This year marks the 60th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” a movie hailed by many to be the best of its kind. Intimidated, I set out to experience this film for the first time. Spoiler alerts ahead for those who haven’t yet seen it. I would tease you that it’s a bit late for such a warning were it not for my seeing it for the first time this past week.
One of the first things I noticed when watching this movie was the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. The strings shriek, moving back and forth stealthily as title cards continued to reveal specifics of the scene, down to the last minute.
With this immersive introduction of the primary characters Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), I found myself drawn to the picture of 1960s domestic charm shown through the couple’s playful, flirtatious dialogue and neat wardrobes. The jokes were sharp and witty, with some genuinely making me laugh aloud. The instrumentation from earlier had faded softly into the background, providing just enough suspense to keep me engaged, reminding me that this charm was not to last.
Sure enough, Marion, a real estate secretary, steals $40,000 in cash from a customer in an uncharacteristically impulsive burst. She then sets off in her car in order to pursue a life with Sam. On her journey, Marion is met by a fearsome rainstorm but noticing a lone neon light in the distance, she pulls over to discover the (drumroll, please) Bates Motel. The owner, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), welcomes her and shows her to her room, even making her dinner for the night — talk about accommodation.
It’s at this shared dinner that Norman first mentions his mother, as well as how he feels constrained by her overbearing watch. Pressed by Marion, Norman admits, “You know what I think? I think we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it we never budge an inch.”
I wasn’t offered much time to dwell on these ideas though, as I was hit directly afterwards with the infamous shower scene — you know what I’m talking about here. I had seen this clip in the past so many times that I nearly used it as an excuse to not watch the movie since I had already seen the “scariest part.” Shockingly however, I still jumped in my seat as the shower curtain ripped back, revealing a mysterious knife-wielding figure.
My propensity to make fun of such dramatic movie deaths dissipated as I quickly became engrossed in her grotesque movements as she slid down the cold tile wall, eventually collapsing onto the bathroom floor. Marion’s lifeless eyes in the center of the frame stuck with me longer than I would care to admit.
Norman’s sinister demeanor is revealed as he disposes of Marion’s corpse and stolen money in a nearby pond. I found it no less noteworthy than disturbing that money played no part in the killing. Norman doesn’t kill to get rich, in fact, “Norman” doesn’t kill at all.
At the police station, it’s uncovered that Norman had killed his mother and her partner years ago, developing an alternate personality to cope with the trauma-one in which his mother manifested. In order to preserve this illusion, Bates even goes as far as keeping his mother’s corpse in the house’s fruit cellar, revealed in the movie’s most terrifying scare.
Perhaps most frightening is this movie’s ability to illuminate the scariest parts of our own minds. While watching, I desperately wanted Norman Bates to be prosecuted. Yet, Norman was not “Norman” when he killed Marion and his other victims — he was someone entirely different.
Marion also didn’t deserve to be murdered, but she wasn’t innocent either, evading cops and stealing money from her employer. I desperately craved justice for Marion, but I also wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to give Norman Bates the chair. I wanted to focus on broader themes of virtue, but found myself giving way to superficial details. I noticed Bates’ attractive features before I heard what he had to say, and questioned Marrion before her true motivations were ever revealed.
I went into this movie with expectations of cheap jumpscares and lazy plotlines but was taken aback by the profundity of its insights. It discusses the tendency of all humans to “go a bit mad sometimes,” love-hate relationships in family — even human nature. For a movie that is black and white, its themes could not be less so.
“Psycho,” rated R, is available for streaming on Youtube, Amazon Prime and Peacock.