Ranking: #98/111

Director: Alfred Hitchcock (Britain)

Genre: Film Noir Psychological Thriller

Psycho is not just Hitchcock’s most intense work of art – it is one of cinema’s greatest Film Noir thrillers. From the opening credits, whose format is designed to reflect the psychotic schizophrenia that will be the subject matter of the film, along with the pounding, post-modern score, the viewer knows this is going to be journey into the dark side of the human mind.

The film is crisply shot in clear, realistic grey tones interspersed with noir-like black and white contrasts for sudden psychological effects. Hitchcock is the master of evoking psychological states of mind on the Big Screen.

Began as a writer, assistant director and set designer. “its mix of brilliant montage and long mobile camera shots” (Oxford, p. 311)

There’s a robust causal structure to the plot, which all starts with the two illicit lovers talking about needing money in order to get married. It is this need which drives the woman, Marion Crane, to steal $40,000 in cash when the opportunity suddenly arises. This, in turn, causes her to flee from her home in Phoenix, which then results in her staying at the infamous Bates Motel. She has been exposed to risk as a consequence of her sin of stealing. I believe Hitchcock wanted to keep the plot structure this simple and logical so that it wouldn’t be a distraction and would allow the audience to focus on being immersed in the atmosphere, experiencing to the full the fear and terror. The atmosphere is further heightened by the schizophrenia of the main character, Norman Bates, the motel proprietor, and the insanity of his actions. 

The sustained narrative tension is reinforced by superb acting from the main characters, many of whom frequently convey anxiety and perplexity etched on their faces. This underlying tension is overlaid with an increasingly sinister atmosphere. Hitchcock’s masterly mis-en-scène includes visual symbols which reflect the film’s dark themes and mood, for example, the stuffed birds at the motel, which point to death (including the death of Bates’s mother ten years earlier, whose persona he has taken on board as one of his own personalities) and prefigure Crane’s murder. The swamp on the property, too, symbolises the corruption of Bates’s character and personality. He is now a psychotic killer.

At the end, the swamp is dredged and one realises it has been a symbol of Bates’s unconscious, where madness lurked underneath his quirky, but otherwise comparatively normal, exterior. As a former set designer and assistant director, Hitchcock always knew how to set the scene to maximise the psychology he ultimately wants to depicts.

Much has been written about all the iconic acting performances in this film, but the most nuanced one comes from Anthony Perkins as Bates, who switches brilliantly from chilling to charming, from the quirky to the calculating, and from pitiful to terrifying, and back again, with consummate ease.

The film is rich in themes, all of which are skilfully embedded in the story. For one, schizophrenia is portrayed in a very interesting and memorable way. For another, the economic drivers behind much crime are highlighted. Marion’s theft of the $40,000, which was out of character, was carried out impulsively based on her lover’s debt, which, in turn, was an obstacle to their getting married. In addition, the Bates Motel is shown to be in dire economic straits after a highway was built near it, resulting in a catastrophic decline in business. Then there is the Freudian, or psychoanalytical layer, overlaid with an almost existential picture of the isolation of individuals, wrestling with guilt and anxiety, and thrust into difficult moral dilemmas. In Marion’s case, her unconscious drives are at war with her conscience. And the repressive upbringing of Norman Bates by a harsh, domineering mother clearly led to his neurosis and, ultimately, his psychotic behaviour. It’s terrifying that the mother he himself murdered now lives on within him.

There is a dark irony at the end when the stolen money, still wrapped up in the newspaper, goes down to the bottom of the swamp with the car, Marion’s body and belongings. It’s an extremely pessimistic ending, once again pointing to the emergence of an existential element to Hitchcock’s worldview in the latter part of his career.

Psycho is a very bold and dark film and a landmark. It pushed the Film Noir style into the suspense and horror genre. It maintains a perfect artistic unity of its exterior and interior worlds. It also has the narrative and cinematic economy of a masterpiece. It sets the benchmark for the genre of psychological thrillers.