Psycho is undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock's chef d'oeuvre in tenor, and for many it is the quintessential horror film of our time; it is also one of the few financially successful motion pictures which can truly be termed an art film. Produced for an economical $800,000, it has grossed twenty million dollars to date.
Psycho's extraordinary appeal can be attributed to its modern universality. While its story concerns a psychopathic murderer, its technique reveals the dark side of all mankind—the inner secrets, deceits, and guilts of all human beings; and, as is so often true of even the most ordinary situations in life, nothing is as it really seems. Additionally, Psycho superbly plays with the viewing audience's emotions. Hitchcock makes unabashed voyeurs out of his audience more deliberately and with more subtlety and deftness than in any of his other films. Hitchcock draws the viewer into the film, into the sordid depths of a twisted world. He forces the audience to psychoanalyze themselves as they identify—for varying lengths of time and with varying degrees of intensity—with each of the film's main characters. However, Hitchcock's purpose in this film is not to build multifaceted characters; the characters are really little more than prototypes. Rather, the film is about a split personality, and the main characters in a sense are simply different sides of one collective character—the audience itself. This is Hitchcock's little joke and the reason he has described Psycho as a "fun picture."
In Psycho, Hitchcock attempts to make the "horror" of the film take place in the minds of the audience. While there are only two actual violent occurrences—the deaths of Marion Crane and the insurance investigator—the real terror is in the minds of the viewer; suspense arises from wondering what is going to happen next and who else is going to be murdered. Manipulative as these devices are, Hitchcock carries them out with such finesse that the ambience of horror which he achieves is memorable even after many viewings.
Psycho is based on the novel by Robert Bloch which fictitiously dealt with a real incident in Wisconsin. Hitchcock's locale is Phoenix, and the very ordinariness of the opening sequences of the film and the characters themselves belie the terror that follows. However, the clever title designs by Saul Bass have already prepared us for an excursion in psychological terror: the credit names appear on the screen split apart and then disappear, all to the accompaniment of Bernard Herrmann's vibrant music score.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a secretary whom we first meet in a motel room where she is having a lunch-hour tryst with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Their romance is frustrated by the fact that Marion lives with her sister Lila (Vera Miles), and she and Sam are unable to marry because Sam is financially burdened by his dead father's debts and the alimony he must pay to his ex-wife. Following this frusirated scene of secret lovemaking—a scene which throws our sympathies towards Marion—Marion returns to her office where she listens to a coworker's complaints about her mother. Also, Marion's boss, Mr. Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), introduces Marion to a client who turns over $40,000 to her to be, placed in a safety deposit box.
We next see Marion in her bedroom with the money, packing a suitcase. It is obvious that she plans to flee with the money, but the sympathy of the audience remains with this seemingly put-upon, almost mousey woman. The audience has already been drawn into Hitchcock's voyeuristic manipulation. We have seen Marion in partial undress in a motel room with her lover and have seen her changing her clothes in her bedroom. Throughout these few scenes, we have seen reflections of Marion in mirrors and through windows, all intimating the split personality aspect of the plot.
Marion drives away from Phoenix until she becomes tired and pulls the car over to the side of the road; there she sleeps until morning, when a policeman approaches the car and awakens her. Marion drives away to a used car lot where she exchanges her car for one which will not be identified. As night approaches again, we see Marion approach a seedy motel, next to which is a gothic-style California house. As Marion steps out of her car, she sees an old woman sitting in the second story window of the house. The motel, which is run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a timid taxidermist, contains numerous samples of stuffed birds, all Norman's handiwork, as well as many photographs of birds.
Marion registers as Marie Samuels (after her lover Sam), and Norman shyly shows her to her room and offers to bring her a bite to eat. While he is away getting the food, Marion overhears a shrill conversational exchange between Norman and the old woman upstairs, who is his mother. When he brings her tray of food, which he suggests she eat in his office because it is more comfortable, he comments, "Mother—what is the phrase? isn't quite herself today."
Back in her motel room, we see Marion make the decision to return the stolen money and prepare to take a shower before retiring. The famous shower sequence—which runs only a minute—took a week to film. It was extremely daring for its time because it appeared to show Marion nude, but in fact it never really does. As the shadowy figure enters and repeatedly knifes Marion to shrieking musical phrases, the 'audience, caught completely off guard, is terrified. Why this inexplicable, unpremeditated, and horrible death? These bizarre happenings, which occupy only the first third of the film, are among the most memorable in the horror film genre. The audience is left without its focus of sympathy. Hitchcock shrewdly switches our attention to all-American Norman Bates, whom we see enter Marion's cabin, aghast at what he finds, then dispose of her body and belongings by sinking her car into a nearby swamp.
When Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), an insurance investigator, arrives at the motel, he questions Norman, who at first denies he had any recent guests but finally admits that a woman did stop for the night. The investigator senses something amiss and- attempts to search the Bates home where he is brutally and repeatedly stabbed on the ornate staircase as Marion had been in the shower.
Subsequently, when Arbogast fails to report in, Sam and Lila set out on their own. Hitchcock's Freudian denouement unfolds with no abatement of suspense and an atmosphere of impending doom. Sam and Lila learn there is no Mother Bates. Norman had found his mother and her lover dead together in bed years earlier. It is Lila who discovers the corpse of Mrs. Bates in the cellar of the house, where she is attacked by a hideously laughing old woman: it is Norman, a true split personality, in his mother's clothes. The obligatory scene in which the psychologist explains Norman's schizophrenia is indeed anticlimactic, but it nonetheless serves to release the audience from the sense of desolation and futility with which Hitchcock has gripped and held them for almost two hours.
Janet Leigh as Marion has a winning screen presence to which the audience is naturally attracted despite her role as a thief. Anthony Perkins as Norman to many represents aspects of the all-American boy, shy and harmless; Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam are also perfectly cast.
Psycho is Hitchcock's film all the way, a directorial tour de force, but an essential ingredient to the film's success is the splendid music by Bernard Herrmann. It is impossible to think of watching this film without the accompaniment of Herrmann's psychologically terrifying and yet very human music.