Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.


Twenty four years is a long time to go without seeing Psycho. I don’t know what’s taken so long, but after a certain point I started rationalizing: This movie is so embedded in our collective cultural unconsciousness that it would almost be superfluous for me to see it, now. I’ve absorbed it through osmosis, somehow! Of course, the list of actual icons this movie has put into our minds is ultimately relatively short, though significant, belying the fact that there is an actual, substantial movie living behind all of our memorized moments: I know about Janet Leigh’s untimely demise in the film, I’ve seen the infamous shower sequence quoted a million times over, along with Bernard Herrmann’s iconic, stabby strings. I know about Norman Bates’ mother being dead, although having not seen the movie, I don’t know what the significance of that is. Still, it’s tough to get excited about seeing a movie famous for its shocks when you already know them all.

It was pretty interesting viewing the movie in this specific context – my advance knowledge armed me at times against the film’s attacks, but it also gave me a different way to approach watching it altogether, and part of the time it felt a bit like a game, gauging the tension between my expectations and the reality of the film. As the excellent Saul Bass titles fade off the screen, a wide view of a city from above comes up, the camera panning across the buildings. Some titles appear: “PHOENIX, ARIZONA. FRIDAY, DECEMBER ELEVENTH. TWO FORTY-THREE P.M.” Just shy of saying, “based on a true story,” the information doesn’t mean anything outside of imbuing what’s on screen with a documentary-like sense of reality.

Psycho is an unusual film for Hitchcock; it sees him going to greater lengths than he ever has to establish a sense of realism. Although he doesn’t abandon his effortless artifice, the stylization of the film is done in the pursuit of verisimilitude that makes it stand out within his body of work. There’s a strange, from-below lighting style that’s almost uniformly used throughout this movie, it makes it look as if the characters are always just floating through a sea of darkness. The low light brings out the film’s graininess and gives it a rough-hewn feel that tells us “this is real,” even as a dolly shot rolls smoothly forward. Psycho also sports an unusually high degree of location shooting for a Hitchcock film, something that makes it firmly a movie of this world rather than his usual constructed studio environments.


The story starts off, famously, with a complete misdirection. It feels unusually low-key; Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a woman in a go-nowhere long-distance affair with a man (John Gavin) from California. She’s been feeling directionless of late, and we see that. When her boss (of 10 years, we later find out) entrusts her with $40,000 some obnoxious cowboy client brings in, she decides she’s found her chance, and takes off west, only to eventually wind up, on a rain-soaked night, at the infamous Bates Motel. Her killing at the 40-minute mark is so iconic that, in some ways, my viewing of the film, was a build-up towards that point. The thing is, Psycho was already in itself a film deliberately designed to play off its audience’s expectations, and so going in with expectations regarding how my expectations would be met and subverted turns it into a different sort of viewing experience; I can’t imagine what it must have been like seeing it on its actual opening day. The tearing away of Janet Leigh’s character is an interesting bit of cruelty – the film up until that point is so heavily and subjectively focused on her that she becomes our only real connection to it. We’re on her side, running away from the tedium of our day-to-day lives. In one of the many sequences showing her driving through the night, we start to hear an imagined exchange between her boss and his client. The cowboy is furious, capable of doing nothing except being frustrated by the situation; a grin spreads across Leigh’s face and, consequently, across ours. For a moment, I even forgot her inevitable demise.

Oh, but here we are – the silhouette of the house on the hill, back behind the Bates Motel. Where’s Norman Bates? Marion has to honk several times before he even comes down. When he does, it’s a shock how nice Anthony Perkins seems. At this point I realize that, despite the movie’s ubiquity, I’ve never seen him speak in character, and not only that, but I had never considered what he would be like as a person. It’s fun to experience that tension, knowing full well that he’s a killer. That moment when his hand lingers over the motel’s room keys is a freaky moment in the present rather than retrospect, for example.

Still, Bates doesn’t overwhelm the movie, the way aspects of his being do, the psycho of the film’s title isn’t him so much as it is his mental condition, this fact is highlighted by the long, ridiculous monologue at the film’s end that explains his mental architecture, finally, to the film’s audience. The fact that the scene needed to exist is a contextual clue, another way of placing the movie within its time, right before the beginning of a now long-running love affair with serial killers and mania that we carry with us to this day. Ask someone in 1959 what a serial killer was and then ask them again in 1961. Sure, this movie is a proto-slasher film, ancient ancestor of your My Bloody Valentine 3D, but it’s also something else. The formula emerges in the wake of that first killing (itself just one of many), and the investigation that springs up is our own. Marion’s dead, and we want answers. These aren’t killings placed within the context of a movie expressly about killing, they’re killings placed within a movie that wasn’t about that shit, at all! That’s what a psycho does, he comes into your life out of nowhere. And, as it turns out, they’re scattered across this American landscape! Scared to take a shower? You should be. We live in a post-Psycho age.

by Andrei Alupului
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