Nobody is really sure what the statute of limitations is on movie spoilers, but it’s a safe bet that 50 years is on the extreme side of things. But even if we accept that as the standard—no publicly discussing major aspects of any movie made within the last half-century when in the company of those who haven’t seen it yet—then it would still be alright to discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece thriller, Psycho, which is currently more than 60 years old. And yet, such is Psycho’s timeless ability to captivate and surprise fresh audiences that if you were to openly talk about Psycho’s big reveals to those who know of the movie but somehow still haven’t seen it, they would be right to be upset. For Psycho is one of the very few immortal movies whose details will never dull with age. Everyone, from now until the end of eternity, deserves to discover Psycho on their own, unspoiled and uninformed.
The story involves Marion Crane, an accounting assistant from Phoenix who embezzles a $40,000 check from work and decides to run away with her boyfriend. Keep in mind, this is 1960, so you could get a new house for $13,000, a new car for $2,000, and a week of groceries for less than $20, so Marion’s got quite a chunk of loot in her hands. She flees Phoenix after a chance encounter with her boss makes her nervous, and once she drives to the point of exhaustion, she ends up at the Bates Motel—a ramshackle place in the middle of nowhere, overseen by a creepy and imposing house that belongs to the Bates family, which runs the place. Marion meets young Norman, the hotel manager, and they share a pleasant dinner, even though Marion can hear Norman arguing in another room with his mother, who is clearly an angry, possessive and maybe even mentally unstable person. But Norman must look after her, and his admission of that awakens something maternal in Marion, who decides this outlaw life she has seized is no kind of life at all. She decides to return to Phoenix and return the stolen money. If she is to live, she will do so honestly. All she has to do first is wash up before bedtime. A nice, hot shower will do.
Anyone who has seen Psycho knows the rest, but for those of you who don’t, what follows is—especially for the time in which it was made—a thriller of deeply uncommon stock. It is a story willing to make sudden and severe shifts as we delve deeper into what exactly the Bates Motel really is and why those who visit the place have a tendency to stay there forever. It is a story that has a curious way of ratcheting up the sense of dread in more ways than one, and of depicting its sudden bursts of horror in a fashion that occurs less on the movie screen than in the audience’s own minds.
This is a movie that, it could be argued, singlehandedly launched the slasher film genre, with one of the most memorable killers ever put to screen, and one of the most memorable murder scenes, as well. Without Psycho, there likely would not be the dozens of also-exceptional killer thrillers made since; the hundreds of passable knock-offs and also-rans; and the thousands of schlocky wastes of time, money, talent and film. We might be tempted to look at the vast legion of dross that has occupied movies theaters and home screens since Psycho was released and think that as good as Psycho is, it’s not so good as to survive being associated with all the junk that followed it. But it is. That is the magic of this movie. It is good enough to launch a genre of film and myriad cinematic tropes, and still somehow not bear the guilt of association of movies like Stabbing Spree on Bladder Hill 3: The Leakening.
Just one of the things that makes Psycho so memorable is how it almost becomes a different movie after its first act. Movies just don’t do this, and for the second act, we spend most of our energy thankful that the story has downshifted a gear so we have time to accept which characters are suddenly dominating the screen. And by the third act, we realize that the reason why Psycho holds together is because it’s not about the various people who visit the Bates Motel. It’s about the Bates Motel itself and the strange people who own it. Once we realize that, Psycho becomes a little scarier: no character, no matter how much back story they get, no matter how much screen time is devoted to them, is immune to receiving a bloody end that they do not deserve. This is a concept that Hitchcock revisits in other films; few of his cinematic murder victims feel like they deserve the fate they get. And that is the truth of murder: It inflicts the kind of unexpected end that imparts a kind of innocence upon its victims, no matter what their previous crimes might have been.
That is what drives Psycho’s moment of truth. It’s not the signature scene for which the movie is most famous. Rather, it is its final scene, when we see the purveyor of the movie’s madness and mayhem speaking directly to the audience, revealing just how deep their break with reality goes. There are those who kill in the heat of the moment, or in defiance of that better part of them which says that taking lives is wrong. But then there are those who are so broken and adrift from their humanity that killing becomes something that is little different than eating, sleeping or any other natural function. We call them psychos. And they scare the hell out of us, because few of us would commit evil…but any of us could lose our mind.