nailed it. I, too, caught the idea that Marion is entering that shower for a kind of baptism, a purifying, to purge her soul of the immorality of stealing that money—if not to clean herself of the taint of her lifestyle, as Mother might see it. But, as you say, what follows is a complete surprise. Of course, this murder scene is part of the culture now, it’s ingrained in me, so it’s hard to view it as such, but when you consider it within the context of the film’s story and structure, it’s a total blindside. I would give anything to experience this film blind.
James: As for the individual shots themselves, it’s a classic scene because you think you see more than you really see. You don’t see much blood, you never see a breast, you don’t see the knife enter her flesh. It’s all in your mind, and you fill in the blanks. Very well done. And that music—it’s like fingers across a blackboard. It totally intensifies the horror of the moment.
Jason: I think I read that the scene is made up of 70 camera shots. The shooting of this 15-second piece of film must have been groundbreaking. Who else had ever attempted this kind of feverishly cut montage? So, not only for the grisly subject matter but also for the technique Hitch used, this short scene is like a big leap into the future, as far as horror films go and the tricks used to shoot them.
James: My only problem whatsoever with the scene is that one shot that captures the knife landing on her stomach but not penetrating. The way it’s flush against her skin, it’s obvious that the thrust didn’t do anything to hurt her. There’s no reason to show the knife, even for the reflection of light that makes it look kinda cool.
Jason: I actually saw that moment as a near miss. Early in the scene, you can see that Marion is batting away a couple of the slashes, and I can easily see that shot as a knife plunge that missed its mark—barely—and we’re left with just the image of that big knife. So, we can better feel the effect of that knife a moment later when it actually finds its way into her flesh, complete with that awful sound effect. Plus, I think it looks really cool and stylized.
James: For me, it just looks silly and pulled me out of the moment.
Jason: But, man, there’s something genuinely frightening about that shadowed glimpse we get of Mother. Her eyes just look evil and purposeful and wild. And the relentless slicing of the knife, with its sound effect as she buries it in Marion’s body. Everything harmonizes beautifully: the frenetic “cuts” of the camera mirrored with the slashing cuts of the knife; the helpless, nude, thrashing body in the shower; the panicked, confused screams; the melon-crunching sounds of the knife stabbing; and perhaps most of all, the wicked strings of Bernard Herrmann’s score, which has to be one of the most fierce, recognizable moments in film-score history. And you’re so right about our mind bringing the gore to this scene. We see virtually nothing, as far as blood and knife penetration.
James: Yep, we’re filling all that in.
Jason: I’ve known for years that Hitch used chocolate syrup for the blood in this scene, but this is really the first time I thought about the thought process that would lead to that choice. It really shows some clever thinking. After all, the movie’s in black-and-white, so the color doesn’t matter. What we’re going for is contrast and consistency. I like the idea that Hitch tested several kinds of fluids, as well as several types of melons for the knife-plunging. I can see him smiling ghoulishly while doing all of this.
James: I didn’t know what he used for the blood, but that’s cool. I actually think the choice of going black-and-white was fantastic. Sure, it might have been too gory in color, but I think there’s something sinister, darker, about the black-and-white cinematography. I’m sure we could even correlate the black-and-white with some of the characters’ personalities.
Jason: Did you catch the way the blood swirling down the drain echoes the spiraling camera that moves out of Marion’s dead eye?
James: Yeah, I caught the spiral, mostly because I was looking for it after watching Vertigo. I love the effect. How about the long cleanup sequence, after Norman “discovers” the body? I really like how clean and diligent he is about wrapping Marion up in the shower curtain. You can practically imagine him sewing up those birds or even his mother. He’s so detail-oriented. Focused. But although the whole act makes him seem a little nuts, it also shows that he’s caring. Almost as if he truly cared for Marion and was saddened that his mother killed her. I mean, just the way he cleans up the body and folds her into that shower curtain shows a wide range of details about his character.
Jason: I’ve always loved the little jerk of fear Norman gives when a car passes by the motel just as he’s dumping the body and Marion’s belongings into the trunk. He drops the mop and bucket to the floor, right behind the open trunk, looking guilty as hell. It really conveys a sense of innocence. Still, I wonder if audiences of the time were completely convinced that Norman’s mother committed this murder. Was anyone suspicious of Norman at this point? It’s so hard to put myself in their shoes.
James: I think audiences were led to believe that yes, it was the mother. That’s what’s so cool about this film. You first get the jolt of Marion’s murder, then later, you get another jolt when you learn that Norman did it. How original and completely surprising! And like you, I really enjoyed the guilty look he gives when that car goes by. Brilliant.
Jason: There’s no question that the movie has now shifted completely to Norman’s story, if only through this methodical, 10-minute-long cleanup scene, during which the audience is trying to come to terms with the brutal death of the film’s star. Do you think Hitch drew this scene out in order to give his audience time to comprehend what had happened?
James: I think the cleanup scene is definitely drawn out so the audience can adjust. I mean, at this point, the audience needs time to just reflect and to kind of catch their breath. But the scene is valuable beyond that, too, simply because we learn more and more about Norman.
Jason: There’s also the lingering suspense of the money on the nightstand. Will he discover it? He goes in and out of the room, cleaning up, and Hitch makes a point of showing the money to us, point-blank, increasing the tension and still throwing us off track of the real story of this film, still focusing on the MacGuffin, even though it doesn’t matter anymore. Another great piece of audience manipulation.
James: You know what I noticed for the first time? After the murder and the cleaning up of the body and the disposal of the car, we get this cold, stark close-up of Norman. And that’s what really showed me that he’s now the film’s main character. He’s now the focal point of the movie. I really liked that transition, not only because of what it means to the movie but also because it’s one amazing shot. The shadows, the look on his face, the camera angle—all perfect.
Jason: I’ve always loved the scene of Norman pushing Marion’s car into the swamp. He just stands there, doing something horrible, munching candy corn, and we can’t help but sympathize with him. When that car suddenly stops sinking, we’re thinking, “Oh no! Keep going! Sink! Sink!” Because we want him to get away with it! Isn’t that amazing? He’s at least partly to blame for this crime (we don’t know that he’s completely responsible yet), but we’re rooting for him!
James: You’re right, we are rooting for him. When the car stops for that brief moment, we’re totally worried for him. That’s incredible. Maybe it’s because, so far, we’ve been led to believe that he’s a gentle man caring for his mother. There’s really nothing to make us dislike him.
Jason: Another Hitch manipulation.
James: You know, it’s funny, when I think about this movie, the final half means almost nothing. It’s kind of sad. There’s still more to the story, but it means so little. My loyalties weren’t entirely clear for the rest of the film. On the one hand, I wanted Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam), Sam, and Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) to uncover the truth about what happened. But at the same time, I felt frustrated when Arbogast catches Norman in a lie or two. It was weird how I somehow wanted each character to “win.” Maybe I just wanted to see what Norman/Mother would do if these strangers came snooping around—and that’s exactly what we get.
Jason: Well, there is the feeling after the shower murder that the climax of the film has already happened, but I wouldn’t say that the rest of the film “means nothing.” It is jarring to have to switch our sympathies over to Norman, of all people, and later to Sam, Lila, and Arbogast. And we have to do this while still recovering from the shock of what’s happened. Frankly, I think it’s inspired the way Hitch completely shifts gears halfway through this movie, changing it to a detective story crossed with a psychosexual mindfuck.
Jason: I wanted to mention how great I think Perkins’ acting is through this section, as he increasingly starts to give himself away with his stuttering and his barely repressed anger. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role. And interestingly, in the book, Norman Bates is this fat, unsympathetic slob. One of the masterstrokes of Hitch and Stefano was to make Norman an attractive, appealing, sympathetic psychopath.
James: Perkins turns in the best performance of any lead male character in any Hitchcock film. He was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. He made this film go from good to great with just a few facial gestures. The man was Norman Bates. I mean, he was the nut. There was no acting here. Man oh man, was he perfect.
James: You know, I thought Arbogast would become more of a focal point in the rest of the story, but he’s killed pretty quickly too—after walking up a flight of stairs, no less. Another death on the stairs … great stuff.
Jason: The Arbogast murder is a great scene, the way it’s shot almost silently. He walks up to the house slowly, curiously, and there’s a sense of foreboding as he enters the house and starts up the stairs. We know what Mother is capable of. We know something bad is going to happen. At this point, are you siding with Arbogast to find something, or are you hoping for Mother to kill again?
James: Another great scene in a film loaded with great scenes. I was siding with both of them! I wanted Arbogast to uncover the truth and “save the day,” but I also wanted to see him get killed and thus get Sam and Lila more intimately involved with the murders. What a strange feeling that is, siding with both the villain and the good guys.
Jason: And what a great shot, from directly above, of Mother stalking out of her room and attacking Arbogast. Incidentally, I read that Arbogast’s backward fall down the stairs was shot the same way as the Statue of Liberty fall in Saboteur. Same trick. What did you think of that shot? It’s not realistic, and yet it’s powerful.
James: I love the shot. It looks completely fake and almost silly, but it works so well. It somehow extends the suspense and the horror because we get to look right into his eyes as he’s falling/dying.
Jason: This time, while watching that murder scene, I saw the effect of the shot as appropriate for what must have been reeling through Arbogast’s mind. It’s this completely unexpected, senseless attack, and his mind must suddenly be in a kind of vertigo, and so the effect of the shot is to convey that. The way I see it, we’re seeing more of his mindscape, while falling, than the actual fall. We’re close in on his shocked face, his reaction. We’re right there with him, all the way down. I think it’s Hitch’s way to convey the emotion of the victim.
James: What did you think of the way we find out that Norman’s mom has been dead for years?
Jason: Yeah, so now we come to the section of the film where Lila and Sam grow very concerned, and Sheriff Chambers (John McIntire) becomes involved. This is an interesting scene, the way we learn about Norman’s back story, in particular the revelation that Norma is a cemetery resident. But the more I think about it, the more I agree with you that this whole section of the film—including these characters, Sam and Lila—seem like an afterthought after what’s happened to Marion. Actually, no, there’s more to it than that. These are necessary characters, because they’re solving the mystery for us, and there’s genuine emotion involved, since we know before they do that Sam’s lover and Lila’s sister has been horribly murdered. I think what’s off-putting about this whole second half of the film is that it’s just terribly sad. But we’re experiencing that sadness at a remove. You know what I mean? It’s almost as if our heads can’t conceive of the level of tragedy and sadness resulting from what’s happened, and so we treat the remainder of the film as a rote detective story. But it’s all just profoundly dark and depressing.
James: I think what makes their detective work sort of an afterthought is that we know exactly what’s happened. There’s no mystery. I’m not saying there should be, just that that’s why these last scenes don’t really mean as much as they could. This is also what makes this film sad. We know Lila’s sister has been murdered, but she doesn’t. We know that Arbogast has been killed. So at this point, all I really want is the outcome, so the scenes leading up to it aren’t important in the overall scheme of things.
Jason: “We,” as in the first-time audience, don’t know the truth about Norman yet. Yes, we know Marion has been hacked up, but we don’t know the even darker truth—that Norman is the one at the heart of everything. So there’s still mystery there, technically . . .
James: That said, the scene in which the sheriff calls Norman . . . good stuff.
Jason: When Sam and Lila finally get to the Bates house, I love the scene of Lila walking toward the house. Very tense. The way it’s shot, from above, and suspecting what we suspect, damn, it’s just very well done.
James: Perfect. I liked the way it’s shot, but also how it cuts between Lila and the scene between Sam and Norman. It’s tense enough that she’s walking up to that house and could very well get killed by Mother, but at the same time, Norman’s fuse is growing shorter and shorter and you know that he’s going to figure it out and catch her too. Brilliant editing.
Jason: And Lila’s scene in Mother’s room—totally creepy. I’ve always found that deep impression in the bed to be a dead giveaway (there’s a pun for you) that Norma is actually dead. There’s a great mirror shot in this scene, of Lila getting startled by her own reflection. But the whole scene is really unnerving, including that weird quick-zoom on that enfolded-hands jewelry box on the bureau, and just the feel of the room, all musty and dead . . . Another great thing about this whole Lila sequence is that it plays out silently, hearkening back to Hitch’s roots.
James: There’s so much drama here, so much suspense, and it’s mostly just pure cinema. All the way up to her scream . . .
Jason: So, then, Norman breaks away from Sam and sprints up to the house. He goes upstairs, and Lila hides in the root cellar. Your thoughts about the revelation that Norma Bates is a preserved corpse?
James: Dude, that moment when we (and Lila) discover that Norma is a corpse . . . absolutely brilliant. Ha! I still get this creepy shock. It’s such a huge surprise that makes you quickly take in every detail of the film so far and realize that there have been hidden clues all along the way and you work it out in your mind. I love that kind of revelation. It makes everything in the film more meaningful. The stuffed birds, for example, take on a different meaning. And Mother’s voice in the previous scenes. And of course, the murder.
Jason: I love the way the chair swivels around so slowly and horrifically, even though the movement itself isn’t entirely realistic. But the shock effect is maximized. And I love the way Lila’s hand flies back and knocks the hanging lightbulb, throwing everything into crazy shadowed delirium.
James: And then we see Norman rush in wearing Mother’s clothes, but he didn’t have time to make it perfect. So he looks like a complete freak. He’s completely morphed from this gentle man to a complete psycho. The look in his eyes is flawless.
Jason: Interesting, I didn’t gather that Norman had hastily thrown on the clothes. I’ll have to watch that again. I just figured he looked like that whenever he dressed up like his mother.
James: Hmm, maybe so. But think about it. He just rushed in and threw on the dress. Maybe he didn’t have time to put the wig on just right or button up the dress just right. Maybe I saw it wrong, but it seemed a little hastily thrown together.
Jason: I’m sure you’re right. He didn’t have time to be meticulous about anything. It’s just something I’d never thought about. Plus, he’s stressed and probably realizes that the end is near. He’s just crazed at that point, rather than exhibiting the usual cold, methodical nature of Mother.
James: Did the ending at the psychiatric hospital remind you of Vertigo’s court sequence? Not exactly, sure, but it seems that a number of Hitch’s films have a similar sequence in which some judge or court doctor fills in some blanks to help the audience. I like this one, but only to a point. I like all the ideas, and I certainly like the point where Hitch cuts to Norman in his cell, but a part of me doesn’t like getting so much information in a monologue.
Jason: I didn’t think of Vertigo at this point, mainly because the monologue is lifted almost entirely from the book. It’s definitely the movie’s weakest section, but again, I try to put myself in a 1960 mindset, and I realize that back then, audiences definitely needed this to understand the psychology of what happened. Today, these kinds of disturbed-psychology stories are commonplace, but this must have been something utterly shocking to audiences of the time. But you’re right, this static scene is dramatically unsatisfying. One thing I do like about it is how gently the hospital’s attendants treat Norman, knowing that he’s a victim—or at least a sick human being—in his own right. I mean, he says he’s chilly, and they make a big deal of getting him a blanket.
James: Good points.
Jason: Okay, so at this point, Mother has completely overtaken Norman’s personality. Step back from that a moment and think about it: The “bad guy,” the dead character, has totally triumphed in this film. Part of me can hardly believe Hitch got away with this film 45 years ago. The characters we care about have either been brutally murdered or have endured great trauma (or, in Norman’s case, have been annihilated), and the antagonist, although caught, has burst forth to full force, ending the film with an evil smile, as well as the ghost image of a skull over Norman’s face. What a bitter, sad, depressing ending! I love it!
James: Does the bad guy really get away with it, though? I see your point, but I can see how Hitch would’ve argued with the ratings board (for example) by saying that jail time isn’t “getting away with it.”
Jason: Yeah, I think Mother is the ultimate victor in this film. They’ve thrown her son in jail, but that doesn’t mean much to her: She’s imprisoned in his body anyway. The “unmasking” has benefited her, has let her completely dominate her son. That smile of hers at the end is chilling because she knows she’s won.
James: I never noticed that skull image on Norman’s face until this time. I loved that. Very powerful and unique.
Jason: Did you recognize Ted Knight in a tiny role as the cop at Norman’s cell door?
James: Nope, didn’t see him.
Jason: I have a few more things I’d like to bring up, mostly as a result of the reading. First thing is the motif of the mirror or reflection. There are mirrors all over this damn movie, and although I’ve noticed them before, this is really the first time I’ve thought about them and considered their purpose. It’s clear that reflections, as always, suggest two sides of the personality, and in this film, everyone has a dark side. Everyone has a secret to hide. From the whiskey bottle that Lowery (Vaughn Taylor) keeps in his drawer, to the tranquilizers that Marion’s office mate Caroline (Pat Hitchcock) keeps in her purse, to the tax avoidance that slimy Cassidy brags about, to Marion’s theft, to Norman’s huge secret … Late in the film, Arbogast remarks about the Bates Motel, “This place looks like it’s hiding from the world.” So it makes sense that the film has a lot of images that are split, cut in two. Even more interesting, whenever we see a mirror image in this film, the person is doing something dishonorable—that is, showing their secret self. As the psychologist at the end says, “When the mind houses two personalities, there’s always conflict.” Here’s the kicker: The viewer of the film is himself of two minds! Hitch’s relentless exploitation of audience identification through point of view puts us in Marion’s shoes, then Norman’s shoes, and so on. So, variably, we’re of conflicting minds while watching the movie.
James: This mirror motif is fascinating. Good stuff indeed. I noticed only a few, such as the one that Lila reacts to in Norma’s bedroom. But I like the idea of seeing reflections when a certain character is up to no good.
Jason: Another great insight from the reading is the film’s pervading sense of voyeurism. Not only do we have the obvious moments such as Norman peeping on Marion as she gets ready for her shower, but there are the many moments in the film in which characters look straight at us. Marion looks directly at us in her car, as she endlessly ponders her crime, and she also looks straight at us in death. Norman (Mother) stares right at us at the end. There are many eyes, lots of “looking.” All this ties into the notion of involving the audience in the psychology of the story.
James: Interesting that you point out all the looking in Psycho. Particularly when you consider the audience watching the characters on screen. I’ve always loved how Hitchcock involves the audience deeply in the film.
Jason: Did you watch the trailer? I think this is the best Hitch trailer I’ve ever seen. I was laughing my ass off. There’s a real Alfred Hitchcock Presents influence to it, with its humor and Hitch talking directly to the camera. I thought it was also interesting that Vera Miles is the girl in the shower screaming.
James: That trailer is awesome.
Jason: We’re getting to the end here, but I found it interesting that Hitch mandated that no one be allowed to enter the theater after the film had started. I gather that before Psycho, people could just enter and leave auditoriums whenever they wanted, but Hitch really kinda changed all that with this publicity stunt. Anyway, it led to a huge audience reaction and proved most profitable.
James: Interesting. Wasn’t Psycho the most profitable of all his films?
Jason: Indeed, it was.
James: I can’t forget to mention how impressive Bernard Herrmann’s score is for Psycho. It totally added to the film. It stood out in a good way.
Jason: It was an all-strings score, really sharp and shrill, perfect for the subject matter.
James: Hitch’s cameo was a bit ho-hum, standing in front of the real-estate office, but it was nice.
Jason: Interestingly, in his pointless 1998 remake, Gus Van Sant gave himself a cameo in the same shot, and Hitchcock is jabbing his finger at Van Sant angrily, chewing him out.
James: We should also mention the Saul Bass title credits, which was perfect.
Jason: They sort of meshed with the movie’s motif of cutting in half, of bisecting personalities.
James: What a great movie, man. Definitely one of the best Hitchcock movies.
First of all, thanks for enlightening me to the mirror and bird symbolism, and how this differed from the book (that I now have to read, heh).
I’ve always felt empathy for Norman, still do. Seems like he never really had a chance to be normal (I love how ‘norm’ is in both the names) either by genetics (nature) or his mother’s treatment of him (nurture). To me he is childlike and well-meaning when he’s himself and not Norma or in the ‘in-between’. People with split personalities generally have gone through such trauma that the mind must split in order for the original personality to survive. Norman’s life must have really sucked. Probably wasn’t something the original audience knew as much about.
The following was a set of notes taken while reading your back-and-forth.
– I also tried watching this movie as someone that had no idea about it. When Marion got killed, I felt completely obbed. It was such a jolt.
– Marion’s death after she decided to do right – she made peace with herself: God felt she’d learned her lesson and she could go to heaven now, after a bit of sulfur and brimstone of stabbing. Perhaps this is something I told myself to comfort me about her death, but then again, I’m an atheist.
– I’ve read that stabbings can sometimes be an impotent man’s way of expressing repressed sexual desires. I think that as much as Norma was killing Marion, Norman was killing Norma in that shower. I can see that’s more were the rage/violent multiple stabbings came from, the repression and anger towards ‘Mother’.
– I can easily see how the audience may have believed Norma was responsible until the reveal.
– long clean up scene -I can see Hitchcock use this to both allow the audience some closure while also rubbing their noses in the shock. I also see it as Norman paying for the sin of murdering his dead mother by proxy. Perhaps the care he took with the body was also directed at his mother.
– totally rooting for him to get away with the sinking car and full of relief when it sinks, still see the bloop bloop of bubbles and feel my held breath released
– The story is a Tao. Nothing is perfectly good or evil, we are all tainted.
– taking both sides – there are two sides to every story, and one can find empathy for both, depending upon who tells the story
– do you think that the use of chocolate sauce for blood was also a way for Hitchcock to ruin desserts for folks? LOL
Something about how Norma’s bedroom was filmed made me smell it, a combimation of musty basement, slugs, fungi and old people. I can still smell it and my mouth waters with that pre-puke feeling. I’m going to bed with that smell in my nostrils. Good night.
Sorry it took so long to reply, but I loved all your thoughts about the film, especially the “pre-puke” feeling you got seeing Norma’s bedroom. Thanks for taking the time out to write these musings! Have you watched the new series “Bates Motel”? Not a bad riff on the Psycho story, setting a prequel in the present day. Clever!
Jason and James: I was five years old in 1960, and believe it or not my parents took me and my 3-year-old brother to see “Psycho” at the local movie theater! (Mom swore for years that they certainly did NOT take us, but Dad reminded her we all loved movies so much and decided to take us to a scary one. Which makes sense — Hitchcock’s previous film had been North By Northwest, a thoroughly fun suspense movie.)
So I can’t speak for the adults in 1960 movie theaters, but I know a 5-year-old girl who slept with her covers over her head for a year after seeing “Psycho.” It scared the bejesus out of me!
I think the movie wasn’t released to television until the late 1960s — I remember a local TV station ran it every night at 10:00pm for a week. I remember trying to watch it, but those early childhood memories took me right out of the room when Norman started peeping at Marion. Nope — couldn’t watch it.
I bought the movie on DVD several years ago and have been able to enjoy and analyze it several times since — the last time just a few weeks ago. (I’m going through a Hitchcock phase in my viewing/streaming lately.) I’ve been reading books, watching commentary and interviews about Psycho — and today came across your discussion.
Psycho is such a fascinating character study of both Norman and Marion, and the acting talents of Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles along with the terrific writing, the musical score, oh heck — Hitchcock really pulled off a coup with this one. I love all the bird references — is it only me, or did you also notice Marion’s constantly shifting hands on the steering wheel as she drove through the rain? Her hands reminded me of the succession of parakeets my family owned — they were constantly moving their claws along their perches, especially when agitated.
The black and white cinematography, the fascinating conversation between Norman and Marion, the confrontational discussion between Norman and Sam. And what about Sam? He seems a cold fish throughout — we doubt his attachment to Marion. What a waste — she steals the money for him, even while knowing it won’t solve their problems — and yes, that money is the MacGuffin.
What a sad and yet delicious, complete mind f—k this movie is. I know Hitchcock chafed under censorship, but I’m glad he had those restrictions because the movie seems the better for it.
Thanks for these fascinating discussions!
For me the most frightening part of the movie is when she sees her boss, played by Vaughan Taylor, through the windshield, and their automatic pleasant acknowledgements through the eye contact quickly, suddenly gives way to eye-avoidance as each suddenly knows that the bond of trust is suddenly gone, and inwardly senses that in that moment a relationship has vanished, amounting to her death to him and possibly the community. They each know that the other knows that something like this has just transpired in that one instant, and they must avoid eye contact to spare each other the pain of the destruction involved, so they turn away from each other. It’s her first intimation that some bigger destruction awaits her, thrown upon her like a bucket of icy cold water. It’s the moment she realizes with absolute and sudden finality that there will be no “clean break,” that her action will dog her to the end. It’s bade all the more brutal by the sheer pleasantness of the automatic friendly glances, the joy they convey at life’s surprise encounters between people who like each other. That’s the basic social instinct, and what it means to belong to society. All that registers on some level in their exchanged smiles, and when her smile breaks (having been caught in a lie, a BIG lie), the loss becomes as palpable as and equal in magnitude as the happiness (under-appreciated till we suddenly lose it, a familiar motif in crime guilt genre going back to Dostoevsky, but well conveyed in movies like “Bully” among countless others showing looming dread of guilty characters desperately clinging to the normalcy and basic human contact they’ve forfeited ) of social belonging.
A heartbreaking scene that to me is as brutal as the shower scene, maybe more so, because the destruction involved mentally experienced and processed. The physical death is brutal, but at least the victim doesn’t have to “live with it.” The social death Marian experiences in this moment essentially tells her she no longer can live as the normal person that she was, and more likely than not, the only relief or escape from this social death will be her physical death. And a person realizing that their physical death will be a relief or escape, that is true horror at its deepest.
Andrew, thanks for your insightful and thoughtful comments. I agree — the viewer’s heart breaks in that instant and we at least suspect that Marion will never be able to repair that relationship.