Psycho (1960)

This review refers to the Psycho Universal Legacy Series 2-disc special edition. Some of the stand-out special features include featurettes called “The Making of Psycho” and “In the Master’s Shadow: Hitchcock’s Legacy.”

Other cool bonus material includes original newsreel footage on Psycho‘s theatrical release and behind-the-scenes stills. Stephen Rebello, author of “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” provides commentary. I’m going to focus on the movie itself here rather than go into much more detail on the bonus features; I’ll be hitting on topics from those over in the “Psycho Origins and Mythos” section of the blog.
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If memory serves me right, I first watched Psycho when I was about 11 or 12, on a dare from my cousin that I couldn’t watch the shower scene without covering my eyes. He lost. I watched. I figured an “old black-and-white movie couldn’t be that scary.” But by the ending revelation of Mother in the basement, I was proven wrong. Like my relationship with any great horror/thriller, it scared me and I loved it.

The movie starts out in Phoenix, Arizona–close to where Norman and Norma once lived, just outside Scottsdale. We meet Marion Crane and her married lover–named Sam, just like Sam Bates. I can already tell I’m going to enjoy looking for these little detailed tie-ins and references.

One of the things that sets older films apart from what’s on the screen today: people seem to spend more time talkng, and they talk in longer sentences. The exchange between Marion and Sam probably would’ve taken a third of the time today. And I can’t help but smirk at a few outdated phrases such as “I declare!” I’d have never been able to resist quipping “You declare what, exactly?” if someone said that to me.

So Marion takes off with the $40,000 she was supposed to take to the bank for her boss, having gotten the idea in her head to run off and meet Sam. That would be the equivalent of about $315,000 in today’s money. The studio-shot scenes of her driving would’ve been rather boring if not for the masterful Bernard Hermann music score. Have I mentioned this music is fantastic? It’s one of the first scores that turned me into the film score lover I am today.
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Marion gets woken up by a cop after she stops to sleep in the car by the side of the road. Wise move, because it is possible to suffocate to death inside a car when stopping to sleep in it–especially in the hot deserts of Arizona, Southern California and Nevada. She trades in her car to throw the cops further off any trail they might’ve picked up on her, paying $700 that would be about $5,500 today with inflation.

A favorite early scene of mine is Marion’s drive through the rain at night, as we hear the voice-overs of her boss and co-workers exclaiming over the stolen money. I just love the first shot we see of the Bates Motel sign; no creepy music this time, just the pounding rain. No one’s in the office this late at night, so Marion starts honking the car horn. If Norma were still alive here, I guarantee she wouldn’t have been pleased about that. We also get that iconic view of Mother passing in front of her bedroom window, which now brings me a bittersweet memory of “First You Dream, Then You Die.”

“They moved away the highway.”

Damn it! At this future point the bypass was built and accounts for why the Bates Motel has 12 rooms and 12 vacancies. That depresses me now.

My personal award for “Most Attractive and Handsome Killer Ever” goes to Norman Bates in this movie. Even Dexter has nothing him here. He’s also just as sweet and polite as he was as a 17-year-old in Bates Motel. *sigh. Something else I didn’t notice before: Marion’s room has some paintings of birds on the wall. Norman taxidermied at least a couple of birds, including the one he left for Norma.

Then we get to hear Mother arguing with Norman up at the house. Even with the rain, they’re pretty damn loud for Marion to hear them all the way down in the motel. Norman’s mother in this movie sure sounds different here, abrasive and insulting and not anyone you’d want to cross.

“I wish you could apologize for other people.”

It seems Mother should be apologizing to him; she’s the one who’s emasculating and insulting Norman, telling him he doesn’t have the guts to tell Marion she can’t come up to the house. For the uninitiated, it would seem she’s still alive, and why does she hate her own son so much? What could’ve happened to make her like that?

It’s interesting that I’m now rewatching this classic movie through the lens of being a die-hard Bates Motel fan. It’s different from seeing Psycho as a stand-alone horror movie without this frame of reference. The whole story seems richer, the simplest spoken words or actions can have much deeper meanings, the smallest background details take on a lot more significance, and I have a deep well of empathy for these characters as well. All this is a testament to the magic Bates Motel’s creators have wrought.

Back to the action. Norman’s sweet enough to bring Marion dinner, and they eat in what’s now a back parlor off the motel office. It’s rather moving how he’s still sweetly shy and awkward around a woman he’s attracted to. This isn’t hard to escape anyone’s attention: Marion’s “Hitchcock Blonde,” and must remind Norman of his mother on some level. This is likely part of the reason his “dark passenger” surfaces and takes the drivers’ seat, in a manner of speaking.
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“It’s a strange hobby. Curious. A man should have a hobby.”

Here’s an oft-pointed-out descrepency: the grown-up Norman says he could never stuff anything like a dog or a cat. Maybe his one experience stuffing Juno a long time ago was enough, and he never cared to repeat it again.

I love the dialogue between Norman and Marion during dinner. Again, it’s taken on so much more meaning now. Norman echos what Norma raved at the city council meeting: “We scratch and claw…but only at the air…and at each other.” He also mentions he was born into a trap, but he doesn’t mind it anymore. That could mean any number of things: the dark passenger that makes him black out, his life growing up, his relationship with Norma…likely it’s a tangle of all those and more.
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Marion makes the mistake of mentioning she’d never stand for the way Mother spoke to Norman. Another plot inconsistency: Norman claims his father died when he was five years old, not 17. But he could always be playing loose and fast with the truth about the past, just like Norma once did.

“I don’t hate her. I hate what she’s become.”

Norman also has a pretty good idea of what the inside of an insane asylum (or “mad house” as he calls it) is like. Possibly he or Mother experienced that first hand at some point. At this point, his speech and demeanor become more hard-edged and chilling. The articulated way everyone used to talk 50-some years ago makes that voice tone even more chilling while still managing to be subtle.

Adult Norman also has another hobby aside from taxidermy: spying on Room 1 through a hole in the wall usually concealed behind a painting. The hole in the motel room wall appears big enough to where it would be hard to miss, but I’ll let that detail pass.

After flushing a letter she started writing, Marion gets in the shower. This murder is scary as all hell because it jumps at you out of nowhere. There’s no creepy music leading up to it; one second she’s standing under the running water like usual, and a split second later she’s being stabbed to death. The harsh string score only starts the same second Mother yanks back the shower curtain.

“Oh god Mother! Blood!”

Now Norman has to clean up the mess left behind. I notice now how he’s careful to spread out the shower curtain to keep any blood from getting on the motel room carpet–also something he learned as a 17-year-old. As he cleans up the blood with a mop, I can’t help but hear what he once said: “What are we supposed to do? Soak this up with paper towels and spray cleaner?”

Marion’s corpse gets locked in the trunk of her car, and the whole thing gets driven into a swamp. What’s Norman thinking as he gets rid of all the evidence? About the fact he just had a black-out? Or does he now believe that Norma committed the murder? Maybe he’s unaware anymore that he blacks out. The possibilities could go in several different ways, and I guess I need to avoid spinning too much in circles here.

The rest of Psycho after Marion’s murder seemed slower and somewhat uneven to me when I watched it way back when. It’ll be interesting to see how that perception’s now changed. Marion’s sister Lila confronts Sam and demands to see her now-missing sister. Sam has no clue what became of Marion, and the two of them are immediately questioned by a private investigator who’s after the $40,000 Marion stole.

“Not even a hunch, just hope.”

The actress cast to play Lila was a great choice; she and Janet Leigh look similar enough that it’s believable they’re sisters. Anyway, Arbighast the private detective has some work ahead of him to track down Marion’s trail. Fifty-four years ago, there was no digitally connected data and information on people like we have today. It must have been easier to just disappear if you really wanted to. Arbighast’s work involves knocking on doors and asking people questions.

He eventually lands at the Bates Motel and starts talking to the ever-charming Norman. Arbighast soon enough catches Norman with an inconsistency to his initial story that no one had been by the motel for a couple of weeks.

“Old habits die hard.” A rather sad reminder to me that the Bates Motel has become a place that seems to be hiding from the world, and it’s hiding terrible secrets; Marion’s murder is just the latest of many. As Arbighast keeps up his increasingly narrowed-down questioning, he starts to remind me Sheriff Romero. He’s got the same stubborn pursuit of the truth once he gets a feeling something’s being kept a secret. Some character inspiration, perhaps?

Norman’s stammering and hesitancy start giving away more than he’d want, and here’s more of that awkwardness that I still find disarming and rather sweet. Norman Bates is the only killer who could ever have that effect. I think the funniest part of this whole exchange is when Arbighast asks him if he spent the night with Marion. I can imagine flashes of Mother’s outraged reaction flash briefly through Norman’s head, but he doesn’t betray much of a reaction other than looking a bit uncomfortable–subtle but effective.

Norman’s also gotten into the habit of changing the motel room sheets at night instead of at noon as Norma originally did. Unfortunately, that task’s forgotten as the idea of “being fooled by a woman” gets some of Norman’s dark side to wake up. He manages to get rid of Arbighast, telling him he needs a search warrant if he wants to investigate any further.

Arbighast fills Lila in on what he found out, and he’s going to look around further at the motel, search warrant be damned. He finds the office safe’s been emptied and Norman’s nowhere to be found.

I think the scene of Arbighast going into the Bates house is now one of my favorites in Psycho because it looks so close to how it is in Bates Motel. Whoever designed that set in such a spirit and in such tribute to the original did a phenomenal job!
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The investigator doesn’t get far before we see a woman come out of the kitchen and stab him to death on the stairs. It’s shot from above to keep the true identity of Mother a secret for a while longer. All we get to see briefly is the top of her head and the action of Arbighast getting stabbed. One thing it appears Norman lied about: no way in hell Mother’s an invalid.

That second murder doesn’t quite have the shock factor that Marion’s did, but it’s brutal all the same–especially with the ending image of Mother’s hand stabbing Arbighast repeatedly. If she has in fact gone truly crazy on a dangerous level, she might be having flashbacks of Keith Summers. Nothing like that’ll ever happen to her again; she’ll damn well make sure of it.

Sam and Lila soon realize Arbighast is missing, and Sam head out to the Bates Motel himself. He makes Lila stay behind at his hardware store and wait by the phone in case the investigator calls. To a 21st-century point of view, that might come across as a tad chavanistic, but remember that cell phones didn’t exist then either–so there’s a practical side to it.

Norman’s standing by the swamp and looking out over the corpse-hiding spot when Sam shows up. Sam doesn’t spot him, which is probably a good thing for Sam because the look on Norman’s face is chiling. I’d venture it’s safe to say Norman’s dark side was in control in those moments.

Lila and Sam visit Deputy Sheriff Chambers, who has the closest jurisdiction to the Bates Motel. Apparently Chambers and his wife are familiar with the Bates family and have been for the past 10 years, at first thinking Norman got married when Sam mentions “Mrs. Bates.” Seems like at least the Deputy’s wife thought it wasn’t good for Norman to be so alone. But that’s not the much-happier scenario, and now we get the kicker: Mother has been dead for over 10 years.

Once again, that news takes on a whole new level of meaning for me now. Norma might be physically gone, but her presence in still everywhere for Norman, to the point where she’s still alive in his deeply troubled mind–alive to the point where she’s melded with his dark side that originally made him black out. Norma’s words in “The Immutable Truth” that “We have the same soul” have come to pass–though in a very twisted, epically tragic way.

I don’t want to believe that Norman killed his mother out of malice or with any consciousness of what he did. Hell, any more I refuse to believe it! That is what it is. I also don’t buy the story from Deputy Chambers that Norma poisoned her lover and then killed herself along with him. She’d never in a million years do that and leave Norman behind. I think now it’s just a cover-up story Norman concocted to deliberately take the town gossips’ focus off of him.

My own ravings aside, we see a final argument between Norman and another voice that sure sounds like his mother–albeit an aged version of her who hates him. If she’s dead, then who the hell is that voice? That’s what we the audience are left to wonder as we see another overhead shot of him carrying her down the stairs and into the infamous basement.

“You must’ve seen an illusion, Sam.”

Talk of illusions and ghosts aside, Sam and Lila’s search for Marion has gone nowhere to speak of, so they check into the Bates Motel with plans of searching Room 1 themselves. The fact they don’t have any luggage sparks Norman’s suspicion, and they have the bad luck not to be given Room 1. Lila suggests that Norman may have stolen the $40,000 from Marion, with the intent of getting out from under the mostly-empty motel.

The clandestine search of Marion’s former room turns up a scrap of paper with part of the numerals 40,000. Lila thinks this is proof to go confront Norman, and Lila is foolish enough to think she can handle a sick old woman. Huge mistake.

Odd detail I noticed: Lila hikes up a steep grassy hill to the Bates house. Wouldn’t it have been a bit easier to take the stairs? She’d have been spotted either way if Norman happened to have seen her.

We get a look at Norma’s old bedroom–also awesomely true to the original in Bates Motel– and it appears like she’s never left. In the sense I’ve already talked about, she never has.

“This place is my whole world.” True on so many levels, Norman–for better and for worse. It’s just gotten to such a horrid, sad point that innocent people are losing their lives.

Another tie-in that made me very excited: Norman’s record player has Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony on it!! Just like he was listening to on his iPhone as a 17-year-old in “First You Dream, Then You Die.” I wanted to put this piece in “The Music of Bates Motel,” but it’s over 12 minutes long–a bit much for a playlist like those. I highly recommend getting and listening to it on your own, however.

Sam tries but falls short when it comes to distracting Norman long enough for Lila to search the house. Norman couldn’t have run faster for his mother than if she were still alive and the house was on fire. Lila has the temporary luck to be hiding in the basement stairwell, but she then gets the awful truth that Mrs. Bates is now nothing more than a mummified corpse. As if that weren’t bad enough, we’re treated to the unforgettable image of Norman in the full throes of madness–complete with wig, dress and butcher knife. Whatever his madness has mutated into, Norma’s spirit is now impossible to separate from it. Thanks to Sam, Lila narrowly escapes becoming his next victim.

The final truth comes out to the psychiatrist who meets with Norman. If Norman and Norma had revealed some of that truth so many years ago, would things’ve turned out any different? I guess we’ll never know. Now she makes up half of his mind and soul–and has for years.

“When reality came too close, threatened that illusion…he tried to be his mother…And now he is.”

So at the end of this iconic movie, Mother wins as she always dones. She becomes the dominant personality. According to the doctor, Norman’s personality (and soul, perhaps?) completely disappear. What can now become of him in this bleak future world that originated in the past? I know, that’s a little difficult to initially wrap your head around with the Bates Motel overarching story.

Like the melding of Norman’s soul with his mother’s, it’s also difficult to separate the influence of Bates Motel from the viewing of the original Psycho in my mind. Not that I mind it. Not in the slightest.