When originally made, the film was seen as a departure from Hitchcock's previous film North by Northwest, being filmed on a low budget, with a television crew and in black and white. Psycho initially received mixed reviews, but outstanding box office returns prompted reconsideration which led to overwhelming critical acclaim and four Academy Award nominations, including Best Supporting Actress for Leigh and Best Director for Hitchcock. It is now considered one of Hitchcock's best films.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her boyfriend Sam Loomis meet for a secret romantic rendezvous during lunch hour at a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. They talk about how they can barely afford to get married. Upon Marion's return to work at a realtor's office, a client comes in with $40,000 in cash to purchase a house for his daughter. The money is entrusted to Marion, who decides to steal it and skip town.
On the road, she pulls over to sleep and is awoken by a policeman who detects that something is wrong. The policeman lets her go, but upon arriving in another town, Marion pulls into a used car dealership and hastily exchanges her car for another one. Driving during a rainy night, Marion pulls up to the Bates Motel, a remote lodging that has recently lost business due to a diversion of the main highway. The proprietor, youthful but nervous Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) invites her to a light dinner in the parlor. Norman discloses that his mother is mentally ill, but he becomes irate and bristles when Marion suggests that she be institutionalized. The conversation induces Marion to decide to return to Phoenix and return the stolen money. Marion later takes a shower in her room, during which a shadowy figure comes and stabs her to death. Norman bursts into the bathroom and discovers Marion's dead body. He wraps the body in the shower curtain and cleans up the bathroom. He puts Marion's body in her car and sinks her car in a nearby swamp.
In Phoenix, Marion's sister, Lila, and her boyfriend Sam Loomis are concerned about Marion's disappearance. A detective named Arbogast confirms she is suspected of having stolen $40,000 from her employer. Arbogast eventually finds the Bates Motel. Norman's evasiveness and stammering arouse his suspicions. Arbogast later enters the Bates' residence, looking for Norman's mother. A figure emerges from her room and murders Arbogast.
Fearing something has happened to Arbogast, Sam and Lila go to the town of Fairvale and talk with the local sheriff. He is puzzled by the detective's claim that he was going to talk to Norman's mother and states that Mrs. Bates died years ago, along with her lover, in a murder-suicide. Norman, seen from above, carries his mother down to the cellar of their house as she verbally protests the arrangement.
Sam and Lila rent a room at the Bates Motel and discover the cabin Marion stayed in. Lila explores it and finds a scrap of paper with "$40,000" written on it, and notes that the bathtub has no shower curtain. Sam distracts Norman while Lila sneaks into the house, looking for Mrs. Bates. Norman subdues Sam and chases Lila. Seeing Norman approaching, Lila hides in the cellar and discovers Mrs. Bates sitting in a rocking chair. The chair rotates to reveal a desiccated corpse, the preserved body of Mrs. Bates. Norman enters the basement, wearing a dress and wig while wielding a large knife, revealing Norman to be the murderer all along. Sam enters and saves Lila.
After Norman's arrest, a psychiatrist who interviewed Norman reveals that Norman had murdered his mother and her lover years ago, and later developed a split personality to erase the crime from his memory. At times, he is able to function as Norman, but other times the mother personality completely dominates him. Norman is now locked into his mother's identity permanently. Mrs. Bates, in a voice-over, talks about how harmless she is and how it was really Norman, not she, who committed the murders. The final scene shows Marion's car being recovered from the swamp.
The murder of Janet Leigh's character in the shower is the film's pivotal scene and one of the best-known in all of cinema. As such, it spawned numerous myths and legends. It was shot from December 17 to December 23, 1959, and features 77 different camera angles.The scene "runs 3 minutes and includes 50 cuts. Most of the shots are extreme close-ups, except for medium shots in the shower directly before and directly after the murder. The combination of the close shots with their short duration makes the sequence feel more subjective than it would have been if the images were presented alone or in a wider angle, an example of the technique Hitchcock described as "transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience".
I am glad now I finally watched the movie. Although Psycho is still not my favorite Hitchcock film, I do think that every movie lover should watch it at least once. While I found the ending of Vertigo (1958) more shocking and the ending of Shadow Of A Doubt (1943) more satisfying, I did like the gritty and dark look to the film which many of Hitchcock's prior movies in the 1950s did not have. Also seeing the underrated Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, makes anyone that has mother issues see a little normal by comparison...