AFI Countdown Challenge #18: Psycho

I’ve heard a lot of stories about Psycho, so let’s get an inconsequential one out of the way to open up the column this time around.  In one of the early season episodes of The Simpsons, the producers had a dentist character and they wanted a special guest star who could sound menacing.  They asked both Anthony Hopkins and Clint Eastwood, and both of those actors declined.  Then they asked Anthony Perkins, Norman Bates himself, and he said yes.  Sadly, Perkins died just before recording was to be done, so a regular cast member played the dentist.

But it does go to show just how much Perkins is associated with this single role.

But here’s a question of my own:  can Psycho really surprise a modern audience?  To listen to my parents, the real shocker comes not so much with the famous shower scene so much as the fact that actress Janet Leigh was a big star at the time and she was just killed off out of nowhere.  But today, the shower scene is the most famous moment in the film, parodied many times over, with Bernard Hermann’s screeching score playing over it as a shadowy figure that looks like a very tall old woman repeatedly stabs Leigh’s Marion Crane in the shower, blood/chocolate syrup running down the drain and ending with Marian’s lifeless eye looking into the camera.  It’s a masterful moment, but it’s one the audience should probably know is coming at this point.  So, can it still shock?

I don’t have an answer for that, truth be told.  I know I wasn’t surprised the first time I saw Psycho from start to finish.  I’d seen the scene itself many times over, so seeing it within the context of the film does change a few things.  I’m not sure why even now what made Janet Leigh what my dad called a “big star” as her filmography outside of Psycho doesn’t seem to be anything I recognize.  I know more about her daughter Jaime Lee Curtis than I do about Janet.  But regardless of how big she was then or now, it could be easy to be mistaken about who the star of the film is.  The film opens not with Norman or his creepy motel and creepier mother, but with Marion Crane, lounging around after sex with a divorced boyfriend, a hot day judging from the fans and sweat, and then her spur-of-the-moment decision to steel $40,000 in cash from her employer and go on the run.  We see her worry about being caught, paranoid about every little thing, and hardly acting all that innocent.  She’s suspicious to everyone she meets after she steels the money until, around the half hour mark, she finally arrives at the infamous Bates Motel.

As for Norman, he’s weird and off-putting, but not someone she must feel safer here than she did anywhere else because she relaxes enough to take that infamous shower, even as Norman spies on her through a peephole.  This is the sort of film where you just know Hitchcock would have shown more if 1960-era censors would have allowed him to, like he did with the later Frenzy.  Heck, this was apparently the first major American film to feature a toilet in the bathroom, and all it’s used for is to flush evidence.

As it is, anyone not knowing about the shower scene and Marion’s death would be forgiven for thinking Psycho referred to her and not to Norman for the first act of the film.  And even if she’s dead and gone, the rest of the film unfolds as a result of her disappearance.  There’s a fairly low bodycount for a horror movie here if that is what Psycho is and I am inclined to think as much.  Besides Marion, there’s a private detective looking for her and that’s about it.  Mama Bates has been dead for quite some time, and we learn Norman is probably responsible for two other missing women, but considering Hitchcock, for all he is considered the Master of Suspense, only made two films that might legitimately be considered horror movies (the other being The Birds), what we see here is rather tame considering Norman might very well be the first cinematic slasher villain.  He puts on a dress and an old lady’s wig and then starts stabbing people, waking up later and not realizing he is responsible for what happened.

As it is, everything that happens after Marion’s death is the result of her death.  Her sister Lila won’t stop looking for her, evidence of the theft is used to determine where she was, and her general behavior up until her murder is what probably helped people find her general location more than anything else.  Norman is a creep, but he’s also not responsible for what he did.  That was his mother.  That he is also physically his mother is beside the point.  And while I have noted in the past that most Hitchcock movies just end, Psycho‘s last few minutes do have a somewhat maligned ending where a psychiatrist type comes out and explains Norman’s multiple personality syndrome.  It’s a bit clunky, and it might have worked better if it wasn’t there and we were just told Norman had issues, but instead we get an origin story for the guy who ends the film sitting alone in a room, his mother’s voice in his head, smiling his creepiest smile for the camera.

We could argue that Psycho proves that crime doesn’t pay or karma comes back for all the thieves and murders out there, but I think we should consider the title.  It’s about people going mentally off the metaphorical rails, where a paranoid woman would be so worried about cops catching her for theft that she doesn’t notice the creepy guy with the taxidermy hobby might not be someone you want to rent a room for the night from.  We get a man, a Mama’s Boy from the looks of things, who so disassociated himself from one crime that his other side commits other crimes without his knowledge.  And we get a good reason to consider taking baths.

NEXT UP:  We’re skipping back to 1951 for an adventure and romance on a jungle river with The African Queen.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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