The most significant difference between Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Robert Bloch’s 1959 source novel: Norman Bates is fat in the book, skinny in the movie. Anthony Perkins is boyish, nervous, incredibly sympathetic initially: mumbling, avoiding eye contact, nibbling candy, darting around the Bates Motel in little hop-steps that must have cracked the crew up every time.
Psycho, playing at Film Forum over the Halloweekend to coincide with the release of a 50th anniversary Blu-Ray disc, must be seen on the big screen, if only for the faint but unmistakable fair, downy hair on Janet Leigh’s forearms, revealed in harsh, even light by cinematographer John L. Russell. (A professor once pointed out, with Hitchcockian levels of satisfied excitement at a meaning decoded, that Psycho begins with the camera peeking in on Leigh, in a cheap hotel room, in a state of undress—making us in the audience not so different from Norman Bates, really.) It’s a moment of tawdry, unglamorous intimacy—what you’d actually see if you peeked in on a young woman in her underwear, casually postcoital on a hot day.
Bloch’s book is a pulpy blend of lurid psychosexual gore and workmanlike prose; the genius of Hitchcock and screenwriter Joe Stefano’s very faithful adaptation is how it tweaks Bloch’s banalities. Made cheaply with a crew, including Russell, from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the film is initially televisual in the dull docudrama style of the time, opening with a halting pan across a bland b&w cityscape and a flat-fonted dateline.
But Russell’s lighting becomes gradually more expressionist, and conversational clichés like “A boy’s best friend is his mother” and “Mother... isn’t quite herself today” (neither from the book) become exquisitely banal. They’re agreeable facades, like the ones Hitchcock builds up out of Perkins’s such-a-nice-boy stammer and Leigh’s little blond hairs, obscuring sinister double meanings—coded in-jokes referencing a conspiracy the repeat viewer is privy too.
The shower scene is so famous it fogs over Psycho‘s real twist, making it one of the few classic turns it’s still possible to take blind. Fifty years on, how electrifying it remains—but what a funny movie Psycho becomes on return trips, as funny as Bloch’s first chapter, with His Mother’s Voice compared to the beat of an Inca drum made from the stretched skin of the dead.
Psycho II may be smothered by its more-classic-than-classic predecessor, but that’s almost an advantage: one of the movie’s chief pleasures is that, with the old sets-and-stars on display in brazen Technicolor, watching it feels like crawling into an old favorite and poking around.
Perkins reprises his role as Bates, released from the nuthouse to the consternation of Vera Miles, still playing victim-kin. She repudiates rehabilitation and spends the film conspiring to re-derange the motelier, inundating him with messages from his “mother”.
Oh, but there’s a twist; Psycho II fashions a knotty mystery, but also an engaging social critique about how unforgiving conservatives are themselves the real psychos. And, how America creates its own enemies.
It’s the best-scripted sequel, but its follow-up proves the most ably directed. Perkins himself helms Psycho III, flaunting visual flair while crafting a Vertigo homage (wrong Hitchcock movie, Tony!). Would that Perkins’ élan were enough. While considering the series’ central theme—can crazy people become sane?—screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue aims to conflate psychosexual disturbances with spiritual ones, to give Bates’ saga a religious parallel. He fails.
But if you want to talk about bad writing, there’s Psycho IV, in which Perkins actually says, “I knew a pain I could only call ‘soul cancer.’” This prequel adopts a slick 90s aesthetic, like Forrest Gump via Stephen King—fitting as Mick Garris, King’s principal adaptor, holds the reins. With larger-than-life symbols, he fuses Gothically Oedipal melodrama with the Joan Crawford mythos; oh, and there’s an occasional slasher sequence, too. Garris evinces high-grade professionalism, but his comic-book approximations of real emotions—like desire, madness and murderlust—feel empty. Hitchcock this most certainly ain’t.