In honor of Halloween, I finally watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho…what a disappointment! Maybe I lack the critical eye or the film warrants multiple viewings, but I hated it! Well not hate (hate’s too strong a word); I was underwhelmed.
I get it: the masterful cinematography; the way Hitchcock plays with light and shadow and the way mirrors point to our own natural duplicity; the surprising choice of Anthony Perkins, a lanky, boyishly handsome actor with kind eyes and expressive good looks, for the part of deranged serial killer; the shocking and totally unprecedented demise of a main character 45 minutes in; the iconic shower scene that terrified audiences everywhere.
But, I don’t know, the film lacked something for me. Psycho felt more like a noir (which you’d think I’d like), but the total implausibility of some of the characters’ actions ruined the film’s realism. I suppose I shouldn’t demand realism from a trashy genre like the slasher flick, a genre which traditionally asks us to suspend our disbelief as we watch the killer miraculously emerge alive after being shot 10 times in the chest or as we observe the female protagonist decide to go unaccompanied (yet again!) into that creaky, darkened old house.
Make no mistake: I love the idiocy and predictability of such conventions.
But in Psycho, Marion Crane’s sloppy crime and overtly suspicious behavior (“What’s wrong with knowing what you want and wanting it in a hurry?” she demands at the used car lot while trying to exchange her vehicle for another) is just a little too distracting. Can she be anymore obvious?! Narratively, her endless miscalculations and silly screw-ups build suspense and push our tolerance to its absolute limit. Who impulsively steals $40,000, skips town, sleeps alongside a highway and refuses to cooperate with a police man who innocently wakes her and, up until that moment, harbors no kind of suspicion against her?! Certainly, Crane is not good at playing it cool. And she is certainly not a practiced criminal: she exchanges her car for another at a dingy used-car lot right in front of the police officer who’s been following her. Does her ineptitude prove she is not, really, a criminal? Perhaps Crane’s familiarity as a character proves that the potential for criminality exists within us all.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, I did like that Hitchcock’s universe offered no possibility for redemption: though Crane realizes the error of her ways and decides to do right and return the money, she is killed before she can do so. Interestingly after Crane dies, Norman is our only constant as we are forced to identify with both murderer and victim. In the end, Psycho seems to suggest that humanity exists alongside Norman Bates as an irreconcilable split-personality, capable of the most incredible good and the most monstrous evil.