We already know all the secrets of Psycho.
God bless those first few audiences, clueless to what Alfred Hitchcock had in store for them, when they wandered into their favorite—undoubtedly sold-out theaters—for its maiden run. Can you imagine how it felt?
There had never been anything like it. Heck, there had never been anything even marketed like it. Hitchcock himself worked up flyers and press release kits vowing that theater personnel wouldn’t allow anyone entrance once a showing had started. He capped this with further instructions, begging viewers not to reveal any parts of the plot after they’d seen it (fifty-five years before the no-spoiler social media solidarity of The Force Awakens).
Rarely had a thriller skated such a thin surface into horror, its star-powered cast and intelligent script rarer still. And never before had viewers invested so much into a character—into a story—to have the rug pulled out from underneath them so quickly and so unexpectedly.
Can you imagine being there for the first time, seeing it on the big screen for the first time? Of course you can. You’ve already replayed the shrilling, stabbing weeenkkk, weeenkkk, weeenkkk sound effect through your cerebral cortex a good half-dozen times by now.
But can you imagine watching it and finding God somewhere in the middle of the Bates Motel?
Let’s take a stab at it.
Hitchcock’s orginal notice banning latecomers from showing up at Psycho was featured on some of the film’s movie posters
Poll any number of horror directors and ask them to name the most influential films that inspired their careers. Ninety-nine out of a hundred will have Psycho at the top of their list. It spawned not only dozens of imitators, but—for better or worse—singlehandedly launched the slasher genre. But Psycho transcended the simple stab to slab formula, mixing a smart script with dynamic performances, haunting cinematography and a chilling score in a perfect storm of tension and terror. It became not only the quintessential kill flick, but a monolith of American cinema, often heralded as Alfred Hitchcock’s finest work. Ironically, although nominated for four Academy Awards, it never won a single Oscar. Still it’s nearly impossible to imagine what filmmaking would be without it.
And yet, at its heart, it’s a very, very basic production. Hitchcock reportedly chose to shoot in black and white because he wanted to make it look simple, even cheap, like the exploitation thrillers of the day (the contrasting palette brilliantly reflecting the duality of each of the main characters). There’s chocolate syrup instead of stage blood, long dialogue-free pauses, and lots of wide angled open frames. And it all builds a tension that would be hard to cut even with Norman Bates’ sharpest knife.
The plot is equally straightforward, and, as such, creates a perfectly plausible realism that leaves you sympathetic to its characters and wary of just how easily (God forbid) their story could become your own.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has tired of her relationship with hardware store owner Sam Loomis (John Gavin ) which seems to be going no further than the closest seedy hotel for yet another mid-day tryst. She’s equally bored with her job in the local real estate office, desperately longing to flee her self-imposed prison for an island paradise of solitude.
When her boss hands her a forty-thousand dollar house payment and orders her to deposit it, she takes the money and runs. Spooked after a routine traffic stop, Marion trades her car and gets back on the open road before exhaustion and paranoia get the best of her.
She stops at the tiny, ominously vacant Bates Motel (in an ironic parallel to her usual hour-long hotel stays) to get out of the rain and formulate a plan.
The hotel’s proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), invites her to dine with him in his gloomy hillside house that backs up to the property.
Unfortunately for Norman, his invalid (but surprisingly loud) mother won’t allow it, insisting that he not bring the undoubtedly wanton traveler into her home. Instead, the pair share sandwiches and conversation in the motel’s parlor, swapping insight into their internal struggles as a flock of forever frozen, forever silent birds (the product of Norman’s taxidermy hobby) keep an unsettling watch.
Norman presses Marion to expound upon her reasons for running, but when she pushes him to talk about his tumultuous relationship with his mother, he gets defensive. As Marion departs for bed, she resolves to return home and admit her crime, hoping her boss will forgive her. Meanwhile, Norman removes a picture from the parlor wall, revealing a peep hole he’s carved which looks directly in on the bathroom of Marion’s cabin. He watches her undress and enter the shower.
And moments later, one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history occurs, catching everyone (especially Marion) off-guard as Norman’s “mother” ends Marion’s life with a foot-long carving knife.
It is arguably one of the most “oh no they didn’t” moments ever in a film and it comes before you’ve even gotten to the halfway mark. A tension-filled chess match follows as a pushy P.I., Loomis and Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles) visit the Bates Motel to confront Norman for answers…especially once they find out his mother has been dead and buried for ten years (!).
Multifaceted, Psycho plays as a classic Hitchcock-ian tale of “wrong place, wrong time” (ala North by Northwest), a twisted whodunit and a karmic morality play. Much like the victims of the 1950’s Tales from the Crypt comics, Marion—however likable she seems on the surface—pays the price for her indiscretion with a violent, unexpected end.
Marion runs instead of facing her problems, just as Jonah did when he tried to avoid God’s plan of evangelism for the Ninevites. Despite God’s command to go to Nineveh, Jonah ran the other way, boarding a freighter for the more palatable shores of Tarshish, wagering that its sons and daughters would be more receptive to his message. But a storm tosses him into the middle of the sea, landing him inside the belly of a great fish where he spends the next three days lamenting his decision (in the same way Marion’s storm led her to the Bates Motel to wrestle with the guilt of her theft). When Jonah finally concedes to follow God’s plan, the fish spits him onto dry land and his eventual trip to Nineveh leads to the conversion of the city’s entire population (though Jonah still resents the dreaded Ninevites). But Fate pens a much unhappier ending to Marion’s story, as it turns out the Bates Motel shares the same departure policy as the Hotel California: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.
Psycho reminds us of the paving plan for good intentions, and all too often, the truth that there is only one destination for that road if we don’t turn back in time. Conversely, the story of Jonah reminds us that with God, there is still hope to right our ship, even when all that’s left of it are the driftwood toothpicks for our whale-sized obstacles. If we are willing to chart the course he’s plotted, our efforts will help bring about His glory, even if we grumble about the results.
And just like Psycho, there may never be an award for our efforts. But who cares? The Director will still be remembered for His greatness.
After all, it’s His picture anyway.
We’re just blessed with a role.