In the recently departed spirit of Halloween, I watched “Psycho” (1960) for what must have been the tenth time. Like all masterful films, each viewing of “Psycho” brings a new perspective and a well-hidden surprise in its dense layers.
Outwardly, “Psycho” seems like a standard slasher flick, but its execution is anything but. Alfred Hitchcock, the father of the thriller genre, poured all of his creative genius into adapting Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel for the big screen and created one of the greatest films of all time in the process.
Most notably, the characters in Psycho are its most immediately strong artistic elements.
Rising from the Ashes
Unlike conservative films during its time, “Psycho” opens on an adulterous couple moments after they’ve had sex. Marion Crane, played by the beautiful Janet Leigh, rebuffs her lover’s attempts to legitimize their relationship due to financial instability. Delving deeper into the name Marion Crane, the first name Marion is of Hebrew origins and is often thought to mean “rebellious.” Also, Crane refers to the bird of the same name, a symbol of “freedom.” Aside from the obvious bird symbolism throughout “Psycho,” Marion Crane is clearly a rebellious and free woman and her actions solidify this interpretation.
After stealing 50 thousand dollars from her employer in Phoenix (an aviary symbol for rebirth), Marion flees the city to reunite with her adulterous lover Sam Loomis, played by John Gavin. During her escape, Marion experiences a tremendous amount of guilt and begins imagining how she will soon be caught; the voices in her head are overwhelming and indicative of the innermost thoughts and fear that plague every individual at some point. In “Psycho,” mental instability is portrayed as a response to external stimuli rather than a biological illness; showing that the rebellious and free Marion is susceptible to these inherent behaviors proves that it can happen to anyone.
After a brief run in with an aviator-wearing police officer, Marion buys a new car with some of the stolen cash and continues her journey. Again Marion’s guilt culminates in even louder voices within her mind. As if a sign from God, pouring rain obscures Marion’s view of the road and she is forced to stop for the night at the Bates Motel.
A Boy’s Best Friend
The introduction of Norman Bates is portrayed so nonchalantly that its normalcy is unnerving in the face of Marion’s plight. Similar to Marion Crane, Norman’s name is rife with artistic value; Norman is a contraction of “normal” and “man.” Unsurprisingly, Bates refers to hawks when they beat their wings to escape from a perch. In this light, Norman Bates is a normal man who is trying to escape and, unlike Marion, he has been unwilling or unable to do so.
The famous parlor scene brings the bird imagery full circle; haunting stuffed owls and crows stare at Marion and Norman as they have one of the most unnerving conversations in film history. The writing here is superb and Norman states that Marion “…eat[s] like a bird.” Norman’s vaguely threatening dialogue mixed with his hospitable actions add another layer of unease and, eventually, Marion has to uncomfortably return to her room.
As Marion undresses to shower, Norman watches her through a hole in the wall. Eyes are an ever-present motif in “Psycho” and this becomes apparent as Norman watches Marion at her most vulnerable. Combined with the dead eyes of the stuffed owls in the parlor, Marion’s wide-eyed expression as she is wracked with guilt takes on new meaning. Additionally, the police officer’s aviators obscure his vision as well as his intentions.
Eyes are a symbol of guilt as well as judgment and their expression is symptomatic of the circumstances under which they arise; if mental instability is a product of the environment, eyes are a window into the fragile mental state of “Psycho’s” characters. In the famous shower scene, the knife is never seen as it breaks Marion’s skin. Instead, the camera focuses on Marion’s eyes as she experiences fear and regret before falling to the floor with her eyes wide open and lifeless.
Days after Marion’s permanent stay at the Bates Motel, her sister goes looking for her. Lila Crane, played by Vera Miles, arrives at Sam Loomis’ place of work incorrectly thinking that he and Marion must have engaged in a tryst. For reference, Lila’s first name is comprised of “night” and the Hasidic word for “beauty”—even during this dark time she retains her beauty and strength. At that moment, a private investigator for Marion’s employer arrives at the hardware store.
Milton Arbogast, portrayed by Martin Balsam, is a no-nonsense detective and his name is, once again, indicative of his character. Milton, which has no immediate significance other than “Mill Town,” is a famous surname from the author of “Paradise Lost,” a re-telling of the Adam and Eve story by John Milton. Additionally, Arbogast is a mix of the Germanic words for “inheritance” and “stranger.”
Therefore, the private detective has lost his innocence and is a stranger to inheritance; he has no reason to solve the mystery other than a financial reward and he is logical to a fault. It is Milton’s rational thinking that convinces him to sneak into the Bates’ mansion in order to speak with Norman’s mother. Ironically, the private eye is unable to see that nothing is rational at the Bates Motel and it’s his ignorance that leads to his death.
After not hearing from Milton, Lila and John fear for the worst as they investigate the Bates Motel by visiting a retired local sheriff, Al Chambers as played by John McIntire. A Celtic name, Al stands for “harmony, noble, and stone” and Chambers refers to a servant or chamberlain—Sheriff Al Chambers finally gives Lila and John the concrete answers that they are seeking; Norman’s mother has been dead for ten years after she killed her lover and herself in an apparent murder-suicide.
Shortly thereafter, Lila and John discover that Norman is a schizophrenic psychopath and he has been dressing up as his own mother when he kills his victims; there is Norman and there is mother fighting within his psyche and when they fight, violence is the only outcome.
When Lila finds Mrs. Bates’ preserved body in the fruit cellar, the eyes of the corpse have rotted out and her dead skin is shriveled. Eyes take on yet another meaning as they signify a mother’s watchful gaze and the judgment that comes along with it. A protecting gaze can quickly become a domineering gaze; one that Norman had lived his entire life trying to escape. In the end, the trauma is too great and Norman permanently becomes the mother, unable to ever escape. As Norman sits in custody, he stares with dead, cold eyes and thinks in his mothers voice: she “…wouldn’t even hurt a fly.”