The year is 1960. It’s an election year. Kennedy narrowly defeats Nixon. The civil rights movement is underway. Elvis returns from Army Duty. He would chart a major number one song that year with “Are You Lonesome To-night?” Meanwhile, “The Beatles” are still playing in Germany. It is the first appearance of a U.S. flag with 50 stars, Hawaii having achieved statehood in the previous year. The Flintstones and the Andy Griffith show make their first appearances. “Gunsmoke”, “Father Knows Best” and “Dennis the Menace” are all top 20 tv shows. “Leave it to Beaver” is in the middle of its six-year run. The highest grossing movie of that year? Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson”.
Into this Americana mix, Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho. A tale about Norman Bates.
SPOILERS BEYOND! IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN PSYCHO, KEEP OUT!!
Yes, Norman Bates. A cross dressing, grave robbing, knife wielding, schizophrenic peeping tom serial killer with multiple personality disorder. One of the greatest villains of all time.
To call his character shocking would be an understatement. But he fit right in with the movie.
To start with, Hitchcock had cast Janet Leigh, an enormous star at the time, as his lead. He begins the movie with her (getting dressed after having an affair, also shocking by the days standards), convinces the audience that the film revolves around her embezzling from her employer, then has her suddenly and brutally killed halfway through the movie. It’s not just a shock, it’s a perspective change! The movie had been following this character, it was HER movie. Now it’s not, she’s gone. The twist ending was so surprising it was the measuring stick for twist endings for 40 years (That’s the Sixth Sense’s title now I believe). And when you add up all of the elements, you get a movie that’s pretty demented when you think about it.
I mean, just to hammer home one last time how shocking this movie was by the standards of the day, read these two sentences from Psycho’s Wikipedia page.
“Another cause of concern for the censors was that Marion was shown flushing a toilet, with its contents (torn-up note paper) fully visible. Up until that time in mainstream film and television in the U.S., a toilet flushing was never heard, let alone seen.”
It was a day and age where people were worried about showing audiences a toilet.
In the middle of this movie, when Hitchcock finally reveals the true nature and bent of the film, he does it with one of the single most legendary scenes of all time. “The shower scene”. In it, he shows the audience a full-fledged stabbing.
The scene features 50 cuts. They used chocolate syrup instead of blood. They got the sound by stabbing a melon. You never actually see the knife stab pierce flesh. The legendary, shrieking music was made by string musicians bowing as fiercely as they could, as if they were stabbing someone themselves. Hitchcock’s wife, Alma, spotted Leigh blinking after she was supposedly dead, and Hitchcock was able to cut it before the movie opened. Now, these are facts that a lot of film buffs are aware of, this is a scene that has been scrutinized to death. It is WELL documented. But why? How did this scene get to this place where people wanted to analyze every detail of it?
It’s hard to imagine the impact of this scene on its audience. That’s one of the reasons I like to discuss the world as it was at the time, because its important to understanding the film at hand. Can you picture film goers of the time, fresh off of watching freaking “Leave it to Beaver” at home on the tube, then coming out to the theatre and seeing this? A woman stabbed again and again and again? Their shock… resonated through film history. THAT’S why this scene is so infamous.
Unfortunately, to today’s modern audiences, this scene probably loses some of its impact. To this generation of film fans coming up? The ones weaned on “Saw” and “Hostel”? They probably think that Marion Crane got off easy. I don’t think the twist would get by modern audiences, either. We’ve been fooled by movies too many times. A darkened face with a wig on would automatically trigger a rundown of suspects… so why aren’t the showing the killer? Who could it be? Even if people bought in to Norman speaking to his mother, they’d still catch on to the fact that she’s never being shown. Well, what’s wrong with her? Why aren’t they showing her? That could lead to realizing the truth, too.
So, normally, I would discount a movie for that. Here, I’m not. Why? BECAUSE PSYCHO WAS THE SEED FROM WHICH ALL THESE OTHER MOVIES GREW!! This is the jumping off point, I don’t care what movie you can point out released earlier where someone kills someone or there’s a psychopath who does whatever. THIS was the one that started the slasher film sub genre. Now, to what degree we should be thankful for that I don’t know. LOL. But I do know I wouldn’t have been able to watch Jason Vorhees tromp through the woods and slaughter campers by the score in my teens if it hadn’t been for Norman Bates. It’s also influenced innumerable filmmakers, and the “Thriller” genre overall. I’ll bet that no director since this movie’s been released has worked on a film with a twist in it and hasn’t wondered how their film would measure up to the gran-daddy of them all.
And even if the killing’s lost some impact. Even if the “twist” has lost some zip. This is a movie that still holds up to this day, and will probably always hold up.
Because of Norman Bates.
Yes, good old Norman Bates. You’d trust him wouldn’t you? He seems sweet enough. Wants to bring you dinner and chat. Sure, his taxidermy collection is a little creepy, but everyone needs a hobby? Right? Plus, he’s taking care of his mother all by himself! What a nice guy…
Man, it’s hard to describe how sick Norman Bates really was. If this were a true case (and I know it took inspiration from real life cases), Bates would be news across the country. “Serial Killer Kept Dead Mother’s Corpse” I just… how sick is that? I mean obviously he was completely disconnected from reality, but dammmnn! Dressing in her clothes, talking to himself, punishing any women that aroused him by killing them. I mean just… this guy is an A1 nutjob.
And Perkins plays him perfectly. The little stammer when he references his m-m-mother? The sweet but nervous countenance. Reportedly he did such a great job here that he was typecast afterwards for decades. I guess that sort of thing happens. But he certainly turned in the performance of a lifetime. I’ve always wished he had more time to play the “Evil Side” of his personality. They just give him a couple of shots really, although I love the wicked little grin he has on in prison when he’s thinking like his mother in the last shot of the movie? So twisted. Just. Plain. Sick.
This is one of the master’s masterpieces, right here. Some would argue it’s his finest work. It’s certainly one of the most legendary. It’s got iconic imagery that’s still recognizable today, a legendary scene that ranks amongst the most analyzed and dissected ever, and an incredible villain that is considered one of the greatest ever in screen history. The fact that this film is still valuable and resonant 50 years later is a testament to the talent of Hitchcock.
Without a doubt, it’s a “Movie That Everyone Should See”