Considering that the source material was just another murder mystery with your average sweat-ball psychopath murdering glam-victims in the nude, director Alfred Hitchcock has transformed a stereotypical trashy horror novel in a complex, disturbing character study (intentionally or not). The murder is almost irrelevant, it’s our personal investment that makes Psycho so moving. For something so humble, it’s surprisingly conflicting and unsettling.
For film scholars, Psycho is a haven of psychoanalytic research – a study of Norman alone is enough to stuff a book – but ultimately Psycho is, in one way or another, addressing something far more tragic, the fear of stagnation and loneliness. This terrifyingly accessible theme is what ignites the plot and becomes every character’s fear, it re-imagines the murder mystery horror film and turns it into a tragedy dealing with regret. The idea of a wasted life is something compellingly interesting to all audience members, regardless of era.
We can relate to Marion when she steals, even more when she regrets it, the tragedy is that when she decides to right her wrongs, she’s murdered by someone motivated by a completely irrelevant cause to her own.
Psycho starts with Sam and Marion in a post coitus discussion about their futures together. It’s painted black and white but keeps fairly light in contrast, tone and brightness; this is a drama, the horror-mystery movie comes later. As Marion rushes to get back to the office, she and Sam discuss the prospect of them living together; with Sam’s alimony and crappy job, it seems unlikely they’ll ever be happy together. He even proposes that she find someone who’s actually available. Perhaps Marion could’ve avoided her death, had they remained happy with nothing. Alas, she is miserable, and seizes her opportunity at a better life by stealing her boss’ partner’s money. Remember this is the 60s, so when $40,000 is taken, it might not seem like much, but it’s worth approximately $320,000. After this we meet Norman, a shy and delicate soul. Neither Marion nor Norman are particularly audacious characters, this was Hitchcock working with his most celebrated yet understated characters yet (probably ever).
Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman is the real captivator. I wouldn’t assume he could do anything, yet there’s a plausibility that, come the ending, makes perfect sense that he did it all along. I appreciate an actor that skilfully plays a role from both sides, leaving the audience to scan his performance for anything that clue us in on this character’s end-game. Kinda like Sam L Jackson in Unbreakable (2000). And no matter how many times cinema tries to pull the wool over our eyes, even with the likes of The Usual Suspects (1995), no one will ever be a better wolf in sheep’s clothing than Mother Bates.
The big Norman/Norma reveal stirred a semi trend in cinema, most visible in the horror movie trope ‘split personality killer reveal’. I always remember Donald Kaufman’s script in Adaptation when thinking of this trope. As lazy writing goes, this twist is the biggest identifier of the bunch. I’m never one for praising something because it was the original, I praise films being and remaining original, and that’s what sets Psycho apart. It’s not a ploy for cheap gasps, it’s a moment of understanding what everything meant to these characters, the reveal explains Norman’s true tragedy. How can he run away from his trap when he harbours it so knowingly and powerlessly within himself? I love how the attention to detail in the dialogue and the handling of his portrayal totally sells the twist. A trope is never a bad thing, it’s a tool, a commonality in movies. It’s comparable to using flour for a cake, they all have it, but it’s the recipe and baker that changes determines its quality.
Hitchcock’s big budget Hollywood films showed he knows how to get to the heart of pupil widening tension while weaving a remarkably elaborate yet followable story, and the nearly independent sized budget faces him with the challenge to do it with less. A challenge he set himself I might add. And even with the cinematic challenges/accomplishments of Vertigo, Rope and Rear Window under his belt, I will always recognise Psycho as Hitchcock’s definitive magnum opus.