Mother Knows Best: Psycho (1960)

It was the shower scene the made Hitchcock so determined to adapt the novel

When it comes to thrilling moments in movies, there are few masters like Alfred Hitchcock, and few movies as shocking as his masterpiece, Psycho(1960) Hitchcock’s secretary discovered Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, and Hitchcock was so taken by the plot twist that he had all the copies bought up so the ending couldn’t be given away. The result was a movie that is still terrifying and is often heralded as proof of Hitchcock as master of suspense. There’s a lot to say about his direction and the way it’s shot (the shower scene alone could be an entire article) but what’s interesting is that so much of what amazed audiences came straight from the novel. Hitchcock’s movie, for all its technical experimentation, was perhaps his most faithful adaptation yet.

Psycho spawned film and book sequels that were markedly inferior

The Story

Real estate secretary Mary Crane makes an impulsive decision to steal the $40,000 she was told to deposit and run away to her fiance, Sam, who needs money to marry her. Along the way, she gets lost and ends up at the lonely Bates motel, run by Norman Bates, a man dominated by his mother. He invites her to share a meal, but she finds him strange and returns to her room — only to be murdered in the shower. A month later, Mary’s sister Lila and her fiance Sam are looking for her, joined by private detective Arbogast, who is looking for the money. Arbogast traces Mary to Bates motel, only to be killed by Mrs. Bates. Sam and Lila decide to go to the motel to find out what happened to Mary and Arbogast — and end up confronting the murderer.

The Adaptation

Hitchcock’s movies are often adaptations of novels, but he rarely felt the need to be faithful to them. Psycho is an exception. The author of the novel, Robert Bloch was a prolific horror writer who was fascinated by the idea of twisted mass murderer living in a rural America (it’s a myth that he based the character on Ed Gein, who was only captured when Bloch was almost done with the novel). It’s a short novel with a simple premise based on multiple personalities, transvestitism (as it was understood in the 1960’s) and an Oedipus complex gone fatally wrong, with characters that are simply understood and quickly sketched. Norman Bates’s personality is more fully fleshed out; his bizarre interests in occultism, sexual impotence and blackout drinking provide the basis for his psychosis. Despite being classified as horror, the gore in the novel is minimal; the violent scenes are limited to a few sentences that are still graphic enough to pack a punch. It’s the mystery that dominates the story.

Anthony Perkins would became a star — and typecast — by his role as Norman Bates

Hitchcock, for once gave the author full credit, saying “Psycho all came from Robert Bloch’s book.” And it’s the truth. Except for the first scene and a few others, the movie is a scene-by-scene remake, down to the last scene at the mental institution where the psychiatrists explains Norman Bates’ crimes and why he committed them (a scene which was often panned by critics as ruining the pacing of the movie). Hitchcock had to fight to get Psycho made; the studio system didn’t understand why such an acclaimed director wanted to do a B-horror movie and refused to fund it even after he promised to cut costs by filming it in film in it black and white. What should have been a throwaway film by a director experimenting with shlock became a masterwork about the banality of evil.

Only a few changes were made. Hitchcock cast slender, handsome Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, making a change from the pasty, overweight, glasses-wearing, middle-aged man in the novel. He also eliminated Norman’s drinking; onscreen, his only vice appears to be candy, and Perkins’s performance is vulnerable enough to make audiences care for him, rather than be repelled by him. The ordinary frame house behind the hotel, where the Bates lived was changed into the archetypal spooky Victorian that still provokes chills today. Hitchcock cast Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, expanded her role so that it fills nearly a third of the movie; the audience begins the story with her, rather than with Norman Bates as in the book. The result is a shock for the audience as the only character they’ve really seen is killed off, leaving Norman Bates as the protagonist. Hitchcock also eliminated the budding romance between Sam and Lila, feeling it would be cheap, and unlike the novel, the audience never really gets to know or understand them, and they seem pale shadows from the studio era, while Norman Bates and Marion Crane are modern and realistic.

The Bates house was based on Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad

Hitchcock’s other change was the emphasize the murders — the shower scene is brief in the novel, but is approximately 60–70 different shots in 52 seconds and is so iconic that it has its own documentary (78/52 Hitchcock’s Shower Scene) Arbogast’s murder is not a quick slicing of the throat, but an assault with butcher knife that causes him to fall down the stairs, with the murderer leaping on him to finish the job. The eerie music — high-pitched shrieks of string instruments that sound like enraged birds — only heighten terror, as the victim’s screams are drowned out. And he relishes the reveal of Mrs. Bates holding the camera on the mummified body while the lights swing back and forth.

But for the most part, Hitchcock’s narrative remained to the source, and the story is almost identical. It’s a testament to his skill that he was able to increase the sexuality and the violence of the novel — the point that censors complained — without adding or changing a scene. It’s tempting, as he did, to give credit to the novelist for coming up a good story. But as the Gus Van Sant remake clearly showed us, a good story can still be a bad movie with the wrong director. Bloch gets credit for the story that scares us; Hitchcock gets credit for making a horror film that’s a work of art.

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