AFI film school #9: Psycho — Mad for this movie


One of the most interesting things about the AFI top 100 list is that there are some movies that most people know nothing about, maybe never even heard of--and then there are some movies, like this one, where people know almost everything there is to know about the film before they even see it.

I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to see this movie for the first time with no spoilers (if that’s even possible). What would my relationship with it be?

As it stands, I like this movie. A lot. It’s one of my favorites, partly out of nostalgia, those vivid memories of passing by the Bates house on the Universal Studios tram tour, partly out the fun ride that this movie provides every time I watch it, and partly because--well because it’s a damn good movie. Hitchcock really is a genius.

And his genius is what I’m looking at with this one. As usual, I’m going through all the movies on the list, discussing things each movie does fantastically. I’m following along with the order of one of my favorite podcasts, Unspooled, but this week I’m going back to look at one of the movies they discussed before I started doing this.

For the record, the hosts, Amy and Paul, both  really liked the movie too, although they felt the second half was less memorable than the first. I can understand that, but the second half is the half with Norman, making it so fun to return to, albeit in a different way.

So off we go with 1960’s Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Joseph Stefano.

Universal madness


“We all go a little mad sometimes.”

A line so famous, it became famous again when Billy Loomis quoted it in Scream.

Psycho does back that quote up. All movies have an underlying theme, something they’re getting at, and here, I believe Hitchcock is getting at “madness can be consuming.”

Norman Bates obviously experiences this, gradually losing himself throughout the film.

His madness is layered. You could say that Norman is driven to kill. But you could also say that Norman is driven to become his mother, and Norman’s mother is driven to kill. The murdering, though, stems from emotions Norman isn’t quite equipped to handle, like fear and lust.

So this is all second-half stuff. But the theme also is present in the fist.

Marion Crane is also consumed with a form of madness. At first it’s just a desire to be with Sam and have the life she wants. The money on the bed seems to speak to her in a similar way that Norman’s mother speaks to him.

After she steals it, she then becomes consumed with paranoia. It’s difficult to distinguish what’s real and what’s in her head at that point. Did the cop really follow her all the way into the car dealership? Are the conversations she’s hearing while she’s driving happening in real life? This is a parallel Hitchcock is definitely drawing between the two leads.

No coincidence that Norman’s face, a skull, and Marion’s tomb are all superimposed together in the last shot.

What can be taken away


I get different things from Psycho every time I watch it. As always, Hitchcock uses a lot of subtleties in the film.

Most everything he does is intentional, and I want to hit upon three intentional things he did that all contain a movie-making lesson.

Messing with the structure

I’m going to guess most people born in the 60’s or later have a very similar first Psycho experience to mine: you watch that first half of the movie, waiting for the shower scene to happen. It’s like an extended cold open to a slasher film.

Audiences seeing this in the theater had a very different experience. Hitchcock went out of his way to make sure there were no spoilers for the film, not allowing anyone late entrance to it.

He was doing a gutsy thing. Pre-Ned Stark, he was killing off the major character in the middle. This was something you couldn’t do. Ok, mayyyybe kill the protagonist off at the end of the movie, but not at the halfway point!

I can’t imagine the experience the audience went through. If I could Eternal Sunshine myself to get a fresh perspective, I would.

The reason Hitchcock could get away with this is because Marion had a complete arc: she decided that she didn’t want to carry the guilt of the stolen money with her anymore. Also since the same themes ran through the rest of the movie and since Marion’s death was the catalyst for the everything that came, it made the protagonist jump non-jarring.

This type of unconventional storytelling can always be used to your advantage. As long as you don’t have bad storytelling, ie leaving things feeling incomplete or not having the twist serve a purpose, you can break any “rule” you want.

A score to remember

The direction, the acting, the visuals, the script in this movie are all amazing; however, if you take the score away, it’s less of a movie.

The strings of Bernard Herrmann’s score adds so much to the film. This is true of man horror/ suspense movies in general. The music within them can be used to highlight the unease that’s happening.

Counter-intuitively, it works a bit better when the music is standing in contrast to the actual excitement level. There’s a score that plays at several points when Marion is dealing with the money. Not only does this become the money’s music, but it creates tension in a scene that might have not had it otherwise. Seeing her get money out in a dealership bathroom might not do anything to us in silence, but add the music, and it makes us feel exactly what she’s going through.

The scene where Detective Milton is walking up the stairs, the music is much more subdued because the tension is already present, and more intense music would lessen it (this is the opposite instinct of most movies). Then when he gets stabbed, the sudden contrast of the famous “eee eee eee eee” strings hits even harder

This is something I notice a lot of masters do when they make horror. Take the music from The Shining and put it in ANY movie—say The Care Bears Movie—and you’re going to automatically add a subtext of dread.

A deep breath

There’s a scene in here that receives a lot of controversy. And it’s not the stabbing scene. Nor is the toilet flushing.

Right after Sam disarms Norman, the movie cuts to a psychiatrist explaining to the cops everything there is to know about Norman. Over the years the usefulness of the scene has been hotly contested. Some people argue that it needs to be there, while other critics, including Roger Ebert, have said that the scene serves no purpose and should be removed.

While I could go either way on how necessary the actual explanation is, I think the scene serves one other important use: it gives us a breath after what we just witnessed.

The prior scene revealing mother and Norman as the killer is intense, especially considering that Vera almost gets killed, and we get a good long look at what just happened. I can especially imagine for an unprepared audience, this must have been a heart-racing moment.

This calm scene with the psychologist lets us wind down. It grounds us back into the real world and makes us feel like everything is normal again. A bit boring? It could be for some. But we need something like it to make us feel at ease.

It’s a great way to put us back into a calm state before we see one of the biggest trips in the movie: Norman thinking scary thoughts with his mother’s voice.

Take the psychiatrist scene out, and the pacing of the end would feel much different, and perhaps the last scene wouldn’t work as well.


So even knowing what’s to come in the movie (if anyone has an experience of seeing Psycho unspoiled, I’d LOVE to hear about it), it still works in so many different ways, and a lot of it is because Hitchcock is so much a master.

Gus Van Sant’s shot by shot remake is an interesting project. He keeps the things that made the film work, like the score, the messing with the structure, and the pacing, but the movie in no way holds up to the original. The question of “why not” is an interesting one. Part of it are mistakes, like the miscasting and shooting it in color, which takes a lot away from the aesthetic.

But part of it is also that the Van Sant version is missing the importance of the original film. While Psycho 1960 may not be surprising to contemporary audiences, it makes up for it in historical importance and the awe of original human achievement.

It’s why seeing a recreation of the Sistine Chapel would never do the same justice as standing under the ceiling of the real one.

And that kind of awe is truly worth going mad for.

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