Whenever you have a movie that's as famous and well-known as this, I never feel the need to give a plot synopsis since everybody already knows it. However, there are a couple of things about the plot in regards to my first viewing of the movie that I will talk about. For one, I was lucky enough to have seen the movie long before the internet and other media became so prevalent that you ended up learning of a movie's details long before you actually saw it and so, despite its legendary status and all the stuff I had heard about it, the twist ending was completely unspoiled for me when I went into it. I certainly knew of Norman Bates and his mother, the motel, and the shower scene, but I always figured that he and his mother murdered people together. While it turns out that I wasn't that far off the mark, the exact details of their "relationship" were never revealed to me beforehand and so, I was able to enjoy it as much as the moviegoers back in 1960. Something else about the film's story that surprised me was the way it unfolded. Having heard about nothing other than everything to do with Norman Bates and the motel, imagine my surprise when the movie starts off as far from that as possible, with Marion Crane, her boyfriend, and her decision to run off with the money. I thought that was interesting, that we start with someone else's story and follow them for a little while until they cross paths with Norman and then, it shifts over to him. In fact, the beginning is so far removed from what the movie eventually becomes that it feels like Hitchcock edited an episode of his television show with something else that he was working on at the same time. This unusual structure is probably why some feel that the movie is uneven, especially during the second half when the other characters are trying to catch up with what we already know, but I've always found it to be a very fascinating way of telling a story.
One of Hitchcock's most lauded talents was his ability to tell stories about ordinary people who run into bizarre, frightening situations and in my opinion, few fit that trope of his better than Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. This is a woman whose life has been as mundane as you can get: she's stuck in a dead-end job as a secretary at a real estate firm and desperately wants to marry her lover, Sam Loomis, but they can't afford to do so at the moment because of the debts he has to pay for his deceased father and the alimony for his ex-wife; until he pays off his debts in a couple of years, all they can do now is have sensual meet-ups in cheap hotels in Phoenix. But Marion, who's not only unable to wait that long but also probably feels it's unlikely Sam will ever have his debts completely paid off, decides to go to him with $40,000 she was supposed to deposit for a client... having no idea what lies ahead for her on the path she's chosen. Rather than being a dishonest person, Marion is painted as someone who's good at heart but, out of desperation to have a better life for herself and the man she loves, made an ill-advised, last minute decision. You see that she's clearly not without conscience, as she contemplates taking the money while packing and it's obvious that she's really struggling with herself as she tries to make a decision. And when she heads out towards Fairvale, her decision immediately turns the world around her into a dark, frightening place that she's never been in before, as she becomes extremely paranoid, wondering what'll happen when everybody realizes that she's gone with the money and constantly dreaming up scenarios and exchanges of dialogue. Her fear causes her to unintentionally act suspicious around a state patrol officer, prompting him to tail her and watch as she trades her car for another. Her nervousness and hurried need to get a new car, as well as her paying the salesman $700 in cash, also arouses his suspicions and when she leaves, she worries about what the officer is discussing with the salesman. When she thinks about what'll eventually happen when Cassidy, the man who gave her firm the money, learns that she took it, she can't help but smile at his inevitable frustration, especially since he was unabashedly flirting with her when he dropped it off; it's the only time she looks a little sinister.
As if Marion's decision hadn't already turned the world she knew into something sinister, it ultimately leads her to the worst place of all: the Bates Motel. I can't think of a more blatant example of an ordinary person finding themselves in a place and situation that's anything but ordinary. Once she checks into the motel and agrees to have dinner with Norman, Marion is initially only thinking of herself, finding somewhere to hide the money, but when she hears Norman's mother shouting at him from the house, it arouses her sympathetic side. While she tells him that she doesn't have much of an appetite, she decides to have dinner with him in his parlor. As they talk, Marion is reluctant to talk about herself, telling Norman that she's simply looking for a "private island somewhere," and becomes initially alarmed when he asks her what she's running away from. When the conversation switches to the subject of private traps, Marion begins to realize the severity of the mistake she's made and that she has a chance to escape hers, unlike Norman, who, for one reason or another, is unable to. When she talks to him about his mother, she not only becomes more and more sympathetic towards his situation but also sees what a troubled person he is when she makes the mistake of suggesting that he put his mother in an asylum. As much as she feels for him, she's clearly frightened by his reaction and the anger and hatred she sees boiling up inside him as he talks, and when he tells her, "We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?", she responds, "Yes. Sometimes, just once can be enough." I think it's right then when she decides to go back to Phoenix and face the music, as she doesn't want to become like Norman and be clamped in her own private trap forever. As she tells him, she wants to go back and pull herself out, "Before it's too late for me, too." This is what makes what happens next so tragic. She realized what she did was wrong, that she still has a chance to correct it before it ruins her life, and then, after she symbolically cleans away her sins in the shower, she's brutally stabbed to death. And while the beads of water underneath her eye after she falls over the tub are more than likely from the shower, you can't help but wonder if they're actually meant to be tears she shed during her last moments of life, as she realized her chance to do the right thing had been destroyed in an instant and that her change of heart wasn't enough to save her from the doom her crime led her to.
Speaking of the patrolman (Mort Mills), he's quite a menacing character, with his pitch-black sunglasses, imposing face and expression, and fairly overbearing voice (given how fearful Hitchcock was of the police, it's small wonder why he's painted in such a frightening light). He's not intending to come across so sinisterly but for Marion, he's the worst nightmare possible after what she's done. When he wakes her up in her car, the look of sheer terror on her face when she sees him staring at her through the window is unmistakable. She panics so much that she frantically turns her motor on and tries to drive away, and her nervousness makes the officer suspicious, leading him to ask her for her license. While her license does check out, he still decides to follow her all the way to Los Angeles, where he watches her buy her new car, after which he's never seen again. The character that nobody seems to care for is the psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) who gives the rundown of Norman's psychosis during the penultimate scene. Many feel that this scene is completely unnecessary, that you can figure it out yourself, but I disagree to some extent. While the reveal before that proves that Mrs. Bates is dead and that Norman, through an obvious split-personality, is the murderer, I like being able to hear the depths of his insanity, how this alternate personality came to be, the sick relationship he had with his mother, and exactly why he was driven to kill Marion and how these take-overs by the other personality affected him. Plus, through this scene, Hitchcock was able to slip in the word "transvestite" and what it means, something that was very unorthodox for a film of the time. I will admit, the psychiatrist does seem to be enjoying explaining Norman's condition a little too much, even when he directly tells Lila what prompted Norman to kill her sister, but I think he does a fine job and has some nice lines, such as, "Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all. Most unbearable for the son who commits it," "When the mind houses two personalities, there's always a conflict, a battle. In Norman's case, the battle is over, and the dominant personality has won," and, when Sheriff Chambers asks who got the $40,000, he answers, "The swamp. These were crimes of passion, not profit."
As great as the shower scene is, it's the other death in the film, that of Arbogast, that I've always found to be more disturbing. In fact, his death was possibly the first thing from the movie I ever saw, and it was from a video clue on Jeopardy! when I was a very young kid, believe it or not! I always remembered the image of him getting cut across the face with a shocked expression, although I don't think that clue showed the fall. Regardless, like the shower scene, the build-up to it is great. Not satisfied with what he got from Norman initially, Arbogast goes back to the motel and, after looking around the parlor behind the office, decides to go up to the house to attempt to question Mrs. Bates. The way Hitchcock shoots his descent up the stairs and how Bernard Herrmann plays his music, you know something's about to happen, and that's when you see a shot of a door slowly opening. Cut to an overhead shot of the top of the stairs and, as Arbogast reaches the top and begins to turn to his left, the same figure who killed Marion comes running out of the room, accompanied by those same shrieking violins, and before Arbogast knows what hit him, he gets a nasty slash across the side of his face and falls backwards down the stairs. The part that always gets me, though, is when he falls to the bottom, Norman is on him within a second, and you see a close-up of the knife stabbing into him out of frame, accompanied by Arbogast's agonized scream. When you combine this with the crazed stabbing in the shower scene, it's small wonder why Psycho is often regarded as the grandfather of the slasher genre.
As he had for every Hitchcock movie since The Trouble With Harry, Bernard Herrmann provided the music and, along with his score for Vertigo, it's possibly the most famous work he ever did. To compliment the black-and-white photography, he decided to go with a score that was 100% string-oriented rather than a full orchestra and it works effectively well, as there are some pieces in the score that are genuinely creepy and unsettling. Being used to the screeching theme for the shower scene, I was quite surprised by the main title theme, which is this very fast-paced, frantic piece which seems to mirror the actions of the black and gray lines shooting across the screen, dragging the credits into place with them. It's music that lets you know from the outset that you're in for something frightening, and it's heard again three times when Marion is driving and fretting about her situation, mirroring not only her fear but perhaps also forewarning her eventual demise. The music that follows that is the complete opposite: a calm, slow, peaceful-sounding tune that fits in with the feeling of a lazy, hot afternoon, and is followed by a slightly warmer and more poignant piece during the moments between Marion and Sam in the hotel room, hinting at their tryst as well as the hopelessness of their romance given the circumstances. The slower music beforehand is repeated many times throughout the film, such as when Marion arrives at the car dealership, when Norman comes down from the house after his argument with his mother, when he shows her into the parlor, when she's sitting at the desk in her room before heading for the shower, and, most effectively, when Sam goes out to the Bates Motel to try to find Arbogast is unaware that Norman is standing at the edge of the swamp behind the motel. There's a rhythmic piece, fittingly called "Temptation" in the album listing, that first plays when Marion is packing and considering stealing the money and it's played again whenever it's dealing with the money, like when Marion takes out the $700 to pay for her car and when she hides it after being shown to her motel room.
Two of the eeriest pieces of the score occur right after each other. When Norman becomes quietly angry from Marion's suggestion that he put his mother in an asylum, you hear a low, menacing string followed by some higher and more quiet but unnerving strings as he explains his reasons for not doing so. You hear this piece again when Norman gathers up Marion's things after the murder, whenever there's something dealing with his house and his mother, and at the very end where, as you see Marion's car being dragged out of the swamp, you hear that low bit of the music much louder than before and some very disturbing, dissonant chords as the movie ends. The other creepy piece is heard when Marion goes back to her room after her dinner and talk with Norman. It starts off fairly innocuous and even sounds kind of touching as Norman watches her go, but as he walks to the back wall of the parlor and listens to her moving around, it becomes far more menacing until he takes the picture down and looks through the peephole, whereupon the strings get very high and creepy as he watches Marion undress. From there, it goes into a plucking sort of rhythm and not as unsettling but those high strings stick with you, and similar, quiet-sounding strings can be heard in other spots, most notably when Arbogast goes back to the motel and looks around. I already mentioned the creepy bit you hear after Sheriff Chambers who's buried out in the cemetery in her place if Mrs. Bates is alive and well. A climbing sort of rhythm is heard when Lila heads up towards the Bates house and she investigates Mrs. Bates' room, the music is very soft but has hints of menace to it, and when she goes into Norman's bedroom, the music plays up the notion that it looks like a child's room more than that of a young man. The strings become lower and more unsettling the longer she's in there, becoming very loud when she looks at the book and the scene cuts back to Sam talking with Norman. Finally, you have the legendary music for the shower scene, known as "The Murder" in the track listing, and while I can't say anything else about it that hasn't already been said and that's different from when I talked about the scene itself, I will say that it's interesting that Hitchcock intended for that scene to be played without music. In fact, there's a special feature on the DVDs and Blu-Ray releases where you can watch it without the music and, having seen that, it's a good thing Herrmann insisted on writing something for it because it's not nearly as effective without it. Also, the music is heard two more times afterward, in a much faster and even more threatening version when Arbogast is attacked and killed, and when Lila is confronted by the maniacal Norman near the end, where the music is followed up on by some crazy, freakish strings as the camera lingers on the skeletal face of Mrs. Bates' corpse.