Psycho is a masterpiece of color. After forty joyfully plodding minutes of Janet Leigh going from fetching spinster in a torrid lunch hour romance to grand larcenist in precise black and white (and then another few minute as she moves to close that character arc), director Hitchcock and Psycho put Leigh in the color of an all-white motel bathroom. And all of a sudden the black and white film (gorgeous photography from John L. Russell) is just as colorful as the imagination, albeit in a stark, sterile white bathroom. The mundane soon becomes a nightmare, even as Hitchcock allows for some ogle on Leigh—who’s partially in her current predicament thanks to every man she’s encountered in the film objectifying her in one way or another. The first arc—not act—of Psycho is Hitchcock humanizing Leigh from the opening, which has her dissatisfied with beau John Gavin. He’s a hunk and he’s worth matinees on work days, but he’s unavailable—he’s too broke to marry Leigh—and Leigh’s getting exhausted with her life.
The film’s an entire flex from Hitchcock. There’s not a scene where he’s not showing off. The drab backgrounds of Leigh’s office are going to contrast the white in the bathroom but also the clutter of the eventual locations. Leigh’s office is as flat and bland as the motel where she and Gavin meet. Psycho’s all about motel living for Leigh; she starts in one, she ends in one. In the first she has urban—even if it’s small city Arizona—anonymity, in the second she has none. In the first she’s on an arc to cause (or inflict, but it’s hard to sympathize with the guys she’s ripping off) suffering, in the second she’s brought the situation around and is directing herself now, actively toward gladness. But Psycho is not about the moral tragedy of Leigh’s character, though along the way Hitchcock does sort of decimate the film noir trappings and examine the resulting dust; Psycho is about the unknown and the terror hiding in it.
Because the second motel is where Leigh meets Anthony Perkins and once Perkins arrives, even a nude shower scene isn’t enough to keep the focus on Leigh. It’s all about Perkins. He’s a shy, somewhat awkward, but very charming, handsome young man who manages the roadside motel for his elderly, infirm mother. They live up in a big house behind the motel. Hitchcock’s going to be very, very careful about how he shows that big house. For most of the film there’s only one way to get there; Perkins’s slim figure, always in mostly dark, going up to the house, coming down from the house, is going to become on the film’s most haunting images as the audience learns more and more about him. Psycho’s a mystery. Hitchcock tells the story of that mystery with the film, with his shots—there are always well-placed inserts to make the world tactile to the viewer—with the photography, with George Tomasini’s editing, and obviously Bernard Herrmann’s awesome music. Whoever did the sound design—Tomasini, Hitchcock, some sound recorder—works in such magnificent unison with Herrmann, who’ll go very loud then silent, the silence ratcheting up the terror. Because everyone’s in some kind of danger in Psycho. Always.
The film establishes very early on women are not safe in Psycho. Sure, she’s in the process of committing a felony, but Leigh is in danger every guy she meets and always because she’s a woman. So when her sister, Vera Miles, starts looking for her, not just retracing her journey but continuing on—Leigh’s plan was to steal the money and go rescue Gavin and then disappear (was disappearing on twenty grand possible in 1960)—with Miles making the trip to Gavin and enlisting his help. Miles only puts herself in actual danger in the finale, but until then it’s clear she’s not safe.
Miles and Gavin get a Third Musketeer in Martin Balsam, a private detective out to get the money back before Leigh’s boss, Vaughn Taylor , has to call the cops. Balsam validates a bunch of imagined offscreen events from Leigh’s rationalizing scene—a phenomenal sequence with Leigh in close-up, driving through a thunderstorm, imagining various conversations about her going on, the conversations playing as voiceovers. Again, Hitchcock flexes everywhere he can in Psycho, showing off a variety of distinct devices, only slowing down once the film’s got Perkins established.
While Leigh’s story is Psycho’s more obvious MacGuffin, certain aspects of Perkins’s character and performance are similarly airy as far as the actual narrative’s concerned. Everything’s relevant, but thanks to Russell’s lighting, Hitchcock obscures that relevancy. Psycho always presents Perkins as a sort of sympathetic, even after it’s clear he doesn’t get it by default. He’s less a hen-pecked doting son and more an active participant in his mother’s outbursts, which place terrible burdens on him. The scene where Perkins has got to clean up the bathroom, restoring the pristine whiteness, has all these tactile touchstones so Hitchcock can force the audience into a sympathetic response (we’ve all grabbed a towel, haven’t we), only for Hitchcock to reveal the dangers of such sympathies. You’ve got to be on guard at all times in Psycho.
Of course, there’s an explanation for all the goings on, and it’s a….
It’s a lot. The film weaponizes the inaccurate, bigoted psychology of the era to create a new category of screen villain (or at least new in A tier movies) for an easy reveal, all patriarchally lectured (quite ably from Simon Oakland). It’s sexist, transphobic, ableist; even for the era the film should’ve come with a disclaimer. Psycho is, no doubt, a singular masterpiece; it changed mainstream film thanks to Hitchcock and company’s techniques. And also because of its garbage reveal. That reveal has had a lot of bad consequences. Solely bad consequences, in fact; fruit of a poisonous tree branch. Psycho’s deus ex machina hasn’t so much as aged badly as always been rotten.
It’s also an expertly executed deus ex machina. Hitchcock knows how to present the reveals, then pulls all the threads together for the last few shots; he brings in Perkins for part of the pay-off too, after building big up to his return to the screen even though he’s only been gone a few minutes. It’s incredibly well-done, also bringing back the noir feels.
Psycho’s one of a kind.