It is a hot early afternoon in December in Phoenix, Arizona, and Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has been spending her lunch break with her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) in a hotel room. They are both frustrated that they have to hide their love away from the eyes of Sam's ex-wife who is crippling him with her alimony demands and dream of the day when they're financially free enough to get married. So when Marion returns to work as a secretary and is confronted with a boorish businessman waving forty thousand dollars under her nose, part of a deal with her boss, she starts thinking of what she could get away with when she's meant to be taking the cash to the safety deposit box...
It's no exaggeration to say that Psycho changed cinema for all time, not only in the field of thrillers and horrors but in any film that tries to pull the wool over its audience's eyes. Alfred Hitchcock had tried psychologically intricate suspense before, most blatantly in the shakily Freudian Spellbound, but here the ins and outs of a twisted mind were far more convincingly mapped, and not only the mental makeup of the killer, either. Marion is also a criminal, and it is she who brings out the main theme of the film when she drives away with the money that weekend: when she sees her boss crossing in front of her car at a traffic light, what she feels defines the story.
And what she feels is guilt, an emotion that constantly erupts in the characters, largely born of a fear of authority figures and what they can do to punish you. Bosses, cops, detectives and mothers - they all elicit that uncomfortable sense of not simply doing wrong, but being found out and taken to task for whatever misdeeds you have committed. Psycho was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who himself grew weary of his association with the film which overshadowed his whole career, yet Hitchcock saw not only the clever tricks the author used that could be dynamite on the big screen, but a way of playing out his sense of humour and penchant for menacing blonde women - in his movies, of course.
Leigh is especially good at making us feel Marion's discomfort: it's all there written on her face as she nervously looks around while gripping the wheel of her car, and a policeman who seems to be trailing her makes her all the more anxious. Could she have been found out so soon? She drives from Phoenix to the middle of nowhere in California, eventually getting off the highway and onto the lesser used road, but she cannot risk being found sleeping in her car and as luck would have it there's a motel up ahead that she can check into. It's a quiet place where she can gather her thoughts and the owner, one Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) seems unassuming enough.
Of course, Norman has every right to feel as guilty as Marion does in a superb performance from Perkins which ruined the perception of sensitive chaps the world over. He's a lonely soul, with the only company he has being his invalid mother who we glimpse at the upstairs window of his house, but is mother as powerless as she appears? As Marion overhears, she certainly has a vice-like grip over her son which we find out can only lead to tragedy, and watching Psycho a second time it's amusing to see how all the signs to what is really going on are there if we care to notice them. There is far more to this film than a simple surprise ending, which is probably why it has been discussed and referenced to the incredible extent it has, from the shocking shower scene to Bernard Herrmann's unforgettable, jittery score, and so rich is it with complexities that it's easy to see why it has been awarded classic status. Its nastiness, its ironies and its black humour endure, as does the weird way in which poor Norman is the character who bears our strongest sympathies.
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.