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The revered place Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho occupies in the cinematic pantheon is easy to understand. It is a highly unconventional bit of storytelling. As the mediocre 2012’s Hitchcock – about the making of the film – takes great pains to remind everyone, it’s awfully strange for a heroine to be killed off so close to the start of the film, as Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane is.
Crane’s murder in the shower of Room 1 of the Bates Motel, perhaps the most iconic scene in movie history, both pushed the boundaries of sensibility at the time – an unmarried blonde bombshell disrobing in the shower? I do declare, I have the vapors – and established an entire genre that, for better or worse, still enjoys a sizable foothold in the film industry, that of the slasher flick.
I mention all this because these seem like the things I should start with in this piece and are also probably the least interesting things I can think of that are related to the actual film. Interesting cinematic history? Sure. A bore if you want to talk about the movie itself, though.
Sure, Psycho is a seminal film in the horror genre. And, yes, it is the defining work of Hitchcock’s career. Vertigo might carry the critical cachet, but it is Psycho that is more broadly recognized and adored. It's the first film you think of when you hear his name.
Anyway, this isn’t why Psycho is still so resonant. Its plot twists and turns have been laid bare for 55 years – well known enough to be common knowledge even if you have never seen the film. As for its risqué moments, well, the world has moved on hasn’t it? An unwed woman wearing – gasp – just a bra and consorting with a man in a hotel room then later getting stabbed to death in a different hotel room is all so quaint by 21st century standards.
It is Norman Bates himself that burrows under your skin. He is both a sympathetic figure and an almost supernatural force. It’s no wonder that his spiritual successors – Leatherface and Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers – amplify both traits. Each of them has a tragic backstory and a penchant for pseudo-immortality. It is Bates, though, that remains both the original and most chilling distillation of this character archetype. He is not so easily laughed off despite his apparent meekness.
Hitchcock’s juxtaposition of Bates and his victim is, of course, intentional. Marion Crane is no innocent. The whole reason she ends up at the Bates Motel in the first place is because she decided to walk out of her employer’s office in Phoenix with $40,000 one Friday afternoon and never look back. Strange and brazen as such an act would be even today (this is one of the few plot points in Psycho that doesn’t seem quite so quaint), consider that that sum is the modern-day equivalent of more than $300,000. Marion Crane is an impulse crook to be sure, but she is also an opportunist. This is her chance to take control of her life -- to drive off to her boyfriend Sam Loomis with a sizable chunk of change -- and she seizes it. Would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for that meddling homicidal kid-mom.
If we’re not exactly endorsing her actions, we are at least meant to understand Crane’s motivations perfectly, and to empathize with them. Even here, Hitchcock seems to be toying with preconceptions. The sinning female – the one punished brutally in so many slasher films since Psycho – is a stale trope by now, but, at least in this case, Crane seems to represent a subtle challenge to gender norms. After all, were Crane a man, wouldn’t it feel more natural to admire her thievery?
Her awkward interchanges on the road to the Bates Motel -- first with a police officer and then with a used car salesman – cement her as an absolutely lousy thief, but, again, an easily accessible one. As she draws closer to the motel, she imagines conversations about her disappearance. She bites her lip nervously as she hears more and more voices. And then she cracks a satisfied smile (one not unlike the one Norman cracks when her car glubs-glubs-glubs to the bottom of the marsh on Bates property).
The thrill of victory and the rush of getting away with her crime wash over her face. The Bates Motel, though it might be off the beaten path, would seem to be the ideal place for a one-person celebration. She’ll have to wrap her wad of cash in a Los Angeles newspaper, but, at least for the weekend, she is in the clear.
If the Bates Motel is a false sanctuary for Marion Crane, then it is an actual one for Norman. He laments the lack of business he has seen since the highway was moved, but in reality he has been able to sink further in to his split personalities, and to prey on the few isolated victims who are unlucky enough to find their way to him.
Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the events of Psycho is that the only reason Norman is even discovered is because another criminal – a petty, poor one – becomes one of his victims. Even his final apprehension seems a leap of faith by Sam Loomis and Marion’s sister Lila, who decide to head out to the Motel after losing touch with Arbogast, the P.I. in their employ who first questions Bates.
Without Marion Crane and her stolen $40,000 there is every reason to think Norman carries on murdering women who arouse the Norman half of his personality and disgust the Mother half. His circumstances are perfect, and his motives are so aberrant as to be missed entirely by most rational human beings.
It is easy to think like Marion Crane. It is utterly impossible, if you are a rational human being, to put yourself in the headspace of her killer. Norman Bates does not represent a standard deviation. This is the terror of Norman, and of the real-life figure who inspired him, Ed Gein, a man who, when he was finally arrested – apparently after five years of grave-robbing on top of two murders – was in possession of everything from a belt made of nipples to a wastebasket fashioned out of human skin.
Neither Gein nor Norman are masterminds. In fact, their apparent intellectual and physical weakness probably works in their favor. Norman is mild-mannered and attentive to his mother to a fault. You could probably take him in a fistfight.
“I think I must have one of those faces you can’t help believing,” says Norman in one moment.
In another one, empathizing with Marion, he tells her: “We’re all in our private traps … and we can never get out.”
This is not the type of person who inspires mortal terror. This is a sympathetic weirdo who you can talk to, and because of that he can operate with near impunity, until dumb luck intervenes. For his unsuspecting victims, this is their true powerlessness. They realize it far too late. Hitchock, jarringly but cleverly, puts the victim in the lower half of the frame as they are shoved down the stairs or knifed to death in the shower.
It’s not the act that is quite so horrifying, but the person carrying it out and the switch inside him that has so suddenly been flipped.