Psycho is, first of all, a flawed film. The plot is disjointed; the pace is uneven; the characters are few in number, and there is not a great range of emotions. The story consists of two separate plots that have very little to do with each other. It begins with Marion Crane stealing forty thousand dollars; it ends with a total fixation on the deranged psychology of Norman Bates, and the forty thousand dollars is as good as forgotten. There is the vague hint that Bates and Marion are two parts of the same person, a plot point that I will discuss later, but the connection is weak and underdeveloped (it might have been better explored if Marion had survived longer than thirty minutes into the movie).
Yet the movie is, undeniably, a masterpiece. Like Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, or Ridley Scott’s Alien, it is a unique and original work whose uncanny power overwhelms its flaws and captivates audiences long since the work was first released. It is a movie of extremes: a woman suddenly decides to steal a great sum of money from a company that has employed her and trusted her for years; a man is suddenly drawn toward a woman he has just met; a third person(ality?) exacts revenge on that same woman within the hour. It is a movie about desperation, and panic, and hasty decisions – leaving a terrible mess that other, more ordinary people must unravel and clean up.
On the surface level, Marion’s decision to stay at the Bates Motel is horribly convenient for Hitchcock, a cheap parlor trick that we have seen too many times before and since. A weary traveler must spend the night somewhere, and she just happens to wind up at what is essentially a haunted house. Out of all the motels on the road, she just happened to pick the one run by a matricidal recluse – and out of all the attractive women to stay at his motel, Bates just happens to receive a visit from a woman who has just stolen forty thousand dollars. If he is so easily set off by an intriguing visitor, why has no one ever died at his motel before?
How does this improbable plot point work? Simple – because the movie is not meant to be logical. As Dr. Richmond says later, “These were crimes of passion, not profit.” Or, as Roger Ebert once remarked in his review of The Game, “The events are believable in the sense that events can be believed in a nightmare.” The infamous shower scene draws its power, not from any special relationship between a shower and the rest of the story, but simply because a shower is the last place where you would want someone sneaking up on you. It is the most private part of a house or apartment, and when Marion is stabbed there, the audience realizes that this murderer, whoever he or she is, will go farther and across more boundaries than any other murderer we might have been expecting. The fear in that scene is timeless and translates across any culture.
Of course, after that scene, we have the tedious set of scenes in which Norman discovers the body and must get rid of all evidence. He is horrified, but does not faint or vomit, and we know this is not the first corpse he has dealt with. His efforts to clean up all traces of Crane culminate in the ludicrous scene in which he pushes her car into the swamp and watches it slowly descend, inch by inch. There is a moment when the car stops sinking but is still visible, and we imagine for a moment that Bates is going to pull the car out and find a bigger swamp in which to sink the car, or perhaps pull out a garden hose and spray this swamp until the water is a little deeper. But the car sinks in, and we never see Marion Crane or the forty thousand dollars again. The screen is then dominated by Lila Crane, a character we have never seen for the first third of the movie.
The rest of the movie plays out like a detective story, in which the audience already knows the where and the how, though not quite the who and the why. But it is still not a typical detective story, as symbolized by the fact that the detective (Arbogast) is killed after perhaps ten minutes of screen time.
The line “We all go a little mad sometimes,” has been immortalized, but it is followed by a rhetorical question from Bates: “Haven’t you?” To which Marion Crane responds, “Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough.” At this point we realize that Marion, after her sudden impulse to steal, is contemplating her future. Does she want to spend the rest of her life on the run? Meeting Norman Bates makes her realize that she has trapped herself in a terrible predicament, and suddenly she has the will to extricate herself. But just as she is planning to return the money (or what is left of it), she dies at the hands of someone even more insane than she is. When she made that terrible decision to steal, her life turned into a nightmare, and in a sense Norman Bates is the conclusion of that nightmare. His insanity is an extension of her own, almost as if the Bates Motel was drawn into existence by Marion herself. The dead mother, the man in the wig, the shadowy figure with his knife – none of these things could exist except in a world in which Marion Crane suddenly decides to steal forty thousand dollars. The money itself becomes irrelevant, but the act of stealing is like a drop in a pond, creating more and more ripples, a catalyst that brings about a world of trouble. Our feeling of Marion’s distress over stealing the money becomes our feeling of Norman’s distress when he discovers the dead body. This is a movie is about the unpredictable nature of insanity itself.
At the end we have another oddly paced scene, in which the psychiatrist calmly explains Norman’s condition, as if it were a textbook example and Lila Crane attending him only because she is pursuing a master’s degree in criminology. His tone is casual, detached, almost amused, as if this whole story is so absurd that it cannot be taken seriously and perhaps never even happened (ironically, the story is in fact based on true events). The psychiatrist has not lost someone dear, as Lila has; he did not see the corpse in the fruit cellar; he certainly did not get stabbed in the shower. The events of this movie cannot be explained to any significant effect, because they simply do not make much sense; they must be experienced.
This movie was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960, after Hitchcock decided that Jimmy Stewart was too old to play heroes in Hitchcock movies anymore (apparently the act of aging went against a clause in Mr. Stewart’s contract). It is a movie about two people who choose to push themselves to their limits, and the consequences that follow. The unexplored limits of our existences will always terrify us, and Janet Leigh took baths rather than showers to the end of her life.