Psycho Killer, Qu’est Que C’est?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller “Psycho”.  This milestone surprises me on two levels: first, I cannot believe that the movie was made a half-century ago; and second, I am amazed that the story has withstood the passage of time so well. (I should be so lucky when 50 kindly stops for me.) I shall not delve into the deeper meanings of “Psycho”, its place in cinematic history, or what it said (and still says) about American culture. Brighter minds than mine have already teased apart the strands of this wig. (Sorry. I could not resist.)  See, for instance, film critic David Thomson’s new book The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder (Basic Books, 2009). 

What strikes me about the movie is that it shows how ordinary people exist along the spectrum of evil.  At one end is Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane, a mild-mannered woman engaged in a clandestine affair (is there another kind?) and who decides on a Friday afternoon to change her life by stealing $40,000 in cash from her employer.  At the other end is the unassuming and slightly awkward Norman F. Bates, whose crimes are so well known to us that I need not describe them here.  (That, Dear Reader, is the definition of a true cultural icon.)  Indeed, when we first encounter each character, neither seems capable of doing anything particularly exciting or memorable.  (While it is true that Leigh’s character is engaged in a sexual relationship with a man, her character is redeemed by the fact that she wants to transform the affair into a respectable marriage.)  Thus, it is all the more terrifying when the respective stories of Marion and Norman flow together in that infamous shower scene in the Bates Motel.  Indeed, even though I have seen “Psycho” countless times, a part of me is still shocked that Norman Bates – and not his mother – is a murderer. (He is just so nice. And I am sure that he also bakes pies – just like Jeffrey Dahmer.) 

Hitchcock understood that a common stain of evil blots each of our souls.  And this “damn’d spot” is the true secret of the enduring power of “Pyscho” to frighten even the most jaded American Idol-watching, Facebook-friending, NPR-addicted, Twidiot out there.  Any one of us can steal.  Any one of us is capable of murder. The conditions that open the door to our darkness just have to be right. The only difference between us and our favorite innkeeper is that the musical score accompanying our crimes is not nearly as good.

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