The A&E (Arts and Entertainment) network has recently added a new series, “Bates Motel,” based on a reimagining, if you will, of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” After watching the first four episodes, I decided to go back and view the original movie again. It has been over fifty years since the layered, tension filled, psychological thriller “Psycho” premiered in New York City on June 16, 1960. Most people by now, especially cinephiles, are familiar with the twist that comes at the end of the first horror movie ever directed by Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds), which also became the highest grossing film of his career, and was the last movie he ever made in black and white. What if, however, a person, perhaps a young teenager, who is just starting to discover the vast world of cinema beyond the latest summer blockbuster, didn’t have prior knowledge of what the movie entailed? What would they make of the film during the first part of its 109 minute runtime? The plot, the way it is constructed by screenwriter Joseph Stefano, (The Outer Limits) based on the novel by Robert Bloch (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), could lead one to believe, during the first half of the movie, that they are watching a crime drama. As an aside, Bloch based his novel on Ed Gein, who murdered two women and stole bodies from cemeteries in and around his hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin.
Janet Leigh (Touch of Evil) portrays Marion Crane, a woman who is in love with John Gavin’s character of Sam Loomis. The film opens with the two in a seedy hotel room. Sam is in love with Marion, but due to his divorce from his first wife, as well as covering a deceased father’s debts, he doesn’t have the necessary finances to make Marion his wife. Marion wants their relationship to be a legitimate one, as suggested by the dialogue the characters engage in, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear cut path to achieving that end. As luck, or in this case misfortune, has it, the Phoenix, Arizona real estate office where Marion works as a secretary is visited that day by the character of Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) who has decided to buy his daughter a house as his wedding gift to her. He is dropping off the amount of $40,000 cash, much to the displeasure of Marion’s boss, George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor). Lowery instructs Marion to take the money to the bank and deposit it. The temptation, however, proves to be too great for the love struck Marion. She decides to pack some things and head off to find Sam, so they can start a new life together. She banks on the fact that it being Friday, it will be Monday before anyone knows what she has done, and she will be long gone by then.
During her journey, fate throws roadblocks at Marion, as a warning to her to turn around and go back. It is, after all, the weekend, plenty of time to return home and deposit the money at the start of business on Monday morning. First she is spotted at a traffic light by, of all people, her boss, who, after recognizing her, gives her a quick smile before looking at her again with a puzzled expression. She had after all asked if she could go home after she dropped the money off at the bank because she wasn’t feeling well due to a headache. That particular scene is the catalyst which invokes feelings of paranoia in Marion, but still she pushes onward to meet her lover. The following morning, she is awakened by a highway patrol officer (Mort Mills) after he discovers her sleeping in her car. He inspects her driver’s license and looks at her license plate number, but does not detain her; however, he subsequently follows her. She trades in her car for a different one at a used car lot run by John Anderson’s character of California Charlie, who remarks to the impatient Marion, “It’s the first time the customer ever high-pressured the salesman.” Upon receiving her new car, she is in such a hurry to flee the scene, especially since the highway patrol officer has made his way onto the lot, that she nearly takes off without her luggage that was in the car she was initially driving.
Next, Mother Nature provides a downpour, which makes it difficult for her to see the road, and because of that, Marion winds up off the main highway. She comes across the Bates Motel; where she will meet Norman Bates. Anthony Perkins (Fear Strikes Out), in his career defining role, embodies the character of the demented, enthusiast of taxidermy. In Bloch’s novel, Norman is an unattractive man, who is overweight, short and bald, which is a radical departure from Perkins’ charismatic looks. Hitchcock came up with the idea to switch the physical traits around, so that the role could be portrayed by a young, in shape and attractive actor.
The closing minutes of Marion’s life consist of dining with Norman, her last meal is a sandwich he prepared for her. He converses with her on subjects such as his stuffed birds and his mother, before she heads off to cabin number one, where she will take her final shower, and meet her end by mother’s knife-wielding hand. The ultra famous shower scene took a full week to film, and utilized seventy different camera angles, in order to capture the iconic forty-five seconds that the viewer sees. The blood used in the scene was actually Bosco chocolate Syrup. While filming the shower scene, Janet Leigh was completely unfazed, but after viewing the film in its entirety, she never showered again, opting to take baths the rest of her life.
At this point, the central focus switches from the film being a crime drama, to focusing on Norman and what he will do, now that his mother has murdered Crane. His first act is to erase any and all trace that a crime has been committed. Norman goes about cleaning the room and placing Marion’s body in the car that she had arrived in and disposed of both by submerging the car in a nearby swamp. He even goes so far as to bite his finger nails as he waits for the last visible part of the car to sink all the way down into its murky tomb. That, however, is not the end of Norman having to deal with Miss Crane and her short-lived stay at the motel.
Arriving on the scene after the life taking event unfolds is Detective Milton Arbogast, portrayed by famed television and movie actor, the always competent, Martin Balsam. He has been hired by Tom Cassidy to retrieve the missing money. But, he is not the only one looking for Marion. Her sister, Lila, portrayed by Vera Miles, (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) comes looking for her, and meets up with Sam, to see if she’s with him, and quickly learning that she isn’t, the two set off to solve the mystery of her disappearance. What will Norman do with all of these inquiring individuals? Will his mother systematically murder each one of them, and drown their bodies in the swamp? Will the law catch up to mother and son, resulting in both their incarcerations? Is the truth about what happened to Marion Crane ever learned? Given the film’s age and widespread notoriety, most of you probably already know the answers to those questions; but in consideration of any young new film aficionados who may be reading this blog, I will refrain from answering them here.
Trivia buffs take note: Hitchcock paid $9,000 to acquire the rights to Robert Bloch’s novel. Afterwards, he purchased as many copies of the book as he could as a way to try and guard the ending of the movie from getting out to the public. In addition, on the first day of filming, Hitchcock made everyone involved with the movie promise that they would not discuss plot points with people who were not working on the film. He also kept the ending of the script secret from the cast until it came time to film the scene. The AFI (The American Film Institute) in 2007, ranked “Psycho” number fourteen on their list of the one hundred greatest movies of all time; the film also came in at number one on their list of AFI 100 Years…100 Thrills, and the character of Norman Bates took second place on the list of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains, losing out to Hannibal Lecter.
Made for an estimated budget that was a little bit more than $800,000 dollars, “Psycho,” as of 2004 had grossed approximately $50,000,000 dollars worldwide. If the spot on performances, or Hitchcock’s impeccable direction, don’t grab you, than perhaps composer Bernard Hermann’s memorable score will. Originally Hitchcock wanted the shower scene to be devoid of sound, but after hearing what Herrmann came up with for it, changed his mind. The score also was honored with a high rank by The American Film Institute, coming in at number four on their list of 100 Years of Film Scores. In 1992, the film was selected, and rightfully so, for preservation in The National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. For those of you out there who cherish movies, this is definitely one that should have a place in your permanent collection.