Marion Crane (Leigh) is having an affair with the heavily in debt Sam Loomis (Gavin), and after a lunchtime tryst, she impulsively runs away with the $40,000 she was supposed to bank for her employer. Driving from Arizona to her lover in California she is overwhelmed by guilt and paranoia until, exhausted, she pulls into the secluded Bates Motel just 15 miles short of her destination.
The Master Of Suspense delighted in startling and scaring audiences for over 30 years before Psycho, but never engaged in full on horror until this macabre riposte to the schlock frighteners of the late 50s. Risque and taboo-breaking, it quickly became, and remains, the most notorious title in the substantial Hitchcock canon, a singular masterpiece that still has the power to enthrall and appall.
Psycho's macguffin, an object or plot element that occupies the audience's attention but which is ultimately irrelevant, is his most audacious exercise in misdirection. "Psycho was designed first of all," Hitch admitted, "to lead an audience completely up the garden path".
For nearly a third of the film we carefully follow the $40,000 in Marion's possession. Forty-five minutes in, we realise that the film is not about the love story or the theft or the woman's flight. The money doesn't matter. It's a blind alley, the device that sends Marion Crane into the orbit of a boy and his mother. A pathological boy, with a telling hobby, a peephole, and personality to spare.
The basis for Norman Bates (Perkins) was Robert Bloch's novel, itself based on the sicko case of a Wisconsin serial killer. In 1960 Hitchcock was the most famous film director in the world, his voice and rotund figure, unmistakeable from his television series and his signature cameos (in Psycho he appears outside Marion's office). People went to see his films because they were his films, not for the stars, the plot, the production values or the scenery. Thus he was in a position to effect an abrupt change of pace from the popular, romantic comedy-thriller North By Northwest he'd made previously. Nevertheless Paramount were concerned about Psycho being too sleazy. Unperturbed, Hitch saw it through on an extremely low budget, using many of the crew from his TV series. It cost just $800,000 dollars and took 30 days to shoot — seven of them spent on the justly celebrated, infamous shower scene. The scene, a tour de force of montage, illusion and shrieking violins, runs for less than two minutes and yet looms fearfully large in the collective memory.
The film is in black and white because Hitch thought it would have been much too gory in colour. He regarded it as a wicked joke, a "fairytale of awfulness". Much of the magic — which has eluded so many imitators — comes from Hitch's principle that less is more. The violence diminishes rather than escalates; our emotions, fears and expectations have been so roused that they become as much a part of the cinematic experience as what is actually on the screen. The detective Arbogast's trip up and down the stairs chez Bates, for example, is laden with our dread. We watch from a height that makes him small, exposed but distant. Only when the deed is done do we suddenly see his face filling the screen, emphasizing his surprise and ours, despite our awareness of the menace. The trailers for Psycho featured Hitch addressing the camera from the forecourt of the Bates Motel, taking us on a guided tour of Cabin 1, including the toilet, and impishly yanking back the shower curtain to reveal Vera Miles screaming. That was all audiences had to go on, and it was enough.
More surprisingly, the secrets of what happens in that bathroom and the gothic house on the hill above the motel were kept for a long time as critics and customers honoured Hitch's request not to reveal the shock twists. How long does a film's mystery remain now, when spoilers are on the internet before the picture's even made?
Imitated often, never surpassed. It hasn't stayed near the top of the 'best of' lists for 45 years for nothing. Compulsory cinema.