Before reading any further, be aware that this article will contain huge spoilers which might ruin the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it!
A friend of mine recently described Psycho as ‘the only perfect film ever made’. He might be right.
Ask anyone about Psycho and they’ll be able to tell you all about the shower scene: quick-fire editing, screeching violins, a screaming Janet Leigh, wounds you never see and blood swirling down the plughole. Probe a little further and they might be able to name the Norman Bates or identify the oedipal complex at the film’s heart. But there’s so much more to Hitchcock’s suspenseful masterpiece...
Psycho can be cleaved neatly into two distinct acts, separated by cinema’s most famous murder scene. Prior to Bates’ bathroom knife attack, the film concentrates solely on Marion Crane (Leigh), a legal secretary suffering from an extreme lack of excitement in her life. Her clandestine love affair is fizzling out and her lonely existence is dragging her down. But an opportunity to change this arises when a leering tycoon leaves a cash deposit of $40,000 in her office which she is entrusted to deliver to the bank.
Of course, she doesn’t do this. Instead, she jumps in her automobile and heads out of town with an envelope full of bank notes and a head full of voices. Hitchcock’s mastery of narrative is perfectly displayed as the car interior is flooded with Marion’s inner monologue in a stiflingly claustrophobic scene. An ice-cool highway patrolman turns the screw on Marion still further as she struggles with her conscience before eventually pulling off the road during a fierce storm – only to find shelter at the eerily quiet Bates Motel.
It is here that Hitchcock shows his real skill: he completely subverts audience expectation in a number of ways. Firstly, the villain of the piece is introduced as a kind, bumbling and awkward character. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is shy, friendly and affable – and impossible to dislike. He shows Marion great kindness and she warms to him instantly – he’s the antithesis of the male characters presented to that point and it’s subsequently a huge shock when his intentions turn out to be far more cruel and perverse than any of the other men in Marion’s life.
Within minutes of their meeting, Marion is being wrapped in a shower curtain, dumped in her car boot and sunk in a swamp – the character around which the whole narrative was built is killed off less than an hour into proceedings. And with the sinking of Marion’s corpse, so comes a complete shift in the film’s focus.
Psycho’s second act concerns Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and her determination to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. Cleverly planted clues are revealed, demonstrating Hitchcock’s ability to construct a tightly plotted narrative, whilst the director intercuts the investigation with scenes of Bates’ strange relationship with his mother – culminating in an unforgettable cross-dressing climax.
Arguably the first ever ‘slasher’ film, Psycho remains the finest: its brave structure, villainous heroine, sympathetic villain, psychological twist and deliberate lack of gore ought to be a lesson to creators of modern horror movies. Sadly, Psycho’s originality and skill have been abandoned in favour of uninspired found-footage flicks or torture-porn by numbers. Sometimes, less is more.