How do you explain Norman Bates to someone who has never seen Psycho? ¬†Do you describe him as a serial killer? ¬†Probably you don’t. You can’t watch the Hitchcock masterpiece without feeling badly for Norman. ¬†Hitchcock put down so many cinematic rules with this one film it and it alone could be used to TEACH filmmaking.
Hitchcock always said that he knew the audience would somehow be on Norman’s side as he cleaned up the blood, mopped out the bathroom, wrapped Marion up and stuffed her in the trunk. ¬†He knew that the devil is in the details, and that the idea that she was murdered at all couldn’t compete with the suspense of watching Norman try to erase any evidence of the crime, up to and including his sinking of her car, and everything that came with her.
There is also the proven Hitchcock theory that it is far more suspenseful to not play the game of who done it, but rather, why and how did they do it? That makes a film like Psycho so utterly suspenseful. We know what happened to Marion. We know that Norman is lying or covering up. We know that he could strike again at any time.
Hitchcock also threw audiences when he killed off the star of his movie, the one we’ve just spent a good, long while getting to know. ¬†Marion wasn’t our heroine. ¬†She was just another victim.
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is such a complex portrayal of frustration, loneliness, despair, violence, and yes, psychotic behavior. ¬†Perkins was cast as the sullen youth, not uncommon in 1960. ¬†You understand why Marion softens towards him and why she is so trusting of him.
Because Hitchcock was far more interested in the darker elements of human nature, particularly having to do with the male’s relationship to the women in his life. ¬†But it is really the mother/son relationship, and how that settles itself around a romantic relationship with tarts. This is a constant theme in Hitchcock’s films, like The Birds or North by Northwest – but it is never so pronounced as it is in Psycho, where the psychobabble of the day helps to explain why Norman is the way he is.
Some say those final explanatory moments take away from the film’s genius; do we really need some dude explaining about the Oedipus complex? But, of course, we do need it because now it is part of the film’s DNA.
As good as Perkins is, it’s hard to decide who is the bigger star – Bates, or the film’s composer, Bernard Herrmann. ¬†The Psycho score may be the most famous of all time, outlasting even Chariots of Fire, Star Wars and Jaws. I can’t hear the score without wanting to watch this film, even if I’ve already seen it upwards of 30 times.
I’m not going to go on and on about digital quality or DVD quality or anything like that. Whether it looks great or not isn’t why I keep going back to watch it. What draws me in is the sheer artistry of its director. That, and those opening scenes with Janet Leigh, her boss and his millionaire sleazebag who get taken for a ride. All of those great scenes with the cop on the road. I love when she brings her money into the bathroom and peels off enough bills to buy her new used car.
I love how Leigh tries to sound nervous and calm at the same time, how her high heels clack clack clack on the pavement. I love the way she pulls out her driver’s license to show the cop and then eases back on the highway. And I love the way the rain pounds her windshield, leaving her no other choice but to head for where the lights are blinking through the wet darkness, to Bates Motel.
And Norman is so kind. He is concerned about her. I love how his hand moves towards one room but then instinctively goes for Cabin 1 when he knows she’s in some kind of trouble.
All of the funny things Marion does, like wrapping the money is newspaper is so mesmerizing. And then the great, sad scene between Norman and Marion where she “suggests oh so delicately” that his mother could be “put somewhere.” And Norman gets defensive. All of this over a humble dinner of bread and butter.
Norman is “aroused” by her. And then Marion meets her ultimate fate in one of the most memorable scenes ever put to film.
The film is still good after that – creepy and thrilling. But it is those first moments that make it what it is: a timeless piece of rich, dense, fulfilling cinema. You really don’t get better.
Although Psycho was nominated for four Oscars, Anthony Perkins was not nominated for Norman Bates. Janet Leigh received a supporting nod, and they Academy saw fit to nominate Hitch for Director.