When Psycho was released in 1960, it took audiences by storm, both because of its storyline as well as because of director Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful publicity plan. By refusing audiences entry into the picture after it had started, Hitchcock created a buzz around the film that made it much more than just a horror film. It made it an experience. The film opens with Marion Crane embezzling money from her employer and fleeing in a desperate bid to escape the authorities. She makes the ill-fated decision to stop for the night at a dilapidated hotel where she encounters Norman Bates, the hotel clerk. What follows is a taut psychological drama in which sexuality, psychosis, and identity merge together in horrific fashion.
There are so many interesting dynamics at play in this film that entire books have been written on the subject. From Hitchcock’s game changing decision to kill off his protagonist half way through the film to the methods the director employed to fool the audience into thinking that they were seeing more brutality than was actually on screen, there is a wealth of resources devoted to further exploration of the impact Psycho had upon the horror film genre. Check out a list of some of my favorite reads below.
While most discussion of the film involves issues of gender and sexuality as well as the constant appearance of a bird motif, less discussed is what role, if any, the money played in this film. To me, the money serves two primary purposes in Psycho. First, it is used as one more signifier of the narrative break. The audience in the first 45 minutes thinks that this is going to be a mystery about whether Marion will get away with her crime of stealing the money. The moment the money is carelessly tossed in the trunk, the narrative becomes about something else. I also think it plays in to the association of money with evil. The act of drowning the money, aka the root of all evil, signals to the audience that they are about to experience a new type of horror.
Second, Marion’s “goodness” in the eyes of the audience is directly tied to her relationship with the money. As she absconds with the cash, Marion is not wholly sympathetic. Her motives could be written off as that of a woman who, in a moment completely out of character, gave in to temptation and made a poor decision. After all, the man she steals from is not only lecherous but has already informed the audience that he never carries more money than what he can afford to lose. So in the minds of the audience at this point, Marion’s thievery is almost a victimless crime. Yet, this easy reading for the audience is compromised when Marion is in the car. The slight smirk she gives while driving indicates that this is not just a woman who has made a mistake but also a woman who is deriving a sense of power from the crime she has just committed. However, by the time of her murder, Marion has decided to return the money thereby reestablishing her complete moral goodness in the eyes of the audience. By using the money as a symbol of Marion’s goodness, Hitchcock creates an “every-woman” who is easily identifiable to the audience. This relationship then makes Marion’s murder all the more chilling because her return to goodness means she doesn’t “deserve” to be punished.
Another aspect of the film I found interesting was how the concept of happiness was situated within the characters. Marion begins the film by having her co-worker tell her she looks unhappy to which Marion responds she plans to just “sleep it off.” The smarmy Tom Cassidy informing Marion that, thanks to all of his money, his daughter has never experienced a day of unhappiness then follows this exchange. The idea of what constitutes happiness is later qualified by another character when, as he sits with Marion, Norman says, “Happiness is stuffing things.” It struck me that that the character who displays the most morality is the one who is unable to achieve happiness while the film’s two most immoral characters (and this would depend on reading Norman as unsympathetic which I do) are able to define happiness easily within the context of their own lives.
Also intriguing is how this film ushered in the gruesome to horror films. One of the reasons the shower scene still reads as horrific is because of the sounds employed. The audience hears the sound of the knife penetrating the flesh underscoring Marion’s screams, the running water and the score. As the knife enters her body at different angles, the film is cut in time to the knife cuts. The end result is a moment that reads as surprisingly realistic. What I find most interesting about this scene is that I can’t think of another stabbing moment in a horror film where the stabbing sounds so real. It is almost as if the visual has supplanted audio in this respect. We are used to seeing vast amounts of blood, severed limbs and whatnot but the cutting, which occurs in slasher films, tends to be more theatrical if the slicing can even be heard over the screams and score. In a way, slasher films seem to me a bit more removed because I never completely buy the knife penetrating the skin on a primal level simply because it doesn’t sound completely real. In Psycho, the sound of the knife plunging into the victim is exactly what I would think being stabbed actually sounds like to the victim. To me, that is much more frightening as well as gruesome.
For Further Reading:
Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello
Hitchcock’s Villains: Murderers, Maniacs, and Mother Issues by Eric San Juan and Jim McDevitt
The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder by David Thomson
‘Psycho’ Analysis: An Interpretation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Cinematic Masterpiece by Dale Andrew White
Psycho in the Shower: The History of Cinema’s Most Famous Scene by Philip J. Skerry
Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller by Christopher Nickens and Janet Leigh