Tagline for this film classic: “Thank God its only a movie.”
Psycho is based on a book by Robert Bloch and a screenplay by Joseph Stefano – and this is one of those rare cases where the screenplay is actually an improvement on the book. The book isn’t bad, but the screenplay is truly a classic.
The story is an in-depth study of the normal world versus the dark side. Let us compare and contrast:
Normalcy/respectability versus abnormality/immorality
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) Marion steals a large sum of money.
works as a secretary. She wants She sleeps with a married man.
to get married and settle down.
Fairville, California A remote, roadside motel
Sam Loomis (John Gavin) works Lonely Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)
at a hardware store. runs the motel and practices taxidermy.
Lila Crane (Vera Miles) misses her Norman dresses as his dead mother.
sister Marion and searches for her.
Terror on the Wing
A surreal bird motif runs throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s movie:
The shower scene has avian overtones – just listen to the shrill, birdlike tones of Bernard Hermann’s music. The shadow of the long knife stabbing at Marion is reminiscent of a bird’s beak, pecking at prey. Pictures of birds are scattered on the walls in Marion’s room. And, of course, Marion’s last name is Crane.
Norman is very birdlike himself. He is thin, with an angular face and nervous eyes. His behavior is hermit-like – he doesn’t want to fly the coop. He even stuffs dead birds. His house is perched on a hill, the evil inside ready to fly down in a destructive fury.
The camera-work features high angles – bird’s-eye views.
Norman’s mother is also very birdlike: she’s stuffed, like one of Norman’s winged taxidermy projects. Norman said, “Birds are so non-aggressive.” Really? What about eagles, owls, falcons, ravens and vultures? Even chickens peck at each other, and Norman’s mother certainly pecked without mercy at him.
Plus, the birds in Hitchcock’s The Birds were super-aggressive! (Is Norman giving us a preview of things to come…?)
Ironies in Psycho
Much of the movie’s plot is skillfully foreshadowed by clever, ironic bits of dialogue.
“A boy’s best friend is his mother,” as stated by Norman, is ironic because his mother is dead and still lives on as one of his spilt-personalities.
Norman also states, “Mother’s harmless – like a stuffed bird.” This is horrifically ironic because she really is stuffed like a bird.
“We all get into our private traps,” Marion says as she enters the motel of doom.
“It’s stuffy in here,” states Norman in his mommy persona, talking from the fruit cellar. Well, Mommy is stuffed, so that statement is true in more ways than one.
“Mother’s not quite herself today” – the understatement of the century!
Norman says, “A son is a poor substitute for a lover.” He ended up killing his mother because she took a lover.
Norman also says of his mother, “I hate what she has become.” Well, sure: she’s moldy and rotten. And actually, her personality is what Norman has become.
(The house in Psycho)
The Other Psycho Movies
Psycho (1960). Rating: ****
Psycho II (1983). Directed by Richard Franklin, the Australian director who did the cult flick, Patrick. Screenplay by Tom Holland (who wrote such films as Class of 1984, Fright Night, Scream for Help, Child’s Play, Stephen King’s Thinner.) Anthony Perkins returned as Norman, and Vera Miles returned as Lila Loomis. Dennis Franz has an interesting supporting role. Meg Tilly is sexy as an ex-nun and Norman’s love interest. Rating: ***
Psycho III (1986). Starring and directed by Anthony Perkins, with a script by Charles Pogue. For the most part, a misfire – at least Tony Perkins got two paychecks out of it. Rating **
Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990). Directed by Mick Garris (creator of Masters of Horror and director of such films as Sleepwalkers, The Stand, and Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet). Olivia Hussey does an outstanding job playing Norman Bates’ mom. Anthony Perkins is also superb. Another outstanding script by Joseph Stefano. Rating: ****
Psycho (1999). Director Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting, and Last Days) remakes Psycho in color, and purists are offended. The screenplay is yet another gem from Joseph Stefano, and the music score again comes from Bernard Hermann. Marion Crane is portrayed by Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn takes on the role of Norman Bates. Julianne Moore plays Lila. Personally, I loved it. Rating: ****
Psycho on The Tube
Bates Motel is an A&E TV series that started in 2013 and begin on for two seasons now and Season Three starts in 2015. This series is a contemporary sequel to Psycho and focuses on teenager Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) will end being, well, Norman Bates. Great performances by Vera Farmiga who plays Norman’s mother, Norma Louis Bates, Max Thieriot who plays the step-brother. The real scene-stealer of the series has been Nestor Carbonell as Sheriff Alex Romero who looks a lot like Anthony Perkins. The first two seasons Bates Motel has been creepy, chilling and refreshing expanding the Psycho legacy. Rating ****