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Getting Personal with Psycho (1960)

Writing about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is about as unnecessary as pointing to the sun on a blistering July afternoon and stating, “That’s why it’s so hot.” Almost everyone has seen Psycho, and many have written about it, so unless you can discover something new at the bottom of a swamp or inside a stuffed owl, you’re probably engaging in a futile exercise. Yet my friend Carl, host of The Movie Palace podcast, is currently having a “Summer of Psycho,” devoting eight podcast episodes to all things Psycho. I was pleased to be a guest on one of those episodes, discussing the behind-the-scenes aspects of the film, but I’m not really going to discuss much of that here. (But I do hope you will check out each of the eight episodes, the first of which is now available.) I’m going to go in a slightly different - and personal - direction.


(I know it seems ridiculous to post a spoiler warning for a film that just turned 60, but so be it.)

I had been an Alfred Hitchcock fan for at least a decade before I ever saw Psycho. I certainly knew about the film, but as far as I can remember, it never came to my local small-town theater for a re-release, and I never saw it in my local TV listings. I didn’t encounter it until the early days of VHS rentals, probably around 1982 or so. By that time, I’d seen a number of horror/slasher movies, so much of Psycho seemed rather tame, but two scenes got my attention: the shower scene (obviously) and the big reveal just before Norman is apprehended.

Of course, the shower scene had been spoiled for me, not just in the telling, but through countless imitations. (The first I can remember is from the Mel Brooks 1977 comedy High Anxiety.) In subsequent viewings of Psycho, I’ve always tried to imagine what it was like for audiences in 1960 to see this film. Not only was this a brutal, shocking murder, it also did away with the film’s star and main character at about the halfway point.

Forget John Dies at the End; Marion Dies in the Middle. You just didn’t do that. This is Janet Leigh, a big star! “I paid to see Janet Leigh, and there she is, draped across the tub, her eye staring at me, saying, ‘How do you like my performance? Looks natural, doesn’t it?’” But I can’t really remember anyone spoiling the Norman/Norma reveal near the end of the film. Visually this is a slower moment and for some viewers, possibly more disturbing than the shower scene.

During the shower scene, you really don’t have time to breathe (or catch your breath, if you can do that). Everything happens so quickly, there’s no time to process each individual moment. (After all, it’s 78 shots in 45 seconds.) But in the “big reveal,” while it moves slower, it also allows the viewer to process (still rather quickly) the progression of events: Lila touches the shoulder of Mrs. Bates, the body turns to reveal the corpse (and especially the grinning skull), Lila screams, knocks the basement’s single light, causing it to swing, creating a combination of light (revelation) and darkness (fear) in a way that few have equaled since.

And then Norman enters, wearing the dress and raising the knife. I’ve always thought it takes Norman a little too long to get down to the basement, but perhaps that was the amount of time it took him to hear Lila’s scream, pinpointing exactly where she was. Lila is frozen in either horror, confusion, or both. If we think about it, this moment takes us back to the scene just a few minutes earlier in Norman’s room where Lila picks up a book (We can’t see its title), opens it up, and looks at a certain page (probably a photo, probably pornographic) with disgust. She might have viewed Norman/Norma with disgust as well, but the danger is too urgent for that. Hitchcock shows us that horrific moment on her face, but then Sam appears, both to disarm and expose Norman/Norma.

Let’s stop for just a moment. Think back to the first time you saw James Whale’s 1931 version of Frankenstein. Specifically think of the first time we clearly see Karloff as the monster. He turns to face the camera, then we have a close-up, then an extreme close-up (only the last two pictured above). Although I highly doubt that anyone today would scream at that moment, some audiences in 1931 did. I was just three shots, and they were very limited, but they were very effective. They brought the audience closer and closer to the monster, whether they wanted to or not.

There’s a similar triple-play going on in Psycho’s “big reveal,” but it’s far more pervasive than the three consecutive shots of Karloff in Frankenstein. The turning of Mrs. Bates evokes a scream from Lila (and probably from most of the original audience), wonderfully heightened by the Bernard Herrmann score. Of course this is both a shock and a reveal. It’s far more than what we’ve come to call a “jump scare” because it’s not a cheap device. It really means something: Mrs. Bates is dead (and has been for awhile, eh?) and didn’t commit these crimes. Yet questions begin to race through our minds in this brief moment, amidst the screams and the music: How did this happen? Why is she here? Why is she (sort of) preserved? And how the @#$%& did she turn around? Lila barely touched her shoulder!

But we don’t have time to answer our mind’s rapid-fire questions. Here comes a woman. It’s woman with a knife long enough to carve your Thanksgiving turkey, and she’s headed your way, Lila! This is the woman who killed the beautiful Marion, who had, let us recall, determined to do the right thing and give the money back. This is the woman who killed the detective, watching him flailing backwards down the stairs. But wait a second. This isn’t a woman, it’s Norman friggin’ Bates! (It’s even on the license plate, NFB 418.) How did… What could’ve made him… Wha??? All of this was, no doubt, running through the minds of people in the audience in 1960. Any one of these elements is shocking enough, but to have all three of these aspects thrown at you in a rapid-fire barrage was simply bewildering. I wish I could’ve been there to see it.

On the podcast episode (which should become available at the end of July), Carl and I discuss the famous “explanation” by the psychologist (a superb performance by Simon Oakland), so I’ll leave that for you to discover. The scene probably isn’t even necessary these days, or at least not as well-defined. It’s really not such a big deal now. But the world was different in 1960.

Psycho had to have gotten a lot of people thinking and talking about many things. Again, I wish I could’ve been there to see it happen, or at least to be standing around the water coolers of America the day after people had seen the film. I doubt there was another film people talked about as much until The Exorcist came on the scene 13 years later.

If you saw Psycho in 1960, I’d love to hear what you thought of it at the time. The only time I’ve seen the film on the big screen was at a Noir City film festival a couple of years ago, where I’m sure every person (or nearly every person) in the audience had seen the film at least once. Nobody screamed, nobody gasped. It was just a theater filled with people watching a movie. It was more than that, but less than it probably was in 1960. Again, I wish I could’ve been there on June 16, 1960.

The only thing I can compare to what I believe that experience must have been like was watching Blue Velvet (1986), yet the shocking moments of that film are interspersed throughout the film. Because I saw it when it came out, it’s impact on me is far greater than that of Psycho. Whenever I rewatch Blue Velvet, it’s always with a sense of great trepidation. Had I seen it in 1960, Psycho probably would have gripped me the same way. You can still find plenty of people who refuse to take showers because of it. Me, I’m more frightened of taxidermy.

I’d love to hear your Psycho stories, or stories of any film that affected you like Psycho did for so many people. Please share, even if you’re not quite yourself today.

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