Psycho (1960)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles

When it comes to portraying the dark corners of the human psyche, no film maker is more skilful than the master himself – Alfred Hitchcock. Nearly all of his films have characters who are either running away from a murky past or possess an inclination towards committing crime. Psycho too is an ingeniously crafted suspense drama which deals with one, or rather two such characters.

The first one is Marion Crane(Janet Leigh), an average young lady who, in a moment of misjudgement, steals money from the bank where she works and sets off. She escapes from the city, intermittently suffering pangs of guilt, and finally reaches the Bates Motel. Enter the second shady character of the story, Norman Bates. His motel business is more or less dormant due to the construction of a new highway. He lives a lonely life with his mother, who comes across as quite ill-tempered and does not seem to be on good terms with her son. However, Norman still loves her and is repulsed by Marion’s suggestion of Norman starting a new life for himself after leaving his mother in ‘some place’. In a disturbing turn of events, Marion is killed moments later in the famous ‘shower scene’ by Norman’s mother. Norman, in a bid to protect his mother, cleans up the crime scene and disposes off Marion’s body. But he gets into trouble when a detective lands up at his motel to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Marion Crane. As the mystery deepens, it becomes increasingly evident that the key to solving the mystery lies with Norman’s mother who lives in the cottage next to the motel. But it is not as simple as it seems. As the investigations reach fever-pitch, another murder takes place leading to a shocking revelation in the climax.

Anthony Perkins delivers a legendary performance, possibly one of the best-ever in American cinema, as Norman Bates, a person caught between his desires as a normal young man and his responsibilities towards his mother. It is a very complicated, multi-dimensional role, but Perkins excels in the most extraordinary manner. When his character is introduced, he seems like any other average guy, but as we get to know him better through his conversation with Crane, we begin to see traits we hadn’t before. In fact, this whole sequence in which he talks to Crane at length about his life is a treat to watch in terms of the histrionics at display. The slight alterations in his tone of voice as he talks about stuffing birds, his disconcerted expression when asked about friends and the sudden change in demeanour when the conversation veers towards his mother elevate the apparently normal scene to gargantuan levels. Janet Leigh also does well in her role of the damsel-in-distress. She is particularly good in the scenes where she shares screen space with Perkins.

The scene in which Perkins is interrogated by the detective is also noteworthy for its execution and of course, acting. The detective is initially unsuspecting, but as he tries to dig deeper, Bates’ failure to hide his nervousness makes him smell something sinister. Another scene which stands out is the final scene – the monologue by Bates – elaborating any further on which would mean spoiling the final plot twist.

Hitchcock is in complete control throughout the running time of the film. Not only is the plot filled with thrilling twists and turns, Hitchcock plants an inherent twist in narrative structure itself. As the movie begins, the viewer gets the impression that it mgiht be a story a theft gone dangerously wrong, however, the plot changes tracks fast with the murder of Crane and ultimately ends up as a character study in human psychology. This fact becomes much more discernible on viewing the film multiple times.

The black and white visuals greatly contribute to the sense of foreboding and morbidity. The Bates cottage could not have looked more ominous and certainly works to create an element of mystery and horror. In fact, most of the horror is coveyed visually – the recurring scenes showing the stairway to the eerie-looking Bates cottage, the image of the mother with a dagger and the severely isolated location of the motel. Such is the genius of the film that it succeeds in scaring the audiences even today despite the absence of any supernautal occurences and without a single drop of blood being shown on screen.

Grim, dark and unsettling, Psycho is Hitchcock at his macabre best.