The AFI Top 100 Films: Psycho (#18)

Entertainment 150Psycho (1960)
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and John Gavin
Written by Joseph Stefano (screenplay) and Robert Bloch (novel)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

There shouldn’t be a need to tell you that this review will be discussing spoilers for the movie Psycho, but just in case you weren’t expecting it — this review will discuss spoilers for the movie Psycho. If you haven’t seen this grand-daddy of all horror movies, you should definitely do so at your earliest convenience. The rest of the review will be here when you’re done!

I was one of those people who thought they knew the story; it’s been discussed at length in our popular culture, and I had seen the first season of Bates Motel. I assumed that the story hinged on the relationship between motel owner Norman Bates (Perkins) and his lodger Marion Crane (Leigh), with the climax being that infamous shower scene. Imagine my surprise when that scene happens a third of the way into the film; there was a lot more about Norman and his motivations to uncover.

That’s what makes Psycho so great; it sets up your expectations and then subverts them gleefully. Just when you think you have a handle on where the story is going it takes a hair-pin turn and you’re left reeling to get a handle on your new surroundings. And when you get the lay of the land, another whiplash turn, another disorienting layer with which to familiarize yourself. Alfred Hitchcock, working from a screenplay adapted by Joseph Stefano, does a masterful job with pacing here, smashing down his dominoes as soon as he’s set them up.

The initial part of the story focuses on Marion Crane, an office worker for a real estate company. One day, her boss entrusts her to deposit $40,000 to the company’s bank account. Instead she steals it, hoping to start a new life with her long-distance boyfriend, Sam (Gavin). She ditches the car she left town in, buys a new one and flees down the California coast. Forced to stop during a heavy rainstorm, she finds herself in the Bates Motel.

By now, you’re invested in her story and where it’s going. While she’s clearly not a good person (she stole a pants-load of money from her trusting employer after all), she’s our protagonist. We’re invested in seeing whether or not she succeeds; if she doesn’t, we want to know how she’ll get caught and what the consequences are. This feels like a story about her theft and what it will do for her and her lover.

Then we meet Norman Bates, the proprietor of the Bates Motel. He has a series of small conversations with Marion that reveal his character and history, including a troubled relationship with an overbearing mother. When Norman’s mother decides that he’s gotten far too close to Marion, she decides to take matters into her own hands; while the lodger is in the shower, Mother storms in and stabs her to death with a knife.


So much for Marion’s story. Her employers have noticed her absence as well as the missing money by now, however, so they’ve reached out to her sister Lila (Miles), who in turn reaches out to Sam. Together they track Marion’s steps along with a private investigator, and are eventually lead to the motel. The P.I. gets too close, so Norman’s mother kills him too. Meanwhile, Lila and Sam go to the Sheriff’s home and discover there that Norman’s mother has been dead for some time.

What?? What in the world is going on? The answer to that question leads to one of the craziest scenes in cinematic history, a terrific double-whammy of reveals that quite frankly astound. The denouement where Norman is psycho-analyzed goes on a little longer than it needs to, perhaps, but I suppose that was necessary for audiences of the time to even wrap their minds around what they had just seen. Nowadays we’ve become so familiar with abnormal psychology that Norman may seem almost pedestrian by comparison.

But there’s no doubt that Psycho had a tremendous impact on movies, almost single-handedly creating the horror genre as we know it today. Norman’s story is the template for so many slashers who’ve come in his wake — the Freddy Kreugers, the Michael Myers, the Jason Voorhies. Bates is the first of their kind, a monster preying on the unsuspecting pretty blondes of the world.

Hitchcock keeps us in suspense by constantly toying with us. He presides over all of the surprises he has in store with the supreme confidence of a master storyteller. The reveals happen exactly when they’re meant to, deployed for maximum effect, keeping us on our toes. The conversations between Norman and Marion are slow burns, setting us up with context to make the impact of the revelations meaningful while misdirecting us on what’s really going on. Anthony Perkins plays Norman with such layering that you’re quite intrigued by the obvious tension his various feelings towards his mother creates. You get a sense that he’s a bit fucked up, but the surprise is in revealing just how fucked up he is.

The rest of the cast does quite a good job, but this is really the showcase for Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Joseph Stefano. Hitchcock went through great lengths to preserve the secret of the story — it’s rumored that once he bought the rights to Robert Bloch’s original novel he bought as many copies of it as he could. He charged theatre owners to prevent audiences from walking in to the movie after it started, so that you had to see it the way he intended.

Those extraordinary measures created a sensation, and Psycho was wildly successful on its release. Its quality is what has helped it stand the test of time. I think our fascination with crazy stalkers began here; we owe an entire facet of cinematic history to Hitchcock and company.

Rating: 9/10.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.