A Phoenix secretary embezzles $40,000 from her employer’s client, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by a young man under the domination of his mother.
One of the few true horror films on AFI’s 100 Greatest Films list is this Alfred Hitchcock classic. Released in theaters in 1960, I remember reading somewhere that, once the film began, you wouldn’t be allowed to enter the theater. You had to get there on time to see the whole film, in its entirety. Because that’s how Hitchcock wanted it. He wanted his film to be seen fully in one sitting, no breaks, no late arrivals. But, honestly, I can see why this was. Psycho is absolutely a film enjoyed best in one full sitting. From the first note of the iconic score to the last horrifying look on Norman’s face.
Let’s talk about how masterful the story telling is in this Hitchcock film, and how Psycho is my go-to film when trying to explain what a “MacGuffin” is. In simplest terms, a MacGuffin is ” an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself”. In the film Psycho, Marion Crane is our MacGuffin. The story begins centered on her taking the money from work and getting out of town. We assume that she is our main character because that is how she is presented. Then, half way through the film, the main character is killed off in the masterfully edited shower scene. All of a sudden, the main focus has shifted to Norman Bates, his motel, and his mother. Turns out Marion Crane was simply a plot device, but what a genius one she is.
The other MacGuffin? The $40,000 that Marion Crane steals from work. Throughout the film, the other characters assume that Norman Bates found out about the money and decided to kill Marion so he could have it all for himself. The reality of it was that Norman knew nothing of the money, as Marion had wrapped it up in some newspaper that Norman then threw into the back of Marion’s car, right before sinking it in the nearby swamp.
The way Hitchcock shifts the focus to Norman is undeniably perfect. It’s such a seamless moment from Norman’s “mother” killing Marion, to Norman screaming in horror about it, to him cleaning up the mess that’s been made. And, in that moment we realize that Norman Bates is our main character, and Marion was simply there to get us to him.
Hitchcock also pulls one of my favorite visual triggers in this film: the clothing color switch (which isn’t the name for it, I know, but it’s the best I could come up with). When we meet Marion Crane she is wearing white, undergarments and all. Once Marion has made the decision to steal money from her place of work and get out of town, she is seen wearing black undergarments, signifying what she is doing is bad. She then puts gray clothes on top, showing that blend between “right and wrong”. Hitchcock uses this same trick with Norman, who changes into a black shirt after the murders and attempted murder.
The performance given by Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates never fails to blow me away. He perfectly walks the line between sweet, naive young man and absolute creep. In particular, the way he acts once at the police station is absolutely spine chilling. Now, his performance is by no means indicative of what Dissociative Identity Disorder is actually like. And, in fact, this film continues to contribute to the general public’s skewed view on the mental disorder. But, that’s a post for another time.
I often find myself wishing that I could experience Psycho as it was in the 1960s, before the film was so imbedded into the general psyche of the population. Because, now, even if you haven’t seen the film itself, I bet you know something about the film, whether it be the shower scene, the character of Norman Bates himself, or merely the fact that this was the first time a flushing toilet was ever shown on screen. Psycho has been parodied dozens of times, and continues to be sixty-two years later. But, even though I know what happens, every time I watch the film, I pick up some some little detail I hadn’t before. And that’s one of my favorite things about Psycho. It never stop surprising me.