Psycho – Alfred Hitchcock
Marion drives away from Phoenix until she becomes tired and pulls the car over to the side of the road; there she sleeps until morning, when a policeman approaches the car and awakens her. Marion drives away to a used car lot where she exchanges her car for one which will not be identified. As night approaches again, we see Marion approach a seedy motel, next to which is a gothic-style California house. As Marion steps out of her car, she sees an old woman sitting in the second story window of the house. The motel, which is run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a timid taxidermist, contains numerous samples of stuffed birds, all Norman’s handiwork, as well as many photographs of birds.
Marion registers as Marie Samuels (after her lover Sam), and Norman shyly shows her to her room and offers to bring her a bite to eat. While he is away getting the food, Marion overhears a shrill conversational exchange between Norman and the old woman upstairs, who is his mother. When he brings her tray of food, which he suggests she eat in his office because it is more comfortable, he comments, “Mother—what is the phrase? isn’t quite herself today.”
Back in her motel room, we see Marion make the decision to return the stolen money and prepare to take a shower before retiring. The famous shower sequence—which runs only a minute—took a week to film. It was extremely daring for its time because it appeared to show Marion nude, but in fact it never really does. As the shadowy figure enters and repeatedly knifes Marion to shrieking musical phrases, the ‘audience, caught completely off guard, is terrified. Why this inexplicable, unpremeditated, and horrible death? These bizarre happenings, which occupy only the first third of the film, are among the most memorable in the horror film genre. The audience is left without its focus of sympathy. Hitchcock shrewdly switches our attention to all-American Norman Bates, whom we see enter Marion’s cabin, aghast at what he finds, then dispose of her body and belongings by sinking her car into a nearby swamp.
When Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), an insurance investigator, arrives at the motel, he questions Norman, who at first denies he had any recent guests but finally admits that a woman did stop for the night. The investigator senses something amiss and- attempts to search the Bates home where he is brutally and repeatedly stabbed on the ornate staircase as Marion had been in the shower.
Subsequently, when Arbogast fails to report in, Sam and Lila set out on their own. Hitchcock’s Freudian denouement unfolds with no abatement of suspense and an atmosphere of impending doom. Sam and Lila learn there is no Mother Bates. Norman had found his mother and her lover dead together in bed years earlier. It is Lila who discovers the corpse of Mrs. Bates in the cellar of the house, where she is attacked by a hideously laughing old woman: it is Norman, a true split personality, in his mother’s clothes. The obligatory scene in which the psychologist explains Norman’s schizophrenia is indeed anticlimactic, but it nonetheless serves to release the audience from the sense of desolation and futility with which Hitchcock has gripped and held them for almost two hours.
Janet Leigh as Marion has a winning screen presence to which the audience is naturally attracted despite her role as a thief. Anthony Perkins as Norman to many represents aspects of the all-American boy, shy and harmless; Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam are also perfectly cast.
Psycho is Hitchcock’s film all the way, a directorial tour de force, but an essential ingredient to the film’s success is the splendid music by Bernard Herrmann. It is impossible to think of watching this film without the accompaniment of Herrmann’s psychologically terrifying and yet very human music.
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