On June 16, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released in a few cinemas in the United States. One of the most terrifying films in the history of the seventh art but also the pinnacle of the director’s ability. An “inevitable” film, in the sense that it must be seen, one cannot fail to do so. As usual, we will tell you an overview of the work, with a short plot that is not too detailed so as not to spoil the pleasure of viewing.
Do you think that Hitchcock, “master of suspense” seems to have instructed those famous few cinemas to refuse any late viewer. In the poster at the entrance, the Maestro pointing to the clock said: “The director of this theater has been instructed, at the risk of his life, not to admit people to the theater after the film has started. Any attempt to enter through side doors, safety stairs or ventilation shafts will be stopped by force. The goal is, of course, to make you enjoy the film more. Alfred Hitchcock “.
But we are not so “rigid” … so, happy reading!
A short Psycho storyline
Marion Crane, a secretary at a real estate agency, is tired of not being able to lead her life as she wishes. Her work no longer fascinates her than she does, her lover and owner of a hardware store, Sam Loomis, cannot marry her and their relationship is made up of brief meetings during the lunch break.
But one day Marion is asked to deposit $ 40,000 in the bank, the result of a real estate deal. The temptation is too great and Marion runs away with the money. Panic quickly begins to take hold.
Torn between the anguish of being discovered and the excitement of leading a new life, Marion, full of remorse from the first moment, accumulates mistakes and eventually stops to spend the night in a motel that she hasn’t even noticed with a very unattractive appearance.
At this motel, in contact with the seemingly irreparable anguish of the young owner Norman Bates, she decides that she can still choose to return the money and be free again.
To erase the heaviness of the day and her thoughts, Marion takes a famous shower… and from here it all begins.
And here we leave some suspense … Hitchcock does it, we can’t do it ?!
Psychosis as a model of narrative construction
As Hitchcock confides to François Truffaut in the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview book, the opening novel, from which the film Psycho is based, is very average, and it is the proof that the seventh art can be more than an illustrative adaptation.
Two distinct parts are intertwined in Psycho: the whole starts with a false suspense, where a police intrigue turns out to be the wrong lead. This manipulates the viewer as soon as Marion runs away in the car.
Hitchcock’s tour de force is to abandon this criminal plot. In fact, the female character that the camera does not leave during a stressful run is abandoned, but appears retrospectively as an important but secondary figure in the story.
And it is then that a second true story begins, which starts with the moment of the “shower”. Okay, now let’s say it, Marion is murdered in the shower and from there the investigations start to finally reveal who is the killer of her. It turns out it’s Norman Bates, disguised as a woman, who had already killed her mother in the past and who has played her ever since. A kind of macabre Mrs. Doubtfire.
The symbolism of water, black and white, and of sounds in Psycho
Bernard Herrmann’s shrill musical score, a veritable symphony of the rise to horror, accompanies the story from the coveted titles of the graphic designer Saul Bass: horizontal bars are mixed with the names of the artists and technicians in the opening credits; this verticality is then found again when the showers fall on Marion’s car, obscuring her vision, the first warning of the danger that awaits her. Finally, when a relaxing shower seems to purify her of the dishonest temptations of her dangerous weekend, the verticality of the water here heralds the worst.
It is this progressive ascent towards an irreversible disgrace that upsets the pessimistic and cold universe of Psycho: an adultery, a theft, a murder, two murders, the discovery of a horrible madness … And the signs of this drift towards darkness are a clue concerning the clothing. The underwear worn by Marion in the room of the first hotel is white; while Norman Bates, through a hole in the wall, will see a young woman dressed in black undress …
Hitchcock sprinkles his entire history with signs and symbols, which have a lot of Freudian. Marion Crane is a balanced young woman whose sentimental and economic worries risk sinking into neurosis and who cannot resist a life-changing act of impulsive theft.
Norman Bates confronts his old mother’s alleged madness: Mrs. Bates is here the culmination of a series of abusive mothers or possessive women at the center and periphery of Hitchcock’s stories. As for Norman’s double personality, it echoes the implicit theme of twinning already seen for example in Vertigo (1958). A film of sexual frustration and the worst transgressions (a murder in lieu of rape), Psycho is symptomatic of the cinema of madness.
The role of life for all actors
Any producer, Hitchcock said, would cast Vera Miles for the role of Marion Crane and Janet Leigh for the role of investigator sister, Lila. Hitchcock instead preferred the opposite because while maximum screen time is generally reserved for a star, the director innovated with a twist that traumatized his audience after an hour of film. Beautiful Janet has certainly become an icon, and any cinephile who takes a shower in a secluded motel has a heartfelt thought for her.
Vera Miles is an actress with an elegance reminiscent of Grace Kelly: her wanderings in the Bates house guarantee the strongest moments of the film’s thrill. The serenity of her blonde hair and her looks contrast sharply with the morbid nature of what she will discover.
John Gavin (Sam Loomis) is a little more bland, but his smooth “normalcy” contrasts perfectly with Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), who finds his life’s role in this character of a shy and clumsy young hotelier whose frustrations hide the worst gray areas …
We should also mention the delightful supporting roles: Martin Balsam as a smart but reckless detective, John McIntire as a kind sheriff, Patricia (daughter of) Hitchcock as an unattractive secretary, Frank Albertson as a libidinous client or Mort Mills, a policeman who could be an angel of death. These characters, personally, are somewhat reminiscent of those from Spoon River’s Anthology, don’t you think?
Psycho, a true story
Norman Bates’ character is based on a true story of the time, used by the 1959 writer Robert Bloch in his novel Psycho. Hitchcock bought the rights to Robert Bloch’s novel for $ 9,000 and the story of Ed Gein, the Pleinfiel Butcher became so well known that it inspired other films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs.
Edward Theodore “Ed” Gein was born in 1906 and lived in a dysfunctional environment, where the oppressive figure of his mother led him to develop an increasingly disturbed personality. Once the woman died in 1945, Ed Gein was able to give free rein to his sick impulses. His criminal activity was concentrated between 1947 and 1957 (two years before the release of the book Psycho).
During this time, six people went missing under mysterious circumstances, in the towns of La Crosse and Plainfield, 900 souls, in Wisconsin. The last missing person is Bernice Worden, a hardware store clerk: the last receipt was that of a gallon of antifreeze to Ed Gein. In the killer’s house, the police found the unthinkable: the beheaded body of Bernice Worden, hanging from some beams, and a series of macabre artifacts.
The hideous collection includes: a chair upholstered in human skin, skulls turned into bowls, cutlery made from bones, a belt made of nipples and a dress made by sewing together the skin of several women. Amid the macabre collection, the police also find the face of Mary Hogan, the owner of a Plainfield tavern who mysteriously disappeared in the middle of a shift three years before. Bernice and Mary are the only women Ed Gein admits to killing. The other ten he unearthed from the local cemetery to use in his “creations”.
Psycho: a reference for many directors
Psycho is the first truly great horror film that has influenced many directors, from Wes Craven (Scream), to Brian De Palma through Dario Argento. It is in fact the founding film from which other little masters of thriller and slasher were also inspired, in the United States, England and also in Italy. A remake, in the form of a tribute, shot after shot, was made by Gus Van Sant in 1998.
Psycho II and Psycho III were also released in theaters. The latter was directed by the aforementioned Anthony Perkins, the actor who gave birth to the first Norman Bates. Obviously, none of the various subsequent films were worthy of the original.
Do not forget the excellent prequel represented by the television series Bates Motel (2013-2017). Did you know that Bates’ house was almost totally modeled on a painting, namely the House by the Railroad which was painted in 1925 by Edward Hopper?
And what about the dozen episodes of The Simpsons where there are quotes and references to today’s starring film?
In 1961 it was nominated for 4 Oscars: Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Set Design. The same year Janet Leigh was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.
Thirty years ago, Psycho was selected for conservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress of the United States in 1992. In 1998 the American Film Institute placed it in 18th place on the list of the best 100 American films of all time, while ten years ago later, in the updated list, it rose to fourteenth place
In any case, Psycho remains, with Vertigo, the masterpiece of its author Alfred Hitchcock. We will still remember for a long time the close-up of a face on the run, which the camera scans before dwelling on a mansion that hides a terrible secret … the one that all of us, after all, are a bit “psycho”.