“You, you don’t go in the bathroom with me!”-The Misfits
In September 1960, a film premiered that would shock, inspire, and entertain millions upon its initial release and its lasting impact still felt 55 years later. Nominations, wins, and making list upon cinephile list of significantly relevant artistic films, has grown to legendary proportions, taking claim as one of the most important films ever to be produced. Shocking subject matter, memorable dialogue, crisp cinematography, and enough subtle nuances to arouse an educated film professor or mise en scène junkie, this film has it all. I dare to say it is an almost perfect film and ranks up there with other cinematic giants, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Godfather (1972). This fact that is recognized by most filmmakers, fans, and universities as some offer courses of analysis dedicated to this film.
Who would have thought that a story loosely inspired by deviant Ed Gein, a grave robbing mama’s boy from Wisconsin, would shock the world, inspiring other terror tales like Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Silence of the Lambs (1991)? Atta boy Ed! Your Mom would have been proud. All sick humor aside, ladies and gentleman, let’s take a splash & scrub into the psychological thriller, Psycho (1960).
Welcome to Phoenix, Friday December 11th. Where the heat is dry and the temperature runs hot with carnal yearning and selfish desires. Meet Marion, Janet Leigh of The Naked Spur (1953), as she tends to cover her white undergarments after a romp of afternoon delight with her long distance boyfriend Sam, John Gavin of Spartacus (1960). The two lovers long to become respectable and wed, but are hindered financially by Sam’s mounting debt from his inherited hardware store exacerbated by high alimony payments to his ex-wife. We are not sure or privy to the fact if Marion is the sole cause for Sam’s dissolution of marriage. One fact we are sure of is that Sam is hemorrhaging funds, and this attractive couple needs cash fast if this love is to last.
Marion returns back to work after “lunch” to assume her duties as a secretary at Lowery Real Estate, alongside her chatty coworker, Caroline, Pat Hitchcock (Filmmaker Alfred “Hitch” Hitchcock’s daughter) of Strangers on a Train (1951). A keen eye will spot Hitch outside of the window, in his short cameo that became a trademark for a great deal of his films. In walks the opportunity when braggart, rancher Mr. Cassidy, Frank Albertson of The Enemy Below (1957), drops off $40,000 cash to deposit on a property for his daughter’s wedding present. Mr. Lowery, Vaughan Taylor of The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), instructs Marion to deposit the money in the bank at once, and permits her to take the rest of the afternoon off due to a headache.
Marion returns home to pack her bags with 40k in tow, now wearing black undergarments (she’s a bad girl now), to run off to join Sam in fictitious Fairvale, California. While Marion tries to slide out of town unnoticed, Mr. Lowery sees her at idling at a red light (think Butch & Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction) while crossing the intersection. Marion decides not run him over like Butch did, but shares an odd glance with her employer which drives her into paranoiac nervousness when the light goes green.
The road trip (approximately 8 hours’ drive time) finds Marion battling with the voices of her conscious, the staggering confusion brought on by the bright headlights of passing cars, as exhaustion sets in due to burden of guilt taking its toll. Marion pulls over on the side of the road, falls asleep for a spell, only to be awakened by a state trooper. John Q. Law, suspicious by Marion’s nervousness abrupt answers, briefs and releases her as she continues on her long journey of torment. Completely paranoid by the latter encounter, Marion drives to the first car lot in Bakersfield she finds, trading out for a new vehicle so she can escape the long arm of the law. Oh, she paid the difference in cash, and did not even test drive her new car…yep, that’s not suspicious behavior at all. Bakersfield, CA is not to be confused with Baker, CA, which claims to have the world’s largest thermometer. It was 72° the day I saw it.
Confused from becoming road tired, fighting to make sense of the road in a torrential downpour, Marion makes a wrong turn (it always starts with a wrong turn), and leading her to the Bates Motel. A young, shy Norman, Anthony Perkins of How Awful About Allan (1970), checks Marion into her room before inviting her up to his foreboding house on the hill for a bite to eat. Marion accepts, but soon overhears an argument from her bedroom window between Norman his domineering mother. Due to the embarrassment and shame of being scolded like a child, Norman persuades Marion join him in the motel parlor behind the front office for a sandwich. The two intimately discuss taxidermy, the eating patterns of birds and his mentally ill mother, Norma. Marion through the insightful discussion with a stranger and clarity that only time can render, retires to her room for a shower with the intent of driving back to Phoenix the next morning to return the stolen loot.
Marion, now in her skivvies while prepping a steamy shower to wash the sins of the day away, is unaware that Norman is spying on her from a peephole from the parlor. Marion deep in the throes of her purification process, is abruptly interrupted when a shadowy, female figure appears, rips the shower curtain open, and kills our star with a butcher knife. Blood (chocolate syrup) flowing down the drain, the sound of the running water, and the eye of dead Marion, leave the viewer of 1960 in a world of disbelief and uncertainty. Our lead star is now dead, where is this film going to take us? This scene was so detrimental to Lee, that it curbed her from taking showers, opting to take baths behind a locked door for years to come after the film was in the can.
Dutiful Norman appears shortly after the grim “Calgon Take Me Away” moment, to clean up the crime scene as he fears his mother was the culprit. Norman, scurries around like a madman tying up loose ends, washing the blood away, and returning the room to its original state. Psycho was the first film at the time to exhibit the act and sound of a toilet flushing. Norman shows his selfless loyalty to his Mommy Dearest by dumping Marion, her car with all of her possessions, and the stolen money (unbeknownst to the Norm) into the swamp near his property.
A week passes, Marion and the 40k are still missing, and a slew of questions still need answering. Marion’s sister Lila, Vera Miles of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), drives to California to confront Sam, believing Marion is hiding out. Lowery’s Real Estate employs a private dick, Arbogast, Martin Balsam of Two Evil Eyes (1990), to track down the mullah and informs Lila and Sam to sit tight while he asks around town about Marion. Arbogast ends up at the Bates Motel asking questions while on the trail of Marion. Arbogast and Norman have an interesting conversation where Norman’s behavior and inconsistent details arouse suspicion in the inquisitive sleuth.
Arbogast phones Lila and Sam, informs them of his discovery at the Bates Motel, and relays that he is going to attempt to speak to Norman’s mother. Within minutes, Arbogast meets his demise in the Bates’ home as he met by the figure of a woman appearing from a bedroom reaches at the top of the stairs, before she murders him. Arbogast now MIA and radio silent, sends the impatient Lila and Sam out to investigate on their own, which leads to one of the most bizarrely twisted, satisfying conclusions to a film, before and now.
Psycho was directed by the legendary Hitchcock of Vertigo (1958). Psycho was Hitch’s 48th feature, easily his most beloved and profitable by international box office standards. Psycho was scribed by award winning screenwriter, Joseph Stefano of The Outer Limits (1963), based off of the popular 1959 Robert Bloch novel of the same name. Psycho was a Hitchcock experiment produced for $800,000, filmed in black and white by his television production crew in attempt to capture the success of low budget fright fare that was attracting cinemagoers in the droves in the late 50s. Through dedication & strict direction, running a closed set to keep the execs from the studio in the dark, and topped off with theatre gimmickry à la William “House on Haunted Hill” Castle, Hitchcock found more wealth and power within the confines of Hollywood due Psycho’s success. Not a bad deal for Hitch and Universal, after securing the rights of the novel for a measly $9,500 and buying every copy off of the bookshelves to keep the ending a surprise to the public.
Psycho has gone on to become a pop culture benchmark being referenced through homage and spoof in music, TV, film, and a merchandising giant for Universal Studios. Psycho has become a franchise by spawning two sequels, a prequel, a remake, and a television movie spin-off. All later installments that have their moments, but never capture the style, effectiveness, and the subtle madness that lurks within the original story. Even if one has never seen this timeless classic, they are usually hip to the facts of the shower scene (rumor alert: no—you can slow down the footage all you want, Janet Lee is never exposed), the more bizarre details to Norman’s activities, and the state of his dear Mother.
Time has treated Psycho with the TLC of a nurturing mother and I foresee no change to this fact in the future due to its large fan base. So it’s safe to say, when we all cease to breathe, the only things that will be left are cockroaches, Keef Richards (he “wouldn’t even harm a fly,” but he would definitely smoke it), and a good copy lying around of Psycho.
If you have not been blessed with the opportunity to view Psycho at least once, stop what you’re doing, put down the Taxidermy for Nitwits book, cozy up in your favorite chair upholstered in human hide, and watch this chiller with your Mom. This would even make a great Mother’s Day, Christmas, or Birthday gift for the lovely lady that brought you into this wacky world. Remember, “A boy best friend is his mother.”
Check out Psycho’s Trailer