This is part of the Film Preservation Blogathon. A somewhat different version of this piece originally appeared on my old web site.
The archetypal serial killer is a man named Ed Gein, a handyman from Plainfield, Wisconsin, who was a grave robber, necrophile, and cannibal. He was also a transvestite of sorts, who, unlike his most famous screen descendant, didn’t dress in mother’s clothes, he dressed in mother herself. There have been several books and an avalanche of movies based on the Gein case, and even more movies and books that have incorporated elements of Gein’s crimes. As an archetype, Gein has eclipsed Jack the Ripper during the last part of the 20th century as the prototype for the mad killer. Part of this is because of Psycho.
The book on which Psycho was based was written before the details of the Gein case came to light. Its author, Robert Bloch, had a knack for getting inside the minds of criminals and psychopaths and during the 1950s, he wrote a series of pulp crime novels that are among the best of their types. The roots of Norman Bates and his terrible mother can be seen in novels like The Scarf (with its dynamite first paragraph: “Fetish? You name it. All I know is, I’ve had to have it with me.”), The Dead Beat, and The Firebug. Bloch built his story around the broadest details of the Gein case, knowing nothing of its particular details. The idea of a monster lurking in a mundane setting appealed to him, and it is this aspect that probably most appealed to Hitchcock. It is entirely likely that, like Jim Thompson, Philip K. Dick, and William S. Burroughs, Bloch would have been rescued from the obscurity of the pulp fiction ghetto by later literary academics who are more broadly receptive to popular fiction. The process was already in process by the time Bloch wrote Psycho. The Scarf had already been filmed, as had a number of his short stories (adapted for, among other productions, Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the Lights Out radio show). This, of course, is no guarantee of a literary reputation, but it’s evidence that Bloch was already on the cultural radar screen. Psycho changed all of that. It was a shortcut to the cultural mass mind. Bloch would forever after be known as “the author of Psycho.” Ironically, when the rights to Psycho were purchased by Alfred Hitchcock, Bloch was very much of two minds about the project. On the one hand, it was a LOT of money compared to the rates Bloch was earning in the pulp market, but on the other hand, it meant that he would have to continue to live with Psycho, and this was difficult for Bloch. By the time the movie was made, the details of the Gein case had been made public, and Bloch was greatly disturbed that he had been able to so closely approximate the specific psychopathology of the man who was the most notorious monster of the day. It seemed more than coincidental, and Bloch wondered what it was in him that enabled him to imagine such a ghastly worldview.
Of course, that insight is part of the brilliance of Psycho, a brilliance that makes the book worthwhile in itself beyond its role as the progenitor of Hitchcock’s movie. There are plenty of critics who will tell you that Psycho is one of those rare movies that improves upon its source material, but I’m not one of them. There is a raw power to Bloch’s novel that the movie approximates, but does not match. But then again, the movie has pleasures all its own. Although the book and the movie are significantly different, Hitchcock never shied away from giving Bloch’s novel the share of credit it deserves. But Hitchcock elaborated on the novel in ways that were unique to his own worldview.
Anyone who has ever read the book in tandem with the movie will come to a pretty quick realization that the Norman Bates one finds in Psycho is considerably different than Anthony Perkins’s shy, awkward, handsome Norman. Bloch’s Norman derives from Gein, who was middle-aged, balding, and overweight. Hitchcock’s Norman derives from other sources, while keeping the psychopathology from the novel. The most immediate source of Hitchcock’s depiction of Norman is Hitch’s belief that evil should look and act mundane. There are outlines of this idea in Shadow of a Doubt, and Hitchcock toys with it intermittently throughout his career, but he never really got it perfectly right until Psycho. Norman--even his name is shockingly normal--is completely non-threatening. The other source for Hitchcock’s Norman Bates is writer Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich’s crime and suspense stories from the 1930s and 40s are one of the underpinnings of film noir and of the Hitchcockian thriller itself. Often filmed, Woolrich provided Hitchcock with the source for one of his most famous films--Rear Window--and provided several other stories for Hitchcock’s television work--most memorably “Three O’Clock,” which may be the single most excruciating 45 minutes of film Hitchcock ever made. But Norman doesn’t derive from Woolrich’s fiction. He derives from Woolrich himself. Woolrich was homosexual, shy and awkward around women. and something of a recluse. More importantly, Woolrich had an unhealthy relationship with his mother, one that, minus the murders, provides a template for the Bates family relations as Hitchcock depicts them in Psycho. True, Norman himself wasn’t homosexual in the traditional sense, but an audience seeing the film for the first time in 1960 wasn’t going to know the difference between a transvestite and a homosexual.
Hitchcock filmed Psycho on a considerably smaller budget than was usual for him. Additionally, most of the crew for Psycho was composed of people who worked on Hitchcock’s television show. Always looking for a new challenge, Hitch was out to beat studios like American International at their own game. This wasn’t the first instance of a big-name director testing the waters of the low-budget shocker--Touch of Evil comes immediately to mind, coincidentally also starring Janet Leigh--but it may be the first time a major director has done so for his own amusement. And Hitchcock’s own amusement is paramount in understanding the impact of Psycho.
The movie itself is constructed like an elaborate prank at the audience’s expense. The movie starts out like an examination of guilt, with the audience being manipulated into identifying with the heroine who has stolen some money. This isn’t unusual for Hitchcock: certainly his “wrong man accused” films have underpinnings of this theme, and Strangers on a Train is specifically about it. Hitchcock uses a number of familiar devices to reinforce that familiarity. When Marion is confronted by a cop, we squirm, hoping that she’ll get out of it. We identify with her. We are on familiar ground. Meanwhile, Marion is wrestling with her own guilt and by the time she has her fateful meeting with Mrs. Bates, she has decided to return the money. The audience is relieved. The symbolism in the movie changes. When we first meet Marion, she is wearing the black lingerie of a bad girl. Just before she makes her exit, she is wearing the white lingerie of a good girl. You can see the relief on her face just before she takes her shower. AFTER the shower, after the movie has cancelled all bets and shocked the living hell out of an audience that THINKS it knows where the movie is headed, Hitchcock includes one of the most knowing shots in all of movies: the camera dollies out from Janet Leigh’s open eye and moves through the motel room, eventually coming to rest on the $40,000 dollars. It’s meaningless now, and Hitchcock’s camera is taunting the audience. He’s had a wonderful joke at their expense. Meanwhile, the audience itself is in too much shock to complain. But Hitchcock isn’t done with this. During the course of the first half of the movie, Hitchcock has carefully stripped away all of the other characters except for Marion and Norman. Once we are left with only Norman (and his terrible mother), the audience has no choice but to identify with him. Anthony Perkins’s performance makes this easy. He is sympathetic. The audience LIKES Norman. The audience roots for Norman when things don’t seem to be going his way. The famous shot of Marion’s Crane’s car sinking into the marsh is a good example: when it stops for a moment, when Norman looks around in a panic, the audience knows EXACTLY how he feels. They don’t want Norman to get caught. He’s in a bad spot and the audience wants to see him get out of it. And then, Hitchcock drops his bombshell at the end of the movie. Norman IS Mrs. Bates.
The idea of Psycho as a prank continues into the movie’s marketing: Hitchcock’s coming attractions trailer for Psycho is justly famous, in part because it makes full use of Hitchcock’s television persona, in part because it is a dazzling piece of meta-cinema in itself. At the end of the trailer, we see a shower curtain drawn aside and a blond screaming. The blond ISN’T Janet Leigh, it’s Vera Miles, who plays her sister. And, of course, there was the publicity stunt where no one would be admitted to the theater after Psycho began showing. This ran contrary to the way people used to go to the movies, where they would come in when they arrived, regardless of when the picture began, and left during a subsequent feature (or whenever). Hitchcock’s publicity stunt radically changed the way people go to the movies.
Hitchcock was a master manipulator; no doubt about it. But there is a good deal more to Psycho than just cinematic pranksterism. Certainly, Bernard Herrmann's landmark score moves beyond pranksterism into the realm of the beautifully abstract. And there is a profound current of unease lurking beneath the surface of Hitchcock’s manipulation of the audience. There is a new willingness to use graphic violence for effect in Psycho that is new to Hitchcock’s cinema. The unease derives from the novel. There is a long passage near the end of the movie where Norman’s psychosis is explained by Simon Oakland’s psychiatrist. One suspects that this sequence is an apologia to the censors for what has gone on leading up to the scene: it goes on too long, but it sets up the true ending of the movie. The scene that FOLLOWS this explanation makes a hash of it. We see Norman sitting in his cell, conducting an inner monologue in Mother’s voice. “They’ll see,” she says. “They’ll say ‘She wouldn’t even harm a fly.’” This scene thoroughly demolishes the psychobabble that precedes it. Norman Bates is a monster. The psychiatrist makes him out to be some kind of werewolf, who is normal on the outside, but transforms into his terrible mother with the right trigger. But the last scene suggests that, inside, Norman is Mrs. Bates all the time. When Norman smiles at the end of the movie, it’s the smile of something monstrous. Something evil. In this scene, Hitchcock succeeds in putting evil behind a normal facade--something he failed to do in Shadow of a Doubt, for instance: Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie doesn’t seem like a real psychopath. Norman does. Hitchcock adds a touch of strange to this, too, given that some prints of the film had a subliminal image of a skull superimposed on Norman's face as it faded to black.
The violence in Psycho bears some comment: there is a common strain of thought that graphic violence is always gratuitous because, after all, masters like Hitchcock didn’t “need” it to get under the audience’s skin, they didn’t “need” it to turn the screws. And yet, in his late films beginning with Psycho (actually, beginning with his television show), Hitchcock used fairly graphic violence as mercilessly as he used the other tools of his trade. I think that there is a recognition in Psycho that, sometimes, what the filmmakers can show the audience actually IS worse than what the audience imagines. The two great shocks in Psycho have a similar impact: the first is the notorious shower scene, in which there IS a single shot of the knife in Marion Crane as it is being withdrawn. The audience has to understand the violation of Marion Crane, the violation of the image of Janet Leigh as the glamorous movie star, for the scene to have its full impact. If it happened off screen, the audience would shrug it off. The other scene is Mrs. Bates’s slow twirl in the basement. Here, the implications of what Norman is doing with his mother is made manifestly clear. He is a taxidermist. We’ve already seen his bird collection. Now we see his masterwork. There comes a point where the Val Lewton technique is merely avoiding the issue, Psycho suggests. At some point it becomes an elaborate exercise in averting one’s eyes. Eventually, you have to see what’s on the other side of the door. Psycho opens that door.
I have a more personal relationship with Psycho than I do with most of Hitchcock's other films. In addition to providing the template for contemporary film's conception of the serial killer, Psycho also introduced the concept of the transgender psychopath to a wide audience. Being transgender myself, this is something I wrestle with whenever I discuss Psycho, because as a cultural meme, the transgender psycho is particularly harmful. This is an unintended consequence of Psycho's success. I mostly don't blame the movie--I mean, Ed Gein was a real person, after all--but it makes me uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the daughters of Psycho are legion. They started appearing almost immediately, with William Castle's Psycho knock-off, Homicidal, and continue through The Silence of the Lambs. This isn't a knock against the greatness of Psycho. Psycho is a legitimately great movie and only a fool would argue otherwise. It does make that greatness bitter in my mouth, though.
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