My favorite movies are the ones I grew up with and know as well as an old friend, or a place I never get tired of visiting. Whereas many of my acquaintances would easily cite “The Godfather,” “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Shawshank Redemption” as one of their essential movies and, in essence, one of their own, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho’ has always been that way for me.
I was thirteen the first time I saw it, watching it with my Grandmother Johanna as it aired during a “Sunday Movie Matinee” on a Florida TV station. Grandma was amazed I hadn’t seen it before, so we dropped everything and watched it together. It was a kick seeing it for the first time with her, as it gave me a clear idea of what it must have been like to experience “Psycho” when it first opened in 1960. On my first viewing, I loved it and found it suspenseful and scary, particularly that closing shot. My Grandma, on the other hand, was much more vocal: she screamed, jumped, grabbed my arm and covered her eyes a few times…and she had seen it before.
A few days later, my father took me to Universal Studios Florida and, a week later on a summer trip, to Universal Studios in California. Both times, I got to see the famous Bates Motel set. For me, it instilled as much awe as seeing Mount Rushmore.
In my twenties, I had a job selling hot dogs in front of Home Depot. One day, a man came up to my cart and complimented my “Psycho” shirt. I told him it was my favorite movie. He was surprised by this and started to quiz me. I correctly answered his questions, that Anthony Perkins directed “Psycho III,” that the blood in the legendary shower sequence was chocolate syrup, that Bud Cort starred in the failed “Bates Motel” TV pilot in 1987 and that Hitchcock’s shadow pops up in “Psycho II.” Seeing that I was true fan, the man smiled and said, “Okay, let me show you something.” He pulled out his wallet, handed me his driver’s license. Sure enough, his name was Norman Bates. With a laugh, he said, “sometimes Mother lets me out of the house, now and then.” I handed him his hot dog, thanked him for talking with me and, as he walked away, I tried to decide if the encounter was delightful or creepy. I still don’t know.
Every time I’d show “Psycho” to my film classes, it was always from the VHS copy I was given for my birthday, which was in great condition and had remarkable clarity, despite the antiquated technology. As I’m writing this, I just got back from seeing the film on the big screen (I’m still wearing my “Psycho” t-shirt), at a retrospective showing my father and I attended. Seeing it for the second time the way it was meant to be seen, all sorts of details I missed before came into focus, but before I digress even further, I should talk about the film itself.
If you’ve never seen “Psycho,” it’s about an attractive bank teller named Marion Crane, played by a luminous Janet Leigh. Crane’s ongoing affair with her handsome but broke boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) is, as far as we can tell, the inspiration for her to steal $30,000.00 from her boss, get in her car and flee the state. While on her guilt-ridden journey, she makes a pit stop at the Bates Motel, a rundown establishment run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who’s a shy but generous host. Unfortunately for the both of them, Norman’s Mother lives nearby and, while she “means well,” she reveals herself to be a violent, psychopathic killer.
After the shower scene, which is still such a powerful sequence, the story switches back to Sam. In the hardware store where he works, a customer is stating that she wants a bug repellant that will provide a humane death for insect. The customer says, “death should always be painless.” In addition to all the wonderful things in Joseph Stefano’s screenplay (which deftly adapted Robert Bloch’s frightening novel), here’s a seemingly throwaway moment that reflects on the film’s core theme. “Psycho” is about death, at its most surprising and cruel, as unexpected twists of fate bring the protagonists together, leading them to a literal or figurative doom. The four leads are sometimes shown in reflection, suggesting the duel nature of every man and woman, the secret longings we all hold and the dark truths we strive to keep locked away in our minds.
The material is grim and macabre but Hitchcock makes it so richly entertaining. It’s a perfect movie, made with technical brilliance and performed by a terrific cast. Leigh’s plucky sensuality and vulnerability makes her an irresistible lead. Perkins is masterful, bringing layers to the defining role of his impressive career. Even Gavin, accused of being “bland” by some, is on the mark- Sam would be a traditional “hero” in a less intelligent film. Here, he’s all eye candy (even using his charm to distract Bates in a pivotal scene) while Vera Miles (compelling and forceful) is truly the most brave and heroic figure.
“Psycho” is such a figure in pop culture but I’m constantly made aware that people know of the shower scene and who Norman Bates is but haven’t seen the film. Film lovers know the snappy, at times eerie dialog (“I picked out her dress myself…periwinkle blue”), Bernard Herrmann’s captivating score, the cleverly shaped third act twist and Hitchcock’s brilliant framing by heart. They may also know the sequels, remake, TV spinoffs, commercial parodies and other pop culture nods to one of the greatest thrillers ever made. Yet, if you’ve never seen it, give yourself the treat of experiencing it for the first time.