WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS NUMEROUS DESCRIPTIONS OF THE PLOT
Peripherally based on the real life character of Ed Gein, who killed two people in the 1950s and kept their body parts, the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho still resonates as one of the greatest horror films of all time, even 50 years after its 1960 release.
Published shortly after the discovery of Gein’s misdeeds, Robert Bloch’s novel partly inspired Joseph Stefano’s screenplay which would become the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s most controversial and ultimately notorious movie to that point in his career. To execute his particular vision, Hitchcock meticulously planned and storyboarded his films, Psycho being no exception, with Saul Bass’ input as a graphic designer and storyboard artist, giving the film its precision and edge. Not only is Psycho superbly photographed by John Russell and edited by George Tomasini, but also every level of Hitchcock’s production is first rate, from casting to costumes, makeup, and art direction. Of course, the finishing touch on Psycho is Bernard Herrmann’s iconic music, which is always effective but, in certain sections, reaches levels only achieved by few films in movie history. The total effect of Psycho is a film that is barely dated a half-century after its release.
Produced originally by Paramount but filmed on stages and the backlot at Universal Studios (in addition to locations around Los Angeles, in central California and in Phoenix), Hitchcock aimed to film the movie on a relatively low budget (reported at just over $800,000) and made what is, in the end, a very simple film, augmented by his choice to shoot in stark black-and-white. Later, Psycho was acquired by Universal itself, and the appearance of the Bates house on its famous backlot tour is still a staple of international tourism at Universal City. As such, though Psycho had modest ambitions, it went on to become one of Hitchcock’s most renowned projects.
Providing a subtle but memorable opening to the film are Saul Bass’ beginning titles. We are curious as to the “break” in the names as the lines cross the screen, foreshadowing the psychotic break of the main character. If Psycho has a flaw in light of the increased pacing of movies in the five decades since, it would be the opening half hour. Though we get to know the Marion Crane character, aptly played by Janet Leigh, these scenes are purely setup and do not hint as to the content of the remainder of the film. In 1960, the idea of Crane’s affair and subsequent appearance without a top in a bra alone must have shocked audiences, but this would be a minor shock compared to upcoming scenes. Leigh, 32 at the time of filming, is a fully natural beauty but plays the role of Crane in frustration with her life position, giving us empathy for her plight. When she absconds with $40,000, we root for her escape and are fooled into believing that the proceedings will be a manner of mystery, heist or noir film, and not a horror movie. In fact, in the opening scenes, there is scant evidence – especially for 1960s audiences who were admonished not to reveal the surprises in the film – that Psycho is in fact a horror film at all.
Of course, all of that changes when a fleeing Marion arrives at the Bates motel, whose combined cabins, office, and house are among the most famous exteriors in cinema of all stretches. With the extended row of 12 rooms, ending in an L-shape, with main office in the front, the motel is innocent enough save for the ominous lighted sign announcing its vacancies off of a main road. But it is the house atop a hill behind the motel that gave Psycho its truly unforgettable façade. In fact, the house might be the most recognizable private home of its time, and certainly, with very few others, one of the most immediately identifiable house in all of horror.
When Marion signs in with a pseudonym, she meets Norman Bates, portrayed by a 27-year-old Anthony Perkins. Perfectly tall, thin, spindly, with an angular face that warms when he smiles, Bates is not immediately threatening to Marion until she affronts him in their motel office conversation over Marion’s sandwich that Norman prepares. Hitchcock has played his film notably straight until these scenes where he underlights Norman and his collection of taxidermied birds, giving him a brooding quality. Norman is clearly disturbed by Marion’s suggestion that he put his mother, who has been talked about and heard complaining up the hill in the motel, into an institution.
Whether or not this sets off Norman is unclear at the time, though he clearly reveals a dark side in his reaction to Marion’s invasion into his personal life. In shots of the Bates house to this point, we never see Mrs. Bates other than a possible silhouette in the upstairs window. But we clearly know that Hitchcock is keeping some aspect of her situation from the audience as she remains a cloistered figure who neither Marion, nor other characters, ever sees in person. And, to this point in the story, we are never given Norman’s point-of-view in the house. But, after Marion goes to her room – in cabin one adjacent to the motel office – we take Norman’s perspective and learn more about him. For one, he is a voyeur who views Marion undressing through a hole in the wall hidden by a mounted painting. A great side shot of Norman’s eye peering into the hole is recalled by the closeup of Marion’s eye in the next sequence. Of course, all of this material builds to the next sequence, which certainly vaulted the movie into the status of an all-time classic.
Set-up as an innocent shower but ending in the most viscerally brutal murder that had been onscreen to the date of its release, Psycho’s “shower scene” is, in its purest sense, presented as a short film within the context of the overall larger film. The scene contains 52 individual shots and was masterfully storyboarded by Bass, directed by Hitchcock, photographed by Russell, assembled by Tomasini, and certainly scored by Herrmann. The first eight shots are innocent enough, providing Marion in several positions enjoying her shower. Only the second shot, of her point-of-view looking up at the shower head, provides any hint that anything unpredictable is to come, but the cutting together of these seven shots, combined in such a way as to construct a buildup to some unknown future event, is self-evident.
Then, the eighth shot in the scene is the one that kept women out of the shower – and ostensibly into the bathtub – in the early 1960s across the globe. Marion is screen right inside of the shower, while screen left, behind her and in back of the translucent shower curtain, a figure emerges through the door. The first part of this shot is startling enough, but as the figure approaches the shower in the same shot and opens the curtain, to the staccato hits of Herrmann’s often-imitated but never equaled murderous theme, we see a shadowy figure in the appearance of a woman with a long knife.
And suddenly, what was a relatively slow and mannered film shocks, outrages, upsets, scares, and engrosses the audience into the story. The next shots in the sequence exploit the moment by providing numerous angles on the murder, though we never see a knife actually penetrate Marion’s skin. In fact, though there are several cuts to Leigh’s face, a number of cuts do not feature her face, but various body parts, instead, of Leigh’s body double, Marli Renfro. Born in 1938, native Los Angeleno Renfro had modeled and performed as a showgirl from shortly after her 1955 high school graduation, and one of her photographers had recommended her to the production as a suitable double for Leigh.
After interviewing with both Leigh and Hitchcock, Renfro joined the production and filmed for seven days in December of 1959 to complete the shots necessary as Leigh’s double for the shower scene and its brief aftermath. A nudist at the time, Renfro appeared fully nude save her underpants, and played as such through the filming in the shower. However, thanks to Hitchcock’s immaculate production techniques, every angle in which Renfro was used was very carefully staged from Bass’ storyboards. At various times, we see Renfro’s arm, legs, navel, and most of her body from an overhead shot, though her breasts are mostly blocked by one or both of her arms. Intercut with shots of Leigh’s face, and the silhouetted figure and hand which is committing the stabbing, Renfro’s shots must be viewed slowly and deliberately to detect them.
Among the most interesting of these shots is the 30th in the scene, where the knife appears to plunge from above into Marion’s stomach area. However, a close review of this shot reveals only eight frames of action, and no actual penetration of the skin. In fact, this shot was filmed in reverse, with the knife pressed against Renfro’s navel and drawn upward so as to provide accuracy but no danger to the model. Though the shower water is moving up instead of down in the final film, at only eight frames, being exactly one-third of a second, it is barely detectable. In concert with the scene’s cringing sound effects of a stabbing knife, the illusion is complete.
By the 41st shot in the scene, the murderer leaves the room, but Hitchcock and his team prolong the agony of the scene and provide its complete impact in the succeeding shots where a severely wounded Marion, with no other recourse, reaches for the shower curtain, and, with a quick cut to Renfro on the bottom of the shower base where Marion has slipped, pulls it off of its rings. But, as Marion drops with her upper body outside of the shower, Hitchcock closes out the proceedings with several more cuts, including a shot which follows Renfro’s legs with a trail of blood – albeit Hershey’s chocolate syrup mixed with water – down the drain, dissolving to Leigh’s eye in a perfect match from the drain hole. The raised eyebrows and hollow, still shocked look on Leigh’s face as Hitchcock’s camera pulls back is a surrogate for the now stunned audience at having one of the biggest movie stars of the time killed off so early into a film in such a violent onscreen manner.
A long Hitchcock pan from the bathroom to the newspaper containing the $40,000 serves as a refractory period from the unnerving of the shower scene, though by this point, we do not surmise that Marion has been killed for money, and believe the killer to be a jealous mother of a woman who intrigued her lonely son.
Hitchcock pulls back from the heavy murder scene with a somewhat overlong scene of Norman cleaning up the shower and bathroom, wrapping Marion’s body inside the shower curtain, dragging it all outside, disposing the body and Marion’s belongings into her car, and driving it all into a nearby swamp. Perhaps Hitchcock brings this scene in at a certain length both to provide distance from the shower scene and to instill in the audience that Norman is actually covering up the crime for his mother, who Norman calls to in the house above. But the true identity of the killer still remains a mystery to the audience.
Scenes following Marion’s disappearance with her friends and family interested in her whereabouts are augmented by the appearance of Martin Balsam, whose kindly but gruff detective Arbogast grounds the film in a new hero who we hope will unravel the mystery of Marion’s location. Clever detective work leads him to the Bates motel, and a tense though non-threatening encounter with Norman ensues, ending with Norman declining to answer more questions when Arbogast deduces that Marion has been at the motel, though his belief of Norman’s motive of money we now know to be something of a red herring. And, at the time, Arbogast is fully unaware of Norman’s – or his mother’s – true intentions.
In fact, though Arbogast is on Norman’s trail and believes Marion to possibly still be on the Bates premises, his naivety about Bates’ true character lead to a sense of his endangerment, though we still have faith in his heroic capabilities. However, when he finally enters the Bates home and heads up the stairs, Hitchcock’s overhead shot of Balsam reaching the second floor still provides a terrific moment of fright despite the chance of a letdown from the previous murder. When the female figure emerges from an upstairs room to attack Arbogast, it remains nearly as effective as the eight shot from the shower scene. Then, Hitchcock’s unusual choice to have his camera follow Balsam’s bloodied figure as he fluidly falls down the stairs is yet another iconic movie moment though we are spared the full murder when a fallen Arbogast is again attacked at the bottom of the steps.
With two vividly photographed murders having already appeared onscreen, how could Hitchcock top that in the ending of Psycho? As Marion’s two followers arrive at the motel – Vera Miles as Marion’s sister Lila, and John Gavin as Marion’s somewhat secretive lover, Sam Loomis – we fear for them encountering a similar fate to Marion and Arbogast. By this point, Lila and Sam are fully onto Norman’s keeping information hidden, and they intend to unveil the truth about him and his mother, eventually leading Lila into the Bates home. Hiding below the stairs, she finally enters the basement, leading to Psycho’s final surprise, the reveal of Mrs. Bates as a ten-year-old corpse who Norman has kept in their home. This scene, with Miles flipping over the seated corpse and screaming while hitting a hanging basement light bulb, has also been long mimicked through the years by other moviemakers. We finally see Norman in a woman’s dress and wig, coming to attack Lila but being subdued by Sam, ending the mystery of Norman having a split personality, among other defects.
One of Psycho’s few truly dated scenes, the epilogue of the film, could only be classified as anticlimactic exposition. Delivered primarily by a psychiatrist, played by Simon Oakland, Norman’s various life dilemmas and psychoses are disseminated before we finally see a distraught befuddled Norman sitting in a holding cell. We lastly see a final shot of Marion’s car being towed out of the swamp to close the film.
109 minutes of pure horror glee, Psycho ushered in an uncountable number of films about serial killers and mysteriously disturbed leading characters, not to mention several unnecessary sequels and a boggling 1998 remake. And even 50 years later, the film stands as a classically conceived and created project in the genre. One of Hitchcock’s best and certainly among his most famous, Psycho began one of cinema’s great creative periods with a fully realized vision by one of its best filmmakers.