Widely considered to be the first slasher film to ever hit the screen, Hitchcock was a trailblazer in almost every genre of filmmaking. By the year 1960 he had created classics with spy thrillers, theatre dramas, comedies, and romance, and had been an innovator and an original every single time. The fingerprints on a Hitchcock film had always been apparent as you could never mistake the feeling that came with it, and right on cue this singular film not only created a new genre of suspense but also gave the idea of horror more depth than it ever had before. It should be noted that as I consider this the #2 Hitchcock movie of all time, I remain on having only a marginal admiration for such horror films in general, and yet that speaks directly to the brilliance of this revolutionary film that’s still making an impact over a half century later.
A major deviation from the high budget pictures he was celebrated for, Hitchcock decided to finance this film himself on behalf of how much he believed in it’s storyline. Despite the studio rejecting the premise of the film, Hitchcock gave them an offer they couldn’t refuse by putting the burden of costs upon himself while also choosing to shoot the film in black and white, a decision that would prove to be valuable as it complimented the gloomy tone that the script demanded. Hitchcock clearly felt strongly about the suspense of the plot, as after buying the rights to Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name he proceeded to buy out all its copies to preserve its revelations. Even after filming he doubled down on his conviction by striking a deal with theatres that would disallow patrons to enter if they hadn’t arrived on time, in addition to doing promotions that validated the significance of not missing one key detail. Although not the first film to enforce such a policy it was still a risky move that proved to be worthwhile, as patrons lined up around the corner enamored by the mystique of such a cryptic moment.
Yet not to be outdone by it’s marketing plan, the actual film itself is a masterpiece. It begins with a promiscuous secretary played by Janet Leigh, who uses her lunch break to be intimate with her boyfriend who she’s desperate to be married to. The issue is that her boyfriend is too much in debt to make an honest woman out of her, and there lies her motivation to rather spontaneously steal $40,000 cash from her job later that afternoon. In tense scenes that follow Leigh decides to make the drive from Arizona to California in hopes for a new start all the while knowing that she could never return home. Resigned to that fate she drives through the night until she is forced to pull over to the side of the road for rest. The next morning a policeman wakes her and becomes suspicious of her anxious behavior, even going as far as to follow her to the nearby town where he sees her trade her car in for another. Her great misfortune however is that the policeman doesn't pursue her further, allowing her to continue on until a rain storm overpowers her leading to her fateful turn into the unassuming Bates Motel.
Enter Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates the peculiar but friendly owner of the motel, who is surprised to see any customer as ever since the new highway was built it had kept his business mostly vacant. As it turns out that was for the best, but Leigh has no reason to be suspicious as Perkins charms her into sharing a hot dinner over a good conversation. The dialogue between Perkins and Leigh is cordial but intense, as Perkins seems to take exception to Leigh’s rather innocent comments about his overruling mother who lives in the mysterious house above the motel. Considering Perkins hypersensitivity for his mother and his very apparent passion for taxidermy (stuffed birds) isn’t exactly the most appealing company for a distressed woman away from home, Leigh politely excuses herself so she can retire for the evening and think about her next move. After coming to the revelation that in the morning she will return the money and accept the consequences, she decides to wash her sins away by taking a long hot shower.
The infamous shower scene is undoubtedly the film’s signature moment and arguably the most shocking moment in the history of all cinema. The camera work and of course the sound effects are vintage Hitchcock as not a word is spoken in the scene, yet because of it’s simplicity the audience is terrified even more. Considering that breaking down censors was the norm for Hitchcock, it should be no surprise that up until this point nobody had ever put such graphic material on screen, and it sure enough made an impact that was horrifyingly everlasting. It was later understood that Leigh herself was so petrified about the scene that she stayed away from showers for the rest of her life, never realizing how vulnerable you truly are in such an innocent and private moment. Nonetheless the pivotal scene sets in motion the second and third act of the film respectively, in which case Perkins and Hitchcock turn in a collaboration that undeniably raised the bar for direction and performance to a level unsurpassed to this very day.
Once Leigh doesn’t turn up at either location and can’t be reached by her boyfriend (John Gavin) or her sister (Vera Miles), the two run into a private detective played by Martin Balsam who has been hired by her employer on behalf of the stolen money. The supporting cast works together effortlessly to come across any leads, yet when the private detective goes alone to make an inquiry at the motel he’s murdered on the staircase in one of the film’s most chilling moments. Of course the genius of the plot relies on the fact that the identity of the killer is left ambiguous, as despite the audience having previously heard the mother’s voice coming from the house and seen a woman’s silhouette holding the knife, nobody has truly seen the mother despite Perkins himself implicating her to each crime while covering for her and cleaning up the crime scenes. While such a discrepancy may seem obvious, Hitchcock was masterful in keeping the audience guessing with a critical scene in which Perkins carries his mother to hide her in the cellar over her screams of disapproval. Once again the audience doesn’t see the woman’s actual face, but for the first time we see both Perkins and the woman together in the same room, thus giving validation to the idea that Perkins is only an accomplice to his domineering mother after all.
Sure enough when Balsam comes up missing our remaining cast takes it upon themselves to solve the mystery. The local sheriff informs them that Perkin’s mother had died in a murder/suicide ten years prior, thus the woman they had heard about from Balsam must have been somebody else. They decide to visit the motel disguising themselves as a couple with no connection to the previous victims, thus Gavin is able to distract Perkins while Miles makes her way up to the house to speak to the mysterious woman.
What she finds in the cellar is the film’s final culmination, in which the seated woman with a full head of hair is actually nothing more than a skeleton. As Miles screams in horror Perkins comes flying in the room with a butcher knife in his hand, a wig on his head, and a delirious look on his face so disturbing that the image to this day has never left me. As Gavin apprehends Perkins (in character as his mother) the secret is finally revealed, and in the next sequence the audience learns that Perkins had adopted the split personality after he murdered his mother in jealousy of her lover over a decade before. Since that time he had exhumed her corpse and cared for her as if she was alive, yet his sense of guilt would become deadly whenever he was attracted to another woman, going as far as to transform into the mother while killing all his innocent victims. Locked in a detention center and now permanently trapped in his mother’s personality, it is confirmed that Perkins had murdered two other women before Leigh and Gavin, yet as ‘she’ explains it was her son who is to blame... as a gentle lady like herself would never bring herself to even hurt a fly. That final shot is an exclamation point to a perfect film, one that demonstrated that even a film built on thrills and horror can be elevated by the effect of masterful storytelling.