Hitch on the Hump: Psycho (1960)-Part 3: We're All In Our Private Traps

(Don't forget to check out Part 1:We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes and Part 2: Mother! Oh, God, Mother! Blood! Blood!)If some people thought, as Hitchcock said, that “the people were small, there were no characters in it” then I’m not sure what film they were watching. While in Psycho none of the characters gets a laid out story arc exploring their emotional or psychological archetype, each of the actors owns their part. Even the minor characters, the cop, the car salesman, or Cassidy are all so real that it reinforces the film’s desire to make its cinematic world ring true. As with each of his films, Hitchcock was meticulous with casting, and though he ended up making some minor concessions, the choices he made were all actors who could handle the intense material that the film presented.

Even before Joseph Stefano was brought on to script the film; Hitchcock had already cast the lead role of Norman Bates. Anthony Perkins had the looks of a teen idol, and he had even recorded albums of pop music. Before Psycho, he shared the screen with Audrey Hepburn, Spenser Tracy, and Gray Cooper, but after he performed in Hitchcock’s film, he would be forever linked to the Norman Bates character. Though he performed in many other films, including Orson Welles’ excellent adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, he would never really escape the character, and eventually he would embrace it returning to play Norman three more times. When he and Hitchcock met, the director instantly liked the bright young man, and Perkins was up to the task of playing the murderous cross-dresser. He was also a homosexual, which was a well known Hollywood secret, and Hitchcock must have known that this would inform his performance as well as create buzz in the industry about the role.

Perkins embodied the character, and brought much of the nervous habits and tics that made Norman so memorable. The biggest addition Perkins made was Norman’s hesitating stutter that becomes more pronounced when he get’s nervous. This sense of hesitation about his whole being informs every decision that he makes. There are a hundred little things that be read into the slightest action such as when he pauses before deciding to hand Marion the key to cabin 1. Is it because she had lied to him by giving a fake name? , Or perhaps because she seems dismissive of him while he is clearly attracted to her. Does he know he is assigning her to murder? Or does he just plan to spy on her, oblivious of his "mother" side and what she may do.

It’s hard to say, and for the original viewers of the film, impossible. Norman Bates could have been a passing character like the car dealer or the cop, or perhaps a love interest that will seek to redeem another naughty Hitchcock blonde. I doubt many people expected he would get in granny drag and knife her down. When asked if there were clues to Norman’s predilection Hitchcock said, “the basic clue was the feminine nature of the character altogether.” Perkins performance is fantastic, and I am constantly amazed how sensitive and interesting he makes the character. (There’s a nice interview with Mr. Perkins on the whole series HERE.)

This is a film that challenges you to change loyalties, from Marion and hoping she won't get caught, to Norman at the whim of his murderous mother, and then finally to Vera Miles when we learn more about Norman's dark secret. The women of the film have the least amount of development, but all we need to know about Marion is that she has found a solution to the malaise in her life. Janet Leigh had appeared as the sexy wife of Charlton Heston in Orson Welles Touch of Evil in 1958, and her role in Psycho played up that sex appeal even further. The veteran actress has been on the screen since 1947, and she was a firmly established star. Yet that is only part of why Hitchcock cast her in the role. The shock of the major star getting off-ed at the halfway point would be shocking, but Hitch was interested in her because he wanted someone “who could actually look like she came from Phoenix”. Leigh remarked that he wanted someone with “vulnerability and softness.” As usual, Hitchcock was deeply involved in how her character looked, and all of her costuming, styles that a typical secretary would wear, were purchased off the rack. Even her bras came into question when the costume department wanted to make them custom. Hitchcock stated plainly, “That won’t work for the character. We want that underwear to be identifiable to many women all over the country.” It was another case of Hitchcock making sure that Psycho asserted its reality at every turn.

Vera Miles had originally been the director’s first choice for the lead in Vertigo, but when the actress became pregnant, he recast the role with Kim Novak. Hitchcock had been interested in making her into his next Grace Kelly, but after the pregnancy the director “couldn’t get the rhythm going with her again.” He did cast Miles as Lila Crane, but the role was mostly thankless. As the lead female in the end of the film, she was overshadowed by the mystery of the Bates Motel, and apart from the memorable scene where she encounters Mrs. Bates for the first time, she leaves little impression. Where the first half of the film is Marion’s, the second half belongs to Norman Bates and Mother. Miles must have known that though when she called the film “the weirdy of all times.”

The supporting male roles fade further into obscurity the deeper you get into the cast. John Gavin was not his choice for Sam Loomis, but the director halfheartedly said “I guess he’ll be alright.” Sam and Lila are meant to be stick figures to guide the audience through the last half of the film, and Hitch required little from their performances. Gavin does have the distinction of having worked for two of the great directors in the same year as he also showed up in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus as Julius Ceasar. For the role of the doomed detective, Arbogast, Hitchcock cast Martin Balsam after seeing his performance in Twelve Angry Men. In Sydney Lumet’s film, Balsam plays a massive jackass, and just as broadly, he made Arbogast so slimy you can practically feel the sleaze coming out of the screen. It makes his death scene all the more satisfying, and after the first character killed was one the audience was sympathetic to, it was probably a wise choice to make the second someone we could not wait to see killed.

I want to mention a few small performances that make quite the impact on the film. Speaking of slimy, Frank Albertson’s braggart cowboy was practically asking for Marian to steal his money, and the small role which serves as a catalyst to the whole film should be applauded. Mort Mills was a TV character actor for more than twenty years, but his stone face captured the look that I think every highway patrolman tries to put on before he hits the road. Mills would return for another bit part in a Hitchcock film when he would portray the farmer in the Cold War potboiler Torn Curtain. John Anderson provides some comic relief in the middle of Marian’s tense sequence following her encounter with the cop. His car dealer seems very real, and he should. Hitchcock had a team go to Phoenix and photograph car salesmen so the look would be just right.

Perhaps the unsung hero of the film was Jeanette Nolan as the voice of Mrs. Bates. Nolan’s screen debut was in 1948 as Lady Macbeth in the Orson Welles’ version of the play (there seems to be a lot of Welles connection with this film), but her needling diatribes lambasting Norman Bates are surely her most memorable role. Unfortunately, no one knows who it was even though she has the last lines in the movies (“I wouldn’t kill a fly.”) Nolan should be given the respect she deserves. Would we have had a Mrs. Voorhees if not for Mrs. Bates? Maybe Norman and Jason should get together and compare notes sometime.

The other shining star in the film doesn’t make an onscreen appearance, but he didn’t have to go down in film history and pop culture. Even if someone is not very familiar with the film, if you ask the average person, they can probably imitate the “reeet reeet reeet” stabs of the violins that accompany the shower scene. Bernard Herrmann was told by Hitchcock that the shower scene would be silent, but Herrmann, in a stroke of genius, scored the scene anyway. As soon as Hitchcock heard the music, there was no doubt that the scene would have sound. The rest of the score in the film is equally as well composed, and from the opening titles, the score has as much to do as any camera angle or performance in making the film what it became.

Speaking of sound in the film, I want to share a story that has always stuck with me even though I could not find the tale recounted anywhere to quote from it. It is well known that the sound of the knife stabbing Marion is actually a blade piecing a Casaba melon, and the story I heard long ago has to do with how that particular melon was chosen. As I recall, the sound engineer called Hitchcock in to try out various sounds for him. The Master of Suspense sat in a chair with his back to the soundman and his eyes closed. One by one, a line of melons were stabbed with each one being announced for the director. After they were done, Hitchcock did not hesitate. He got out of his chair, said simply “Casaba”, and left the room. I have only my memory of a documentary viewed long ago to go on for that one, but I would surely like it to be true even it its not.

The last tale of Psycho I have for you has to with the influence that Alma Hitchcock had over the film. In Pat Hitchcock’s book about her mother, The Woman Behind the Man, she states that it was Alma who first looked at Hitch’s script for Psycho and suggested that he might be able to “get away with it if he shot it in black and white.” She also saved the film from containing a devastating goof. The film had been viewed by a series of editors, studio men, and Hitchcock many times, but when Alma watched the final print she had one minor problem. "It's great, but you can't ship the picture yet." Hitchcock asked "Why not?" trying to figure out what was wrong with it. And she replied, "Because when 'Janet Leigh is lying dead on the bathroom floor after she has been stabbed, you can see her swallow." so a few frames were cut and the shot goes from Marion lying dead to the shower head and back to Marion. A scene meant to make the audience swallow hard, and not the dearly departed leading lady.

There are thousands of little stories that stem from Psycho. I could literally go on forever recounting every little anecdote or deconstruction that I have encountered, but if you’ve managed to make it this far, then I feel like I should relent. Psycho is a film that gets better every time I see it, and my enthusiasm for the film has rarely if ever been rivaled. It’s hard to say that any film is perfect, but Psycho sure does a hell of a job getting close. While the film holds great surprises for the first time viewer, it never fails to amaze. I still pick up on things in it even after twenty years of seeing this film on a fairly regular basis. If for some reason you haven’t seen it, or it’s been a while, then take this time to revisit this classic. While Hitchcock is known for his crime and suspense stories, Psycho is why Hitchcock matters to horror fans, and there’s good reason for it. Now if you’ll excuse me, its time for me too have a seat and draw up a nice safe bath.

Bugg Rating


  1. ...and the award for the best review of Psycho, ever--goes to...

    Damn, Bugg! That was great. I reeeeally want to watch this again now. Rear Window is still my favorite Hitchcock film, but Psycho is such an awesome movie. Your review only points that out more so.

  2. Thanks Rev. Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for reading I know it was a daunting amount to get through (perhaps hence why I don't have more comments LOL).


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