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Psycho's scariest moment isn't a scream, but a smile
Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho, which turns 60 this year, has lots of famous twists and turns. But one of the creepiest is also one of the quietest — the famous moment in which protagonist Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) allows herself a strange, cruel smile while contemplating her recent theft of $40,000. It's the one moment when you see real malevolence peeking out from behind Crane's perfect features. It's also a kind of signature written across those features by Hitchcock himself.
That smile is stealthily the most disturbing moment in a disturbing film because it suggests that evil isn't just clawing around inside that nice guy Norman Bates, but crawls across everyone, no matter how lovely, brilliant, rational, or in control. And when taken in the context of Hitchcock's well-documented sexism, the implications become all the more troubling.
The moment when Crane smiles comes while she is in her car fleeing Phoenix, where she stole $40,000 that a drunk client, Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson), entrusted to her. She's on the road to Los Angeles, where she hopes to use the money to pay off the debts of her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) so they can marry. The trip has been harrowing. A cop found her sleeping in her car on the side of the road, and then followed her to a dealership where she exchanged her car for a new one with California plates.
The windshield frames her face as she drives through the rainy night. Her features register distress, fear, discomfort, grief. And then, she thinks about how she pulled off the crime in the first place. A voice-over of Cassidy's voice plays as she imagines his reaction to discovering he’d been duped. "Hot creepers! She sat there while I dumped it [the money] out! Hardly even looked at it. Planning. And even flirting with me!"
At this description of her cool calculation, the corner of Marion's mouth turns up in a small, gloating smile. Before this one shot, Marion is determined or scared. Afterward, she's regretful. But here, on the road, thinking about how she used her good looks and smarts to bamboozle a wealthy, drunk a**hole, she is pleased with herself.
Evil, for a second at least, is unsettlingly fun.
Marion only holds that expression very briefly. But the smile comes around in the film again, though not on her face. Marion stops at a small hotel run by the awkward, eager-to-please Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), where after some thought, she decides to drive back to Phoenix the next day and return the money. Before she can, though, Norman, who (we eventually learn) is a homicidal maniac, kills her in the shower and sinks her body and her car in a swamp behind the hotel. When the car finally, sluggishly disappears in the mud, Norman twitches up his mouth much as Marion did, in a smirk at an evil deed well done.
The smile slides out, even more famously, in the very last shot of the film, after we've learned that Norman has a split personality and believes he is his own mother. Bundled up in the police station, the camera zooms in on Norman as we hear his mother's voice-over nattering on in his head. She whispers about what an evil boy her son is and how she will fool the police. "They'll say, 'Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly,'" the voice quavers, as Norman's features stretch into an eerie, mad, close-mouthed grin. The ugly insect thing we saw scuttle across Marion's features ends up settling onto Norman's as the movie ends.
Horror movies before Psycho generally featured vampires, werewolves, mummies, or creatures from the Black Lagoon: Evil was embodied in clearly inhuman monsters. Psycho, in contrast, is about the evil beneath the normal (or Norman) surface in nice, everyday folks. Norman is friendly, chatty, angular, and harmless, it seems. But inside him, there lurks an evil double who spies on Marion undressing through a peephole in the wall and lusts and murders. Marion's smile tells us that evil touches her too. She has desires (for sex, for money) and finds pleasure in satisfying them in defiance of societal norms and moral laws.
Marion's smile tells us that cruelty lurks even in beautiful people, even in victims. It’s about how evil is universal. Hitchcock’s films often portray women in stereotypical or misogynistic ways, and at least one of his lead actresses, Tippi Hedren, says he stalked her, sexually assaulted her, and destroyed her career. Psycho’s portrayal of Marion is complex in many ways — but that smile can, notably, be read as the smile of a stereotypically deceitful woman enjoying her power to seduce and deceive men, especially when taking into account Hitchcock's body of work and history.
And the twist ending of the film — that Norman's smile is also the smile of a deceitful woman enjoying her power to deceive men (which is a misogynistic trope about women in general) — adds to that by deploying a specifically harmful transmisogynistic trope about the falseness and violence of trans women. Psycho is about the evil lurking in ordinary people, but that evil in Hitchcock's world is specifically feminine.
The psycho in all of us, Hitchcock seems to be saying in Psycho, is a woman.
The final twist that Hitchcock might not have considered, though — this one taking place in the real world — is that the person who draws that woman's smile across the universe isn't a woman, but a man: the director himself. Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins are both extremely talented actors with mobile faces. But it's Hitchcock who got them to turn those faces into two similar, sinister smiles. Marion’s upturned lips, and Norman’s, are a kind of signature; this sign of the corrupt, irrational, disordered mind was imagined by the man behind the camera. Hitchcock's smile is Marion's evil, just as Marion's smile is Hitchcock's misogyny.
Marion's smile is uncanny in part because it seems to be something grotesque within her coming to the surface: a fleeting glimpse of an essential, underlying evil. But the smile is also uncanny because, especially on repeat viewings, it seems imposed from without, as if Hitchcock is drawing monstrous graffiti on his leading lady. Marion smiles, Hitchcock says, because everyone, especially every woman, is culpable. But we the viewers know that, more ominously, she smiles because someone who's hidden, watching, wants everyone to be culpable. The curve of the lip tells you that evil is everywhere: in Marion, in Norman, in you, and in famous filmmakers, too.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.