Re-Watchterpiece Theater: Psycho (1960)

Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. I recently discovered a really incredible theater in my area that specializes in showing the classics. This month, they’ve dedicated a weekend to a few Alfred Hitchcock films. Included was a midnight showing of his thriller/horror classic, Psycho (1960), a film which I’ve seen several times, but never on the big screen. It feels odd to say so, but spoilers follow if you’ve never seen the movie. 

The First (Few) Viewings
I have a very long history with Psycho. My first viewing was on Halloween in 1986, at age 10, when my mother introduced me to it as “real horror”. It was her way of combatting the Freddy-Jason style slasher films that were so rampant during my childhood. I was 10 years old, so my insights were basically mush. I wasn’t particularly familiar with classic films, and thus much of it came off as hokey. I did, however, think that the shot of Mother Bates and the shower scene were pretty cool.

I re-watched it for the first time in 2005 or so when I was trying to watch as many of the AFI Top 100 films as possible. Mostly, the second viewing verified for me that the Mother Bates and shower scenes were really great, eye-popping scenes, and I also picked up a lot more on Hitchcock’s hilarious Freudian vibe. Then a year and a half ago, I gave it another go and picked up a bit more on the methodology Hitchcock used to build suspense, although it was only through mild traces. What did I pick up on the fourth viewing?

Like Norman Bates gazing upon a nude Marion Crane, let's look a bit deeper.

The Re-Watch
I started the Re-Watchterpiece series because I’m a firm believer that multiple viewings, particularly of good or great films, can give you a much deeper appreciation for what the film’s makers were trying to accomplish. There’s always something that viewers will miss in just one viewing, if not several things. Never has this been more true than in my fourth viewing of Psycho. There was a slew of aspects I’d missed through the first three viewings, and all of these aspects verify why Psycho is an unquestioned classic.

Right away, Hitchcock hits you with a healthy dose of foreshadowing. In the opening scene, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) are wrapping up a nooner at a seedy hotel that rents by the hour. Marion laments that “hotels of this sort aren’t interested in you when you come in, but when your time is up”, clearly a reference to later in the film, when Marion’s time is indeed “up” at a hotel. It continues when she says “Sam, this is the last time”. His reply–”Yeah? For what?” Later, the infamous shower scene is foreshadowed when Marion is frantically driving away from her crime and a pursuing highway patrolman, when a torrential downpour forces her into the Bates Motel.

The car sequence during Marion’s drive away from Phoenix, into California, is a spectacular lesson in suspense building and subtlety. Hitchcock filmed it using two points of view–either looking back on Marion and what was behind her, or looking out through the windshield at what was in front of her. Seeing Marion’s reactions to the pursuing patrolman, and the tension on her face, builds a slow burn. It’s all coupled with voiceovers of her descent into guilt over her crime and a poignant score from Bernard Hermann. And just as her guilt overcomes her, just as she’s dissolved into full-on madness, the audience is treated to the windshield point of view where the torrential downpour completely obscures the road. Just as Marion’s future becomes unclear, just as her own mind is turning to rubbish, so too is our view of everything. This is especially important viewed through the prism of first-time viewers in 1960. For the first 40 minutes or so, viewers operated under the assumption that Crane was their protagonist, the person the film would revolve around. But then the view goes blurry through the thunderstorm, and Crane emerges a secondary character to Norman Bates.

A typical POV on Bates, from beneath, complete with shadows and birds of prey

Bates (Anthony Perkins) is one of the greatest villains in movie history. Perkins makes it that way through tremendous execution of Bates’ sketchy, creeper behavior. Hitchcock aided tremendously in the process by the way he filmed Bates. The camera angles on him were consistently beneath him, looking up, allowing Bates to cut an imposing, dangerous figure. I would speculate that Perkins was cast in the role thanks to his natural height, 6’2″, which helped further the effect. Moreover, during particularly tense scenes–for instance, the dinner scene leading to the shower scene–Hitchcock employed his deft noir touch by capturing shadows surrounding Bates.

Hitchcock also uses symbolism, specifically using birds (more birds later), to hammer home Bates’ inherent bloodthirst. The dinner scene takes place in the motel’s backroom office, which is decorated with stuffed dead birds. Crane (the prey) is seated next to a songbird, one of the most meek of the species. Bates (the predator), however, is seated next to a menacing, shadowy owl, stuffed as if in mid-flight approaching prey. The owl, of course, is a predatory bird. Moreover, as Bates becomes aroused by Crane’s beauty, we see him reaching out to put his hand on one of the birds. He then begins to stroke the neck for a minute or so–more of Hitchcock’s hilariously unsubtle sexual symbolism.

The drain becomes the eye during an ingenious transition

What follows is the shower scene. The shower scene may be the most perfect scene in movie history. Having set the sexual tension high in the previous scene–and properly wrapping it around Mother Bates with some of Norman’s dinner dialogue–Hitchock continues to push the motif with Bates leering through a peephole in the wall at Crane, as she undresses. She then begins her shower and we’re teased with glimpses of her body, and her smiling face as she washes herself. By now, the camera has shifted to an in-shower point of view. Using the rule of thirds, the sexually ripe Crane is in the foreground, the curtain supplies a hazy/murky view in the middle, and the bathroom wall and door compose the background. Then, in a fabulously subtle jump scare, we see the door through the murky curtain begin to open and a shadowy figure emerges. The curtain flies open, revealing what the viewer is led to believe is Mother Bates but is in actuality Norman, with his Oedipal issues on full display. Then he proceeds to violate Crane with a very phallic knife (again… Hitchcock and the sexual symbolism, and it always makes me laugh). Wrapping up the scene, we’re treated to an editorial wonder. It begins with a tracking shot of the blood running down the drain, a close-up of the drain, and then a spectacular spinning fade in which Crane’s dead eye has replaced the drain. That scene is as good as filmmaking gets.

Lastly, just to revisit the bird motif for a second, they’re all over the place. Obviously, there are the birds during the dinner scene. There are also paintings of birds on the walls of the Bates Motel. Marion’s last name is Crane, and the initial crime happens in Phoenix. Even in the final scene with Norman now taking on his mother’s persona completely, during the voiceover (as Mother Bates) he/she states that she’s “like one of his stuffed birds”.

As you can see from my very dense review, the fourth watch left quite an impression on me. Seeing it on the big screen no doubt helped move all of this along. I’ve enjoyed this movie a little bit more each time I’ve seen it, to the point that I’m going to start referring to it as a hallmark of American cinema and a keystone of the horror genre. And the influence is tremendous, as well. Tearing it apart and looking at the deep subconscious guts of the movie, it’s easy to see that it’s truly an accomplishment of cinematic genius.

15 Comments

Filed under Movies, Re-Watchterpiece Theater

15 responses to “Re-Watchterpiece Theater: Psycho (1960)

  1. I really want to revisit this one. I remember seeing it ages and ages ago and not really taking too much away from it. I was focusing on the shower scene too much. Since I have read more about the film I really want to go back and rewatch.

    Thanks John

    • Really, the shower scene is the one thing that most people know about the movie, so it makes perfect sense that you’d wait for it like that. I remember the first time I saw The Godfather, I kept waiting and waiting for the horse head scene. Fortunately, it shows up pretty early.

  2. Man, I really gotta see this on the big screen. Probably my favorite Hitchcock movie. I loved the fact the initial crime set-up involving Crane was the kind of story you might see in a typical Hitchcock movie, making it all the more surprising the horror turn the movie takes. Loved the review.

    • It was pretty wild that he did that- set up his audiences to follow Crane, and then… BOOM, it’s really a story about Bates. I’m not sure and I don’t want to talk about of me bum too much, but I don’t think that was done all that often in that era.

  3. Great review John! I haven’t seen Psycho in a really long time, but your commentary and criticism brought it all back “in Technicolor”.

    I saw this on a relatively big screen when I took a Hitchcock class in college. Such a well done film! Creepy. Beautifully shot. Great score. Not my favorite Hitchcock film (Rear Window), but a great film nonetheless. It makes you wonder what they were thinking when they greenlit the Gus Van Sant shot for shot remake.

    • The beauty of Hitch is that there are so many of his movies that could easily be claimed to be his “best”. Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho… Then there’s a second tier with awesome stuff like Saboteur, The Man Who Knew Too Much (the Jimmy Stewart one, but the earlier Lorre one is great too), Frenzy, Rope, Dial M for Murder…

      My favorite is Vertigo. Though I have to confess, Pyscho is creeping up on it with each re-watch.

  4. Phil

    Very nice. I’m currently reading ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho’, which I highly recommend and is being made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock. He wanted to get away from the big-budget excess of North By Northwest and make a tight low-budget thriller like ‘Les Diaboliques’. ‘Touch of Evil’ was the other major influence and he even attempted to start the film with a long single-take shot.

    • I love everything about this comment. I want to read that book, and Anthony Hopkins (theoretically) should make a great Hitchcock. Now I need to re-watch Touch of Evil because I find the idea of a link between the two to be fascinating.

      • Phil

        I have re-watched both of them recently, and their links are more about style than plot, although both star Janet Leigh and have seedy hotels featured. It’s interesting to note that when both films were made, everything was being done in color. Shooting in black and white was considered retro. (which is why Touch of Evil is considered to be the last true film-noir)

  5. “with his Oedipal issues on full display.” HAHAHA brilliant. This is the best review I have read of the film, which I have seen five times (but never in a theatre). Probably the best horror movie of all time. Which begs the question… did it influence L’Avventura (a 1960 film in which the main character disappears after a short time and is never seen again) or did L’Avventura influence it?

    • Strangely enough, I’ve never seen L’Avventura. One that I know has a which-influenced-which relationship with Psycho, though, is Peeping Tom. IIRC, Michael Powell and Hitchcock were good friends and I think even discussed the similarity of the two films, which came out in rapid-fire succession of one another. Both are tremendous Freudian takes on parental issues, using horror.

  6. Wow, seeing it for the first time when you were 10. Were you scared by it? I only saw it for the first time 2 years ago and it is a true classic.

    • I got a little scare out of it, although I was so used to so many of the goofy 80’s slashers floating around that it desensitized me a little.

  7. Great choice! I wonder how many women were afraid to shower alone after this one came out? Come to think of it, this movie may have been responsible for a mini baby boom!

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