In Praise of Old(er) Books: Part 4, The past is a different country

It is reasonable to presume that many (most?) of the people who watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho are, at best, dimly aware that the movie was adapted from Robert Bloch’s book of the same name.

This pairing is an excellent example of how different movies may be from the books/stories that inspired them. Psycho the book (henceforth PTB) is Norman’s story. Psycho the movie (henceforth PTM) is Marion’s story. Both stories are set in a past that may seem quite unfamiliar to the modern day audience.

The first line of the book introduces us to Norman as the reader is told he “heard the noise and a shock went through him.” (p. 1)1

The unfortunate Miss Crane who arrives at the Bates Motel in the novel is named Mary rather than Marion2. The reader first meets her on page 19, already on the run, having stolen money, traded cars (at a loss) to evade pursuit and is already exhausted physically and psychologically. We don’t directly ‘see’ Mary decide to steal the cash that a client of her boss (a real estate agent named Mr. Lowery) ostentatiously and publicly offered, rather than the more regular cashier’s cheque. We don’t directly see any interactions between her and the fiancee towards whom she is fleeing. We learn about the theft and her relationship with Sam Loomis only through her memories of their interactions and plans. So the reader only knows that cast of characters and those circumstances through Mary’s remembrances and understandings.

Hitchcock begins the story at a different moment and from a different character’s point of view. The movie opens with Sam and Marion dressing after having had an afternoon tryst in a hotel that catered to people who rented rooms by the hour or part of the day. In both the movie and the book, Sam is struggling to pay off debts his father left him but in the latter he is also encumbered with alimony payments. At one point in the book Mary wonders if Sam will go along with her plan to use the money she has stolen to pay off his debts. Marion appears to have no doubts that he will.

The Mary Crane of PTB is less reactive than the Marion of PTM and she seems both more and less innocent than Marion. Mary proactively plans to trade cars to evade those attempting to trace her while Marion appears to do so only when fearing she is being ‘watched’ by the police. Marion was already engaged in a physical affair with Sam AND was pressuring him to marry her while he cried off doing so due to his debts.

The Norman of PTB is not charming or attractive. We are told that he is overweight, out of shape and balding. He represents every danger that lonely travellers fear as they pull into rundown motels located on back roads. Norman drinks (to the point of passing out) and prior to Mary’s arrival he had already made a hole in the wall between his office and one of the motel rooms, a hole that allowed him to watch the residents in the bathroom. The reader has a clear sense that this cannot end well.

Marion is the ‘star’ of the early part of the movie, then Marion and Norman dominate the movie as it focuses on their interactions and reaction. Mary does not open the book nor does she play any active role in the story after the first few chapters.

The latter part of both book and movie focuses on the efforts of a private detective, Mary/Marion’s sister (Arbogast and Lila in the book and the movie) and Sam to find out what happened to Mary/Marion and Norman’s efforts to prevent them from doing so.

For those who first read/saw Psycho without having lived in/experienced the America in which is is set, the book presents a strange, almost nonsensical world. Why did Mary/Marion risk everything to steal a mere $40,000? Why didn’t Sam simply walk away from his father’s debts? Why did the police officer grill Marion for the ‘crime’ of having slept for a bit after pulling off the road too tired to drive any longer? Why did Mary/Marion pull into a clearly seldom frequented motel? Why did Mary/Marion imagine that by simply driving to another state and trading in her car she could elude detection? Why did Marion/Mary think that stealing money in order to get married was worth while?

One of the ways of engaging with PTM and PTB is to see them as divided into sections, all of which explore aspects of life in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

To begin with let’s start with ‘the instigating factor’ that changes life (and drives decisions) for our characters, the $40,000 that Tom Cassidy slapped down to buy his daughter a house as a wedding present. Now even today, that is a tidy sum of money but it is certainly not enough to justify throwing over one’s job and starting a new life.

However, when the book was published in 1959 (and the movie released in 1960) $40,000 was enough to buy a lovely house. In fact, in 1960 the median household income in the United States was $5,600. (And less than half that for households led by senior citizens.) So with $40,000 Sam and Marion/Mary could anticipate him being able to pay off all the debts he inherited from his father, (we learn in the book he has paid off all but $11,000 of those debts) and buy a car (which in 1960 would have cost less $3,000.) With the $26,000 he and Marion/Mary would be left with, they could have easily bought a house (median house price in 1960 was less than $12,000—  they could have afforded a very nice house) and then settled down to a comfortable upper middle class life. Mary/Marion could anticipate pitching in as one of the workers at Sam’s hardware store rather than holding down ‘a job.’

So $40,000 was enough money to tempt someone to break the law while at the same time it wasn’t quite enough money to guarantee that the police would be immediately involved in the case. One can imagine the questions that were raised by ‘higher ups’ at the real estate company) deciding to take a cash payment for the house (a cash payment from a man who openly boasted that he didn’t declare all of his income to the IRS) and ‘trusting it’ to one of his staff. One understands why Mr. Cassidy/Mr. Lowery might decide that cost of paying for a private detective to track Mary/Marion down was worth not attracting police/government and public attention to the way in which they conducted their business.

Why does Sam not simply walk away from his father’s debts? These were not his debts and he, as far as we can tell, had not co-signed for any of the loans legal or illegal. Sam explains why in the book. His ambition to to keep running the same hardware store in the same small town where he and his father had worked and lived. The loss of reputation and respect in the local community were he not to pay off those loans would make it impossible for him to stay in business.

It’s a nice town, but a small one. Everybody knows everybody else’s business. As long as I’m in there pitching, I got their respect. They go out of their way to trade with me—they all know the situation and appreciate |I’m trying to do my best. Dad had a good reputation, in spite of the way things turned out. I want to keep that for myself and for the business. And for us, in the future. (p. 26)

Why is Marion/|Mary an attractive capable woman not yet 30 so desperate to marry Sam? Because, like Elizabeth Bennett and Elinor Dashwood her “job’ was to find a man, get married and settle down. That is simply what most women did at that time and few considered other options. At 27 she and those around her, considered her to be rapidly approaching ‘old maidship.”

Mary had met Sam on a cruise (which he had won for being a good salesman). When Mary complains at having to wait until the debts are paid off before Sam marries her he tells her:

“It isn’t easy and it isn’t pleasant. But I know what I want, and I can’t settle for less. So you’ll just have to be patient, darling.”

So she was patient. But not until she learned that no amount of further persuasion—verbal or physical—would sway him.

There the situation stood when the cruise ended. And there it remained, for well over a year. Mary had driven up to visit him last summer; she saw the town, the store, the fresh figures in the ledger which showed that Sam had paid off an additional five thousand dollars. “Only eleven thousand to go,” he told her proudly. “Another two years, maybe even less.”

Two years. In two years, she’d be twenty-nine. She couldn’t afford to pull a bluff, stage a scene and walk out on him like some young girl of twenty. She knew there wouldn’t be many more Sam Loomises in her life. So she smiled, and nodded, and went back home to the Lowery Agency.(pp. 26-27)

The feeling that there was no role in life for a woman other than that of being a wife was ubiquitous at the time the book was written and the film released.3 Opportunities had indeed opened up for women. However for many people the change meant that women would no longer be only wives while many still had trouble envisioning a world in which being a wife was not a central aspect of every woman’s character.

At this point, in both movie and book, Marion/Mary goes on a road trip. And going on a road trip in the late 1950s was far more difficult than it is now, especially for women.4

Why did the police officer grill Marion about her choice to pull over and sleep rather than continue driving when she was tired? This is a movie-only incident and its ‘filmic’ logic is excellent. It puts a “face” on Marion’s fears and forces her to confront the practical reality of what she is doing. It would also ring true for the original movie audiences. By 1960, it was no longer unusual for an American woman have a driver’s license, although it was less common for a woman to own a car. Women didn’t tend to travel alone and since they could not open bank accounts or hold credit cards without the consent of their husband, it was difficult for them to buy cars and even rent rooms. The police officer could quite reasonably wonder if Marion was fleeing a crime or fleeing danger.

Why did Mary/Marion imagine that by simply driving to another state and trading in her car she could elude detection? Remember this is a world before cell phones and faxes and video uploads. Finding a picture of someone could be difficult. Getting in touch with someone in another town, let alone another state, could be difficult, time-consuming and expensive. And it was not uncommon for married women to completely drop the use of any form of their “maiden” name. Mary Crane looks forward to settling down in different town, with a different car, known to all her neighbours as Mrs. Sam Loomis. Few would even realize that her given name was Mary.

How unusual was if for the Bates Motel to find itself on a less-travelled road after the investment had been made to build it? It happened to many businesses. Although a ‘highway system’ had been funded by the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, the interstate highway system of the United States was the result of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. That act, and the subsequent road building, altered the traffic flow in many places in the United States.

The book (set in 1959) and the movie (released in 1960) are both set after the beginning of the building of the interstates but before the proliferation of the major motel chains we are now accustomed to seeing. In neither book nor movie was Marion/Mary intending on travelling this back road and finding a motel to stay in. She is tired, lost, has made a wrong turn, isn’t quite sure how far she is from her destination. She sees a motel that looks no different from many others she may have passed earlier that day.

Psycho the movie is brilliant. The progenitor of every current day slasher film. The work of a great director and more than one actor at the top of his/her game. Psycho the book gives the reader a close up view of how people (educated people) in the late 1950s and early 1960s understood issues of gender, dissociative behaviour, sexuality and host of other issues I will not list in order to avoid spoilers.

As someone who has seen the movie dozens of times and read the book many times I think each offers something the other does not and both are worth experiencing.

Psycho, is currently streaming on Netflix.

Psycho, by Robert Bloch is currently available in  audiobook form from and in audiobook form from

1All book quotations are from 1989 edition of Psycho by Robert Bloch, published by TOR

2There was an actual Mary Crane residing in the city in question.

3Leigh herself was 33 when the movie was released. She had had two marriages when young. In 1951 she married Tony Curtis. She and Curtis were divorced in 1962. She married for the fourth time to Robert Brandt, that same year and they were still married when she died 42 years later.

4Any difficulties/concerns would be magnified to near impossibility were Marion and Sam not white. For African-Americans car travel was difficult and sometimes fraught with danger. Victor Hugo Green, a New York City mailman, published The Negro Motorist Green Book, (also known as The Negro Motorist Green-Book, The Negro Travelers’ Green Book and The Green Book) between 1936 and 1966, with information as to what stores, garages, motels and diners would do business with African-American travelers, which would turn them away and what places should best be avoided. Those who would like to know more about that book and the impact it had on the lives of African-Americans can read Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy Taylor….which is currently available in ebook or audiobook form from

Beginning in 1938 editions of The Green Book included information about Canadian destinations. There appears to have been no Canadian equivalent for the book itself however these additions serve as a reminder that travel in Canada was also difficult for African Canadians and Americans.

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