By Kim Hollis
October 29, 2009
The performances in the film, particularly those of Janet Leigh as Marion and Anthony Perkins as Norman, do much to contribute to its quality. Leigh could easily be just a simple sex bomb, but she's a complex character, and it's easy to read her guilt and conflict on her face. I mentioned the little touches such as the jaw twitch that Perkins uses in playing Norman, but it's also critical that he imbue him with an "aw, shucks" mentality that makes him seem both naive and a bit simple. The thing about Norman is that he's not an evil human being. Not really. His mind has gone over to the bad place, triggered by any number of unfortunate events, but perhaps with different nurturing, he could have become a very different person.
Of course, it's all but impossible to talk about Psycho's high points without mentioning the shower scene, the music and the aforementioned "big twist". It's absolutely true that Marion's death in the shower of Room #1 at the Bates Motel is a classic piece of cinema that has been spoofed, referenced and recreated hundreds of times. If you mention "Psycho Shower Scene", there are very few people who wouldn't know exactly what you mean. It's brilliantly shot, with extreme close-ups and quick cuts between edits, giving the entire sequence an extremely violent, out-of-control feel. Combine that with Marion's terrified screams and the screeching music of the soundtrack, and you have something that set the standard for slasher films, but probably has never been matched for artistic merit.
It's not just the high-pitched screaming of the violins in the shower scene that set Herrmann's score for the film apart, though. The entire composition is a study in perfectly matching music to suit the scenes it accompanies. Relying solely on the string section of the orchestra, it's a singular bit of movie music and one of the most recognizable film scores ever created.
Finally, highest among the movie's lauded qualities is that well-known twist. It's impossible to imagine that there's a person alive who doesn't know what it is. After seeing Norman's mother, Mrs. Bates, in shadows for the entre course of the film, we have the revelation that she's dead. In fact, although it's believed that she committed suicide after killing her lover, we learn that Norman killed them both. Unable to let her go, he has dug up her corpse and kept it in the house. His own personality has split, and he speaks her opinion on her behalf. We have believed his mother to be a vicious killer, but in truth, Norman dresses in her clothing to carry out what he thinks are her wishes. Not only has he killed Marion and Arbogast, but also some other young "trollops" who have visited the hotel previously.
My inability to fully enjoy the film may have much to do with the fact that I've known this twist and always did, even before I saw the film for the first time. There's no shocking surprise, and even though I'm watching Norman for clues as to his mental state, I don't really feel like there's any specific seeds sown. Of course, that's because sometimes there's not a good explanation for insanity. It just is. While that does make the character of Norman Bates very disturbing, it also renders the story somewhat incomplete. We almost want to know more about what happened to him growing up. How did he become the monster he is?
Also, Psycho does feel rather sadly dated. It's not the fault of the film itself, really. It's more due to the fact that so many imitators were spawned and that it opened the door for much more violent fare in the years to come. Scariest movie ever? Not by a long shot. But Psycho certainly paved the way for the more frightening horror films that followed. It's the granddaddy of them all, and one of the primary reasons Hitchcock is remembered as a master of horror and suspense.
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