At a relatively advanced stage of his directorial career, Alfred Hitchcock directed a string of four mesmerizing and groundbreaking films that stunned critics and audiences alike. The public was accustomed to Hitchcock’s sly suspense-thrillers, but this sequence of films, beginning with Vertigo (1958) and continuing with North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963), elevated the intensity of the cinematic experience to another level. All of them were expressionistic nightmares enhanced by dramatic cinematography and spellbinding musical scores. Of the four films, Psycho seemed to be the odd one out, since it was the only one shot in black-and-white on a relatively low budget, and it seemed at first to be more of a gimmick, an experiment in shock effects, than one of Hitchcock’s more serious endeavors. Nevertheless, Psycho does have interesting narrative affinities with another film in that sequence of four, the lush, shot-in-color Vertigo, which make the two films worthy of comparison.
Both Vertigo and Psycho initially received negative reviews from the critics, who seemed to have been distracted by the way that both films essentially offered two almost separate stories that were presented back-to-back. In Psycho the major protagonist is killed off about half-way through the film, and then another narrative is launched with a new focalization. Nevertheless, Psycho was Hitchcock’s biggest box-office success, and it remains today as his most remembered film. Why the film has been such a success is curious, because it seems to suffer from significant narrative defects that should have detracted from its popularity. Was Psycho so successful simply because of its shock effects and its supposed introduction of the “slasher” film genre? I don’t think it was simply that. There are some other attributes that underlie the film’s allure.
Most films have a narrative that can be broken down into roughly four or five “acts”. There could be a number of structural reasons that could be put forward as to why there should be this number of acts, but that number of 4 or 5 could also be simply associated with the average running time of feature films, which is mostly dictated by economic and social factors. In any case, in Psycho, as in Vertigo, we have something different: there are two, almost separate, stories, the “Marion Crane” (MC) narrative and the “Norman Bates” (NB) narrative, and each of them comes to its narrative conclusion.
■ The Marion Crane Narrative (48 minutes)
- The Tryst at the Hotel (5 minutes). In a memorably steamy opening scene, Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) is in bed with her lover, Sam Loomis, on one of his periodic visits from his home in California to where she lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Sam is divorced and beset with heavy alimony payments, so he doesn’t have enough money to marry Marion. In these more conservative times their amorous stays together must be held secretly in downtown hotel rooms.
- Stealing the Money (7 minutes). Marion works in a real-estate office, where a brash wealthy customer, Tom Cassidy, hands over $40,000 (about $300,000 today) in cash to buy a property that he likes. When Marion is entrusted by her employer to take the money to the bank, she decides to steal it and give it so Sam in order to solve his financial problems.
- The Getaway (13 minutes). Marion now heads out on the road in her car towards Sam’s home in California. The sustained psychological development of the driving sequence here is perhaps the highlight of the film, and to my mind, Bernard Herrmann’s musical theme music in this section is his greatest and most memorable work. During this section Marion is tracked by a suspicious highway patrol officer, and then subsequently she decides to trade her car in for another at a used cat lot, which only attracts more suspicion. As she approaches Sam’s town in California in the evening, she runs into a heavy rain storm and decides to stop at a motel for the night.
- The Bates Motel (23 minutes). Marion is the only guest at the Bates motel, which is run by a friendly but shy young man, Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins). Bates servers Marion a home-cooked dinner, and as they become more friendly, the discussion turns to the problem that Bates has with his obsessively domineering and apparently bed-ridden mother. After her discussion with Bates, Marion decides that she should face the larger moral context of her situation and that she should return to Phoenix and return the stolen money. Later, when Marion is back in her motel room taking a shower, she is violently attacked and killed by knife-wielding old woman. This is the famous shock-scene, which reputedly has over seventy shots in it. In the attack itself, there are about 35 shots (separate edit cuts) in a little over 30 seconds, and they are accompanied by Herrmann’s strident stringed musical accompaniment that suggests horrible shrieks of madness.
■ The Norman Bates narrative (55 minutes)
- The Cleanup (8 minutes). We could think of the preceding MC narrative as an opening act to this NB narrative, since it supplies the background for what follows. Now the focalization shifts to Norman Bates, who discovers the bloody scene in the motel room and cleans everything up in order to cover up what happened. He then sinks Marion’s car, with her body and belongings inside, in a bog in back of the motel. This is presumably done in order to protect his mother from being sent to a mental institution.
- Arbogast’s Investigation (16 minutes). Sam and Marion’s sister, Lila, both searching for Marion, get together in order to find out what happened to her. They are joined by private investigator Milton Arbogast, who has been hired by Tom Cassidy to recover the $40,000. Arbogast eventually traces Marion’s tracks to the Bates motel and becomes suspicious of Norman Bates, which he reports to Lila and Sam. While investigating alone the Bates home next to the motel, he, too, is attacked and killed by a knife-wielding old woman. Norman is then seen sinking Arbogast’s car into the same bog in which he had buried Marion’s car.
- Lila and Sam Investigate (24 minutes). Not hearing anything from Arbogast, Lila and Sam head out to the Bates motel under the suspicion that Arbogast had – that Norman has stolen the $40,000. Lila sneaks into the Bates house while Norman is presumably occupied with Sam. But Sam is knocked out by Bates, who then heads over to the house, looking to see what mischief Lila might be up to. Lila sees him coming hides in the basement, where she shockingly discovers Mrs. Bates’s embalmed body. At that moment, the knife-wielding woman appears ready to attack Lila. But Sam show up and thwarts the assailant, who is revealed to be Norman Bates dressed as his mother.
- The Aftermath (7 minutes). At the police headquarters, a psychiatrist explains that Norman Bates had been a psychopath, obsessively attached to his mother. After murdering her years before, he had become a split-personality, shifting back and forth between the roles of Norman and his supposedly jealous mother.
On the face of it, the MC and NB narratives don’t seem to be all that brilliant. In the MC narrative a beautiful woman steals some money and is later murdered by a psychopath. In the NB narrative the psychopath is tracked down, and his secret is eventually discovered before he can commit another murder. The scenes with Bates dressed up as the knife-wielding woman have their shock effects, but they, alone, do not account for what makes the film fascinating. In fact, like Vertigo before it, the Psycho story is littered with red-herrings and plot contrivances that seem to be mere audience manipulation. Consider these unsatisfactorily resolved plot elements:
- the $40,000 and Sam’s financial circumstances are raised as a key issue, but this is ultimately dropped.
- The state trooper seems to be relentlessly on the path of Marion’s crime, but he soon disappears.
- The boastful and abrasive investor, Tom Cassidy, is introduced as an unsympathetic character who may play a significant role, but then he quickly disappears from the story.
- Much time is spent on Marion’s acquiring a new car, but that car turns out to be insignificant.
- Marion accidentally and unknowingly reveals her real name to Norman Bates at the hotel, and this is presented as potentially significant. But it’s just another red herring.
- The psychoanalytic explanation at the end reveals much information that was kept from the viewer. The anticlimactic effect of this is to kill whatever sympathy the viewer may have had for Norman.
Even the terrible psychoanalytic coda at the end isn’t enough to ruin the film. (Hitchcock seems to have had a fascination for psychoanalysis, which was in something of a vogue during the 1940s and 1950s). Roger Ebert has suggested that that enervating ending should have been drastically shortened. I would go further and say that it should have been excised from the film, entirely. We could never really understand Norman’s mind from the inside, anyway. But we do feel and empathize for his sense of being enclosed and entrapped. The performance of Martin Balsam as Arbogast is particularly effective in this regard. He is the perfect figure of the repellant, insinuating snoop who unswervingly worms his way into one’s private life and uncovers something. In the larger perspective both Marion Crane and Norman Bates are threatened by an anonymous, unfeeling universe that is closing in on them, closing off their escape routes, and threatening them. At the end of their narratives, Marion Crane is physically destroyed, and Norman Bates is destroyed from within. This inexorable sense of doom is what makes the build-up so intense. We want them to escape, but the pathways are being cut off at every turn. The final psychoanalytic coda almost comes as a sense of relief. It seems finally that the whole thing was just a bad dream that happened to someone else far remote from our own circumstances. But the idea of the threatening, all-smothering universe would not go away, as Hitchcock would remind us with The Birds.