The genius of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ is in its subtlety. It sounds strange to say that a mystery/slasher from the sixties is subtle. However, it is in fact full of intricate detail which brings that world to life and therefore makes it such a respected work.
Norman Bates is not outwardly psychotic, at first meeting he actually seems to be a fairly agreeable chap. He is even a sympathetic character in a lot of ways. Norman is a product of his upbringing and circumstances. Hitchcock makes a case for nurture over nature with this layered character.
Even the casting is a stroke of genius from Hitchcock, it is a piece of foreshadowing in itself. Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates is a skinny rake of a man, child-like in a lot of ways. This is a subtle indication that he may not have reached certain social milestones, that there is something immature and ‘off’ about him.
This is played with a deft grace. Perkins does not over-act. His portrayal of Norman presents an amiable man, practiced at presenting a façade which society finds acceptable.
In fleeting moments, that façade melts away and his desperation for approval, perhaps the same validation he would seek from ‘mother’, radiates from his eyes.
In contrast, Sam presents an aura of dependability. He is well-built and muscular, confident in his physical presence. This is why Marion gravitates towards Sam and has suspicions about Norman.
Hitchcock lights the environment with the intent to inspire an emotion. The lighting of the Bates house naturally inspires feelings of wariness. It is barely lit in many scenes except for the glow from the windows.
This makes it look like a haunted house. If you were inside, you would no doubt hear cries from the ghosts of the motel’s previous tenants.
The dialogue is steeped in detail. One instance is in the parlour when Marion first gets to the motel. Bates keeps pressing her to call him Norman in an attempt to get close to her. Marion’s desire to keep a distance is illustrated by the fact that she never calls him Norman. When he asks her name, she answers: ‘Mrs Crane’.
The taxidermy animals in the parlour are a clever piece of foreshadowing that works on two levels. The stuffed animals hint at his comfort around the deceased and also the fate of his mother, which is brilliantly paid-off in the finale.
There is a lot beneath the surface when it comes to ‘Psycho’. Despite the theatrical nature of sixties films, the build-up is slow and measured making for a more shocking conclusion.
I have seen a lot of mystery films but the big reveal is still utterly shocking and has scary implications of how insane someone can become.