1960s / Alfred Hitchcock / Anthony Perkins / Bernard Herrmann / Janet Leigh / Literary Adaptations / National Film Registry / Psycho franchise / Psychological Thrillers / Robert Bloch

Movie Discussion: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)

  • Monthly Theme: Classic Thrillerspsycho
  • The Film: Psycho
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: September 8, 1960
  • Studio: Shamley Productions
  • Distributer: Paramount Pictures
  • Domestic Gross: $32 million
  • Budget: $800,000 (estimated)
  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Screenwriter: Joseph Stefano
  • Adaptation? Yes, of the 1959 novel Psycho by Robert Bloch.
  • Cinematographer: John L. Russell
  • Make-Up/FX: Clarence Champagne
  • Music: Bernard Herrmann
  • Part of a series? Yes, this film kicked off the Psycho film franchise, including 1983’s Psycho II, 1986’s Psycho III and the 1990 made-for-Showtime prequel Psycho IV: The Beginning. A 2012 film titled Hitchcock dramatizes the making of Psycho, starring Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock. There is a 2010 indie documentary called The Psycho Legacy chronicling the success of the franchise. A&E is also airing a television series that is a contemporary re-imagining of a young Norman Bates called Bates Motel, starring Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore as Norman.
  • Remakes? Yes. Gus Van Sant undertook a nearly shot-for-shot color remake of the film in 1998 called Psycho, starring Vince Vaughn, Julianne Moore and Anne Heche.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Genre star Anthony Perkins (Pretty Poison, Edge of Sanity, etc.). Hollywood star Janet Leigh later parlayed Psycho’s notoriety into a mini-career in B-horror pictures (Night of the Lepus, The Fog, etc.).
  • Other notables?: Yes. Gorgeous Hollywood bit player John Gavin. Character actor Martin Balsam.
  • Awards?: Best Supporting Actress [Leigh] at the 1961 Golden Globes. Best Picture at the 1961 Edgar Allan Poe Awards. Selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1992.
  • Tagline: “The picture you MUST see from the beginning… Or not at all!… For no one will be seated after the start of… Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest shocker Psycho.”
  • The Lowdown: This week, the movie considered to be the origin point for the modern horror film and mother to the entire slasher and giallo genres. Alfred Hitchcock took a lurid little novel and turned it into one of the most iconic films in Hollywood history. When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) impulsively steals $40,000 from her employer, she hits the road to rendezvous with her lover in California. But a quick overnight stop at the remote Bates Motel changes her fate forever… Psycho was critically derided but massively commercially successful, reviving Hitchcock’s faltering career. Soon, the movie was critically re-appraised and canonized as an American classic. Starting in the 1980s, a series of sequels were produced, most of which received a lukewarm-to-frosty reception, though some of the sequels are now considered cult classics.

If you haven’t seen Psycho our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: I want to open by saying that of all the movies we’ve watched for the blog, I’m most intimidated to talk about this one because so much has all ready been written and said about it.

Kristine: Yeah, agreed. I feel like anything we have to say has already been said. 

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Arbogast performs the Dance of the Seven Gashes

Sean: I feel a bit like, What do I have to add?

Kristine: Right, exactly. 

Sean: But I guess we should just say bollocks and go for it, right? 

Kristine: Well, this is one of the very, very few movies we are discussing that I had all ready seen before we started the website. But I tried to watch it like it was my first time and I didn’t know anything about it. Basically, I tried to approach it like an unsuspecting 1960s viewer. I’m not sure how much that worked, but I tried.

Sean: Is there anything particular you have to report about that thought experiment?

Kristine: I had forgotten that Psycho is as much a mystery movie as it is a horror movie. Maybe even more so…

Sean: Yes. It’s a whodunit, but where the audience knows more than most of the characters, especially the ones “investigating” Marion’s disappearance.

Kristine: Which is very Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Sean: Is there anything else that you noticed this time around that you’d forgotten? I have a few myself.

Kristine: I have seen the film before, but only once or twice. I am hardly a scholar and I know my observations are far from revelatory. There was way more gender politics in the movie than I remembered. Psycho is very much about how men do this, women do this. I was struck by how both Marion and Norman are rendered very sympathetically, despite both being “bad.” I feel like Hitchcock really gets us on Norman’s side. When Marion’s boyfriend Sam is bullying him in the office, I wanted to tell him to shut up and leave Norman alone. Also just all of Norman’s habits: the constant candy-eating, the skipping and giggling and stuttering… Perkins really rocked my world. Some of the speeches Norman delivers would have seemed really stagey and weird being delivered by another actor.

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Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! KISS!

Sean: I believe those things were all improvised by Perkins. I know for a fact that Norman’s eating of candy corn was something he invented and Hitchcock let it stay.

Kristine: I loved that detail. 

Sean: I agree with you about the gender stuff. It really, really struck me too. I think of this movie as one of the iconic examples of the problematic “male gaze” and as being the whipping boy of feminist film theory…. But I actually found it to be much more of a “women’s movie” than I remembered.

Kristine:  I agree with that.

Sean: And yes, Perkins is great. In fact, this rewatch really opened my eyes to how well-cast the movie is across the board. The oil tycoon, the car salesman, the detective, and Caroline, the frumpy gal who works with Marion – they’re all wonderful.

Kristine: I loved Caroline. She made me laugh. 

Sean: “Teddy called…. me. Mother called to see if Teddy called…” That is Hitchcock’s daughter in real life.

Kristine: Woah! What about “Teddy” being mad that Caroline was all ‘luded up on their wedding night?

Sean: “He must have noticed my wedding ring…”

Kristine: What about the awful cop bullying Marion? I love how Hitchcock makes you root for all the anti-heroes and hate The Man. I wanted Marion to get away from the awful fascist cop. 

Sean: Me too. Though dear god is Marion terrible at playing it cool. I almost feel like the horror movie trope of the character that behaves in the exact worst possible way for the circumstances is born in that scene where Marion is totally unable to be suave and talk her way out of things.

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Marion finds the journey between East and West Germany more complicated than she’d planned

Kristine: Agreed. Like how she almost immediately forgets her alias and cover story… 

Sean: Also, notice that Norman similarly cannot keep it cool when Arbogast stops by to question him. Norman might as well just come right out and say “I am a suspicious person who is probably lying to you” because that is how he acts.

Kristine: Marion is super hot though. Don’t you think? 

Sean: That opening scene in the hotel room with her and Sam is very hot and they are incredibly sexy. Him shirtless, her in the white bra – sexier than any 1990s erotic thriller softcore ridiculousness that I can think of.

Kristine: I agree. They are both very attractive and sexy. Her body is ridiculous. 

Sean: So, in terms of the women’s issues in the movie, I noticed two things (one small, one big). 

Kristine: Okay…

Sean: Small thing: the movie is really a wonderful example of how to use foreshadowing as a narrative device. In that opening hotel room scene, Marion and Sam talk about “turning Mother’s picture to the wall” if Sam were to respectably come over for dinner. Remember? Also, Caroline’s mother’s doctor gave her the tranquilizers she brags about having taken on her wedding night.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: Mothers of all stripes and sizes are hanging over the movie from the get-go.

Kristine: Good point. 

Sean: What’s more even interesting about that is they’re all imaginary mothers, or ideas of mothers. There is no actual mother in the movie.

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The Fox and the Hound

Kristine: True, you never see any of them. Mother as specter. 

Sean: It’s a motherless universe. Though did you notice that Sheriff Chambers and his wife are almost exactly the same archetype as the Oxfords from Frenzy – the RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority] and EDGI [Eccentric Domestic Goddess of Intuition]?

Kristine: I did notice that. I think Mrs. Chambers is the only quasi-maternal figure we actually meet in the movie.

Sean: She is the only older woman with any screen time. Mrs. Chambers, again like Mrs. Oxford in Frenzy, is one of Hitchcock’s most beloved character types – the slightly daffy older maternal figure who has a really good analytical mind, but is also too distracted like, clutching her bathrobe or baking tarts to really do anything. So, she just gives her husband good advice.

 

Kristine: Did you notice her dialing the phone for her husband when he is standing right there? 

Sean: Yes. It’s like your wife is also your secretary, and that’s fine and nothing’s wrong with that.

Kristine: So the one maternal figure we actually meet is “good” in the sense that she knows her place. And the movie suggests that Norma didn’t know her place, and thus was wicked.

Sean: I want to make some kind of grand sweeping statement about the role of the older woman/mother figure in horror movies across time, referencing Norma Bates and Mrs. Voorhees and Frau Brückner and Nola Carveth and so on and so on…. But I’m not sure I could make it all hang together. But something is going on there.

Kristine: May I interrupt? 

Sean: Yes, please.

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A pair of melted snowmen arrive to help Lila and Sam with their quest

Kristine: I think it’s interesting that Mrs. Chambers, the sheriff’s wife, is the complete opposite of everything we know about Norma. She’s maternal and kind, whereas Norma is constructed as having been cold, withholding and cruel. Though I also want to point out that even getting to know the “real” Norma Bates is nigh impossible. Is it a mistake to assume that Norman’s version of Norma is actually an accurate depiction of who she was? It’s funny that a show like Bates Motel, which is a hit show on A&E right now that serves as sort-of prequel to Psycho (though they set the show in 2013 rather than back in the 1950s), assumes that Norma was the person that Norman re-enacts. That she did speak like that and behave like that. We don’t know that for sure. We only believe it because Norman says it is so. But isn’t Norman the ultimate unreliable narrator?

Sean: I feel like it’s an attractive story to believe because Norman is such a fucked-up weirdo. We figure, ‘Well, he did turn in to a cross-dressing serial killer. That’s got to be his mother’s fault, right?’

Kristine: Right. And the way the movie exploits the collective ease with which we blame mothers for how their children turn out sort of bothers me. Remember when Jared Lee Loughner went on his killing spree in Tucson and everyone was clambering to blame his parents? Or, even more parallel to Psycho, when Adam Lanza shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School with his mother’s rifle? And remember that he had shot and killed his mother just before the incident – she was his first victim… Just like Norman.

Sean: It never even occurred to me that Norma might not have actually been the controlling, cruel harpy that Norman’s impersonation of her suggests. Sheriff Chambers tells Sam and Lila that “Mrs. Bates poisoned this guy she was involved with when she found out he was married. Then took a helping of the same stuff herself.” But Dr. Richmond, the psychiatrist – and ultimate RIMA – at the end of Psycho, revises that account by revealing that Norman killed both of them and made it look like a murder/suicide. Richmond learns this from his off-screen interview with “Norma” (or, as Richmond puts it, “the mother half of Norman’s mind” – emphasis mine, because the characters seem to almost believe that this persona Norman has adopted speaks only truths and also accurately represents who Norma was, but it is still Norman’s perspective, even if it’s coming through the echo chamber of this mother-persona he has created). “Norma” also tells Dr. Richmond that Norman’s mother was “a clinging, demanding woman.” But why do we accept that as truth?

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A strange episode of “Trading Spaces” that never aired

Kristine: Exactly my point. And Bates Motel totally does accept that as gospel, and characterizes Norma as a disturbed woman who is clinging and demanding. But has no one ever thought to question the veracity of the Norman/”Norma” version of events? The other thing there is that Dr. Richmond reveals that Norman was “dangerously disturbed… ever since his father died,” which again goes back to the mother-blaming. The idea being that the patriarch was this stabilizing force and, once removed, the son goes completely off the rails under the care of the mother alone.

Sean: I just want to point out that there’s an element of gay panic to this also. Like, without a strong father in the house, Norman becomes a queer, cross-dressing pervert. Somehow that’s also his mother’s fault, right? It’s almost like Reagan/Bush-era social politics – the single mother as monstrous entity. Remember Dan Quayle’s reaction to Murphy Brown? That’s this movie.

Kristine: Sort of. And the thing is, the “evil” mother is explicitly eroticized. Norman found them in bed together, blah blah blah. It’s like the opening of Patrick all over again. Nothing is more destructive, more corrupting to the young man than to discover that his mother possesses human sexuality. To me, the implicit desire in all of this is for the mother figure to be completely neutered and de-sexed, to be an asexual caregiver whose only purpose is to serve her children. And I don’t like it. My point being, why the fuck should we believe it when Norman’s invention – the adopted persona of his mother that is an essentially false and constructed persona – tells Dr. Richmond that Norma was “a clinging, demanding woman”? The only fact we know that suggests that Norma Bates may have been a bit off is that she named her child after herself, which is just weird.

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Lila confronts Hitchock’s voyeuristic lens

Sean: I agree. Norman tells Marion early on in the movie, “I hate what she’s become. I hate the illness.” What’s clear to me is that the “she” is really Norman himself, not his mother. And those feelings he’s giving voice to aren’t necessarily echoes of how he felt about his mother when she was alive. They could just be unique to his current circumstances, where he’s disassociated himself from his own mental illness by creating a character to “blame.” Also, the Oedipal frustrations of the Norman Bates character are right there on the surface for us all to see – remember that Norman tells Marion that “A son is a poor substitute for a lover” and also that “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” But I’ve never thought to question the movie’s basic construct of “Norma.” What’s even weirder is that, despite all the mother-blaming, Richmond also says, “Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all, most unbearable to the son that commits it.” Why? I don’t get it. This movie exists in a patriarchal universe, where the Sheriff Chamberses and the George Lowerys and the motorcycle cops are at the top of the heap. Since Norman’s very character construction suggests that it is fathers and not mothers who are vitally necessary (when Norman’s father died, he becomes queer and deranged). So why does Chambers wax poetic about how matricide is like, the worst thing for a son – emphasis mine again. That very construction contains an Oedipal worldview, in my opinion. I think Richmond assumes the existence of Oedipal desire, and identifies with it. There’s some kind of dark, incestuous frisson to the statement he makes.

Kristine: The truth is that the whole final sequence of the movie set at the police station is upsetting to me. All these RIMAs in a room, discussing and determining Norman’s fate, with Lila sitting obediently by, listening with interest. It’s über-creepy to me. The timing of this discussion might be playing into my reaction, because I am feeling very sensitive about Chelsea Manning. I feel like in the final scene, Norman as become this Chelsea Manning-esque trans figure, and I don’t like all these RIMAs discussing her.

Sean: I totally agree that all the men sitting around tut-tutting about poor, sick, queer, weirdo Norman leaves me with a sour feeling all over. It’s like Norman’s very complaint about the world during his rant to Marion in the office lounge. Remember when he complains about how people usually mean well and that they “cluck their thick tongues and shake their heads and suggest oh-so-very delicately.” Again, this a great moment of foreshadowing, because Norman is anticipating exactly the institutional web he’ll find himself caught in by the end of the picture. What is that final scene if not a big tongue-clucking free-for-all?

Kristine: Good point. Remember, in that scene Norman also says “I think we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out.” What better metaphor for his own circumstances at the end of the movie? The psychological “prison” of his mental illness has become a literal imprisonment within the system.

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“Call me DOCTOR Richmond, please. Did you hear that? I’m a doctor!”

Sean: But the way that the male authority’s voice comes in to make “sense” of the unexplainable is very annoying and perhaps my least favorite thing about the movie. Dr. Richmond asserts authority and colonizes Norman, his identity, his psychology, all of it. Richmond constructs the story, interprets events, and establishes himself as the ultimate expert on everything. Somehow, I feel like that sequence is partially about legitimizing the field of psychiatry, right? Remember when one of the cops is like, ‘Listen, doc, if this is all a lot of hooey in order to build a defense for Norman Bates…’ and Richmond replies that “A psychiatrist… merely tries to explain [the unexplainable].” That whole notion of the psychiatrist as the ultimate detective, as an interpreter of events… Bothers me. But I see why it would appeal to Hitchcock, who never met an amateur sleuth he didn’t like.

Kristine: Yes, Richmond is all about establishing the authority of the system and the doctor, and it made me really mad. Like, who is this guy even???? 

Sean: I might nominate this for most disappointing and patriarchal ending to a queer movie ever.

Kristine: We don’t even know Richmond and we are supposed to give him total authority? I hate it. He’s just a goddamned mansplainer.

Sean: Oh my god, he is such a mansplainer. And Lila is just sitting there, nodding and going, “Oh, mm-hmmm, yes, mmm-hmmm…” Also note how little Hitchcock cares about Lila’s (or Sam’s, for that matter) reaction to the news that Marion is dead… The thing they’ve been struggling to figure out the whole time. There are no reaction shots at all, no moment for the audience to witness the impact this news on either Lila or Sam. Hitchcock is just not a humanist. He instead allows Dr. Richmond to take over. But I don’t think this movie is so easy to get a handle on. I think it actually swings between delighting in the destruction and undercutting of RIMA figures (like Arbogast’s death scene, Marion making off with Lowery’s money and that amazing moment when her boss glimpses her in her car, fleeing the state, how Marion – despite her lame bluffing skills – evades both the fascist cop and the persnickety car salesman) and the re-institution of those figures (Dr. Richmond’s speech, Sam’s vanquishing of Norman-as-Mother, etc.). And we have to hand it to Hitchcock that he ends the movie with “Norma’s” voice, right?

Kristine: That very final shot is great. 

Sean: I might suggest that allowing “Norma’s” voice to have the final say in the picture does somewhat destabilize Dr. Richmond’s authority. 

Kristine: I agree.

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Busted-ass queen

Sean: Just fyi, that whole inner diatribe of “They’ll see! I’ll show them!” is something I’ve delivered to myself like, a hundred times. 

Kristine: I love it. So, you said the Richmond/RIMA speech is your least favorite thing in the movie (and I agree, it’s also one of mine), but there are a few other things that didn’t quite work for me.

Sean: Like what?

Kristine: Well, the reveal of Norma’s corpse, for one. I know that moment must have been shocking and horrifying to a 1960s audience, but it just read a little hokey to a jaded, 21st century gal like myself. I thought that the details in the film that implied Mrs. Bates’ presence – like the imprint of her body in the bed of her master bedroom – were far creepier than that old California Raisin skull face. And I also thought the reveal of Norman dressed as his mother was… pretty silly. Again, this could just be that it’s badly dated. Anthony Perkins really gives his role a lot of dignity but when he is revealed in the basement, screeching away in some old frumpy housecoat and cheap wig… It was kind of dumb.

Sean: Ok, I totally agree that Norman in the dress at the end is comically underwhelming. 

Kristine: Good. 

Sean: But I disagree about Norma’s desiccated body. I love it. And can I say one thing? 

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: Watching this for the hundredth time, I know that there is no “Norma,” but I found that the idea of the knife-wielding madwoman lurking in the house still grabbed hold of me. Remember that super-long and super-suspenseful sequence where Lila is sneaking up to the old house while Sam keeps Norman busy?

Kristine: Oh, yes, absolutely. 

Sean: I was terrified for Lila, even though I knew that, since Norman was being distracted by Sam, Lila was in no real danger. The movie does such an effective job of establishing the fiction of “Mrs. Bates,” that a part of me still believed there could be a raving old madwoman up in the house. I am fascinated by the power of that fiction, and the power of the Gothic in general. There’s something about that old Gothic house, and that old Gothic trope of the madwoman in the attic, that retains such formal power… It still bewitches me every time I watch Psycho. The idea of Norma is just so electric and convincing, that it actually seems like Lila is going to open the front door, and a wild-eyed madwoman is going to rush out of the shadows and plant a butcher’s knife in her chest, even though I know that can’t happen because “Norma” doesn’t exist. During Lila’s entire long walk up to the house, I was squirming with dread. It belies reason.

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It is rumored that Perkins held his own White Party in this house after hours

Kristine: I can’t stop thinking about how Norma named her son “Norman” after herself. It is sick and wrong.

Sean: Well, it’s the perfect encapsulation of the dark side of heterosexual procreation, right? Where procreation just becomes this deeply narcissistic act, where it is all about the entitlement of patriarchs (and, post-Lorelai Gilmore, matriarchs). “I am life giver!!!!” these heterosexual breeders scream into the night. “I am creator of beings!!!!!!” And then they cackle and stir their cauldron.

Kristine: You are nothing without me. I made you and you owe me for life. That is the dark side of heterosexuality: the God complex.

Sean: To me, this is the kind of attitude about procreation embodied by things like 19 Kids & Counting and Jon & Kate Plus Eight and the like.

Kristine: But – and I am nervous to make this statement because I am no Hitch-storian – doesn’t that also describe Hitchcock as a director? At least with respect to his lady muses?

Sean: I think there’s some truth to that. Though in regards to his relationship to his leading ladies, I think he just wanted to own them. I don’t know if he felt a sense of authorship to their identities, but possibly. I know he gave Vera Miles the second-rate part of Lila in this movie because she dared reject an earlier film offer of his in order to have a baby…

Kristine: What?

Sean: And the word is, she wanted to play the Marion Crane part in Psycho and he punished her by making her play the frumpy sister.

Kristine: Hitchcock rage against the heteronormative trap. What a bitchy queen.

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Movie to Marion: “Um, there’s a death crow over your shoulder. What are you? Stupid?”

Sean: And he was like, cold and wouldn’t talk to her during filming. Also, he used to hide prototypes of the “Mother” corpse in Janet Leigh’s dressing room to terrify her.

 

Kristine: A quick aside: Did you notice how Norma’s bedroom was super-opulent and Norman’s room was so spartan? 

Sean: Yes. All the creepy old baby toys in Norman’s weird room were sick.

Kristine: So sick. Though did you notice that Norman liked to listen to Beethoven’s Eroica (which means “heroic” in Italian)? Hitchcock’s sick sense of humor never ceases to delight me.

Sean: Oh, I know. That suggestion that in his own mind, Norman thinks in these sweeping heroic and operatic terms is really funny and dark. And the Eroica is also, I believe, considered to be a piece of music that marks a transition from the classical to the romantic style. That’s noteworthy when you think about Psycho as truly marking a move away from the “classic” Hollywood period and into the disruptive and explosive cinema of the 1960s, where movies like this one, Bonnie & ClydeEasy RiderThe Graduate and Midnight Cowboy completely changed what American movies were and could do and show. I mean, Psycho is considered to be the genesis point for the slasher movie, so you could trace back to this movie from Halloween and Friday the 13th and so on.

Kristine: Right…

Sean: So can we discuss the big thing I noticed about Psycho?

Kristine: I’ll allow it.

Sean: The big thing I noticed was how much of the movie is about matrimony and marriage. And how much of the movie is spent processing and commenting upon the idea of marriage. I always tell my students that an author usually establishes their big themes in the first third of the story, and the first thirty minutes of Psycho is practically all about marriage. Remember, also, that Sam and Lila pose as a married couple in order to infiltrate the Bates Motel in the final act.

Kristine: Yes. 

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Movie to Norman: “Birds of a feather peep together… and stroke their pheasants”

Sean: Here’s the rest of my evidence. In the opening scene, Marion says, “Checking-out time is 3:00 PM. Hotels of this sort aren’t interested in you when you come in, but when your time is up…” Obviously this line is also a double entendre referencing Marion’s own mortality, but it’s also about the stigma of her non-normative affair with Sam, in which they’re forced to have liaisons in places of this sort. Since the structure of society grants special rights and privileges to married couples, any other kind of couple has to struggle against the current. There’s an expiration date [3:00PM] to their coupling, and there’s a system [the hotel management] pressuring and policing them. This whole idea, that Marion is at a disadvantage because of her relationship with Sam, is also captured when she says, “When you’re married you can do a lot of things deliberately.” She doesn’t get a certain set of social privileges and status by not being Sam’s wife. They’re constructed by the film as an “illicit” pairing. The whole opening scene is fraught with questions of legitimacy that revolve around the institution of marriage, and also could suggest how a lot of queer issues overlap with heterosexual couples who are, for whatever reason, forced to occupy a kind of “queer” status by the dominant culture. Married straight couples who never procreate, for example, are often viewed as “different” or not “normal.” But in this case, Marion and Sam’s crisis reads very much to me as a double or parallel of gay couples, especially gay couples from the time period (the early 1960s/pre-Stonewall America). Meeting on the sly, anxious about how the larger culture grants them no legitimacy, yearning for a life in which their union is just viewed as “normal” and granted all the same rights and privileges, having to meet up in those sorts of places and feeling vaguely guilty or dirty about that. Sam is also a divorcée who has to pay alimony. At one point Marion begs Sam to marry her, saying “I’ll lick the stamps!!!” about helping him to mail his alimony payments.

Kristine: : ( Isn’t that why she steals the money? So they can get married and start a life together?

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Sam TOLD Norman he’d use lubricant, but he got overexcited and just plunged ahead

Sean: Well, right. And while Sam is bitching and moaning about having to “pay” (money to his ex, sweat to his father’s business legacy), Marion replies, “I pay, too. They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.” So just the way that the movie automatically establishes the space of the “m/hotel room” as a site of tension and anxiety about legitimacy, and as a site of sexual experience and pleasure… Think about the dichotomy between the room that Marion and Sam share in the first scene and the room that Marion is murdered in at the Bates Motel. Since m/hotels are these in-between spaces, they are also places where people can slip through the cracks of the normal world and get lost or disappear, as Marion does when she is annihilated by Norman. Part of it, though, is that the culture forces people like Marion into those spaces where they are in danger and are vulnerable to predators. She’s forced out of respectability into those sorts of places, of which the Bates Motel is the pinnacle. The Bates Motel is the ur-that-sort-of-place.

Kristine: Remember that Norma allegedly had taken up with a man she wasn’t married to, who in fact was cheating on his wife with her. I feel like that’s part of the “bad business” Sheriff Chambers refers to. And that’s one way the movie doubles Norma and Marion.

Sean: Right. And Caroline had to be doped up on her wedding day and George Lowery, the oil tycoon, brings the $40,000 cash into the office because his daughter’s wedding is the next day and he’s buying her a house. 

Kristine: Ah, that’s right. I forgot about the tycoon’s daughter. 

Sean: By the way, my boyfriend did the calculation and the $40,000 Marion steals would be about $300,000 today.

Kristine: I was wondering about that.

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This is what life was like before the success of the Beatles’ song “Can’t Buy Me Love”

Sean: And remember that when Marion claims she has a headache and wants to go home, Lowery says, “What you need is a weekend in Las Vegas, the playground of the world,” which is a place people run away to in order to elope. Is this movie actually anti-marriage? 

Kristine: I don’t know if it is anti-marriage, because all the characters who are deviant in anyway are punished and the conventional characters are safe. Right?

Sean: Yes, but I want to talk about that when you’re done.

Kristine: I think it certainly pulls the curtain back on a lot of issues related to the institution, like Caroline being drugged, etc. 

Sean: Well, another thing that jumped out at me was the blatant existentialism in Norman and Marion’s conversation in the motel parlor. That whole idea that life is just a series of terrible traps (of which, I might argue, conventional heteronormativity is clearly one). You all ready mentioned Norman’s speech about the traps, but he goes on to say, “We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch.” And Marion totally relates. Psycho is a bleaker movie than I remembered.

Kristine: Yes, this is one of the speeches Norman has that I think would have failed if delivered by an actor other than Perkins. And yes to heteronormative traps.

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Boobie chariot

Sean: The most disturbing aspect of that conversation in the parlor is how Marion jokes that she’s going to a private island — which turns out to be the car submerged in the swamp… The car she haggled over with that condescending car salesman becomes her own coffin… 

Kristine: Oh, good point. So fucking bleak.

Sean: Remember the car salesman saying, “Do anything you have a mind to. Being a woman, you will.”

Kristine: Oh, I know. Were you on Norman’s side when Marion’s car stops sinking and then resumes and Norman smiles and eats his candy? Or when Sam is bullying him about the money and Marion? I love how in the end the swamp gets the money, which turned out to have been a red herring.

Sean: No, I don’t think I’m on Norman’s side.

Kristine: Gasp. 

Sean: I am not on Norman’s side ever, I don’t think.

Kristine: Double gasp. 

Sean: In fact, I love Arbogast and the way he plays Norman like a violin.

Kristine: Yeah, but he gets his.

Sean: Norman is a killer of women. I don’t want him to win, even if he’s a queer figure. Marion was also a queer figure, and I was rooting for her. And after her murder, I was rooting for Lila to bring her killer to justice.

Kristine: I feel like only the RIMA wins at the end. But as you pointed out, not totally. 

Sean: I think one of the creepiest moments in the movie is when Arbogast is questioning Norman and Norman is trying to wriggle out of being implicated but then he just blurts out “She might have fooled me, but she didn’t fool my mother.” 

Kristine: Agreed. Was the shower scene just as you remembered? It went on far longer than I realized. My favorite detail is how the water keeps running and running after Marion is dead. Also Marion’s eye when she is lying on the bathroom tile floor. 

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Queen Elizabeth welcomes Kate Middleton to the family

Sean: Oh, it was shorter than I remembered. I was like…. that’s it? It seemed like it lasted two seconds to me.

Kristine: Oh, I thought it went on for a long time.

Sean: It struck me watching it this time that part of that scene’s dark genius is how it plays with the blood imagery, the blood mixing with the shower water at Marion’s feet in a way that suggests a sudden and particularly brutal menstrual explosion.

Kristine: Yeah, that’s lovely, Sean.

Sean: I’m not kidding. I really think that part of the scene is about our fascination with/repulsion towards menstrual blood.

Kristine: Oh, I believe that you do believe that. Don’t you worry.

Sean: Moving on…. Are you afraid to take a shower alone?

Kristine: Yes, but that’s nothing new.

Sean: You’ve always been? Before you ever saw Psycho

Kristine: I have 10 million phobias, you know that.

Sean: But why the shower? It doesn’t make sense.

Kristine: Because you can’t see who is out there (if you’re in the shower) or in there (if you’re not). But I’m sure knowledge of Psycho has something to do with it. Just like Jaws made me scared to swim, even in a pool at night. 

Sean: I think the sickest joke in the whole movie is how Hitchcock cuts right from Marion’s body sinking into the swamp to the old woman in Sam’s hardware store complaining about the packaging on insecticide not guaranteeing a humane death. “And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.” 

Kristine: Poor Marion. 

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No More Tears shampoo proves there’s no truth in advertising

Sean: Poor Marion. I love her so much.

Kristine: Agreed. She deserved so much better than her secretarial job in goddamn Phoenix, and she knows it. 

Sean: As you were watching this, did you think at all about the fact that her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, would star in Halloween roughly twenty years later? Another horror movie that “redefined” the genre?

Kristine: A little bit. But for me, Jamie Lee is no Janet. Sorry. 

Sean: Agreed. “You eat like a bird.” What kind of a thing is that to say to a woman?

Kristine: Most ladies like hearing that. 

Sean: Really?

Kristine: Sure. It means you are delicate and refined. What if you said to a lady, “You eat like a T-Rex” or “You eat like a wild hog”?

Sean: But then he goes on to say “I think only birds look well stuffed because… Well, because they’re kind of passive to begin with.” So he was basically being like, you’re a passive object.

Kristine: Well, sure. All the taxidermy stuff was basically about the objectification of women, right? It doesn’t matter what they are stuffed with? Except Norma totally transcends that. But she is the only one. 

Sean: I disagree.

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Can’t think of a good Joan Rivers joke

Kristine: The only one for Norman, I mean. 

Sean: The truth of the movie is that Norma is ultimately nothing but an object, a prop.

Kristine: Right, exactly. That’s what I meant. 

Sean: Did you notice black bra/white bra? 

Kristine: I did, but back to the stuffed birds for a minute. Remember when Norman says that he doesn’t actually know anything about birds? I think that is telling. 

Sean: How? 

Kristine: He is totally ignorant about women/birds even though killing/stuffing them is (‘more than’) his “hobby”. And also, the birds mark Norman as a predator – he’s framed in shots with stuffed owls and other birds of prey more than once – and Marion as his prey – she’s framed with game birds like pheasants and quail, and also with crows/ravens which are often considered to be omens of doom (holy The Virgin Spring).

Sean: Right. Good call. So, remember how we talked about voyeurism with Peeping Tom What do you think about the fact that these two movies came out the same year? Do you see a real connection between them? 

Kristine: Yes. I mean, there are a ton of connections. How the overbearing abusive parent created a monster, for one.

Sean: The evil father in Peeping Tom, the evil mother in Psycho.

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A Boy and His Wall

Kristine: Another connection between Psycho and Peeping Tom is how both of the antagonists (Norman and Mark) are afraid of women’s sexuality, which circles back to your white bra/black bra point.  Remember, Mark doesn’t want to harm Pudding Face because she is good and virginal. 

Sean: Take off your white bra for a black one, you’re skating on thin ice; go braless and you’re dead meat.

Kristine: The pornographic book in Norman’s room…

Sean: Would you agree with my earlier point that Peeping Tom is critical of the voyeur and Psycho is not? Psycho is a celebration of voyeurism, no? 

Kristine: Hmmm. I certainly agree that Peeping Tom is critical of the act of voyeurism. I think we are way more “involved” in the voyeurism in Psycho than in Peeping Tom, simply because there is more visual pleasure to be had. For one, I think Norman is a sympathetic character (I know you partially disagree) and I think we enjoy occupying his spectator position for most of the movie – and most especially when he is looking through his secret pervert’s peephole at Marion in her room. I mean, everyone wants to see Janet Leigh is her bra. Remember, that is how the movie introduces us to her. How is Hitchcock’s camera showing her in her undies in the hotel room at the beginning of the movie different than Norman watching her in the bathroom? Plus, because we don’t know the extent of Norman’s “perversion” until the very end of the movie, he’s a much easier character to connect with than Mark, who is a wet-lipped, leering monster from the first minute we meet him. Plus, Psycho invites the audience to want to see more, right? We keep trying to see Mother, for example.

Sean: Yes. In fact, right away Hitchcock establishes the movie as a voyeuristic experience. Remember how his camera first pans across the city of Phoenix and finally spies Marion and Sam’s hotel room and literally swoops into the open window to “spy” on them? The movie is set up as an aggressive act of looking right from the get-go. It’s much more overt about making us all into voyeurs.

Kristine: Right? The movie empathizes with the desire and need to see. 

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Um, this is porn

Sean: And the pleasure we get from seeing the dark side, the perverse… Spying on naughtiness.

Kristine: Which is why the reveal of Norman dressed as his mother is such a let down for me. 

Sean: I’m surprised no one has done an edit of that scene which adds RuPaul instead of Norman. Right? Come on, Internet!

 

Kristine: I was actually thinking about how aghast RuPaul would be at that dreadful wig and unflattering housedress. Especially because Anthony Perkins had the figure to pull off something truly eleganté.

Sean: Oh evil queers, where would we be without you?

Kristine: So, want to hear my friend’s Anthony Perkins story? 

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Okay, so my friend was a professional Broadway dancer in NYC for years and years. 

Sean: Omg. 

Kristine: He was good friends with this woman who was Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson’s nanny and one time they were out of town, so she invited him over to their townhouse to spend the weekend. 

Sean: Just fyi, Berenson was on one of the Sept 11th planes and died.

Kristine: I know. I am semi-obsessed with her.  So back to my story, they were hanging out at their apartment and then laid in Anthony Perkins’ bed and turned on the TV… and Psycho was on! So they watched Psycho in Perkins’ house in his bed. I am so jealous of that experience… My friend has a million stories like that from ‘70s and ‘80s NYC. Also, the nanny said both that Berry and Tony were exceptionally wonderful people.

Sean: I don’t understand – was Perkins out to his wife? Was she his legit beard? 

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This friendly game of Hide and Seek is about to take a strange turn…

Kristine: I think that he was. 

Sean: He died of AIDS.

Kristine: I know. 

Sean: And she died in a horrible fashion. I don’t like it.

Kristine: Wait, which part don’t you understand? 

Sean: I was saying I didn’t understand their “arrangement.” 

Kristine: Ah. Well, I don’t know but I would venture to guess that Berry knew he was gay. She was a sophisticated New Yorker, right? I don’t think such things were so shocking and uncommon.

Sean: What do I know about sophistication? Nothing.

Kristine: I was surprised by how handsome Perkins was in Psycho.

Sean: He is very handsome in some scenes, very weaselly in others. Which is, of course, perfect.

Kristine: True. 

Sean: Sam is a stone cold motherfucking fox.

Kristine: He is fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine.

Sean: So hot.

Kristine: So, wait, explain the sequels to me. They aren’t directed by Hitchcock, are they? 

Sean: Hitchcock died in the seventies, darling.

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Norman said NO SURPRISE PARTY (He hates birthdays)

Kristine: Well, I don’t know when the sequels were made. 

Sean: Sorry. They were made during the 1980s slasher movie craze.

Kristine: I just know they exist. Don’t mansplain to me, son.

Sean: Psycho II was made in 1983 and is directed by Richard Franklin, who made Patrick. Norman gets out of the loony bin and starts like, washing dishes for a living and he befriends a waitress weirdo played by Meg Tilly. Murders begin to happen. Is it Norman? That’s the movie. Vera Miles reprises her role as Lila Crane.

Kristine: Hmmm…

Sean: Psycho III (1986) is directed by Perkins himself. Diana Scarwid plays a renegade nun who holes up at the Bates Motel with Norman. It is camp amazingness.

Kristine: Oh Christ.

Sean: They’re both sort of awesome and I love them. I think there was some cable prequel also made, starring Perkins, but I’ve never seen it.

Kristine: Yay. And do you like Bates Motel

Sean: Um…..  I love Vera Farmiga. That’s the end of my story.

Kristine: I need more info.

Sean: It’s a bad, bad show. It’s dumb and not in a good/fun way. But Farmiga is awesome.

Kristine: Okay, fair enough.

Sean: I hate the Norman’s older brother character, who is Dylan McKay, but not.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND Provocative and problematic

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative AND Pop perfection

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32 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)

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  16. Watched this on the big screen a few years ago, which was awesome – especially compared to my first viewing, on a shitty vhs.
    ‘Bates Motel’ is terrible, I HATED how they tricked us into thinking it was set in the 50’s at the start of the first episode.

    • I’ve never seen this one on the big screen – would love to! Actually, a back-to-back screening of this and the 2 theatrical sequels would be sort of fun and amazing….

  17. I think Hitchcock’s film’s endings need to be seen as fake and absolutely disregarded. Every time there is a “perfect” crime committed only to be unraveled in the end by a quite outrageous turn of events, just imagine that the end is there to appease the rating board or the censors. In the end the criminal should never get caught per Hitch’s dark and sinister sensibilities. Think of the two guys discussing a perfect murder in Shadow of a Doubt. That’s Hitch right there.

    Anyway these were my thoughts the last time I saw Psycho:

    “Psycho (1960) Dec 29 10 12:41 PM

    This film has been dissected so many times it is difficult to see new things when you watch it:

    – The money is stolen from a tax cheat. (Does the envelope get bigger and bigger as the story progresses?)

    – Lots of reflections. Norman is shown next to windows and mirrors and a subtle reflection is shown. Indicating the existence of a ghostly Norman doppelganger?

    – A boy’s best friend is his Mother… But a son is a poor substitute for a lover.

    – Norman can’t say the word bathroom.

    – Many things are said about birds, but none of them are necessarily true. You eat like a bird… Birds actually eat a lot… Birds are passive.

    – Norman is shown frequently under birds of prey… as if always under Mother’s raptor gaze?

    – Norman doesn’t like the musty, humid smell. Makes sense, since he is a taxidermist.

    – Mother’s silhouette in the window is probably a cheat…. or is it? The voice absolutely is.

    – A crime suspense turns into a murderous ghost/possession story (with supernatural overtones, maybe?) but then into a psychological study (that is if you buy the psychiatrist’s explanation.) Why do we need normality at the end? The explanation wipes out any residual fear. The Birds has no built in ‘safe’ explanation. I am not familiar with the TV show. Is Psycho’s treatment of the story closer to concepts from the TV show or with the Hitchcock theatrical output? Sometimes it seems to me that Hitchcock put those rational explanations at the end out of requirements of the studio and not necessarily out of a personal need for a return to normality.

    – Mother (not Norman/Mother) has to have been a monster, even if no one really says this. At all times Norman is talking about the ghost Mother. Mother’s room is nicely furnished and kept even if only to keep a corpse, Norman’s room is a neglected little closet.

    – The two other dead girls are only incidental and not really important, Why even mention them at the end?

    – Mother and her lover died ten years before the story proper.

    – The events get awfully close to Christmas. Psycho is a Christmas story!”

    • These are great. I do think ending on Norman-as-Mother’s voice was Hitch’s attempt to end on a more destabilizing, less “wrapped up” note. I like your approach to disregarding the endings…. Can I do that? I need permission. Not sure I agree Mother HAS to have been a monster….

      • Have just finished reading ‘The Making of Psycho.’ Hitch had a REAL concern of dealing with the rating’s board and of censorship, especially on Psycho, (there’s a whole chapter on it.) That only reinforces my feeling that Hitch never finished his films as he really would have liked.

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