When Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho was released to movie theaters in the United States on June 16, 1960, it wasn’t immediately embraced by critics.
For example, the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther opined in his column the next day that the ending “falls quite flat.”
He added: “But the acting is fair.”
Of course, in the decades since then, Psycho has been recognized as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made.
It also includes one of the most famous movie quotes of all time: “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” (#56 in The American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 Movie Quotations.)
In context, the line is a witty double-entendre, as are many other lines in the film.
“A boy’s best friend is his mother” started out as a sappy proverbial saying of uncertain origin.
It wasn’t coined by Psycho scriptwriter Joseph Stefano, or by Robert Bloch in his 1959 novel that inspired the film. And, it had been used less memorably in previous movies, such as The Awful Truth (1937).
But in Psycho the creepy relationship between lead character Norman Bates and his mother gave the saying a dark, drily humorous significance that is apparent once the plot unfolds.
The line comes fairly early in the film, during a conversation between Norman (Anthony Perkins) and Marion (Janet Leigh) inside the Bates Motel.
Perkins added his own fillips to the scripted line, which is why you sometimes see it quoted as “A boy’s best friend is his mother” and sometimes as “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.”
What Perkins actually stammers out is “Well, uh – a boy’s best friend is his mother.”
The scene starts when Norman brings Marion a tray of food and invites her to eat it in his back room behind the office, where the walls are covered with dead birds he has stuffed.
After you’ve seen Psycho and know how it ends, reading a transcript of the scene makes it even more clear just how smart and subtly funny it is.
[Lines as spoken…]
MARION: I’ve caused you some trouble.
NORMAN: No. Uh – Mother – m-my mother, uh – what is the phrase? – she isn’t quite herself today…
MARION: (Indicating the tray) You shouldn’t have bothered. I really don’t have that much of an appetite.
NORMAN: It’s all for you. I’m not hungry. Go ahead. (Delightedly watching her eat) You – you eat like a bird.
MARION: (Nodding to the stuffed birds) You’d know, of course.
NORMAN: No, not really. Anyway, I hear the expression ‘eats like a bird’– is really a fals- fals- falsity. Because birds really eat a tremendous lot. But I don’t really know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things – you know – taxidermy...
MARION: A man should have a hobby.
NORMAN: (Sitting back) Well, it’s – it’s more than a hobby. A hobby’s supposed to pass the time – not fill it.
MARION: Is your time so empty?
NORMAN: No, uh – well, I run the office, and uh, tend the cabins and grounds, and – and do little, uh, errands for my mother – the ones she allows I might be capable of doing.
MARION: Do you go out with friends?
NORMAN: (Pause) Well, uh – a boy’s best friend is his mother.
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