Thoughts on “Psycho”

This movie made for an interesting watch, because it contains one of the most famous twists in cinematic history … so, of course, I knew what that twist was going on.  So I wasn’t going to be surprised by the twist at all, and so knew what was really going on with Norman Bates from the start and how things were going to end for the ostensible main character.  So essentially it was like rewatching a movie and so being able to look for all the clues to the twist without ever having really watched the movie and so not really knowing anything about how the movie really was or how it all worked the first time.

Since the twist is so famous, I’m just going to go ahead and talk as if we all know what it was.  If you don’t know and think you might want to watch it, just stop reading now with this advice:  it’s worth watching.

Anyway, the big twist is that Hitchcock took a well-known star in Janet Leigh so that audiences would think that she was the main character and was going to live to the end, only to kill her off about halfway through.  Most of the comments I’ve seen have focused on the actress, but I think the real brilliance here is not that it’s a big name actress, but more that the entire structure of the movie to that point sets her up as the main character and that the movie is going to be her story, as she wants to run off with her indebted lover and sees an opportunity to steal some money so they can start a new life together, and the movie focuses on her and her thoughts and the impact of this on her, culminating in a conversation with Norman and a resolution to return the money … only for her to be killed seemingly by the jealous, insane mother of the creepy motel manager.  This is done so effectively that despite the fact that it would make for an hour long movie the movie could have ended there and been complete, if tragic and a bit depressing.  Hitchcock manages to tell her entire story in that hour and even with her death scene completely finishes the arc in a way that they could indeed have rolled the credits at that point.

This carries on to the rest of the movie, as while this can be seen as a precursor to slasher movies it is absolutely not structured like any kind of slasher movie.  Instead, it’s a suspense movie that happens to involve, well, a psycho who ends up doing all the killing.  The death of Janet Leigh’s character, as noted, could be a tragic happenstance — like a car accident — that ruins her chance to redeem herself.  Later, a detective who finds out enough to be a threat and would have to be killed by Norman to protect his mother happens to be killed by the mother instead.  The movie spends a lot of time hiding the mother and so the dual nature of Norman.  And the sister and the lover of Janet Leigh’s character are simply trying to find evidence that Janet Leigh’s character was there and don’t suspect any of the slasher aspects.  Everyone, including the audience, thinks it’s a suspense movie … except Norman, the slasher himself.

Ultimately, I think that’s the real brilliance of the twist.  Not the casting of Janet Leigh, but the fact that in terms of casting, structure, plot, acting and filming it commits to being a suspense movie while always keeping the slasher movie underneath the surface, never quite surfacing until the end.  We aren’t merely surprised because a character that we thought would live to the end doesn’t, but we’re surprised because of the fact that this really seems to be a suspense movie and yet things happen in it that we wouldn’t expect to find there, and once those scenes pass the movie settles back in as a suspense movie as if those scenes had never happened.

I really liked this movie, although my impression of it for most of it — and even now — is that this is magnificent, but it’s not a horror movie.  It really is more of a suspense movie with slasher elements, and so doesn’t fit the traditional model of horror, mostly because for a lot of the movie it isn’t all that scary.  Still, the structure is good, the performances are good, and once I realized it the suspense facade over the slasher underpinnings works really well.  I definitely could watch this movie again.

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3 Responses to “Thoughts on “Psycho””

  1. Marc McKenzie Says:

    Interesting review of a classic film. You should try to find Robert Bloch’s novel which was adapted to the film by Joseph Stefano. There’s also the film HITCHCOCK, starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, Helen Mirren as his wife, Scarlett Johannsen as Janet Leigh, and James D’Arcy as Tony Perkins. The film covers the making of PSYCHO and I thought it was a pretty good movie.

  2. Thoughts on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”: Tabby | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] with any deeper knowledge of the series knows that it was always a parody.  But, of course, for me making the shower scene in “Psycho” the paradigm of objectification is getting the […]

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