Psycho begins with frequent Hitchcock collaborator Saul Bass's geometric title design and Bernard Hermann's raw, urgent score. After that, there is an establishing shot of Phoenix, Arizona. The titles tell the audience that it is Friday, December 11th at exactly 2:43 pm. The camera leads us through a generic window into a seedy hotel, where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), clad only in a white bra and slip, is lying in bed while her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin) stands above her. Marion is tired of meeting Sam on the sly whenever he happens to be in town, and insists that he come home and meet her family the next time. Much to Marion's surprise, Sam agrees. However, there are practical complications that make it difficult for Sam and Marion to be together legitimately - Sam is divorced, and owes a great deal of money to his ex-wife in alimony payments. In addition, he is responsible for paying off his father's debts.
Marion gets dressed and returns to the real estate office where she works. She chats with her fellow secretary, Caroline (Patricia Hitchcock). Moments later, the girls' boss, George Lowery (Vaughan Taylor) and his obnoxiously wealthy client Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) return from lunch, having concluded their business. Cassidy hands Lowery $40,000 cash for a house he is purchasing as a gift for his daughter's wedding. Lowery, uncomfortable with keeping so much cash in the office over the weekend, instructs Marion to deposit it right away. She agrees and asks for permission to go home afterwards, claiming to have a headache.
In her bedroom, Marion, now wearing a black bra and slip, changes her clothes and finishes packing a suitcase. The camera pans to reveal that the envelope containing Cassidy's cash is sitting on Marion's bed; she clearly hasn't deposited it as she was supposed to. Marion is visibly uncomfortable with her decision to keep the money and keeps glancing at it; the camera follows her gaze each time. Cut to a medium shot of Marion driving through the streets of Phoenix. She imagines Sam's voice as he reacts to her unexpected arrival at his place in California. While stopped at a red light, Marion makes eye contact with Mr. Lowery as he's crossing the street. She panics because now Lowery knows she has lied about going home. Regardless, Marion keeps driving.
As day turns into night, the camera stays close on Marion's face as she tries to stay awake behind the wheel. The next morning, we see Marion's shiny black car parked on the side of a desolate road. A highway patrol officer (Mort Mills) pulls up and wakes Marion, who has been sleeping in the back seat. Though Marion hasn't broken any laws, the officer observes that Marion is acting like there's something wrong. Since the officer cannot hold her for any reason, Marion keeps driving - keenly aware that the officer is behind her. She arrives at a fork in the road and is relieved when the officer takes the exit.
Marion reaches California, and her next stop is a used car lot. She holds on to her purse protectively as she purchases a newspaper. Meanwhile, the patrol officer from earlier parks across the street from the used car lot, gets out of his car, and watches her. The used car salesman, California Charlie, approaches Marion. She asks him if she can trade in her car for another. Impatient, Marion agrees to buy the new car outright without a test drive. She quickly accepts the salesman's price of $700, and he is immediately suspicious of the brevity and ease of the transaction. In the bathroom of the car lot, Marion removes the wad of bills from her purse and counts out $700 before wrapping the envelope containing the remaining cash in the newspaper she has just purchased. Meanwhile, the cop drives into the used car lot. When she sees him, Marion drives away quickly in her new car with California license plates.
As she keeps driving, Marion conjures up the voices of the used car salesman and the patrol cop, both of whom she is certain are suspicious of her. Later, she imagines George Lowery and Caroline discovering that Marion is missing. She also realizes how worried her sister must be, and how much trouble she's going to cause Lowery once he discovers that Mr. Cassidy's cash is gone. She smiles devilishly as she imagines the slimy Cassidy's fury.
Darkness settles in and rain pours down. Marion has a hard time seeing where she's going, and the lights of the other cars are blinding. Finally, she turns off the main road and finds herself in front of the Bates Motel. The vacancy sign is on, and so are all the room lights. Marion parks in front and hurries into the motel's office.
From the very first shot of Psycho, Hitchcock engages the viewer in voyeurism, which is both a visual and narrative theme throughout the film. With the wide shot of Phoenix, Arizona, he presents us with a familiar world that we immediately recognize; a thriving city with its tall buildings and the sound of traffic buzzing through its streets. In a signature Hitchcock move, the camera then tracks in closer to one particular nondescript building and leads the viewer inside the hotel room where Sam and Marion are finishing up their lunchtime tryst. By introducing Marion and Sam in this manner, Hitchcock signals to his viewer that he is showing us something we aren't supposed to see; that underneath the everyday motions of this city lies something illicit. To the outside world, Marion is simply on her lunch break and Sam is on a business trip. Even though the people in their lives don't know the truth, the viewer now does.
In the following scene between Marion and Caroline in the office, Hitchcock introduces another important theme in Psycho: the corruption and dissolution of the American Dream. Mainstream 1950s cinema was chock full of Doris Day-type women and perfect nuclear families living behind white picket fences, but Hitchcock takes great joy in subverting this trope. Beneath every marker of legitimacy lies a dark secret. The sweet housewife, Caroline, secretly takes tranquilizers and feels jealous that slimy old Mr. Cassidy doesn't flirt with her; Mr. Lowery, the upstanding businessman, keeps a bottle of liquor in his desk; and Mr. Cassidy is a successful businessman who loves his family, but he doesn't pay his taxes and hits on other women. Marion desperately wants to take her relationship with Sam into the realm of public respectability. However, by surrounding Marion with individuals whose decency is corrupt below the surface, Hitchcock hints at the darkness that lies beneath this supposedly moral lifestyle (and what it might take to achieve it).
It is crucial to the success of Psycho that the audience feels sympathetic towards Marion in the first half of the film, and Hitchcock uses everything in his cinematic toolkit to make that happen. In the opening scene, he is careful to establish that Marion does not enjoy sneaking around; she wants to have a proper courtship and marriage, but Sam's financial difficulties are standing in her way. Marion, meanwhile, does not care about how much money Sam has, as evinced by her offer to "lick the stamps" on his alimony checks. Then, while Marion is packing, Hitchcock cuts away to a closeup of the money whenever Marion looks at it, allowing the viewer to feel the same trepidation that she does as she prepares to flee. We do not witness the exact moment in which Marion decides to commit her crime (taking the money home instead of to the bank), but we do experience all of the moments in which she questions her decision. This was very calculated on the part of Hitchcock, who used to say, "the minute I lose one person, I've lost the entire audience" (Rebello 134).
Hitchcock then uses Marion's car journey to immerse the viewer more deeply in her thoughts as she quite literally descends into the darkness of night. While Marion is driving, she imagines the voices of her coworkers and loved ones finding out what she's done, which forces the viewer to experience her nervousness. Then, she makes eye contact with Lowery, who is crossing the street in front of Marion's car while she is stopped at a red light. Because we are aligned with Marion at this point, we want her to get away from him as quickly as possible. Similarly, Hitchcock introduces the traffic cop with an intimidating close-up one-shot. He is facing the camera, which means that the viewer is looking at him through Marion's perspective, and he is wearing intimidating dark glasses. Hitchcock explained his choice of framing for this shot, which mirrors the introduction of Detective Arbogast later in the film: "You bring him in like that because you are bringing in a new possible menace" (Rebello 120). By presenting the traffic cop in an antagonistic manner, we continue to sympathize with Marion, even though legally, she is in the wrong. We share her anxiety as she watches the cop follow her in her rear-view mirror and her relief when he turns off at an exit. At this point, whether we are aware of it or not, Hitchcock has implicated the audience in Marion's crime; we want her to get away with it.
Hitchcock frequently uses mirrors in Psycho, which serve a number of purposes. In the opening hotel room scene, he juxtaposes Marion with a mirror while she and Sam discuss the state of their relationship. Here, the reflection represents Marion's duality and duplicity - the fact that something as pure as love is going to drive her to a crime. She examines her image in a mirror at home after she's taken the money, as well, as if Hitchcock is showing that Marion, and therefore, the audience, is fully aware of the risky decision that she is making. In the opening scene, she is an innocent girl in love who is afraid that her boss will be angry if she's not back from lunch on time (emphasized by her white bra, slip, ensemble, and purse). Once she gets home, though, Marion is a desperate woman (now wearing a black bra and slip and carrying a black handbag) who is guilty of deceiving that very same employer. Hitchcock revisits the visual motif of the mirror in the scene with the traffic cop. As far as the cop knows, Marion is innocent, but the reflection of his car behind her as she drives is a nagging reminder of the possible ramifications of her actions if she keeps going; she chooses to ignore it. Finally, when Marion goes to count out the $700 for her new car in the used car lot, she is once again reflected in the bathroom mirror - but she does not face herself here, as she did in the scene in her bedroom. At this point, Marion's mind is made up and she is, for the moment, beyond a state of reflection.