“She just goes a little mad sometimes — we all go a little mad sometimes.”
A secretary (Janet Leigh) on the lam with $40,000 of her boss’s money stops at a motel on her way to see her fiance (John Gavin), and becomes acquainted with the motel’s shy, twitchy owner, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). When she’s brutally murdered in the shower by Norman’s elderly mother, Leigh’s fiance, sister (Vera Miles), and a private detective (Martin Balsam) all show up at the Bates Motel to investigate her mysterious disappearance.
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary labels this classic Hitchcockian thriller a “manipulative sex and horror masterpiece”, calling it “far and away the most frightening film ever made” — but he notes with a sad caveat that today’s audiences “usually aren’t scared at all.” Indeed, certain elements of Psycho have been so often mimicked and/or over-analyzed that it’s difficult to truly appreciate the impact the film must have had upon 1960 viewers, who were unfamiliar with either the film’s blatant McGuffins (Leigh doesn’t remain the protagonist for long) or the shocking identity twist at the end. Regardless, today’s film fanatics can still watch and appreciate the masterful techniques used by Hitchcock, who consistently foils our expectations and keep us on the edge of our seats — and not just during the infamous “shower scene”.
Anthony Perkins — who, for better or for worse, remained inextricably linked to his “Norman Bates” identity throughout the remainder of his life — gives the most impressive, carefully nuanced performance in the film. He was intentionally cast against type (in the original novel, Norman is middle-aged, pudgy, and balding) to heighten the sexual tension felt between Norman and Marion (Leigh), and to make him more sympathetic to viewers — an essential move, given that Marion’s unexpected death leaves us suddenly having to “relate” to Norman instead. Leigh and Vera Miles are well-cast as the similar-looking Crane sisters (one tragically doomed, the other tenaciously persistent), while Martin Balsam makes an effective private eye. Perhaps the most audacious “character” in the film, however, is Bernard Herrmann’s screeching, all-strings score — it’s nearly impossible to separate this infamous music from the film as a whole.
P.S. The blatant sexual undertones Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano incorporate throughout the film are truly ahead of their time: from the very first scene — in which busty, unmarried Janet Leigh lies post-coitally on a motel bed in a form-fitting bra and slip — to the nude “shower scene”, to Norman’s obvious sexual perversions, we’re both titillated and disturbed.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates
- Janet Leigh as Marion Crane
- Vera Miles as Marion’s concerned sister, Lylah
- Martin Balsam as a no-nonsense private eye
- The infamous, oft-studied “shower scene”
- Many truly frightening thrills and chills
- John Russell’s b&w cinematography
- Saul Bass’s opening titles
- Joseph Stefano’s clever, literate adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel
- Bernard Herrmann’s instantly recognizable, all-strings score
Definitely — this one should be at the top of any film fanatic’s must-see list. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3 (1988).
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)