“We all go a little mad sometimes”: The story behind the most sinister line in ‘Psycho’

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“It-it’s not as if she were a… a maniac — a raving thing. She just goes… a little mad sometimes.” Norman Bates flares his nostrils. “We all go a little mad sometimes.” He relaxes back into his chair, and a boyish grin spreads across his face. “Haven’t you?” This is the moment at which Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic masterpiece Psycho transforms.

Until then, the audience thinks it’s watching just another Hitchcock mystery thriller involving one of his archetypal young female protagonists on the run with an envelope full of stolen cash. Norman Bates is a polite and apparently well-meaning hotel clerk showing thief-protagonist Marion Crane some typical desert hospitality.

When he utters his famous line and flashes a broad smile from nowhere, it’s the first glimpse we get of the madness about to be unleashed. Moments after that smile first appeared to unsuspecting audiences, cinema would be changed forever. The direct quotation of the line in Wes Craven’s slasher movie Scream is the least of its influence.

But how did we get there, to that instant of film history? Who should take credit for the dialogue between Norman and Marion in the parlour of the Bates Motel, which is instrumental in building the tension in the film towards a crescendo? Director-Producer Hitchcock, who was behind the entire film project? Its screenwriter? Or the cast themselves? Here, we delve into your questions…

Did the cast of Psycho improvise their lines?

Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, who played Norman Bates and Marion Crane, respectively, had licence to improvise their parts in Psycho to some degree. Hitchcock gave them free rein within scenes, as long as their ad-libbing didn’t change the angle required for a shot.

The film’s screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, would later describe one piece of improvisation by Perkins as his “most magical moment” in the film. It was the actor’s own decision to have Norman chewing on candy corn, nervously watching on as Marion’s car descends ever-so-slowly down into a swamp.

Some of Perkins’ additions are obvious in the parlour scene, too. His hesitant stammers, his uncomfortable shuffling backwards and forwards in his chair, towards and away from the young woman in front of him. Most of all, that smile, its veneer of innocence serves both to undercut and to emphasise the ominous line of dialogue it juxtaposes.

It’s interesting that the line itself is different in Robert Bloch’s novel, from which the film was adapted. There, Norman says, “We all do mad things sometimes, don’t we?” The subtle change in the film from “do mad things” to “go a little mad” softens the line, making him sound more affable and endearing. It’s reduced to a hint, designed to play with the audience’s perception by warning them of what’s to come while making them sympathise with Norman at the same time.

Psycho - Alfred Hitchcock - Anthony Perkins - Norman Bates - Far Out Magazine

(Credit: Alamy)

From the novel to the script?

The preceding section of dialogue, in which Norman openly scolds Marion for suggesting he put his mother “someplace”, isn’t in the novel at all. However, it is likely that this dialogue comes straight from Stefano’s Psycho script. He explains: “The scene has to properly prepare the audience to like this pathetic guy.” The suffering coming through in Norman’s barbed defence of his mother, Norma Bates, from “an institution” plays a big role in winning the audience over. He’s not only shy and lonely, but caring.

Stefano certainly has to take the bulk of the credit for specific words of dialogue in this scene, then. But it’s possible that, along with the mannerisms and body language he perfected, Anthony Perkins played some part in the wording of the famous line. Indeed, his own dysfunctional relationship with his real-life mother would have informed the finest details of his performance in this scene.

Where was this scene of Psycho filmed?

Due to an extremely limited budget, Alfred Hitchcock shot the entirety of Psycho at the same location as his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents (later known as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). This was at Revue Studios in the Hollywood area, which have since become the Universal Studios Lot.

A Bates Motel set was constructed for the film, and it remains at the studio lot today. It was here that actors Leigh and Perkins shot their parlour scene inside the motel building on set.

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