I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for the first time a couple of days ago. Given that it’s 52 years old, and scary has gotten scarier since then, I expected to be intrigued, but not scared or taken in by it. Anybody who watches the film for the first time will be all three, but not scared as in frightened, but rather scared in how they relate to Norman Bates’ character. No film viewer is supposed to sympathise with a serial killer, yet Hitchcock’s magic direction and story telling forces us to.
The film is riddled with twists and turns that in the hands of an inferior director could infuriate the viewer. It starts out with Marion Crane stealing $40,000 from her employer and going on the run with it. She becomes tired and spends the night in her car, only to be awoken by a police officer who finds her faintly suspicious but lets her go. Later, as she seeks to buy a new car to throw off any would-be pursuers, the police officer stares at her intently from across the road, unsettling her, thus setting up a plot should play out for the rest of the film. Couple this set up with Crane meeting the likable Norman Bates, with his boyish charm and good looks - the audience is firmly in your palm. Until the conversation in Bates parlor (during which he gets weird), and his peeping Tom moment, it is entirely insinuated that the police officer will be the pursuer and Crane & Bates will do something with the $40,000 dollars.
This cruel set up is what makes the shower murder scene so wonderfully effective. What other film before 1960 killed off its main character in the first third of the film? I can’t think of any (though there may be a couple). It’s such a shocking idea, that pairs so well with the visually shocking scene.
Immediately, the viewer is forced to identify with a new character, as Crane is no longer around. Bates immediately cleans up the scene of the crime - with such urgency that he seems to almost regret it, or feels guilty. If I had committed such a horrible act, I would clean up with such urgency too. Like a snap of the fingers our sympathies switch to Bates. And when things get heavier, we’re still rooting for him. His actions are thrilling.
Anthony Perkins is absolutely amazing in this role. He switches so fluidly between the adolescent, innocent, happy-go-lucky motel owner and the sinister, manipulating psychopath. Who could possibly have foreseen where his character was going?
The only genuine issue with this film, and I would doubt I’m the only one to think so, is the penultimate scene, in which a psychiatrist explains, in painfully explicit detail, exactly what everyone already knows. Sure, he fills us in on how his personality is split, but he goes way too far in spoon feeding us. Everyone watching the film understood 90% of what he says the moment Sam wrestles Norman to the ground in the basement.
Yet, this is a five star film through and through, and one of the best films I ever did see.