If you haven’t seen the original Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece that pushed the boundaries of the horror genre, “Psycho” (1960), then stop depriving yourself and go watch it. Get extra curious about the silent scream near the end of the movie, which is never explained (and has nothing to do with the plot or characters). Then, come back here to slake the thirst of your curiosity.
Original theatrical trailer for “Psycho” (1960)
WARNING: From this point forward, I assume no responsibility for any anguish, rage, despair or psychological hemorrhaging suffered as a result of having the iconic plot twist of “Psycho” unwound before your eyes. (I told you to watch it!)
Anthony “Tony” Perkins (1932-1992) etched new fears into the minds of moviegoers when he played the homicidal, schizophrenic hotel manager Norman Bates in 1960 with alarming authenticity. He was so naturalistic in his portrayal that from that point forward, people couldn’t not see Norman Bates when they looked at Perkins. And yet, there was so much more to him! Plus, that wasn’t even the first time he played an astonishingly realistic victim of mental illness, which was actually in “Fear Strikes Out” (1957), one of my top five favorites in Perkins’ filmography.
Although playing Norman Bates in “Psycho” (1960) earned Perkins his reputation for having a knack for portraying mentally ill characters, his first success in that kind of role was in “Fear Strikes Out” (1957).
Perkins knew early in life that he wanted to be an actor like his father, Osgood Perkins (1892-1937). (Osgood was primarily a Broadway star, but it might interest you more to know that he was one of the mobsters in the original “Scarface” .) Perkins had lost his father suddenly to a heart attack when he was only 5 years old (just like Norman Bates, incidentally), so his memories of him were limited. But by the time he was in his teens, he had set his mind on surpassing Osgood in his own acting career. “I felt deserted by my father’s dying on me,” Perkins once said, “and my revenge was to become an even more successful actor than he had been.”1
Perkins went from playing bit parts in in local New England playhouses in the 1940s as a teenager to studying drama at Columbia University. While still a student there, he landed his first movie role out in Hollywood as Fred Whitmarsh in “The Actress” (1953). As he recalled during a 1992 interview,2 he had strategically placed himself in the running to be cast as Fred by “accidentally” getting in the way of the camera during someone else’s screen test for a part in that movie. When the director was reviewing the footage later, he saw Perkins and had him brought back. (Tony’s sneaky craftiness is one of the many reasons why I love the guy.) From there, he continued his stage acting and appeared on numerous TV shows before landing a major role in his second movie, “Friendly Persuasion” (1956). For his performance as Josh Birdwell in that, he was nominated for an Oscar® for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Anthony Perkins’ dramatic performance in “Friendly Persuasion” (1956), although only his second role in a major motion picture, earned him an Oscar® nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Now, to return to my original teaser: the silent scream at the end of “Psycho.” When Perkins was filming “Psycho,” it just so happened that he was also performing in the Broadway musical “Greenwillow” (1960) at that time too. In fact, he wasn’t even on set during the grueling week-long shoot of the infamous shower scene with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and (ostensibly) Mrs. Bates. He had to go back and forth between Los Angeles for the movie and New York City for the play. So, one week he’d be in a dress and knifing people on camera, and another week he’d be singing tenor in a magical town before a live audience.
“Greenwillow” was Perkins’ first Broadway musical, so he was extra careful to keep his voice in peak condition for his debut. That’s why he got “Psycho” director Alfred Hitchcock to agree to dub in someone else’s scream for Norman’s unmasking scene in the basement, when Sam Loomis (John Gavin) is wrestling the knife out of Norman’s hand. This was meant to be done during post-production, so Perkins simply pantomimed screaming during the actual filming of the scene. But then, according to IMDb,3 Hitchcock was so taken by how unsettling the silent scream looked on screen that he decided to leave it that way. So, the silent scream was ultimately a serendipitous infusion of an extra, subliminal layer of malaise. What’s more, Perkins had something to show for that pretend scream other than an atmospheric upgrade for his hit motion picture; he was nominated for a Tony Award for “Greenwillow.”
The demanding vocal range of the Broadway musical “Greenwillow” (1960), particularly in songs like “Never Will I Marry,” required Anthony Perkins to protect his voice.
So, Norman Bates was a singer, too, yes. And not just from 1960 onward, either. He had already released three music albums before he ever took to the stage as Gideon Briggs. (These were issued under his nickname “Tony” instead of “Anthony.”) One of his songs, “Moon-Light Swim,” actually made it to No. 24 in Billboard’s Top 100 in 1957. So, it wasn’t just some mediocre side project done out of love and oblivious self-gratification; the man could croon. (For the full story of how he got into the music industry, and how his music career progressed over the decades, check out the Bloody Disgusting article “More Than Norman Bates: The Musical Career of Anthony Perkins.”)
“Moon-Light Swim,” by Tony Perkins, reached No. 24 in Billboard’s Top 100 in 1957.
When listening to Perkins sing, you can detect that he had no formal vocal training, and I won’t pretend otherwise despite being smitten with the man. But to me, that audible imperfection only makes his talent more organic and raw. When I play back his recordings, I hear the vocal stylings of someone whose inborn passion for singing was simply uncontainable. I enjoy his voice partly because I adore him as a person, admittedly, and anything he did will always be special simply because it was he who did it. (That’s another article altogether). But I’m also struck deeply each time I hear him hit and hold notes in his songs, enraptured by his vibrato and vocal range. I simply succumb to and am immersed in the pain or joy he could radiate through self-restraint or self-abandon, and I linger with him there in that emotional dimension. Here are some of the Perkins songs I routinely have on repeat, just to show you what I mean.
“Saddle the Wind,” by Tony Perkins
“Il n’y a plus d’après,” by Tony Perkins
“Green Mansions,” by Tony Perkins
If you’re a Perkins fan, it’s well worth your time to explore the man’s discography, including not only his albums and singles, but also his songs performed on screen and onstage. There are many YouTube videos and playlists on apps like Spotify. He sang primarily jazz and easy listening songs – in English and French, by the way – so he’s right up the alley for Sinatra fans. Between his vocal talent and his flair for dramatic acting, I never cease to be amazed by what he was capable of – and I’ve studied the man in great detail, so that says a lot.
Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.
1. Bergan, Ronald, “Anthony Perkins: A Haunted Life” (London: Warner Books, 1996), 31.
2. “Reflections on the Silver Screen,” September 1992, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kOBNlL3jG8.
3. International Movie Database (IMDb), “Psycho” (1960) Trivia, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054215/trivia/?ref_=tt_trv_trv.