The Boyish Killer: Anthony Perkins’ Performance in Psycho

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As many know, Alfred Hitchcock making Psycho was never a sure thing. The studio, and apparently his wife, weren’t too keen on the Master of Suspense adapting a novel that people thought was cheap sensationalism. Robert Bloch’s book was based on the infamous Ed Gein murders, which had been grisly national news a few years before. Like Norman Bates, Ed Gein had an unhealthy relationship with his mother, who he later dug up and kept in his house as his sole companion. But Hitchcock saw great potential in the story, an opportunity to make an entirely new kind of film, one that, like Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man, explored the darker, terribly lonely and compulsive urges of the serial killer.

But Hitchcock decided that he didn’t want the novel’s antagonist to be balding, fat and middle aged. He wanted him to be the boy next door, young, handsome, agreeable, with a lovely, wide smile and large dark eyes. And so he cast Anthony Perkins, who despite his boyish good looks was already an established film and stage actor, having been nominated for a Golden Globe and two Tony Awards. Anthony apparently reminded Hitchcock of a young Jimmy Stewart, all American and affable, with an endearing goofiness about him. These traits were perfect in masking the urges of a killer who was driven by psycho sexual impulses and borderline incestuous desires.

In the 2012 film Hitchcock, an interview between Anthony and Hitchcock intimates that the director knows of Anthony’s homosexuality, and therefore his suitability to play a character that has to conceal a large part of himself. Whether or not this is true, I am not sure, but the scene also makes mention of the fact that Anthony was very close to his mother as a child and therefore can empathise with a part of Norman Bate’s character. Alma, Hitchcock’s wife and long time collaborator, also says in the film “Anthony Perkins. Imagine the duality he could bring to the role of Norman. The rage lurking behind that little boy grin. The winsome charm he uses to keep from being found out.” She and Hitchcock’s secretary both connect this duality to Anthony’s homosexuality.

Whether or not Anthony Perkins drew on his own experiences as a closeted homosexual living in a time when homosexuality was still illegal, in order to play the role of Norman Bates is unclear, and I also do not want to make potentially harmful or hurtful assumptions. But what is clear, is that Anthony understood the need to be subtle about this duality. There is nothing obvious about Norman’s madness in the film. He seems perfectly agreeable, even likeable. The only scene in which his potential for mental instability is hinted at before the final shocking reveal is the one in which he and Marion talk about his mother, and he utters the famous lines of “A boy’s best friend is his mother” and “We all go a little mad sometimes”. But this also a scene that is better “decoded” with the benefit of hindsight. As a first time viewer, there is something distinctly unsettling in the exchange, but nothing too strange, and that is why the next scene, in which Marion is murdered in the shower is so shocking. And that is also why as a first time viewer, when you hear Norman tearfully demanding what his mother has done, you believe that his mother has committed the murder, and not Norman.

There are those who will claim that they saw the twist coming, but I am hard pressed to believe them. Anthony’s performance is a masterstroke in subtlety. When PI Arbogast comes to investigate Marion’s disappearance at the behest of her sister, Lila, the viewer is firmly led to believe that Norman is not covering up his own crimes, but his mother’s. The way in which he leans over the hotel register is very disconcerting, and you know there is danger in this place, but there is no way of knowing that Norman is the one to eventually dispatch Arbogast.

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Norman’s habit of chewing candy corn was “an example of Perkins’ improvisation[51] Another boyish habit that both endears the character to the viewer and also adds to the slight uneasiness that is felt every time Norman is on the screen. Upon subsequent viewings of the film, this becomes a signature of Norman’s dual personality. He is still the childlike young man with a taste for a childhood confection, while also being the morbidly lonely one who has the inescapable urge to kill due to sexual neurosis, caused by an unhealthily dependent relationship with his mother during his formative years.

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The role of Norman Bates would go onto be the defining role of Anthony’s career, and with good reason. Although he was an incredibly gifted and versatile actor, who gave many fine performances in films such Goodbye Again opposite Ingrid Bergman, Mahogany alongside Diana Ross and Murder on the Orient Express; his portrayal of Norman Bates is one of the best film performances in the history of cinema. The final scene of Psycho, in which the “mother personality” has entirely subsumed Norman,  is a perfect showcase of how Anthony Perkins’ was able to crack and shatter the idea of the innocent, good guy image. His eyes become extremely black, almost pool like under John L. Russell’s lighting, and his mouth stretches not into the winsome grin that Norman has shown the entire film, but something terrible, almost too much for the viewer to look at, but somehow spellbinding in its unnerving capacity.

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This is my second and last contribution for The Third Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon. You can view my first contribution here.

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Published by

palewriter2

I adore classic and horror films and it's so lovely to be able to speak to other people about it.

12 thoughts on “The Boyish Killer: Anthony Perkins’ Performance in Psycho”

  1. Brilliant! I can’t imagine another actor playing Norman in this. Anthony really is unnerving and innocent at the same time. This character gives a face to those killers out there who are/were not visibly monstrous, but who were wolves in sheep’s clothing and capable of the most terrifying and sick things.

    I don’t see how anyone seeing this for the first time in 1960 could have possibly seen the twist coming. I managed to see this in the early 2000’s and had heard that it was good and there was a twist, but I had avoided any spoilers. I didn’t see the twist reveal coming and was so shocked when that cellar scene arrived.

    That final shot with the skull grin is so freaky and really creeps me out. That scene also shows how good Anthony was. He goes from innocent/slightly weird young man to cold and terrifying.

    Thanks so much for joining me, Gabriela.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a marvellous post, Gabriela! I love that you spotlighted Tony on his own. His portrayal of Norman Bates is truly one of the greatest and most memorable performances out there. I’ve not seen the feature film on Hitchcock but I would have some reservations about Tony and Hitch openly discussing his sexuality. Tony was an extremely private person and never publicly spoke of his intimate life, also trying to outwardly “appear” heterosexual at the request of the studio. I think Hitch undoubtedly knew of Tony’s homosexuality but would have been respectful about his lifestyle. He had a long history of working with gay actors and it never bothered him. In fact, he had to tone down the homosexual innuendo in ‘Rope’. I have read Tony’s biography and he has a tough upbringing. I believe he took a lot from that and having lost his father at a very young age to help shape his vision of Norman. I’m so glad he continued on in the role for 3 more films. This is one of my most appreciated film series. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Erica! I’m so glad you enjoyed my approach. As you say, the film only intimates that Hitchcock knows, he never says anything to Anthony Perkins about it, there’s just suggestion through dialogue. As you say, Norman Bates was definitely his signature role, which I find to be fascinating. Thanks again for your lovely comment 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My late mother-in-law saw the film in 1960 and told me that no one, but no one suspected Norman. She actually told that the revelation was so shocking that she, and the rest of the audience, became physically sick.

    BTW, have you seen the sequels? I thought Perkins was brilliant in 2 and 3 (which he also directed). The films prove that Perkins really understood the character — it is indeed a brilliant piece of work. A friend mine, a struggling Hollywood actor, said to me that Perkins’s “we all go a little mad sometimes” scene is often used in drama school.

    Also, love your comparison to Lewton’s The Leopard. 🙂

    Like

  4. What a great article! I also don’t think many people saw the plot twist coming.
    The idea of casting boyish Perkins as Norman was brilliant, as was his performance. Too bad he was subsequently typecasted, but at least he’ll always be remembered for this amazing role.
    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

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