Psycho (1960) / Horror-Mystery

MPAA rated: R for violence, brief nudity, and subject matter
Length: 109 min.

Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Virginia Gregg (voice)
Small role: Pat Hitchcock, Ted Knight, Alfred Hitchcock (cameo)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Joseph Stefano (based on the novel by Robert Bloch)
Review published February 3, 2013

Psycho house NormanAt his absolute peak creatively, Psycho represents Alfred Hitchcock's (North by Northwest, Vertigo) final masterpiece, and definitely among his best, in what is one of the most influential horror films in movie history, henceforth changing the horror genre from supernatural yarns or creature features to the battle with the evil forces that potentially that lie within us all.

Janet Leigh (The Manchurian Candidate, The Fog) starts off the film as Marion Crane, a clerk in a real estate office engaged in a romantic fling with Sam Loomis (Gavin, Spartacus), the manager of a hardware store in Phoenix, Arizona.  When she's given the task of depositing $40,000 in cash into the bank, Marion impulsively decides to keep it, and drives off to California, perhaps to Sam's hometown for the town of Fairvale, with the freedom to pursue Sam without concern for finances. En route, her paranoid fears get the best of her, as she begins to have second thoughts, but a powerful storm forces her off the beaten track in search for a place to stay, and she comes about the Bates Motel, a completely vacant establishment with "12 cabins, 12 vacancies".  The motel is run by Norman Bates (Perkins, The Black Hole), a shy but friendly man who is excited to not only have his first visitor in weeks, but also one as attractive as Marion, who signs in under a pseudonym.  But Norman's mother, who resides on a small hill overlooking the establishment, isn't going to lose Norman to just any visiting trollop who comes along without a fight.

To say what occurs after that would be a major spoiler, but Psycho's most infamous scene involving a shower is known by pretty much anyone who hasn't seen the film, so I would gather the film will likely be spoiled through and through for anyone who doesn't already live in a cultural vacuum.  That's not to mention that Psycho, being such a highly influential film, has been referenced, infused with countless instances of homage, and virtually remade in various other films to the point where nearly every element of the movie has been seen in Psycho 1960 Alfred Hitchcocksome form or another by even the most casual of cinema audiences.  As with nearly all groundbreaking and popular things, it  has filtered into the mainstream subconscious of popular culture, and those with little history of Hollywood and of 1950s culture will miss just how significant and important a film Psycho had been for its era.  In its time, Hitchcock and his marketing team would not let anyone in after the film had started, and implored its viewers to not give anything away, as seeing the film with fresh eyes, something which virtually can never be done today, gave he film genuine power to horrify, shock and amaze a fairly naive and largely coddled audience.

Psycho represented something unique at the time of its release, showcasing many things that had mostly taboo in Hollywood cinema (not the least of which would be a toilet), as it features such tawdry subject matters as unmarried people engaged in a sexual affair, characters shown in their frilly undergarments, a thief as the main protagonist, peek-a-boo voyeurism, schizophrenia (including transvestitism), and suggestions of nudity, truly horrific scenes of violent acts (mostly unseen), and a psychopath as the main character.  Filmmaking in the 1960s would prove to be one of the most transformative of any era, and Psycho was perhaps one of the largest breakthroughs in terms of what can and can't be shown on the screen, and what people did or did not consider acceptable and popular.

However, Psycho is more than just influential, important, and groundbreaking -- it is actually a very unnerving but highly entertaining film.  Despite its multitudinous copycats that took things to even gorier, more scandalous extremes, Psycho is still a brilliantly constructed, prodigiously edited film, with stellar, fluid direction, fine performances, a very witty, dark comedy undercurrent, and nuanced characterizations.  The Bernard Herrman (Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Wrong Man) score, with its use of mostly strings, is legendary (especially the shower scene), as is the Saul Bass title sequences.  And Anthony Perkins would, for better or worse, become synonymous with Norman Bates -- his performance is both frightening and oddly sympathetic at the same time, and absolute perfection.

Although it is considered a milestone in movie history today, it must be remembered that Hitchcock took quite a gamble on this film, having to take this outside of the normal studio support to make, using much of the crew of his television show, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", as well as his own money, to make a low-budget film that may not have seen the light of day at the end.  That it would be released in very atmospheric black-and-white, beautifully shot by John L. Russell (The Beast from 20000 Fathoms, Macbeth), in an era of Psycho 1960 Marion rocking chaircolor (perhaps necessary, in order to show as much blood (in reality, chocolate syrup) and still get a release), and then not only become a huge financial success, but also garner critical acclaim, is testimony of the power of risk-taking in the Hollywood system.

I must state now that, like all masterpieces in whatever form you choose, it is not a film in which one cannot find fault. Even though I think the film is brilliant in man ways, there is a scene that feels completely out of place, the anticlimactic scene near the end of the film in which it is revealed by a psychiatrist what the motivation behind all of the murders must be.  The emotive way in which the actor, Simon Oakland (Bullitt, West Side Story), hams up his performance is something that becomes almost comical, as if Hitchcock were compelled to toss it in as a courtesy to the film's financiers and studio heads who thought the audience would be befuddled should the film end without a psychiatric read.  It's the kind of moment that might completely undo the reputation of a lesser film, and a lesser filmmaker, but somehow, with one final shot of the killer, Hitchcock is able to snap everything right back into place, and end the movie with just as much menace, fright and humor as he'd been masterfully doling out all along.

Psycho is courageous filmmaking of the highest order, and though its shock value has been superseded greatly, it is still entertaining far above and beyond the gimmickry and showmanship of its director.  It is, at its core, a compelling story with interesting characters, exploring issues with a deftness that comes as a result of a filmmaker who truly had a vision for the kind of movie that would get into the psyche of the audience, putting up a carnival mirror to us all, implicating us in carrying the guilt in the most heinous of film's events, revealing to all of us something unnervingly primal about our overwhelming internal attraction, counter to our moral repulsion, to twisted tales of seamy sex and shockingly graphic violence.

-- Followed by Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), and the made-for-cable Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990).  Remade in 1998.  Spins off into the TV pilot, "Bates Motel".  The origin is retconned in the 2013 TV series, "Bates Motel".  The Anthony Perkins-starring vehicles are spotlighted in the documentary, The Psycho Legacy (2010).
Qwipster's rating:  

©2013 Vince Leo