Watching Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ as a Comedy

By  · Published on September 17th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they try to paint a smile on the face of Alfred Hitchcock’s most terrifying chiller.

In the #34 (tied) movie on the list, taxidermy enthusiast Norman Bates struggles to run a small roadside motel, but his life is turned upside down when a beautiful young woman on the run with some money rents a room and steals his heart. When his overbearing mother disapproves, she’ll threaten to tear his love apart.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Scott: So, alongside Peeping Tom, Psycho caused a turnabout in horror in 1960, and there’s no way for me to make this introduction original because, sweet transvestite from Transylvania, has this thing ever been dissected to death. Critically lauded, massively popular, everyone has taken a stab at this flick – so I’m turning to you for help in thinking about it differently.

Landon: I heard that if you watch the whole thing backwards at 2X speed, it becomes that episode of The Twilight Zone where everyone has pig faces

Scott: I tried that once and broke my glasses.

Landon: Was Psycho the first, or one of the first Hitchcock films you ever saw?

Scott: It actually was, and I caught it by accident. I couldn’t sleep at all throughout high school, and one night at 3am, I stumbled across it on a classic movie channel. It didn’t cure my insomnia.

What about you?

Landon: That’s great – I think either this or Rear Window was my first, but I definitely have a clear memory of watching Psycho with my parents for the first time.

Scott: Not at all awkward.

Landon: I won’t say whether or not they fast-forwarded through the peep hole scene…

Scott: Could give you some good prank material, though. “I really related to that Norman character, mom.”

Landon: It seems that outside of the world of movie fans, Hitchcock’s career became primarily known for this and The Birds, but definitely this. And when you think about Hitch’s career as a whole, Psycho is a pretty strange place to start.

The film that re-defined him as a director has now defined him as a director.

Scott: Not all that surprising when you consider how incredible it was – Paramount wanted nothing to do it, Hitchcock used black and white three decades after color films were popularized, it defied the standard structure and, of course, had that outrageous twist ending.

Landon: Exactly. You can’t find a stronger decade for a Hollywood director than Hitchcock in the 1950s, starting with Strangers on a Train and ending with a Technicolor crowd-pleaser like North by Northwest. He made high-class, polished popular entertainment boosted by his growing renown as a TV figure. Then he makes a black-and-white B-movie where a major character dies in the middle. That’s quite the provocation.

It’s just as easy to think of Psycho as a revolution in how we watch movies as it is to think of Psycho as a film where a powerful director joyfully fucks with his audience.

Scott: And imagine how happy I was to discover that he had about a million other movies.

What do you think about a movie like Psycho having a cultural meme preceding it? Most people who haven’t seen it still know about it (and probably already know about the twist).

Landon: The first time I saw the film, I knew about the first twist, but not the ending twist, and that really got me. Sure, it can never be as effective as it was in 1960, and the initial shock by design could only work best in 1960, but the movie still works. I’ve seen this play in a lecture hall with 200 undergrads trying to look at their phone instead of the movie, and when “Norman’s mom” stabs that private investigator on the stairway, people still scream. Bravo, movie that’s 53 years old.

Scott: I love that you mention that because it’s still the most intense scene to me. Hitchcock pushes us backward down the stairs, and you just feel it. The stabbing is a blink-and-miss-it moment, and the disorienting fall following it is like being punched in the face after being punched in the face.

Landon: I think part of the reason that moment is still effective is because it’s talked about so much less than Marion’s death. I think that when most people think of Psycho, they think of the shower scene, which makes sense because killing of Marion, after that brilliant silent scene where Norman cleans up the motel room, is ultimately a little deflating.

Scott: If only that highway patrolman hadn’t suggested the quiet little motel up the road to her.

Landon: Anything to get away from those creepy aviators.

Scott: I see your point – Marion’s killing proves that Hitchcock means business, Arbogast being bested by Bates means that all bets are completely off. How can you feel safe after that? The killer has the upper hand.

Landon: And it’s also great because the second half is where Psycho moves fully into B-movie territory. Every character is expendable, and in making Marion’s sister and boyfriend the film’s new heroes, we’re given a de facto movie couple as generic as anyone you’d see in a ’50s sci-fi flick.

Seen from Hitchcock’s point-of-view, this is where Psycho becomes a comedy.

Scott: What do you mean?

Landon: Psycho is in so many ways a provocation for Hitch in the context of his career at the point. Not only in killing off Marion, but in “elevating” the B-genre of horror movies, when up to this point he had stuck to thrillers. By the second half of the movie, he’s done with world-building and character development, and it seems he’s embracing the B-movie as a way to play with the audience’s expectations of what a Hitchcock movie is. This is Hitchcock being playful, even winking at the audience, saying “here you go.”

For me this aspect is most explicit in the penultimate scene where the psychiatrist explains at length Norman Bates’ psychosis. It’s contrived grand exposition that comes out of nowhere to wrap up a movie that up to that point felt no need to explain things. And to me that feels like Hitch saying there’s nothing really to explain. This is a blatant contrivance and a device for him to play with expectations – to make a movie into a subversive punchline.

Scott: So is Hitchcock the only one laughing then?

Landon: If the movie works on first viewing, then yes. But I think if there’s any scene that invites us in on the joke, it’s that one.

Scott: When you re-watch it after being in on the gag, what are some of the funniest moments? I imagine the outlandish ones – falling down the stairs becomes over-the-top slapstick maybe.

Landon: Or how flat-on-its-face obviously menacing Norman Bates’s living room is, a fact that Marion Crane seems to barely notice. Perhaps that’s another reason why Anthony Perkins was so perfect in this role – he’s a strange, discomfiting actor who can carry profound darkness and total absurdity at the same time. (Because of course I’m not saying Psycho is only a comedy.)

Nobody can carry a knife in full drag like Perkins.

Scott: I can’t think of an alternative, so you must be right.

Was there anything that particularly surprised you when you watched it as a comedy?

Landon: I can’t believe I missed all the cartoon banana peel sound effects the first time around. But other than that, it primarily gave me license to like the 2nd half of a movie that I previously thought was demonstrably inferior to its first half. Hitch’s unapologetic embrace of contrivance is the glue that holds that half together. And it’s the only way that absurd doctor’s monologue makes any sense at all.

Scott: Well, that and the laugh track helps the ending out immensely.

Landon: Norman Bates had a live studio audience in his head that whole time.

Scott: The Norman Show. Eesh.

I kind of love this comedy idea, but I wonder something – if watching it semi-MSTK3000 style drops it back down into B-movie territory. And, yes, sorry, I’m using that pejoratively. This is one of the best movies of all time, and we’re turning it into a madcap romp.

Landon: There is that risk, yes, but Psycho has almost always felt to me like a movie chopped in half by Marion’s death. The first half is slow-burn suspense and expert Hitchcockian artistry the opening title sequence introducing Bernard Hermann’s score to Norman Bates giving a subtle look of relief when the car sinks into the lake. The second half is still very well crafted to be sure, but it isn’t assembled through these patient set-pieces.

So to me it’s able to be both, but that’s perhaps a result of seeing it however many dozen times.

Scott: And that’s another thing – after seeing a movie so many times, it’s nice to allow ourselves the freedom to see it in a different way. Even if it means laughing when that investigator gets thrown down to the first floor by being stabbed.

I feel like I have fun homework – to rewatch Psycho to appreciate just how absurd it gets.

Landon: Well here’s the last piece of the puzzle that might be the end of me: if Psycho is meant to be a provocation, a meta joke at some level, then perhaps Gus Van Sant’s remake is perfectly in tune with the spirit of the original.

Why else would you cast Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates?

Scott: Because we all go a little mad sometimes, Landon.

Next Time: Buster Keaton’s The General

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