Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s: Psycho

Norman Bates peeping at Marion Crane, Psycho, 1960.

Manipulating audience point of view. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) spying on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), Psycho, 1960.

We begin our survey our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.

1. Psycho, 1960

At first glance Psycho looks like a cheap exploitation film. Hitchcock shot it with a television crew, not his standard, and very costly, feature crew. He filmed in black and white, and the $800,000, budget was low even by the standards of 1960. The Bates Motel and gothic style mansion were built on the back lot at Universal.

Hitch had just finished the hugely entertaining and successful North by Northwest, a glittering, all-star production. Psycho, on the other hand, looks like a sleazy production with B-list actors. Even the ad campaign—“Do not give away the ending”—feels like something cooked up by William Castle or some other schlockmeister.

But of course, Psycho has become the essential Hitchcock movie. It’s the film whose impact has been felt in almost every subsequent mainstream Hollywood movie.

We identify with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) as she flees Phoenix with $40,000 in stolen cash.

We identify with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) as she flees Phoenix with $40,000 in stolen cash.

From the very first shot, as Hitchcock’s elegantly restless camera pans the Phoenix skyline, and then, peeping-tom fashion, slides into a shabby hotel room where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) meet for an afternoon tryst, Hitchcock makes us voyeurs—a constant theme in Hitchcock films—to a sad and desperate love affair shamefully hidden from the blinding Arizona sun.

A major theme Hitchcock developed again and again during his long career was the plight of the innocent man accused of a terrible crime. Of course, in Psycho, Marion Crane is guilty of stealing $40,000. But from the first moment we see Marion in a white bra, we sympathize with her situation when we learn—the screenplay is superb, as is each and every performance—that she cannot marry Sam because he’s buried in alimony payments.

We view Marion as an innocent, a victim of love and unfortunate circumstances. And when she steals a thick brick of cash from a sleazy real estate tycoon who flirts with her and waves his money around like a phallus, the audience identifies with Marion’s crime, her desperate bid to buy a respectable life with her lover.

Hitchcock deepens audience identification with Marion Crane still further when he immerses us in her consciousness during a long and almost dialogue-free sequences as she drives from Phoenix to Sam’s hometown of Fairvale, California. We hear Marion imagining the conversations of other characters as her shocking theft is discovered. We squint through the sheets of pouring rain as Marion drives blindly through the night. And we become as startled and frightened as Marion when the highway patrolman (Mort Mills) stares at us through disorienting, mirrored sunglasses.

Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho, 1960.

Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho, 1960.

Hitchcock understood point of view better than any director in the history of film. We completely identify with Marion when she pulls into the Bates Motel, takes another shabby room, and has a long conversation with Norman Bates, the lonely boy devoted to his domineering mother. We feel her growing regret for the theft, and experience her essential humanity and kindness towards Norman, trapped in a dead-end life, in a dead-end motel. We identify with Marion, who identifies with Norman, who identifies with the dead birds mounted on the walls of his office, birds that seem poised to swoop down on Marion Crane—as they will, with stunning ferocity, three years later, on the unfortunate Tippi Hedrin, in Hitchcock’s The Birds.

And then Norman the voyeur spies on Marion as she prepares to take a shower; this time she’s in a black bra, an ominous foreshadowing. Once again, Hitchcock masterfully manipulates the audience’s point of view. We are suddenly seeing the story through Norman’s eyes. The shift in perspective is seamless and invisible. And when Marion takes her last shower, and Bernard Herrmann’s violin score slashes away like the knife wielded by the dimly-seen figure, the audience is abruptly yanked back into Marion’s screaming, horrified consciousness. Her wet body is so vulnerable, so defenseless, so sadly naked.

How can this be happening? How can the protagonist be eliminated just 45 minutes into the movie?

This was the most audacious and ground-breaking narrative experiment Hitchcock ever attempted. But of course, we the audience unknowingly slide into identifying with Norman, the good son who cleans up his mother’s crime. We secretly root for and admire the efficient manner in which he mops up Marion’s blood. We almost sigh with relief when he delicately wraps Marion’s naked body in the crinkly shower curtain and places her in the trunk of her car. And oh, how we cringe when he unknowingly dumps the stolen money—hidden in a carefully folded newspaper—with Marion’s body. But, of course, Marion’s murder is not about money; this a a crime of  passion. With gritted teeth, we watch as Norman steers the car into a swamp, and in breathless anticipation, stare as the car (the coffin she purchased with stolen money) sinks—and hesitates for a terrible, breathless moment—into the primordial ooze.

We identify with Norman not because Marion deserved to be murdered, but because Norman is a loyal son who loves his mother. Norman, like Marion, is an innocent victim of unleashed passions. And let’s face it: when watching a movie, we have to identify with somebody, and Hitchcock has brilliantly left us no choice but to shift our sympathies from Marion to Norman.

I saw Psycho on a a bright Sunday afternoon, when I was 10 years old, at the Kingsway Theatre—Kings Highway and Coney Island Avenue—in Brooklyn, with my best friends Mitchell Siegel and David Pollock. During the justly famous shower sequence we gasped, we screamed, we squirmed in our seats. And after the movie was over we assured each other, with nervous laughter, that we weren’t that scared. But we were that scared. In fact, we were frightened out of our little yeshiva minds. And that night, when I took my shower before going to bed, I firmly locked the bathroom door, and took the fastest shower of my life. Because the world had changed. A little black-and-white movie had forever altered my consciousness about the power of stories—and the dark corners of human nature.

Best line of dialogue:

Norman Bates: “Uh-uh, Mother-m-mother, uh, what is the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today.”


This entry was posted in Alfred Hitchcock, Great Movies, Greatest Movies of the 1960s, Hollywood, Movies, Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

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  1. antoineclarke
    Posted August 29, 2013 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    I heard of this film and was terrified before even getting to see it.
    The only comparable movie for mixing suspense and fear was Jaws, which was released when I was 11.
    And yes, I would lock the bathroom door in a hotel…

    And may I add, superb write up Robert. Thank you!

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted August 29, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink


      Thanks so much. I really love and admire this film, and tried to do it justice.

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  2. Posted July 30, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Another great and shocking scene in Psycho was Martin Balsam going up the stairs in the Bates mansion and suddenly being attacked.

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  3. Matt
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Anthony Perkins was so boyish-looking that it created such a disconnect with his dialogue in the scene where Norman is talking with Marion in the room filled with all the stuffed birds.  He comes across as a bit naive and enthusiastic, but he chafes at the restrictions of his mother and this chafing borders on madness.  It flashes and you can see Marion grow uncomfortable at what she’s been shown.  It’s nice, subtle work by Perkins.

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  4. Barry
    Posted June 28, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Robert —
    Happy to see you have resumed film comments. Re your thoughts concerning my thrities, forties and fifties lfilm list —  I have been unable to cut-and-paste our email dialogue. I’ve no particular problem retyping my entries but in doing so will lose your response(s). Good, bad or indifferent these make my lists go. So, maybe you can figure something out…Yes?

    Seraphic Secret responds, yes.

    All of these films celebrate life and no matter the filmmakers have an American sensibility.

    It Happened One Night (1934) — Made a justifiable clean sweep of the Academy Awards and Clark munching carrots inspired the creation of Bugs Bunny.

    Show Boat (1936) – The first book musical with a book that mattered. Kern and Hammerstein music and best of all, the stunning performance and beauty of Irene Dunne.

    Roberta ((1935) — More Jerome Kern, this time with Otto Harbach. Irene Dunne already the foremost interpreter of Kern’s work back in the lead but this time with Fred and Ginger bringing life and beauty. Anything with Astaire and Rogers even The Barkleys of Broadway. Nah, not quite.

    Man In The Iron Mask (1939) Directed by James Whale with what is certainly the weirdest and most compelling dual performance yet by Louis Hayward. Best of all, part of producer Edward Small’s classic literary adaptations that include The Count of Monte Cristo with Robert Donat, directed by Rowland V. Lee and The Last of The Mohicans with Randolph Scott the definitive Hawkeye serving Philip Dunne’s screenplay. Dunne’ script the basis for the 1992 remake rather than Cooper’s novel.

    Test Pilot (1938) Gable and Tracy, directed by Victor Fleming with Myrna Loy for good measure. Clark and Spencer also together in San Francisco and Boom Town. Like old friends, always a pleasure to see.

    Gone With The Wind (1939). The most successful, dollar for dollar, film of all time. Deserves all the accolades it once received but a Producer’s picture and so sometimes give short shrift by the auteur crowd. Who cares.

    Runners up: Ruggles of Red Gap, Idiots Delight and Jezebel, especially for George Brent’s uncharacteristic performance as Buck Cantrell.

    How Green Was My Valley (1941) A John Ford – Philip Dunne masterpiece and the justifiable winner for Best Picture AA.

    Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946) Hitchcock and Cary Grant in which the director allows the star to reveal his bitter, dark side. Suspicion does have problems but only in the final few moments. Let’s forgive and forget because the rest is so fascinating. Notorious however is perfection.

    Casablanca (1942) The film , along with The Big Sleep and To Have And Have Not, that best exemplifies the Bogart persona everyone loves. At the time of production the war’s outcome was not a forgone conclusion. Rhett Butler and Rick Blaine have more in common than the same initials. Both are cynical idealists in love with a woman they cannot have. And while they appear to say destructive things, they always come through. In short, Rick and Rhett are the same person. No accident in my opinion.

    The Human Comedy (1943) and Her Comes Mr. Jordan ((1941) Life everlasting. You simply have to believe. Mr. Jordan is always with me. Claude rains, Mickey Rooney and James Craig, out of nowhere, hold these films together with their intelligence and sensitivity.

    And Then There Were None (1945) The most brilliant adaptation of an Agatha Christie. A grand cast of Europeans lead by Louis Hayward, Roland Young and Barry Fitzgerald, supported by Rene Clair’s visual ideas and playing Dudley Nichols’ witty and original take, certainly bettering the original, both novel and play, and giving a much needed American take.

    Red River (1948) Classic western and the picture that made John Wayne into a mega star. Deservedly. Did something similar for Montgomery Clift. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score memorable. This is Wayne’s greatest performance and the one he should have received his Academy Award for. Not even a nomination. So much, by this time, for honors.

    You Were Meant For Me (1948) I saw this film as a spiritual, almost religious event. Dan Dailey plays, with considerable skill and charm, a somewhat successful band leader derailed by the 1929 economic collapse. Jeanne Crain is his much younger and loving wife. Oscar Levant hangs around delivering brilliant piano work and acerbic charm. Underlining the light presentation is a set of core beliefs encompassing, hope, hard work, and good old American know how. I love the film and related to it personally and professionally.

    Honorable Mention: Command Decision, an all star cast headed by Clark Gable with a story told from the point of view of the general’s who send young men to die and try to justify their deaths with meaning. They succeed.

    The Quiet Man (1952) John Ford’s love song to Ireland, home of his ancestors. A comedy that touches on mostly serious stuff including but not limited to the IRA, Catholic, Protestant relations and the heat generated by Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne. Ford’s final Academy Award and the only major award won by a Republic production. A beautiful ne Blu Ray disc is available. Well worth the price.

    Singin’ In The Rain (1952) Without the considerable charm of the music this is probably the defining take by Hollywood on the silent era. Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and a star making moment or two by Cyd Charisse.

    To Catch A Thief (1955) and North By Northwest (1959) Hitchcock presents Grant again but this time as the debonair rake we all identify with. Grant plays essentially the same part on both pictures — a man sought by the police for something in which he has no involvement. Often, To Catch A Thief is misunderstood as being about the police after John Robie. Not so. It is about Grace Kelly after Cary Grant.

    The Tall Men (1955) An ordinary western unless you see at as Raoul Walsh’s deification of Clark Gable, at which point it goes right to the gut.

    The Searchers (1956) Often referred to as racist when in fact it is libertarian and not at all bigoted. Nor is its protagonist, Ethan Edwards. He simply sees the serpent and is smart enough to slay it. On Blu Ray and worth the price. John Wayne’s second Academy Award — yet to be received.

    Note: Vertigo

    I have now seen this film four times and it has grown on me. It is so strong in my memory that I only wish Lew Landers could have had the assignment. With Chester Morris and Wendy Barrie in the leads, (She actually could have had a great career but for some errors in her private life) and coming in at 72 minutes. They might have had another Julia Ross (My Name Is Julia Ross). As it stand it is clearly an internalized bit of neuroses that plays like the jumping off point for Last Year At Marienbad.

    Final Thoughts — And They May Be Just That

    Orson Welles is absent. Not my intention to slight the great man. My personal favorites are The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady From Shanghai but I could not work them in.

    Later films include Ride The High Country, Chinatown and The Brothers McMullen.

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  5. sennacherib
    Posted June 27, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    We’re in the sixties and I’m still alive! Yes I saw Psycho when it came out and it scared me. In case I suddenly depart I’m naming my 60s’ and all time favorite now, “A Man for All Seasons”, there.

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  6. kgbudge
    Posted June 27, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I first saw Psycho at the Halloween film festival at the student union. I had a couple of girls with me and I think all three of us were screaming in that final terrifying scene.

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  7. Bill Brandt
    Posted June 27, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Hitch was a master at letting the audience’s imagination fill in so many of his scenes. If that shower scene had been filmed today with a different director, no doubt we would have seen Leigh’s character in full nudity with every gash visible. 
    I have to admit, somewhat sheepishly, that I have never seen the movie in its entirety. Will have to see it now.
    Wasn’t there a recent movie about Hitchcock filming Psycho?
    Couldn’t have been too good as I have never heard anything more about it.

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    • Larry
      Posted June 27, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      I refused to see the updated version. Remaking masterpieces never seems to work and often ends up annoying. Think of “The Day The Earth Stood Still” remake as an annoying example, while the “Destry” remake of “Destry Rides Again” wasn’t so annoying as it was just blah. “Psycho,” which some people don’t realize effectively became the first slasher pic, just should have been left alone. Copies of masterpieces are typically pale at best.

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      • Bill Brandt
        Posted June 27, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        There are enough movies over the decades that had a great premise – great screenwriting – lousy execution – either from bad direction or actors – that one could find a gold mine of movies to remake.
        But I agree with you – remaking Psycho?
        Would that be a definition of chutzpah? Taking a masterpiece and insisting one can do better?
        Or is it simple & cheap mimickry to recapitalize on a great movie?
        Whatever, those  movies that have been remade rarely are memorable.
        Now that would be a great list – in the opinion of a Hollywood screenwriter who is in the industry and knows movies over the decades (hint, hint 😉 ) – a list of mediocre movies over the decades that could have been great and are deserving of another attempt.

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        • Larry
          Posted June 28, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          That could be an interesting list: movies produced with great production value promise but poor execution. (Hey! Joss Whedon took a major production foul-up and turned it into a great series that still produces well in comics.) It might work well in this repetition of the frequent times movie makers clone each other rather than create.
          Of course sequels show a similar problem: the makers didn’t know what they had in the original and so they can’t replicate it for the “next chapter.”
          I don’t know that remaking masterpieces defines chutzpah so much as demonstrates it.
          As for cheap mimickry, keep in mind that some people think that anything done between 10 and 30 years ago is considered ancient or unknown by the execs.

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    • TheNonna
      Posted March 26, 2015 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren… it’s worth a watch – not a GREAT movie but there is Hopkins, Mirren and a little Hitchcock.

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  8. Posted June 27, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    I remember the first time I saw Psycho… it was creepy.
    On my honeymoon we visited Universal Studios in Orlando and saw a presentation about how they filmed the infamous shower scene. It reportedly took 78 shot setups and 7 days to film that one 2-3 minute scene. Each wall could be removed in the set so the camera could shoot from different angles and a extra large shower head was made for the one angle. Chocolate syrup for blood and Hitchcock reportedly said he filmed in B & W because he thought the shower scene would be too graphic in color. I think the creepiest shot was of her eye as she lay dead on the floor…

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