The line between suspense and horror is blurred anyway, but when director Alfred Hitchcock and screen writer Joseph Stefano adapted master horror writer Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho for the screen, and composer Bernard Herrmann was brought on board, they changed the horror film genre forever, creating ripples that are still felt by filmmakers today.
It began when Hitchcock read Bloch’s novel on a flight to England. He immediately decided it would be his follow-up to the blockbuster North by Northwest and that it would be a stark departure from his acknowledged style. Noting the success of low budget black and white horror films, he wondered what would be the effect if such a film was made by someone who really understood the cinema. The first writer called in wrote a boring script that he immediately rejected, instead bringing in young Joseph Stefano to craft a completely original screenplay that was based only marginally on the book. Stefano was in therapy at the time and they decided to center the film in a young man who was patently, homicidally, crazy.
This movie is so well-known that I will discuss the entire plot in detail.
They decided to begin the movie from the point of view of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a Phoenix girl in her late twenties in a serious relationship with a man named Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a hardware store manager from a mid-sized Northern California town named Fairvale. Caught in a situation of having to pay alimony to his ex-wife, Sam believes that marriage is impossible until he can get out of his financial crisis.
In the first scene, in a Phoenix hotel room, we see Marion wearing a white bra and slip and Sam naked from the waist up. They have just finished making love and discuss their situation. Marion goes back to the real estate office where she works and finds that a client is giving them $40,000 in cash to hold for a purchase. However, instead of taking the money to the bank, she goes home, packs, gets in her car and sets out for Fairvale, thinking that they money will give them the fresh start they need.
Along the way, she is menaced by a highway patrolman, ominous in his dark glasses. She trades in her car and spends $700 of the money for a new one with California plates. She drives into a thunderstorm and pulls over at the Bates Motel, a lonely spot on an old highway, with a mansion on the hill behind it and meets the proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). A quirky, nervous young man, he volunteers to share his dinner with her. In the back room of the motel office, surrounded by the stuffed birds that Norman works on as his hobby, she encourages him to leave and find a life for himself, but he protests that he is the only one who can take care of his mother, an invalid, who sometimes goes “a little crazy.” As they talk, Marion realizes that she can’t solve her problems by running away and decides to return to Phoenix. She has enough in her bank account to make up for the $700 she has already spent.
Norman watches her from a peephole as she undresses to take a shower. As she scrubs herself, a fuzzy figure appears behind the shower curtain. It is Norman’s mother and she mercilessly stabs Marion until she is dead. Norman, seeing the blood on his mother, runs to motel room. To cover up the crime, he cleans the room, moves the body into the trunk of Marion’s car (along with, unknowingly, the $39,300 remaining of the theft), and disposes of them all in a nearby swampy lake.
The next day, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) arrives in Fairvale, thinking that Marion must have taken the money to join Sam, but he has no idea where Marion might be. A private investigator, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) shows up also looking for Marion. Grudgingly accepting that Lila and Sam really don’t know where she is, he begins to check every hotel and motel in Fairvale with no luck. However, at the Bates Motel, he catches Norman in several lies and decides that he will need to interview Norman’s mother. When Norman refuses, Arbogast leaves and calls Lila and Sam from a public phone to tell them that he’s going to go back to the Bates Motel to interview the invalid mother.
Returning to the motel, Arbogast watches Norman head to one of the rooms to work and then goes to the mansion to interview his mother. At the top of the stairs, however, she rushes from her room and stabs Arbogast to death. After disposing of this second body, Norman puts his mother in the fruit cellar because he’s afraid that more people will come to investigate, even though she loudly protests the action.
Lila and Sam try to get the local sheriff, Al Chambers (John McIntire) involved, but he tells them that Mrs. Bates has been dead for more than ten years. She apparently poisoned her lover and then herself in a murder-suicide. When Lila tells him that Arbogast claimed she was still alive, the sheriff wonders who it was they buried ten years earlier.
Without any significant action by the sheriff, Lila gets Sam to join her in their own investigation of the Bates Motel. They check in, then Sam keeps Norman busy in conversation while Lila goes up to the mansion to try to find Mrs. Bates, but Sam thinks that Norman has stolen the money and gets Norman all worked up to the point where Norman bashes him in the head and runs to the mansion to find Lila. Upstairs in Mrs. Bates’ bedroom, Lila notices that the bed has been permanently indented in the form of a body. As she’s getting ready to leave, she sees Norman running for the house, so she ducks down the stairs toward the root cellar. Curious, she goes all the way down and sees Mrs. Bates sitting in a chair. She touches the woman on the shoulder and when the body swings around, the mummified skull of the old woman stares at her. She screams, then the old woman appears in the doorway with a butcher knife, but before she can attack Lila, Sam shows up and wrestles her to the floor. As she falls, a wig comes off her head and we see that “she” is actually Norman dressed up in his mother’s clothing. All this time, he as been impersonating her, even going so far as to use her voice in conversations with himself.
Much of the psychology of Norman’s dual personality is revealed by a psychiatrist, Dr. Fred Richmond (Simon Oakland) at the jail who also tells them that the Mother has now taken full control of Norman’s body and that he will probably never be himself again. We see Norman, right near the end, sitting in the jail, with a voice-over of his mother talking. He sees a fly on his fingers and she says, “I wouldn’t even harm a fly,” as Norman grins maniacally. The final shot is over the car being pulled from the swamp.
Eschewing the big budget color films of the day, he made the movie using his television crew, only relying on the skills of longtime collaborators George Tomasini for the editing and Bernard Herrmann for the score. Probably the major breakthrough of the film was in building up the character of Marion Crane, getting the audience completely on her side, then killing her off barely 45 minutes into the movie, but there were other major departures from standardized cinema as well. Showing her in a brassiere, lying in bed with Sam was extremely risqué for the time. Hitchcock later had her in a black brassiere and slip, after she had stolen the money. This was amazingly the first movie ever to show a toilet. When Marion rips up her notes about the money, she flushes them down the toilet.
Joseph Stefano thought they were going to have a great film, but when he watched the rough cut, he became very depressed because it just didn’t look like it was going to work. Hitchcock spoke to him very kindly. “It’s just a rough cut, dear boy” he said. The reason Hitchcock knew it was going to work was that the score was missing.
Although Bernard Herrmann wrote many great film scores for Hitchcock and other directors, the music for Psycho is by far his best and most effective composing. In the history of cinema, there may never be a better match of action and score than the contribution of Herrmann to Psycho. Very early in the process of composing the music, Herrmann made one critical decision—to use only strings in his composition. The intense use of violins, cellos, and basses gives the action a depth that is astounding. Most people remember the shower scene, but throughout the film, the music flies and dances, going dead silent at times, and pulsing organically at others.
The shower scene changed the American understanding of montage. Shot over seven days, using 70 separate set-ups, the scene is a masterpiece of modern editing. Some shots only appear for a few frames. Hitchcock worked with Tomasini to put together an absolute tour-de-force in which it appears that Marion is hacked to death, without ever showing a knife piercing skin, without ever showing a bared breast. In her book about the making of the film, Janet Leigh said that part of Hitchcock’s mastery was in allowing the audience to fill in the gaps. By jumping all around in scenes that sometimes lasted less than a second, he created the illusion of the murder and allowed the minds of the audience to fill in the gaps.
Although the music and the editing contributed greatly to the success of the scene, what really set it apart was that it came so unexpectedly. Never before had a director spent so much film time drawing the audience to a character only to have her viciously dispatched in a scene that lasts less than two minutes.
A case can certainly be made that Psycho is Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but a case can also be made for many of Hitchcock’s movies. What is beyond debate is that Psycho changed the course of horror movies forever.