Playwright. Screenwriter. Producer. Known primarily for two major achievments: (1) He wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). (2) He was the producer and chief writer for the first season (1963-1964) of television’s groundbreaking sci-fi/gothic anthology series, The Outer Limits.
And one cannot talk about Psycho without talking about Norman Bates. Bates is the greatest of many great Hitchcock characters, and the only one to have a significant life of his own, as it were, outside the deterministic confines of Hitchcock’s universe (as attested to by three Psycho sequels, all made after Hitchcock’s death). Norman Bates is not just a character, but an icon – as recognizable within the popular culture as Tarzan, King Kong, or Sherlock Holmes. He is a joint creation of novelist Robert Bloch, producer/director Hitchcock, screenwriter Joseph Stefano, and actor Anthony Perkins.
Novelist Bloch conceived the idea of a socially impaired, mother-obsessed motel manager who is secretly a transvestite murderer of women (it was Bloch’s description of the shower murder that attracted Hitchcock to the project), but it was Stefano who thought Norman should be a sympathetic young man, rather than the pudgy middle-aged creep of Bloch’s book. And not just any young man, but specifically Anthony Perkins whom Stefano had admired ever since he saw his performance in a Broadway production of Look Homeward, Angel. The part of Norman was written by Stefano with Perkins in mind.
Stefano and Perkins were both men of the theater. After Psycho‘s cinematic success, they planned to mount a stage version of Psycho starring Perkins. (On a related note, I once saw Perkins in a Broadway production of Equus, playing psychiatrist to another troubled young man.) Both men saw in Norman a fundamental drive toward health , a drive that echoed their personal experiences with psychoanalysis. When Stefano was eventually offered the chance to revisit the character by writing Psycho IV (1990), he and Perkins conceived of a Norman who was still troubled, but whose years in the asylum were far behind him, who is married with a pregnant wife, and whose final words are, “I’m free.”
But thirty years before, in the original Psycho, Stefano had written what is, for me, one of the most moving dialogue scenes in cinema, the scene between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Norman as they share a sandwich in the room behind the office of the Bates Motel. What makes the scene so poignant for me is the sense of two lost souls nearly connecting and thereby escaping from their personal isolation. The performances and interplay of Leigh and Perkins are superb (both should have won Oscars). Hitchcock’s mise-en-scene is unforgettable (those stuffed birds!). The words, however, are Stefano’s:
“You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps – clamped in them – and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch. ”
NEXT: THE OUTER LIMITS.