I haven’t showered in days. My cute lab partner keeps giving me these disgusted looks, and even my cats are starting to avoid me. It all began when I woke up from a nightmare around 3 a.m. one night and decided to watch Psycho alone in the pitch dark. I wasn’t scared or anything, I just, you know, haven’t wanted to take a shower since then. Even worse, I’ve no longer been able to maintain an iota of normalcy in my interactions with taxidermists. I always get this overwhelming urge to flee now, especially when they start talking about their mental illnesses and love for dead things. But such is life.
Ruined taxidermical relationships aside, Psycho was a film of singular value and quality whose ingenuity actually ended up detracting from its greatness. There is much to be gained by breaking away from convention, and Hitchcock has certainly done that here, but in the end, conventions exist because they make for good storytelling, and there’s a reason Psycho’s formula isn’t often replicated.
After some wiggly credits in which the word “psycho” dances around, the film opens with a bedroom scene that was apparently quite racy for its time (spoiler: she’s in a bra). We see Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) whispering sweet nothings to her lover, Sam (John Gavin), lamenting their unfortunate state. If only the pair had more money, they could have a real life together. It’s actually a very compelling scene, and from the first minute of Psycho, I was hooked.
For a while, the movie only gets better. When Marion heads to work and $40,000 in cash is placed in her care, I never thought for a second that she’d abscond with it. You’re used to main characters being good people, so when she stole the money, I was totally surprised (Hitchcock: 1; Russ: 0). After that, things keep getting more intense. Her boss sees her driving; a police officer taps on her window; and the used car salesman doesn’t believe her story. Every moment was an inspired scene of mounting thrills, and it was satisfying to see how bad Marion was at all of this lying and deceit stuff. How was she was going to pull it off?! For 45 minutes, we follow her story, becoming ever more invested, until she ends up at the Bates Motel and has dinner with a creepy taxidermist whose mother puts mine to shame in the overbearing department.
Before I go on, let me simply say that whenever you manage to create a scene an entire population remembers, you’ve succeeded. There’s no arguing that. When you implant a screeching sound so heavily into the public consciousness that any single person can hum it, instantly conjuring to mind images of a shower, a knife, and some Hershey’s Syrup swirling down a drain, you deserve a lavish amount of praise. Thanks to my being a so-called member of society, it came as no surprise when, around the 45-minute mark, Marion was killed (Hitchcock: 1; Russ: 1).
I had finally beheld the shower scene! I was elated, and then suddenly, I was left without a main character, and yet still an hour remained. I continued to watch, but nothing could get me excited again (err, about the movie). I’d spent 45 minutes getting to know Marion, worrying for her, hoping for her, and now she was gone, the only one left in her wake the freakish Norman Bates. But he’d only just been introduced. Why should I care about him? The film spends the next hour throwing random characters at you in waves—a private detective; Marion’s sister; the cynical sheriff—hoping that Norman Bates’ utter creepiness can sustain the film, but it’s not enough.
Why do we root for characters in movies? It’s because the story helps us understand their motivations. We can relate to their situation. Whether or not we like the person, whether or not they’re good or evil, something about them makes them human in our eyes, and we want them to succeed. I wanted that for Marion, but I didn’t care about Norman Bates. If this is meant to be a mystery movie, then it felt like an unpolished episode of CSI or Columbo. By now, writers have realized that you need to kill off the girl in the first 5 minutes. You establish the mystery, and then watch the real main character unravel the story.
Then again, the film is entitled “Psycho,” so it’s probably supposed to be viewed as a psychological thriller or even a character study. If it’s the former, then Psycho packs far too few thrills. The shower scene is the only real one, for as I’ve said, we don’t care enough about the detective to fear for his life. If it’s a character study, then Norman Bates needed a lot more screen time. He’s not introduced until far too late, and even then, we get only a few scenes with him. And we don’t actually witness much of his psychosis. The eventual twist did catch me completely by surprise (Hitchcock: 2; Russ: 1), but it felt a bit silly, and the way it was so fully explained (again by a completely new character) was the opposite of subtle. The viewer couldn’t possibly have predicted the ending, for there is far too little characterization of Bates. It’s 2011, and audiences have now been inundated with movies whose twists rely on multiple personalities, and while Psycho laid the groundwork, the formula has since been improved upon.
For all that, the acting was always compelling, especially Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, who, when he did get screen time, teetered masterfully between charming and creepy. The writing was often superb, the final voiceover a chilling note that leaves you shaken. And there’s no denying Psycho’s cultural impact. But in the end, Psycho is praised thanks not to its innate quality, but because it paved the way for slasher films and multiple personality twists, genres that have gained subtlety and depth since 1960.
I think I’ll go take that shower now. I mean, what do I really have to fear anyway? Norman wouldn’t even harm a fly.