Hitchcock’s “Psycho” turns 60!

Based on the novel by Robert Bloch and layered in dualities and Freudian psychology Alfred Hitchcock’s „Psycho“ is often praised, as the film that gave birth to the psychological thriller genre. Made after some of directors highest successes „Rope“, „Rear Window“, „Vertigo“ and „North by Northwest“, with his crew from the television show and on the budget of $800,000, (which was cheap even by ’60s standards) the brilliance of this film lies way beyond the genre-bending. Abandoning the conventions and trespassing into the psyche with dualities and symbolism, Hitchcock set an example to young filmmakers, how deliberate and meaningful experimenting, within the script as well as within the shooting and editing, can surpass budget or any other limitation the one might have.

„Psycho“ follows Marion Cane, a secretary from Phoenix, Arizona that is fed up with the life she is leading. Spending lunch breaks, sneaking around the cheap motels with her long-distance lover Sam isn’t acceptable for her anymore. Marion would like something more respectable, the only problem is that Sam has troubles of his own, the debt his father left him and alimony he is paying his ex-wife. So, one Friday when she is trusted to bank forty thousand dollars by a shady, tax-evading client of her employer, she seizes the opportunity and heads towards her lover in California. Tired after the long drive, she pulls into the Bates Motel, a place managed by a quiet young Norman who seems to be dominated by his mother.

What intrigues the most, 60 years after the release of „Psycho“, is not the „shower scene“ or the brilliant ending monologue by Bates, but the way Hitchcock manipulates his audiences from the first shot of this film. In the opening minute of the film, the camera is moving through a window into the motel where Marion and Sam are. The audience is placed in the role of „a voyeur“, and with the engaging story the protagonist is telling and living, everyone is ok with this. Later on, when Marion arrives at Bates motel, almost the same thing happens, but this time around Hitchcock first shows us Norman peeping through a hole in a wall, then as he is placing us, the viewer, in that position, a certain kind of uncomfortableness might occur.

But Hitchcock’s guidance of the viewer doesn’t end there, as he constantly plays the game of contrasting and equaling the stories of Marion and Norman. As in the first part of the film, she is the one having moral doubts and trying to weight between the freedom/happiness and what is societally acceptable (we can see this, perversely, in her changes from white underwear to black than finally to being naked in a shower), the same could be said about Norman, later on. Another good example of Hitchcock’s direction is Marion’s vision of „respectable“, that becomes ironically true at the moment while she is having dinner with Norman. To make things more interesting, all the dialogues she is having with strangers on her trip (policeman that tells her it is safer to sleep in a motel than in a car, a car salesman that says that the first customer, of the day, is always the biggest trouble…) lead to this place, her, a bit ironic ending.
With all the sexuality/tradition, moral rights/inner desires presented in the film, it is easy to start noticing the classical Freudian tripartite, where both Norman’s and Marion’s ID and Superego are constantly in a fight.

Žižek, in „Pervert’s guide to cinema“, explained most simply how the cellar, first floor and second floor of Bates house represent these three states of the psyche. Norman is stuck between the desire (eros, that belongs to ID) to leave the house and motel, but is staying there because his mother placed the „home“ as a convention (a tradition that belongs to superego) to follow. Because of this, he becomes a murderer (by repressing eros, he is accepting Thanatos in his ID). When it comes to Marion, tripartite is showcased trough dilemmas that occur because she is fed up of her unstable lifestyle. It starts with her calling out of something „respectable“ (traditional), that is surpassing
and neglecting her desire (eros). It all continues as she takes $40.000, and is having inner doubts, should she accept societal conventions or listen to her desires? When she finally makes a desition to return the money, and follow the norms, the repression of desire leads her to her death.

Since the initial release, 6 decades ago, the film was often imitated, remade and even got several sequels, but none of those other works came close to the original. With ease, it could be said that „Psycho“ set new rules for multiple film genre’s (crime, thriller and horror) and, in a way, it marked the beginning of the end of noir genre-a. In the end, this is why in more than intriguing filmography of Hitchcock, that includes multiple classics, „Psycho“ stands up as directors, career gem.