To the general movie viewer, the 1960 film Psycho is easily the most famous in Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial catalogue. Its influence on the horror genre can’t be understated, having been oft-cited as one of the earliest examples of a slasher movie. Making just shy of $600 million (adjusted for inflation), it is Hitchcock’s most profitable film. Luckily, there is no sacrifice in artistic integrity to appeal to the masses. In fact, it is likely the pushing of boundaries that made (and has continued to make) the film such a phenomenon.
Hitchcock is well-known for his alluring blonde lead actors, and in Psycho that role is taken up by Janet Leigh. She plays Marion Crane, a secretary on the run from the law after stealing $40,000 from the real estate company she works at. When she can no longer keep driving into the night, she decides to take a room at the Bates Motel. A conflicted character, she knows what she’s done is wrong but doesn’t know if she can face the music. It’s her wrestle with morality that fleshes out Crane and makes Leigh’s performance so great.
Despite this, it is Anthony Perkins as the owner of the motel, Norman Bates, who steals the show. He’s incredibly engaging to watch; as an audience member, you can’t help but be drawn into his every word, even when those words come out muddled due to the character’s nervous stammer. A mixture of this, his youthful looks, and what we are told about the control his mother has over him creates a portrait of an innocent, child-like man. But underneath his friendly demeanour we can see that he’s withholding something and that there’s a secret to the Bates Motel that isn’t being let on.
Hitchcock was an infamous perfectionist, a fact made clear by his meticulous framing. Particularly in scenes involving either of the leads, we see power dynamics shifting back and forth from one person to another as conversations progress. He’s an amazing visual storyteller. Just through the way he positions the camera, we become unconsciously aware of a character’s intent, without the need for overdrawn exposition.
Arguably, the element of Psycho that has most permeated pop culture is its score. Created by regular collaborator Bernard Herrmann, the orchestra for the soundtrack was comprised of only string instruments, to work on the cheap, but the result is nothing short of iconic. We’re introduced to the tense, fast-paced strings in the opening credits, putting the audience on edge from the outset. Then, of course, there is the film’s most famous scene, where Hermann’s score is arguably more memorable than the unfolding drama itself. If you’ve somehow avoided this movie moment despite countless references and parodies of it throughout modern entertainment, then you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it.
by Jay Fernando