Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary 1960 film adaptation of Robert Bloch’s Psycho is a seminal film for the horror genre’s development. That it ended up spawning a six-film franchise, and even a recent television series, is both puzzling and fascinating, but the franchise itself has provided a surprisingly varied approach to the depiction of killer Norman Bates. For their latest Devious Dialogues piece, A.M. (Anya) Stanley and Mike Thorn discuss the original film and all of its cinematic successors.
Mike: By now, the title Psycho is as bound up with Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation as The Shining is with Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of Stephen King’s book (if not more so). But, as with Kubrick’s Shining, Joseph Stefano’s script owes so much to Robert Bloch’s excellent novel, published the year before the film’s 1960 release. It’s probably impossible to write anything about this film that hasn’t already been written, but on this viewing, I noticed how effectively Hitchcock directs Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) post-murder clean-up. This sequence effectively recalibrates the film’s P.O.V. and lays out all the routine details in such a painstakingly patient way. What struck you most on this recent viewing?
Anya: This time around, I ended up replaying the parlor scene a few times with a new appreciation for its bird imagery and sly suggestion of character intentions. Everything from the subtextual dialogue to the staging of the actors frames Norman and Marion (Janet Leigh) as predator and prey, respectively. As they sit among stuffed birds, Norman goes from stroking a tame, non-threatening bird at eye-level to leaning forward in a low-level frame along with intimidating, hawkish birds of prey as he becomes agitated about his mother. He notes aloud that Marion “eats like a bird.” At times, he is shot with both predatory and docile birds alongside him within the same frame, similar to his own conflicted psyche. From beginning to end, the mise-en-scene within the parlor exchange tells us everything we need to know about Norman, most notably his personality and relationship with his mother. We all talk about the shower scene and the final monologue of Psycho, but, as you’ve pointed out, there are plenty of brilliant moments worth absorbing.