Release Date: September 8th, 1960 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Alfred Hitchcock Actors: Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Frank Albertson
n Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday, December 11th (details typically seen only in mystery films), Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) uses her lunch hour to rendezvous with Sam Loomis (John Gavin) at a cheap hotel. Their affair weighs heavily on her mind because Sam has to pay alimony to his ex-wife and needs another couple of years to get out of debt. Marion is anxious to get married, but needs money to give them both a fresh start. Back at the office, where she works for realtor George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), the elderly, flirtatious Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) is buying a $40,000 house in cash for his 18-year old daughter as a wedding gift – and is quick to flash the funds in front of Marion, hoping to woo her with the thoughts of buying off her unhappiness. It gives her another idea entirely: to steal the money, which she’s tasked with depositing at the bank. It’s as if it dropped out of the sky into her lap, providing her with an answer to all of her troubles.
It’s an intriguing setup for a heist-gone-wrong picture – but, quite notoriously, it never gets that far into the plot. She heads out of town and acts suspiciously towards a cop, who tails her to California, where she trades her car for another one at a lot. Paranoid, she even checks the newspaper to see if her crime has made the front page. And she’s so distracted she almost leaves her luggage in the old vehicle. Repetitious voiceovers upsurge Marion’s guilty conscience, followed by suggestions for conversations the characters might be having as Crane’s disappearance and the missing money brings further scrutiny. Rushing off to continue her journey, she gets caught in a rainstorm and pulls over at the Bates Motel, a sleepy set of cabins off the main highway (just 15 miles from her Fairvale destination) that rarely gets any visitors anymore.
Brilliantly, the film still focuses on Marion’s guilt and distrust and her need to hide the stolen bills. It doesn’t even seem that odd when young Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), somewhat shy and uncomfortable but cordially hospitable, welcomes her to the lodge. He invites her to a light dinner, where he reveals his hobby of taxidermy. There are signs of peculiarities emanating from Norman, but he seems quite harmless – especially as he recounts the details of his mother’s mental instability. The old woman living up in the darkened house across from the motel berates him mercilessly for even speaking to Marion. He also becomes eerily flustered when Marion suggests putting her in an institution.
From here, “Psycho” begins to truly live up to its name, with a sudden, intense shift in tone. It masterfully reveals that the entire introductory sequences were essentially just for show. The real star isn’t even Leigh, and the $40,000 motive plays a rather inconsequential part. Director Alfred Hitchcock, known for his ability to shock and awe, once again tells a story extremely unconventionally. The extensive misdirection continues well beyond the most horrifying moment, refusing to reveal the full extent of Norman’s abetment in a flash of grisly violence. Hitchcock wisely keeps additional surprises waiting in reserve.
Frenzied title designs by Saul Bass, coupled with Bernard Herrmann’s alternatingly screeching and melodic theme music, nicely supplement the chaos of the unexpected events. The superbly nerve-wracking musical motifs continue into the second and third acts as well, as an investigation is initiated concerning Marion’s whereabouts. More characters are introduced, including a nosey private investigator (Martin Balsam) and Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles), pulling the audience along as it becomes more and more apparent that someone must discover the carefully guarded secrets behind the Bates home – chiefly by reenacting Marion’s movements, giving rise to petrifying repetition – and that the original grand larceny scheme has no bearing on the girl’s ultimate disappearance.
Janet Leigh spends the majority of her screen time in underwear, before arriving at her most famous scene: taking a shower. Hitchcock employs plenty of unique visuals, including camera tricks that confuse depth perception, spiraling and overhead movements, invasive close-ups, film noir lighting, and rapid cuts to portray nudity without nudity or extreme violence without much blood. “Psycho” was a first for several filmic elements (primarily the overt sexuality, sexual deviance, and gruesome undertakings), making it occasionally more notable than effective (this is evidenced considerably in the unnecessary wrap-up exposition at the conclusion, which draws out the denouement). At its heart, however (based on the novel by Robert Bloch), it’s a supremely thrilling murder mystery that boasts a climax unlike any other. The suspense and anticipation are nearly unbearable, keeping the ultimate, morbid answers brilliantly stowed until the very end.
– Mike Massie