Psycho, by Albert W. Vogt III

I wonder how many people when they think of the movie Psycho (1960) bring to mind the 1998 remake starring Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche?  I hope not.  It is the original that had one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, that being when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is killed in the shower of her room at the Bates Motel.  You can thank the “Master of Suspense,” Psycho’s 1960 director, Alfred Hitchcock, for this moment’s notoriety.  For starters, it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable for film content of the time.  That is always fodder for memorable moments in movies.  What also makes the sequence stick out is the music.  Often in other movies or shows, whenever someone pantomimes a murder, they stick up their hand as if they are holding a knife, and while executing faux thrusts they squeal the soundtrack’s trademark, “Reereeree!”  If you are unfamiliar with this reference, perhaps the rest of this review will help fill you in on the particulars.

Psycho has a less gruesome, but no less salacious beginning.  Marion is having a lunch time rendezvous with her divorced lover from out of town, Sam Loomis (John Gavin).  Marion wants to get married, but Sam worries what little money he has left after alimony will be enough to support her.  With financial worries on her mind, Marion goes to her job as a secretary for a real estate firm.  Her boss has just sold a house to a client, who paid $40,000 in cash.  Marion’s job is to take it to the bank to deposit it, though she feigns a headache to take the rest of the day off of work.  She goes to neither the bank or home, but with the money in her possession she takes to the road.  Her goal is the town of Fairvale, where Sam lives.  She stops on the side of the road to sleep for the night, and in the morning a highway patrolman (Mort Mills) investigates her car.  Thought suspicious, the officer lets Marion go on her way.  Already paranoid, she decides to pull into a used car lot and trade in her car, a move that is observed by the same patrolman.  And, of course, it begins raining.  Such is the downpour that she decides that she must take shelter for the night, and this is what brings her to the Bates Motel.  Soon, its proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) emerges, apologizing for not being their sooner, and blaming his need to care for his mother at their house on the above hill.  He offers her some food, and she accepts before retiring for the evening.  Because her assigned room adjoins the motel office, Norman observes Marion changing through a peep hole in the wall.  Later, while she is in the shower, a shadowy figure emerges and slips unseen into the bathroom.  Soon, the curtain is torn back, and the outline of an old lady wielding a large knife can be seen before she commences to stabbing Marion to death.  The next thing we see is a shocked Norman running down from the house to investigate what mother has done, and then he proceeds to clean the anyway.  The final part of this is pushing Marion’s car, with her body and the money in the trunk, into a nearby swamp.  It is not until a week later that people come looking for Marion, and the first place they stop is the hardware store in Fairvale where Sam works.  The first to arrive is Marion’s sister Lila Crane (Vera Miles).  The other is a private investigator (PI) named Arbogast (Martin Balsam).  His search leads him to the Bates Motel and Norman, though the young man at first denies ever seeing Marion.  What betrays Norman is the log book, which contains Marion’s handwriting.  Sensing that Norman is not going to give straight answers, the PI demands to speak to the old lady he noticed silhouetted in the house.  At Norman’s insistence, Arbogast leaves, but only to tell Lila and Sam what has been uncovered, and to reveal his intentions to go back and speak to what he presumes to be Mrs. Bates.  He gets into the house, only to he himself stabbed to death by the same mysterious figure who killed Marion.  When Arbogast does not return to the hardware store as expected, Lila and Sam become suspicious.  They call the police, who send some sheriffs around the motel, but they turn up nothing out of the ordinary.  The next morning, Lila and Sam decide to take action on their own, checking into the hotel.  While Sam keeps Norman busy, Lila sneaks up to the house, intending to confront the mysterious old lady.  As she looks around, she finds an out of place setting, with older furnishings kept in good condition, but nothing matching what you would expect from a bachelor living with his aged mother.  Unfortunately, Norman figures out what is going on, and knocks Sam unconscious before heading back to the house to catch Lila.  She sees him coming and decides to try to hide, but is drawn to the cellar door that she had not noticed upon entrance.  Going into it, she finds what she believes to be an elderly lady, but turns out to be a rotting corpse.  With a shriek, she realizes this is Norman’s mother, just as Norman is about to kill her.  Luckily, she is saved by a revived Sam.  Norman is subdued and eventually taken into custody.  Once under lock and key, Norman is examined and the nature of his personality is revealed.  This is essentially where the film ends, other than the police pulling Marion’s car out of the swamp.

Psycho comes along at a pivotal moment in cinematic history.  It was a period of decline for the Production Code Administration (PCA), a Hollywood watchdog group that had been instituted in 1934.  It enforced a set of guidelines for making movies that the big-time studios all signed onto, and if they were not followed, your movie would not be distributed.  The text of these codes were written by a Jesuit priest named Father Daniel Lord, who was one of the founding members of the Legion of Decency, the inspiration for this blog.  One of those other founders was Joseph Breen, who became the first administrator of the PCA.  Between Breen and the Legion of Decency, there was a twenty-year period where Catholics exercised a great deal of control over films.  Citing health concerns, Breen stepped down and was replaced by the less strict, and decidedly less Catholic, Geoffrey M. Shurlock.  This was, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of the end for the Production Codes, though they struggled on until 1968 when they were replaced by the modern film rating system.  Movies like today’s underscored their limits, and Hitchcock excelled in getting around them.  From this point on, cinematic productions start to inch closer to the “anything goes” content of today’s output.  I have not seen the remake of Psycho, but the original featured nudity (though nothing is actually seen) and violence to an almost unheard of degree.  The argument for doing so is always that they are necessary to the plot, and if you see this film you will find it positively tame by today’s standards.  While I do not love the content, it would be nice if there was some kind of restraint practiced by modern directors when filming similar scenes.  You do not need to see everything to understand a murder is taking place, and in some ways what you do not see adds to the suspense.  This is not simply a Catholic issue. Some images simply do not need to be fully formed in our minds.

As these things go, Psycho is a masterpiece.  I do not know as though I would recommend it given the content.  However, if you want to see a more modern film that delves into not only how it is made, but also the mind of the Master of Suspense in making it, see Hitchcock (2012).  You get the idea of Psycho without being trapped in a horror film and all of its questionable material.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s