Psycho

Mary Elizabeth Williams writes about her favorite movie in Salon's Personal Best issue.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
March 22, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

all those who still get a chill every time they step into a hotel shower, say aye. That, you see, is the power of "Psycho." Once you've experienced it, it isn't just a movie any more -- it's a part of your life.

"Psycho" was unlike any mainstream film that had preceded it -- it was frankly sexual and it was frankly violent. Other thrillers had offered black and white villains and neat conclusions, but "Psycho" got under your skin and it stayed there. It wasn't a roller-coaster ride or a fun house trip -- a movie that left you breathless but relieved when the lights came up. Instead it made sure that you never wanted the lights to go back down again.

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The movie announced this was going to be something new from the first shot, as the camera swooped in, peeping Tom-style, on the motel room tryst of a clearly unwed couple groping each other in bed in their underwear in the middle of the day. Poor Marion (Janet Leigh) -- girls with her habits have never lasted long in movies. But what set her apart was that Marion, after establishing herself very clearly as the leading lady, after making you care about her and root for her redemption, was then dispatched quite fantastically and memorably -- and before the movie was even half over.

With its deluge of staccato camera cuts and its shrieking violins, "Psycho's" infamous shower scene instantly entered the collective consciousness as one of the most nightmarish moments in movie history. So many film deaths before had occurred bloodlessly, discreetly. But here was Janet Leigh screaming her head off, her character's life pouring down the drain, dying at last not with the peaceful aspect of sleep but with her eyes wide open in unblinking horror.

"Psycho" is more than just blood on the porcelain though. It's an exploration into the mind, a journey that demonstrates that the bogeyman may come bearing sandwiches and milk, that life is full of random misfortunes and nasty shocks.

Hitchcock had cheerfully gone down the dark alleys of the mind in his previous films, unleashing throughout the '40s and '50s "Vertigo," "Spellbound," "Rear Window," "Suspicion" and "Rebecca" -- all of which played with the notions of brains in pain and what you see not always being what you get. But "Psycho" was unique -- coming as it did into the barely hatched '60s with more sex, more violence and more Freudian dilemmas than had been seen in drama since, oh, maybe Sophocles.

Norman Bates, the Oedipal wreck loosely based on serial killer Ed Gein (who also inspired the somewhat splashier character Leatherface in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"), was a groundbreaking cinematic heavy. He was no bloodsucking vampire, no scheming mobster, no lover done wrong. No, Norman was just plain twisted -- which made him then, and leaves him still, one of the screen's ghastliest figures.

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With his gangly frame, soulful dark eyes and soft voice, Anthony Perkins didn't just act, he defied, and then defined, the psycho of the film's title. He seemed at once capable of offering to carry your luggage and hacking you to bits, the genteel host and the grim reaper alternating dominance in the flick of an eyelash. He was a guy who found the smell of old sheets "creepy" but could stand by idly chewing while a car with a body slipped into a swamp. And when he said, "We all go a little mad sometimes," you thought, but nobody goes mad in quite the way that you do, Norman.

His victim, Marion, was no virgin ingenue or ruthless home-wrecker -- she was a grown woman with a good job and a loving sister, a woman who happened to spend occasional lunch hours fucking her boyfriend. She died not because she was irredeemably wicked or because she was carrying a wad of cash in her purse, but because she aroused the erotic impulses of the wrong man.

Shit happens, said "Psycho." Bad things occur because you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, for no logical reason, when you're naked and vulnerable. Violence is often random and sick and senseless and ugly. What more perfect film to usher in the '60s?

When Norman took that knife to Marion, he was slashing away at everything that had gone before -- at our expectations of heroes and bad guys, at every clichi of what was supposed to happen in a film and when it was supposed to happen, at the polite fantasy of good triumphing over evil. The movies would never be the same again. And neither, for that matter, would showering.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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