“We all go a little mad sometimes.” Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) words echo throughout Hitchcock’s chilling masterpiece that weaves between crime thriller and intense horror as it takes its viewer on a twisted journey through the fragile human psyche.
Phoenix secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) wishes to marry her lover, Sam (John Gavin), but lacks the funds to do so. Seizing the opportunity to steal $40,000 from a wealthy client, Marion impulsively takes off with the cash. But being an amateur thief catches up with her and she finds herself checking into the remote Bates Motel owned by the bashful Norman and his invalid mother.
Even if you are new to the film it would still be no spoiler to reveal that Marion’s role comes to an untimely end just following her demise in one of cinema’s most iconic (not to mention brutal) murder scenes. The 45 second sequence took an astonishing 7 days to shoot and required 70 camera setups, but given its prestigious status in the Hollywood history books I’m sure everyone involved will tell you it was all worth it.
Yet for all the blood-curdling horror present in this scene, Hitchcock’s thrillers have always excelled in their quieter moments. From Rear Window’s James Stewart watching helplessly as Grace Kelly is trapped in the killer’s apartment to Vertigo’s woozy nightmare sequences – Hitchcock’s scariest scenes are often in the absence of violence. In the case of Psycho, the tensions begin to mount as Norman’s darker side slowly unravels over a dinner conversation. Thanks to the quietly sinister and wonderfully understated performance by Anthony Perkins, simple small talk is turned into one of the film’s most frightening moments.
Another one of Hitchcock’s traits was to let his audience in on the danger unfolding, rather than relay on jump scares. So when Marion overhears a fierce argument between Norman and his elusive mother and nonchalantly undresses as a peeping Norman gazes on from the secrecy of his study – we know she’s in trouble before this reality is brought upon her. This clever use of suspense manipulates the viewer into experiences the greatest fear of all – the unknown. We may know fate is against our flawed heroes, but we don’t know exactly what will happen to them and, worst still, we don’t know when. Hitchcock uses this concept throughout the film, building the tension as we are forced to watch the characters unwittingly step into situations far more deadly than they believe.
Elevating Psycho’s horror is Bernard Herrmann’s electrifying score. You only have to hear the first few beats of the deafeningly high-pitched theme to feel shivers down your spine and anyone familiar with the film will find themselves nervously glancing over their shoulder as images of Norman silhouetted behind the shower curtain comes back to haunt them.
Psycho is a film that proves good old-fashioned horror can easily hold their own alongside today’s bloody blockbusters. It is one of the greatest triumphs of a true cinematic genius and will certainly make showering as much more unpleasant experience.