Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): good psych horror thriller about predestination / free will and men’s oppression of women

Alfred Hitchcock, “Psycho” (1960)

This movie is a good psychological horror thriller with excellent performances from its two leads Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. Leigh dominates much of the film’s first half. Crane is a disaffected secretary who nicks $40,000 in cash from her real estate employer on the pretence of banking it and going home early because of a headache; she instead makes off for an out-of-town weekend rendezvous with her boyfriend Sam (John Galvin). Along the way she hurriedly changes cars at a used-car dealership and arrives at a hotel operated by lone owner-manager Bates. They have supper and a brief chat together, after which Crane suddenly decides she’ll leave in the morning, return to town and hand back the money. Her plans are thwarted when an intruder stabs her to death while she is having a shower. Some time after the killer has left, Bates comes and looks into the bathroom, is shocked at what he sees and cleans up the blood and other mess. He disposes of Crane’s body, her effects and her car in a nearby swamp.

The rest of the film introduces Vera Miles as Crane’s sister Lila, a respectable single woman in contrast to the more impulsive Marion, who engages a private detective (Matt Balsam) to inquire into Marion’s disappearance. After the detective himself disappears – he joins Crane down in the swamp – Lila and Sam decide to investigate Marion’s whereabouts and, following the detective’s last piece of information, arrive at the Bates Hotel to do their own snooping …

What makes “Psycho” more than just a psych horror / slasher film – and this is often true of many of Hitchcock’s films – is its theme that informs the characters’ motivations and personalities: in “Psycho”, it’s the choices that people must make between conforming to social expectations, duties and obligations and determining their own destiny: what Marion and Norman refer to as “the private trap”. The two sisters Lila and Marion are mirror opposites: Lila chose to conform before the film’s events and stays single; Marion chooses a de facto relationship and makes other decisions on the hop. Both women are subjected separately to knife attacks: the conformist sister survives, the nonconformist one doesn’t. Bates is both a conformist and nonconformist but in an unusual way: he’s a victim of his upbringing and fate which took away his father and made his mother turn to the son for emotional comfort; the son becomes trapped in his relationship with his mother. He chooses to preserve it even if it means killing his mother and her later lover; overcome with guilt, he resurrects the mother in his mind which “she” comes to dominate as prudish and repressive.

Romance is dealt with in prescribed ways approved by society and these ways usually privilege men’s needs and preferences over those of women. This puts Marion in an unenviable state: she’s in a relationship with a divorced man she wants to marry but who can’t afford to marry her. When a lecherous tycoon propositions her and throws the $40,000 down on the table for a property sale, it’s understandable that she would take it: she and Sam need the money, the tycoon treats it as small change. This becomes obvious after her death: her boss notifies Lila of her disappearance and the missing cash rather than go to the police, indicating that he and the tycoon are willing to forgive Marion for the theft.

Marion’s shower death scene cuts the film in two very different halves and the way it is done deserves mention: for modern audiences, it’s not gory and only once is the knife seen to pierce, or at least touch, flesh. Blood flows in the water and down the drain but is not seen much. Marion’s screams, the dull knife thuds (the film crew repeatedly stabbed a watermelon for the sound effects), the very quick camera cuts and the repeating shrill, hysterical violin music by Bernard Hermann provide the horror. The camera continually cuts between Marion’s point of view and the killer’s, and this helps to transfer the focus of the plot from Marion to Bates. A kind of sexual intercourse has occurred in the death scene. While the shower scene is structurally pivotal to the movie, the scene itself is the culmination of the chat Marion and Bates have about being free to live one’s own life versus obligations to family and how individuals become trapped in a particular groove as a result of personal history and family background. It’s during this chat that Marion decides to return to town to deal with her particular “private trap” and Bates determines that she should stay at the hotel. Viewers who watch and listen to this chat closely will link the bathroom intruder with Bates himself.

The weakest part of “Psycho” is the denouement in which a psychiatrist explains Bates’s behaviour and family history, followed by Bates sitting alone in a jail cell facing the camera. Although these scenes provide closure for those viewers unfamiliar with Freudian psychology, they cut off the possibility of multiple interpretations of Bates’s behaviour and place ultimate blame for his psychosis on his domineering mother. One could suggest that the psychiatrist imposes his own interpretation of Bates’s behaviour, based on interviews with him, and isn’t necessarily to be believed; Bates may be using his mother as a scapegoat for his crimes – a classic example of projecting blame. According to Bates, his mother disapproves of sexual desire yet earlier when Lila snuck into the woman’s bedroom, she saw small monuments to romantic and sexual love. Bates and another character in the film also acknowledge that Mrs Bates had a lover. Who is the real Mrs Bates then?

The low budget for “Psycho” at the time of filming meant it was shot in black-and-white which hinders aspects of the plot’s development and elaboration: the landscape in which the events take place looks generic and never becomes part of the movie. Colour film would have given sharpness to the film’s look and a colourful desert background would have heightened the isolation of the Bates family property and its lone inhabitant from the rest of the world. The Bates family mansion would look more dilapidated and distinctive as a character in its own right instead of merely resembling a haunted-house stereotype. The use of colour inside the mansion could have emphasised its three floors’ resemblance to the Freudian concept of the human mind: ground floor / ego, upper floor / superego, basement level / id. There is an emphasis on contrasts of light and dark within “Psycho” which colour film and a clear filter might have made more of.

The film makes several assertions about the nature of Bates’s psychosis and his relationship with his mother, all of them quite contradictory and undercutting each other, and challenges audiences on the good girl / bad girl polarity represented by Lila and Marion. Lila is the good girl but the film seems more sympathetic towards Marion, at least until she decides to turn back to town and return the money. Marion comes across as an attractive, likeable character with faults and her sister as proper, more mature perhaps, but maybe less deserving of the audience’s sympathy. The private detective is diligent in his work but ends up dead; the local police sheriff seems lackadaisical in investigating Marion and the detective’s whereabouts but survives. These positions the film revels in, many of them related to the central themes of the polarity of predestination / free will and men’s oppression of women and their sexuality, make “Psycho” an ambiguous and complex film.

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