Blind Spots: Psycho

This post is part of the Blind Spots 2012 series. For background on the series, read the original post

Psycho (Director: Alfred Hitchcock): One of the first things I noticed about this classic horror film is how Hitchcock works hard to portray “victim” Marion Crane (a gorgeous Janet Leigh) as anything but innocent. Her first scene is with her lover in a hotel for a lunchtime tryst. When she returns to the real estate office where she works, we know that his money problems are what’s preventing them from being married. And then when a boorish client flirts drunkenly and leaves $40,000 in cash with her, it’s not a huge stretch for us to see her as the kind of woman who might take this chance to escape her everyday life.

She impulsively decides to leave town with the money and go to Sam, her boyfriend, who lives a few hours’ drive away. In the middle of a downpour, she pulls off to spend the night at the Bates Motel, leading to one of the most famous shower scenes in cinematic history. I noticed a few things in the film which might be obvious to anyone who has seen it, but as a newcomer to Psycho, I’m hoping you’ll indulge me.

Marion’s surname is Crane, which made creepy sense during her conversation with the motel’s proprietor Norman Bates. He tells her his hobby is taxidermy and that he likes to stuff birds rather than beasts because they’re “passive.”

Hitchcock seems to imply that Marion is killed as a punishment for her trangression. Even though she has decided to return the money, the first cut away from Marion’s lifeless body is to the money, hidden inside a newspaper. Even the rest of the violence that follows from Marion’s murder seems to lead back to her single impulsive act.

The obsession by Marion’s employer, sister and boyfriend to keep the police out of things makes it that much harder to actually figure out what has happened. Arbogast, the private investigator hired by her boss to recover the money seems to have his own motives that are not as purely “civic” as the police department’s would be. This understandable desire to cover up or hide crimes leads only to bad things for everyone.

Even though I was always aware of the film’s big “reveal,” Psycho still manages to hold up as an effective thriller, but I must confess that after Marion’s departure, it’s a far less interesting film for me. Her motivations, and her interactions with Norman Bates, are more substantial than anything and anyone that follows her demise. Her sister and boyfriend are two-dimensional, and exist simply to solve the crime. I especially found the last few minutes, with Simon Oakland’s psychologist character explaining everything, disappointing, though I understand that spoon-feeding the audience would make sure nobody missed the point.

Finally, I was never sure where exactly the shower scene occurred in the film. I always thought it was quite close to the beginning, and that Norman Bates was the real focus of the film. I was pleasantly surprised that Marion Crane’s character survives until just about the middle, though as I mentioned, the rest wasn’t quite as enjoyable.

Psycho definitely established the style of many horror films in the decades to come, and technically, as far as editing and camera work goes, it’s brilliant. However, even though I have only seen perhaps half a dozen Hitchcock films, it doesn’t seem to me to hold up as well as, say, Rear Window or Vertigo.

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4 Responses to Blind Spots: Psycho

  1. Pingback: Blindsided by THE THING | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective

  2. Dave Enkosky says:

    Loved your review. I’ve seen this movie so many times, I love hearing what it’s like for a first-timer to see it. I happen to love this picture, but I think you do bring up some valid points. One thing I will agree on: the ending with the doctor is absolute rubbish. I think this movie would have been perfect had it ended a few minutes earlier.

  3. Ryan McNeil says:

    Not just my favorite Hitchcock film, but one of my top twenty films of all-time.

    I’ve always been taken by how handsomely Hitch shot this, and how that choice to go black & white made the whole twisted tale all the more elegant. As for the ending, I’ll spot you the doctor, but wouldn’t cut Mother’s final monologue for all the beer in The Duke.

    One question – how did you watch this? I found that it’s the sort of flick that gains a certain something by being seen in the dark of night.

  4. Bob Turnbull says:

    I remember being baffled by that doctor’s speech at the end the first time I saw this – “what the hell is that doing there?” I thought. It doesn’t ruin any of the film for me. Though I can see how Vertigo and Rear Window are more contemporary, Psycho remains one of my favourite Hitchcocks – both for the buildup to the shower scene as well as everything that comes after. Different tone, but you have to love Arbogast on the stairs! I’d probably pick Rear Window or Notorious in a ranking exercise, but that’s splitting hairs…

    Imagine seeing this in the theatre with no knowledge of the shower scene? I don’t even know if that’s possible with any movie these days…

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