Psycho is a 1960 American psychological horror film directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock, and written by Joseph Stefano, starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, Vera Miles and Martin Balsam, and was based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. The film centers on the encounter between a secretary, Marion Crane (Leigh), who ends up at a secluded motel after stealing money from her employer, and the motel’s disturbed owner-manager, Norman Bates (Perkins), and its aftermath.
When originally made, Psycho was seen as a departure from Hitchcock’s previous film North by Northwest, having been filmed on a low budget, with a television crew and in black and white. The film 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.
Psycho is now considered one of Hitchcock’s best films and praised as a major work of cinematic art by international film critics and scholars. Often ranked among the greatest films of all time, it set a new level of acceptability for violence, deviant behavior and sexuality in American films, and is widely considered to be the earliest example of the slasher filmgenre.
After Hitchcock’s death in 1980, Universal Studios began producing follow-ups: three sequels, a remake, a television film spin-off, and a prequel TV series. In 1992, the US Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
During a lunchtime tryst in Phoenix, Arizona, a real estate secretary named Marion Crane discusses with her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, how they cannot afford to get married because of Sam’s debts. After lunch, Marion returns to work, where a client drops off a $40,000 cash payment on a property. Her boss asks her to deposit the money in the bank, and she asks if she can take the rest of the afternoon off. Returning home, she begins to pack, deciding to steal the money and give it to Sam in Fairvale, California. She is seen by her boss on her way out of town, which makes her nervous.
During the trip, she pulls over on the side of the road and falls asleep, only to be awakened by a state patrol officer. Suspicious about her nervous behavior, he notes her license plate number and follows her at a close distance. Hoping to shake his pursuit, Marion stops at an automobile dealership and trades in her Ford Mainline, with its Arizona license plates, for a Ford Custom 300 that has California tags.
Driving on, Marion stops for the night at the Bates Motel. The proprietor, Norman Bates, invites her to a light dinner after she checks in. She accepts, but then hears an argument between Norman and his mother about bringing a woman into her house. They eat in the motel parlor, where he tells her about his life with his mother, who is mentally ill and forbids him to have a life outside of her. Her sense of compassion and responsibility awakened by Norman’s story, Marion decides to go back to Phoenix in the morning to return the stolen money, and prepares for bed. As she is showering, a shadowy figure comes in and stabs her to death with a chef’s knife. Norman discovers the murder and assumes his mother is responsible. He meticulously cleans up the crime scene, putting Marion’s corpse and her possessions—including the embezzled money—into the trunk of her car and sinking it in the swamps near the motel.
A week later, Marion’s sister Lila arrives in Fairvale and confronts Sam about the whereabouts of her sister. Private investigator Milton Arbogast approaches them and confirms that Marion is wanted for stealing the $40,000. He checks the motels, and Norman’s evasive and inconsistent answers arouse his suspicions. After hearing that Marion had met Norman’s mother, he asks to speak with her, but Norman refuses. Arbogast calls Lila and Sam to update them. He goes to the Bates’ home in search of Norman’s mother; as he reaches the top of the stairs, he is attacked and murdered. When Lila and Sam do not hear from Arbogast, Sam visits the motel. He finds only Mrs. Bates, who ignores his knocking. Lila and Sam go to the local sheriff, who informs them that Mrs. Bates killed herself ten years ago, and concludes that Arbogast lied to confuse them and made off with the $40,000. Still convinced that some ill has befallen Arbogast, Lila and Sam make their way to the motel. Norman takes his unwilling mother from her room and hides her in the fruit cellar.
At the motel, Lila and Sam meet Norman. Sam distracts him by striking up a conversation while Lila sneaks up to the house. When Sam tells Norman they’ve come to question his mother, he knocks Sam out and rushes to the house. Lila sees Norman approaching and hides by going down steps that lead to the fruit cellar. There she finds Mrs. Bates sitting in a chair. Lila turns her around and discovers that she is in fact a mummified corpse. Lila screams as Norman runs into the cellar, holding a chef’s knife and wearing his mother’s clothes and a wig. Before Norman can attack Lila, Sam, having regained consciousness, subdues him.
At the local courthouse, a psychiatrist explains that Norman murdered Mrs. Bates and her lover ten years prior out of jealousy. Unable to bear the guilt, he exhumed her corpse and began to treat it as if she were still alive. In order to preserve that illusion, he recreated his mother in his own mind as an alternate personality, often dressing in her clothes and talking to himself in her voice. This “Mother” personality is jealous and possessive: whenever Norman feels attracted to a woman, “Mother” kills her. As “Mother”, Norman had killed two young girls prior to Marion, as well as Arbogast. The psychiatrist says the “Mother” personality has taken permanent hold of Norman’s mind. While Norman sits in a holding cell, “Mother” protests that the murders were Norman’s doing and that she “wouldn’t even harm a fly.” Meanwhile, Marion’s car is pulled out of the swamp.