I think Alfred Hitchock's most famous film (in my small social circle) is Psycho, which he directed in 1960. Oddly enough, there is a point where it's sort of like Citizen Kane - a lot of people haven't actually watched it. I think it has had that strange effect where people feel like they have seen the whole movie already, even if they haven't. Cultural consciousness. People have seen the shower scene, either parodied or in pieces, and its like, "Why else do I watch this movie? I know the main plot." I always feel sort of bad when I see this happen to movies, but it's so hard to avoid it when a film become famous or notorious in any way. I wish I had an explanation for why I know so many people who have never seen this movie, but I don't. Maybe modern horror has de-sensitized and spoiled people. Maybe people actually do feel like they have seen this film already, like I was pondering. Maybe black and white is off-putting. I have no idea, but it is a little more interesting to think about than the normal "the Bates house represented the ego, id, and the superego!"
I was sort of surprised when I read Ebert's essay, since he kept bringing up the switch in protagonists - from Marion to Norman. I wasn't unaware that this happened, but I was surprised since it reminded me of another, more recent movie, that was greatly hated by most audiences for such switching and trickery. If you were determined, you could write quite an interesting...something, if you looked at Psycho compared to No Country for Old Men, if you were so inclined. As someone who once lived a life of beginning to write comparative film essays at midnight the day before they were due, I sort of salivated at the papers I could have written.
I still sort of am salivating. It seems like it would be more upsetting for the film to switch from the protagonist being a woman embezzling money to a serial killer than from one hero-type character to another. Maybe it has something to do with how fascinated people are with killers. Ebert insinuates that we root for Norman, and I mean, we pretty much do, without much complaint. He writes, "Analyzing our feelings, we realize we wanted that car to sink, as much as Norman did. Before Sam Loomis reappears, teamed up with Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) to search for her, "Psycho" already has a new protagonist: Norman Bates. This is one of the most audacious substitutions in Hitchcock's long practice of leading and manipulating us" (The Great Movies, 378).
He's so right. I mean, when the car starts to sink, there is never a second where I was like, "Oh no! Get the police!" Like most famous serial killers that fascinate us (or just me - I'm one of those people who has an e-reader for what seems like the express purpose of secretly reading true crime), Norman is the perfect blend of charismatic, normal guy and freak. He's so easy to relate to that we can like him and see ourselves in him, in his dorky gestures and stutter. It becomes, maybe, interesting for us to think about our own selves. Could we become psychos, too? Or, could we become a victim so easily? Such is the root of what makes this movie so scary. It shows us a lot of our deep fears and vulnerabilities. I remember after the first time I saw this movie I was afraid to shower for a long time, because I realized how exposed I was. I couldn't hear well or see - anything could happen. My dad shared he felt this way too. And even the actress who played Marion did, and she famously has been said to have been unable to shower alone after watching the movie. It's scary to have the dark fears we have pointed out, and to feel like we could easily be a crazy person or a victim.
As someone who watches silent film and old film, it's hard for me to understand why people pass over this film now. I think all of the things I love about this movie and to me, they seem so scary still. The weird, creepy way we can relate to Norman. The fear of how vulnerable we really are. Norman is just as bizarre and interesting as other, more recent screen killers (to me). If you haven't seen this movie, it's worth watching. Even though it feels like you know every part of it, it still seems surprising and interesting. I feel like I've had to wade through so much history and trivia and analysis about this movie, but I'm still seeing new things in it and finding excitement in watching it. I don't want to keep droning on about the movie, though. There are books written on it and so much information out there, and I don't have time to summarize it all. But if you are curious about all the different ways to look at this movie, go seek it out - Ebert's essay and Wikipedia are great jumping off points.
Have any thoughts about Psycho? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Psycho