Psycho (1960)

There is a scene in Annie Hall (1977) where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton have a date to see a Bergman film.  Keaton arrives late, and the ticket clerk informs them that the movie started two minutes ago.  Allen says they’ll have to forget it because he can’t go in a theater in the middle of a movie.  Keaton replies, with exasperation, that all they will miss are the titles, which are in Swedish. Allen is adamant, and they have to find something else to do.

In its exaggerated way, this scene illustrates a fundamental difference between two types people: those who must see a movie from the beginning, and those who don’t care.

I saw North by Northwest when it first came out in 1959.  It was rereleased in 1965, when I was in college, and I asked a girl out on a date to see it.  She had never even heard of the movie, and I didn’t tell her that I had seen it before.  My idea was that she would thoroughly enjoy the movie, which would redound to my credit, making her more likely to want to go out on dates with me in the future.

“What time does the movie start?” she asked me when I called to confirm our date that Saturday.

“It starts at seven,” I replied.

“All right,” she said, “pick me up at seven fifteen.”

I was in shock.  I had never heard of such a cavalier attitude toward watching a movie. After much protestation on my part, she said she would be ready at seven, which she said I should take as an indication of just how much she liked me.  She lived close to the theater, but it still meant we would come in about ten minutes after the movie started.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I agreed. Well, I was young, and she was beautiful.  The things we do for love!

I have since seen several old movies, made back in the 1930s or 1940s, where a man and woman are in a theater watching a movie, when one of them says, “This is where we came in,” and they get up and leave. It must have been common for couples to do that in those days.

One night when my friend and I were at a drive-in movie theater, a car pulled into the spot next to ours, twenty minutes after the movie started.  The woman stayed in the car while the man took their two children to the concession stand.  When they got back and got settled, the man asked his wife if she knew what movie it was.  “I think it’s a spy movie,” she replied.  Eventually the movie ended, and it was back to the concession stand.  Then the second movie began, and about an hour into that one, they pulled out of their spot and headed home.

It is on account of people like that, I suppose, that in the advertisements for Psycho, when it first came out in 1960, there were taglines informing us that no one would be admitted into the theater after the start of each performance, that it was important to see the movie from the very beginning. According to Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky, in their anthology, The Complete Films of Alfred Hitchcock, “Hitchcock had Paramount enforce the policy by having it written into the booking contract of all the theaters that exhibited it.”  In the bonus material of the DVD for this movie, we can see for ourselves how a big deal was made out of this policy.

Unfortunately, there is another fundamental difference between two types of people: those who don’t want to know what happens in a movie before they see it, and those who don’t care.

Those who don’t care if they know what happens in a movie before they see it also don’t care how much it matters to those of us who do, and thus they will blab about the movie once they’ve seen it, in spite of our objections.  Although I saw The Godfather (1972) the first month it came to the theaters where I lived, I was told twice by two different people about the horse’s head in the bed before I actually managed to see the movie.

Harris and Lasky say that steps were taken by Hitchcock to minimize this:

First of all, it was shot on a restricted set, with no visitors allowed.  Stills of important scenes were not released in advance, as is usually customary.  Reviewers and theater owners were not permitted to view the film until opening day.

In his Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary says that Psycho should have won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.  One reason it did not was that the members of the Academy are snobs, always wanting to present themselves as sophisticated and refined, so they disdain giving the Award to a horror movie no matter how good it is. But another reason was that the members of the Academy were “indignant because Hitchcock denied them special advance screenings lest they reveal the surprise ending.”

In one of the advertisements for this movie, Hitchcock encouraged those who are inclined to talk about a movie after they’ve seen it to avoid being around other people after watching Psycho.  But some people who have seen a movie will tell others how it ends out of spite, and Hitchcock’s admonition in this regard only enhanced the pleasure they took from ruining the movie for those who had not yet seen it.  This kid I knew when I was in high school gleefully told me, before I had a chance to see Psycho, that the mother that kills people in the movie is really her son dressed up to look like her.  I despise him to this day.

According to Harris and Lasky, all this secrecy on Hitchcock’s part resulted in the audience being shocked early in the movie:

The shock comes in the form of an unexpected and violent slaying. Janet Leigh, ostensibly the star, is killed off one-third through the film. First of all, we didn’t expect the murder and are that much more surprised by it.  Second, Hitchcock knows that audiences think that nothing can happen to her because she is the star.

Over the years, several critics have made this point, and I suppose it sounds believable to those who were not around back then.  But those of us that saw the movie when it first came out know that it simply is not true, because Hitchcock himself gave that much away in the trailer that he made for it.  I remember seeing the trailer at the time, and was able to refresh my memory of it, thanks again to some of the bonus material on the DVD.  Hitchcock takes us onto the set of the Bates Motel.  In the house up the hill, just behind the motel, he takes us to the stairs and says this is where the second murder took place, involving a knife, and resulting in a mangled corpse with a broken back at the bottom of the stairs.  Then he takes us into what he refers to as a parlor, the room just behind the desk where motel guests would register.  It was where the son would go to get away from his mother, who Hitchcock says is “maniacal,” thereby letting us know to whom the title refers.  Then he takes us into Room Number 1.  In the bathroom, he tells us about all the blood that was in there before it was cleaned up. What happened, he tells us, is that the murderer crept into the bathroom while someone was taking a shower.  Hitchcock pulls back the shower curtain, and we see Janet Leigh screaming.  Most people back then saw this preview, because Hitchcock featured it a couple of times during his popular television show.

It is hard to fault Hitchcock for giving so much away himself, for I’m sure that it made a lot of people want to see the movie, people that might have skipped it had he not talked about there being two murders with lots of blood, and then shown us a naked Janet Leigh screaming in the shower.

So far, we have been considering what people knew or didn’t know when the movie was being released for the first time.  A further consideration is how people experience this movie when they watch it for the first time years later.  Even in 1988, in his book Cult Movies 3:  Fifty More of the Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird and the Wonderful, Danny Peary could begin his review with a note of regret, saying that this movie can never again be experienced the way it was back then:

Almost everyone who saw Psycho in 1960 remembers that terrifying experience as if it were yesterday…. Today Psycho fans swap stories about how they closed their eyes during the film’s violence (but not the sex) or literally ducked under their seats (I admit measuring the amount of room down there), or how it scared them out of several nights’ sleep.

He is right about that.  Because I was only thirteen years old when this movie came out, I saw it at a drive-in with my parents. My mother screamed during the two slasher scenes and ducked her head to keep from seeing what happened.  You might think it would be enough merely to shut one’s eyes, but people ducked beneath their seats, not merely because they did not want to see what was happening, but because they wanted to protect themselves from the knife-wielding Mrs. Bates.

Peary continues:  “Viewers really were afraid to take showers for a long time afterward (and I am not alone in still occasionally thinking of Psycho when in a motel shower).” My mother told me that for years after that, whenever she took a shower alone in the house, she brought our dog into the bathroom with her. Another woman I knew also said she was scared to take showers alone in her house for years after seeing this movie.

Peary goes on to say that people seeing the movie “today,” which means in 1988, are so inured by all the slasher movies produced since then, with an ever higher body count and more grisly gore, that Psycho is regarded as “camp.”  And if that was true in 1988, then all the more so today.

When I watch the movie all these years later, I try to imagine myself not knowing anything about it.  To the extent that one is able to do this, the movie starts out as a melodrama, like Back Street (1961), for instance. We slowly close in on a hotel room in the middle of the day, entering inside to find Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) lying supine on the bed in a white brassiere and half slip, and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), standing up bare chested, the two of them in a postcoital state.  He says to Marion, “You never did eat your lunch, did you?”  As he says this, the camera shows us some uneaten sandwiches sitting on a plate, notwithstanding the remark Marion makes about this being one of the “extended lunch hours” she takes when Sam is in town.

We conclude that they spent so much time having sex that she never got around to those sandwiches, and we don’t give it much thought beyond that.  But later on, we might notice that she never has anything to eat again until the night of the following day when she eats some sandwiches that Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has prepared for her as the two of them have a conversation in the office of the Bates Motel.  And Robin Woods, in his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, is just one of several critics that have commented on the fact the there is a physical resemblance between John Gavin and Anthony Perkins.

In the novel by Robert Bloch, on which this movie is based, there is no physical similarity between Sam and Norman.  In the first chapter, there is reference to the way Norman’s “plump face, reflected from his rimless glasses, bathed the pinkness of his scalp beneath the thinning sandy hair,” and later on to “the blubbery fat, the short hairless arms, the big belly.”

Back to the movie:  Sam and Marion want to get married, but Sam says they cannot afford it:

I’m tired of sweating for people who aren’t there.  I sweat to pay off my father’s debts, and he’s in his grave.  I sweat to pay my ex-wife alimony, and she’s living on the other side of the world somewhere.

I like that part about the alimony.  We are not to imagine his ex-wife holding down a menial job, just making ends meet in her small apartment, anxiously looking in the mailbox for her monthly check from Sam.  No, we envision her living in luxury in some foreign country, basking in the sun on a beach filled with rich tourists, telling her friends, “I earned it.”

I wondered about this business of having to pay off his father’s debts, since children are not legally obligated to pay off the debts of their parents when they die.  However, this is explained in the novel:

There was this hardware store, in a little town called Fairvale, up north. Sam had worked there for his father, with the understanding that he’d inherit the business. A year ago his father had died, and the accountants had told him the bad news.

Sam inherited the business, all right, plus about twenty thousand in debts. The building was mortgaged, the inventory was mortgaged, and even the insurance had been mortgaged. Sam’s father had never told him about his little side investments in the market—or the race track. But there it was. There were only two choices: go into bankruptcy or try and work off the obligations.

Sam Loomis chose the latter course. “It’s a good business,” he explained.

In general, the movie follows the novel closely.  Sometimes, as is the case with the debts Sam inherited from his father, the novel proves to be illuminating, at least for those of us that wonder about such things. In other cases, the differences between the novel and the movie can be regarded as Hitchcock’s contribution, giving us insight into how he wanted to present the story, as in the physical similarity between Sam and Norman, which wasn’t it the novel.

There is also the difference between descriptions in the novel and dramatizations in the movie based on it. The novel begins with Norman carrying on a conversation with his mother, who we have every reason to believe really exists.  In the movie, such a scene would have revealed that Mother did not exist except in Norman’s imagination, giving away the whole surprise ending. Nevertheless, because we never see Norman talking to his mother in the movie, most people begin to suspect she doesn’t really exist long before we have that revealed to us explicitly.  On the other hand, about halfway through the novel, we also get a clue, as Norman reflects on his dual nature:

It was like being two people, really—the child and the adult. Whenever he thought about Mother, he became a child again, with a child’s vocabulary, frames of reference, and emotional reactions. But when he was by himself—not actually by himself, but off in a book—he was a mature individual. Mature enough to understand that he might even be the victim of a mild form of schizophrenia, most likely some form of borderline neurosis.

When this book was written, most people thought that someone with schizophrenia had a split personality.

Back to the movie:  In addition to explaining why Sam does not feel that his financial situation can allow him and Marion to get married, having to pay off his father’s debts introduces a theme, that of a dead parent preventing an adult child from having a normal sex life.  Much in the way the sandwiches in a hotel room anticipates sandwiches later in a motel office, so too does Sam’s struggle with obligations imposed on him by his dead father anticipate Norman’s struggle with imagined obligations to his dead mother.

In the novel, by the way, his father’s debts are the only reason for Sam’s financial difficulties.  There is no ex-wife getting alimony payments.

Back to the movie:  Marion tells Sam this will be the last time they meet this way, secretly in a cheap hotel. She admits she’s thinking of breaking off the relationship, and she wouldn’t care if Sam broke off with her instead, now that she has ruled out any more sexual encounters.

In fact, as Raymond Durgnat points out in The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock:  or, the Plain Man’s Hitchcock, we don’t care either.  We are interested in these two, to be sure, but we neither expect nor hope that they will eventually get married and live happily ever after.  Durgnat does not say so, but I suspect that is because they don’t really act as though they enjoyed the afternoon they just spent together.  Sex is very pleasurable, but only sometimes fun.

Sam says he wants to keep seeing her anyway, even if it’s only to have lunch in a public place.

Marion:  Oh, we can see each other.  We can even have dinner.  But respectably.  In my house, with my mother’s picture on the mantel and my sister helping me broil a big steak for three.

Sam:  And after the steak, do we send sister to the movies, turn Mama’s picture to the wall?

Marion:  Sam!

Now we know why they’ve been meeting in cheap hotel rooms instead of at Marion’s place.  She lives with her sister, who we later find out is Lila, played by Vera Miles. And while Marion could move out and get an apartment of her own, Lila would suspect that she was doing it in order to have sex with Sam, which wouldn’t have been respectable.  At least, it wouldn’t have been respectable in 1960.

Marion’s name in the novel, by the way, is Mary.  (One critic has noticed that an anagram of “Marion” is “Normai,” suggesting a connection between her and Norman, as well as with his mother Norma.) There is no indication in the novel that Sam and Mary are having sex with each other.  In those days, though it seems almost unbelievable now, a lot of people actually waited until they were married before they had sex, and that is the case with these two.  As a result, there would be no reason for Mary to get her own apartment.

Back to the movie:  The reference to the picture on the mantel, by which Marion’s deceased mother can cast her disapproving eyes, reinforces Marion’s need for respectability.  This is another instance of a dead parent preventing an adult child from having a normal sex life, once again prefiguring the hold that Mother has over Norman.

Objectively speaking, things are not all that bleak.  Sam expects to have the debts paid off in two years, and if his ex-wife remarries, the alimony will stop.  But Marion is impatient.  She says they should just get married anyway, but Sam rejects that idea, saying they would have to live in the storeroom in the back of his hardware store. Marion doesn’t care, but he does.  Marion leaves to go back to the office, and this ends the section of the movie that appears to be a melodrama.

Now we enter into the section of the movie that purports to be a crime drama.  Shortly after Marion gets back to the real estate office where she works, a client, Tom Cassidy, comes in with Mr. Lowrey, Marion’s boss.  Cassidy flashes $40,000 in front of her, which he says he isn’t worried about, because he never carries more cash than he can afford to lose.  Adjusted for inflation, that would be just over $400,000 today.  The purpose of the money is to buy a house as a wedding present for his daughter. His philosophy is that while money cannot buy happiness, it can buy off unhappiness. With a mischievous look in his eyes, he asks Marion if she is unhappy.

In the novel, on a previous occasion, Cassidy put a hundred-dollar bill on Mary’s desk, suggesting she take a “little trip” to Dallas with him for a weekend.  Mr. Lowrey came in at that moment, ending the matter, but it irked Mary, and she never forgot it:

She couldn’t forget the wet-lipped smile on his fat old face.

And she never forgot that this world belonged to the Tommy Cassidy’s. They owned the property and they set the prices. Forty thousand to a daughter for a wedding gift; a hundred dollars tossed carelessly on a desk for three days’ rental privileges of the body of Mary Crane.

Back to the movie:  After Cassidy and Lowrey go into his office, Caroline, Marion’s co-worker, played by Hitchcock’s homely daughter Patricia, says, “He was flirting with you. I guess he must’ve noticed my wedding ring.”  That’s funny, of course, but it adds to Marion’s exasperation.  Cassidy’s daughter is going to get married, and Caroline is already married, but Marion’s desire to get married is stymied.  And Cassidy’s daughter will have no money problems, unlike Marion’s situation with Sam, where money, or the lack of it, is keeping them apart.  Perhaps this explains why Hitchcock added the part about alimony in writing the script, which wasn’t in the novel.  The debts Sam inherited from his father are, to Marion, just an unfortunate fact.  But the idea that the woman who used to be married to Sam is enjoying a carefree life at Marion’s expense completes the circle closing in on her.

Cassidy leaves the money with Lowrey, who in turn tells Marion to deposit it in a bank. In the next scene, she is in her house alone (Caroline told her Lila would be gone all weekend).  Now she is wearing a black brassiere and slip.  She looks at the bed with the $40,000 on it.  Well, she didn’t deposit it in the bank, so we figure she is going to take the money and run.  If she has to commit grand larceny to be respectable, so be it.

But why the change in her brassiere and slip?  If I were about steal that much money, it would never occur to me to change my underwear first.  But, since she is about to make a fresh start on life, perhaps, dare I say it, she took a shower.  And as she packs, we do see the shower head and curtain through the open bathroom door, another anticipation of what is to come.

There is something so desperate and futile in what she is about to do.  What does she have planned, and how does she expect to get away with it?  In the novel, her plan is to cover her tracks by switching out cars several times, marry Sam, and then sell the last car under her married name, Mrs. Sam Loomis.  She would tell Sam she inherited some money and that Lila moved to Europe, explaining why Lila would not be attending the wedding.  Lila wouldn’t tell the police about Sam until she talked to Mary.  The whole thing makes me nervous just thinking about it.

Back to the movie:  After leaving home, she doesn’t even make it out of town before she is spotted by her boss, who naturally wonders what she is up to, since she said she was going straight home and to bed after depositing the money in the bank.  Hours later, she pulls over to the side of the road to get some sleep.  She is awakened the next morning by a motorcycle cop wearing ominous sunglasses.  He tells her she should have checked into a motel, just to be safe.  She drives on for a while and then decides to sell her car and get another, as a way of throwing the police off her trail when her boss realizes she stole the money.  But while buying a used car, she sees that same cop watching her from across the street.

Everything thus far indicates that the movie will continue to be about her trying to get away with stealing the money.  That would be enough for most movies.  And we expect that cop to be on her trail unrelentingly, like Javert in Les Misérables, who will now know the make and model of the car she just bought, along with its license plate.  And yet, we never see him again.  Nor does her car play any role in her effort to hide from the police.  It just ends up being sunk into the swamp, along with Marion’s body and the $40,000.

As she drives to Fairvale, she imagines what various people she knows will say, especially Sam and Mr. Lowrey.  The look on her face is one of concern.  But then she imagines what Cassidy will say: “Well, I ain’t about to kiss off $40,000!  I’ll get it back, and if any of it’s missing, I’ll replace it with her fine, soft flesh!”  A slight smile appears on her lips.

It starts raining, making it difficult for her to see, leading her off the main highway, right up to the Bates Motel, with the spooky house behind it, just up the hill.  All of a sudden, “It was a dark and stormy night,” thereby leading the plot in a totally different direction as well.  And so, pretending we know nothing of this movie in advance, we are surprised by this turn of events, in which we now find ourselves watching a horror movie.

After Marion rents a room at the motel, she has a conversation with Norman while eating those sandwiches, indicating that she intends to go back and try to make things right.  And she might have been able to do so, for when her sister Lila shows up at Sam’s hardware store, Sam is just finishing the letter he has written to Marion, saying she is right, that they can get married right away, living in the back of the store for a couple of years, until the debts are paid off.  They will be poor, but happy. And Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a private detective that enters the store right behind Lila, says Lowrey and Cassidy just want her to return the money and there will be no prosecution.  We might imagine Marion’s announced resolve to return to Phoenix being the final scene in one of Hitchcock’s television shows, lasting just under an hour, after commercials.

The anticipations we have noticed so far have not allowed us to guess what would come next.  They were only for the sake of aesthetics, structural similarities that create a sense of artistic unity. However, while Marion was in the office with Norman, she might have become aware of an anticipation that would have given her pause, had she noticed it.  There are several paintings of naked women on the walls, including a painting of “Susanna and the Elders,” based on a story in which two men watch a naked woman taking a bath.  This has been a favorite subject by many artists over the years because the artists were men, and men like naked women.  Bad enough that two men saw Susanna naked, but then the scene is imagined in different ways by different artists over and over again so that everybody gets to see her naked.  But at least the women were not really Susanna, only models that were perfectly happy to let all the world see them without any clothes on. It’s not like the way things are now, where if two men watched an unsuspecting woman bathing today, her pictures would end up all over the internet.  The paintings of Susanna are based on a story in the Book of Daniel, which is either in the Bible or in the Old Testament Apocrypha, depending on which version of the Bible you have.  In some paintings of this story, two lascivious men simply watch a beautiful woman taking a bath, but in the painting in Norman’s office, the men are also groping Susanna.

Hitchcock points to that painting in the trailer, saying it has significance, but we have forgotten all about that when watching the movie for the first time.  Moreover, we, like Marion, are distracted by all the stuffed animals in the office, anticipating the stuffed Mrs. Bates up in the house.  Had Marion noticed the painting of “Susanna and the Elders,” it might have warned her about taking that shower later on.  And indeed, just behind the painting is a peephole, allowing Norman (but not us, unfortunately) to watch Marion get completely naked, much in the way that Hitchcock turned us into voyeurs by pulling us in through the window of that hotel room in the beginning of the movie. Norman gets so aroused that Mother just naturally has to come down there and hack Marion up so she can have Norman all to herself.

Toward the end of the movie, Lila discovers Mrs. Bates’ stuffed body in the fruit cellar, at which point Mother comes running in with a knife, screaming, “I’m Norma Bates!” Sam comes in right behind Mother and grabs her, revealing that she is Norman when his wig falls off.  The hold that Sam has on Mother is similar to that in the painting of “Susanna and the Elders.”

After this comes the epilogue, the fourth section of this movie.  The scene is at the County Court House where Dr. Fred Richman (Simon Oakland) explains how all this came to be, how Norman became jealous when his mother started having sex with some man, so he poisoned them both. Then, since he loved his mother, he dug up her body and stuffed it.  But that’s all on the outside. On the inside, Norman Bates had a split personality, in which he would sometimes become Mother. Since Norman was jealous of his mother, he believed that Mother was jealous of him, a form of projection, killing any pretty woman that aroused him.  But now Mother has completely taken over Norman’s mind and blames Norman for all the killings.

In the novel, when all this comes to light, it makes headlines on the front page of the newspapers and is even covered on television, some write-ups comparing Norman to Ed Gein.  Rumors spread about “cannibalism, Satanism, incest, and necrophilia.” Regarding those last two items, incest and necrophilia, Robert Bloch doesn’t say that Norman was having sex with his mother, either before or after he killed her, for that would be too gross.  Bloch is only telling us that there were rumors to that effect.

My pretending not to know what is going to happen when I watch this movie adds to my enjoyment, notwithstanding that kid in high school, who tried to spoil it for me, and the trailer in which Hitchcock gives everything away but the ending.  Oddly enough, I also appreciate the anticipations of which I am now aware, having seen the movie so many times before, knowing how one scene is pregnant with a scene that will occur later, so that I enjoy the movie more on subsequent viewings than I did when I saw it for the first time.

No matter how many times I have seen this movie, however, on each subsequent viewing I must see it from the very beginning, as is the case with all the movies I see. The only exception was with that girl I knew in college, and I never asked her out to see another movie.  I’m sure she didn’t care.


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