Long before Hannibal Lector, Patrick Bateman, or John Doe left us shivering, Norman Bates set the stage. Fifty-five years later, few films have had the impact of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Norman Bates and his infamous motel have become a pop culture sensation, and even those who have not seen the film are generally aware of the story and its climax.
While the notorious shower scene has caused the most controversy, the film’s ending has garnered its share of debate. The film could actually be said to have several endings: the unmasking of Norman as the murderer, Dr. Richmond’s explanation for Norman’s behavior, the Norman-mother speech, and the removal of Marion’s car from the swamp, none of which follow the normal cinematic convention of resolution. Throughout the film Psycho ignores all expectations and breaks all the rules, and the ending is no different. It does nothing to relieve the distress of the audience, nor does it offer closure.
Roger Ebert has notably stated that he feels the ending mars an otherwise perfect film. According to Mr. Ebert, he has never found a convincing defense for the “psychiatric blather”; he would have left out most of it and cut directly to the scene of Norman wrapped in the blanket. Mr. Ebert's objections notwithstanding, I do see a necessity for this scene, especially considering the time period. Mental illness was still widely misunderstood (the last lobotomy in the US was performed in 1967), and unlike modern audiences, Hitchcock’s viewers would have been largely uninformed. The censor board closely scrutinized this scene and, though it is taken from Bloch’s novel (except Sam delivers this speech, and it is actually much longer), Hitchcock reportedly had to provide verification that this was an actual psychiatric diagnosis, not some attempt of vulgarity on his part. The audience of Hitchcock’s time, therefore, needed this explanation to understand and accept the premise of the story.
The audience also needed this scene as a moment of recovery. Though Psycho is tame by today’s standards, it would have been quite shocking for 1960’s audiences. However, unlike the reveal scenes of detective fiction, which it almost seems to parody, this scene only pretends to offer an explanation. The audience, having experienced a moment of readjustment, is thrown back into the darkness in the next scene. The camera cuts to Norman, sitting alone and wrapped in a blanket. He might seem quite vulnerable except for the eerie look on his face coupled with the voiceover of his mother, who is defending her decision to allow the authorities to put Norman away. As Norman once blamed Mother for the murders, now Mother’s voice blames Norman. In the book, Bloch clearly explains that, as the psychiatrist predicts in the film, Norman is gone, and only Mother exists now. Hitchcock, however, is not so definitive. There is no sure indication as to who we are looking at in the end. Mother’s voice stops, and Norman smiles. A picture of Mother’s skull is superimposed over Norman’s face. At the end of the film, we are simply left to wonder.
We are also left rather unsettled. Hitchcock was one of the first directors to abandon his audience at the end of a film. There is no neat and tidy ending; all is not right with the world. The world is random and chaotic; sometimes the innocent die; and sometimes the bad guys are not punished. There is not even a clear answer as to who the murderer is. Ok, we know that physically Norman killed them, but who was he mentally? Both he and Mother deny having committed the murders. If it was Mother, and if the psychiatrist is right, and she is the only personality left, what does that mean for the future? She says she will sit and do nothing, but for how long? She says she wouldn’t even harm a fly, but then she smiles that eerie smile, and we see the car being pulled from the swamp. Until recently, I thought the movie should have ended with that eerie smile and the superimposed skull. But as usual, I realized after closer examination that Hitchcock made the right call. The car is important to the ending because of the timing. We see it being pulled from the swamp just as Mother says she wouldn’t harm a fly. The car reminds us that this woman or man, Norma/Norman, did indeed cause harm, and we are left to wonder if she will do it again.