Even if you’ve never seen Psycho, you know about the scene. A beautiful blonde woman is taking a shower. She’s vulnerable and unsuspecting, when all of the sudden a shadowy figure throws the curtain open and stabs her to death while the violin score screehes. It’s an iconic scene for a reason, but the fame of the moment obscures that the kill is only part of what might be one of the greatest twists in cinema history.
Psycho, now streaming on Peacock, is among Alfred Hitchcock’s best films and certainly one of his most well-known. But in 1960, when the film first came out, moviegoers certainly knew nothing about it. In an unusual move for the time, Hitchcock mandated that nobody would be allowed late admission to Psycho. Audiences at the time were used to rolling into movies late, but Hitchcock didn’t want them to miss the first act and the shocking twist.
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Psycho begins with Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh, who was arguably the biggest name in the cast and ostensibly the star) in Phoenix with her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin). The pair are unable to get married because Sam is in debt, so Marion takes matters into her own hands. She steals $40,000 — an amount that’s worth more than $400,000 in today’s dollars — from the office where she works. Then, she gets in her car and sets out to drive to Sam’s house in California.
This could very well be the premise of an entire movie, and audiences wouldn’t have been crazy for thinking that the rest of the film’s runtime would involve this stolen money. Marion gets pulled over by a cop, and because she is clearly, obviously, very nervous about the massive amount of money she just stole, the cop is suspicious. Marion now is on the run, swapping her car for another one and spending the night in the Bates Motel, where she meets the proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). There are some tense, uncomfortable sequences (as you’d expect from a Hitchcock movie), but talking to Norman, who feels trapped by his mother, prompts Marion to change her ways. She elects to go back in the morning, return the stolen money, and face the consequences rather than live the rest of her life burdened by guilt and paranoia.
She just takes a shower, first.
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Marion Crane is the movie’s main character. She has an entire arc and gets a lot of screentime. And then, suddenly, violently, she’s killed. After this, the movie shifts its attention to a new, herebefore unseen character who arrives halfway through the movie: Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles). The rest of the film is about Lila and Sam’s attempt to find out what happened to Marion.
That Marion’s death isn’t the only twist in Psycho makes it all the more impressive. The truth about Norman Bates and his murderous “mother” is shocking in its own right, but it’s the thrilling conclusion to a story. Marion’s death is an abrupt and unexpected ending of a story and the start of another one. When Hitchcock has Marion cut down in the shower, he’s also severing the audience’s expectations for what a movie looks like. The murder itself is shocking — but what it means in the context of the movie is what truly makes it one of cinema’s greatest twists.
Psycho is now streaming on Peacock.