Blind Spots: Psycho

by James McNally on January 31, 2012 · 4 comments

in Blind Spots

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.


Dave Enkosky January 31, 2012 at 8:31 pm

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.

Ryan McNeil January 31, 2012 at 10:13 pm

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.

Bob Turnbull February 1, 2012 at 9:31 am

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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