Looking for more classic horror reviews from Jules?
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Janet Leigh
By 1960, Alfred Hitchcock was already established as one of the most popular and respected filmmakers in mainstream Hollywood, with his most recent effort, the astonishing North By North West, bagging no less than three Oscar nominations.
All the more remarkable then, that for his next picture he would choose to make a low-budget and challenging adaptation of Robert Bloch’s latest pulp novel, based on the real life crimes of Wisconsin cannibal, grave-robber and murderer Ed Gein.
Still under contract to Paramount, Hitchcock was told in no uncertain terms that the studio would have no part in such a controversial endeavour, but ploughed ahead financing the $800,000 budget himself and using the crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show.
The result would be far from the underground B-movie many expected.
As well as becoming the second-biggest film of the year with a return of $32 million, Psycho would break boundaries in cinema nobody else would have dared to attempt and in one fell swoop, give birth to the modern horror movie.
After a discussion with her lover reveals money-worries are stopping them getting married, real-estate secretary Marion Crane (Leigh) sees the opportunity to change their situation by stealing $40,000 from a client.
Going on the run after the spur-of-the-moment crime, Crane takes shelter during a heavy storm at a deserted motel. The proprietor is a friendly young man named Norman Bates (Perkins), who explains that he runs the business alone and lives with his elderly mother in the house overlooking the hotel.
All is not as it seems with Norman and the Bates Motel though and Marion’s problems are only just beginning…
It’s impossible to overstate how important Psycho is to the history of not just horror but cinema itself. Not only that, but it’s that rare animal in that it’s perfect in every way. There’s nothing in there from the script up through casting, performances, direction, cinematography and scoring that isn’t completely on point and adding to the overall effect.
It’s all the more impressive when you look at how it’s essentially two different stories, with a very different feel to both that just happen to meet in the middle. Initially, it’s a gripping and at times subversive noirish dirama featuring a magnetic turn from Janet Leigh.
Introduced in her underwear after what clearly has been a lunchtime hookup with her lover Sam Loomis (Gavin), she’s portrayed as having a certain amount of moral flexibility, especially for the time. Sexually confident, independent and capable of betraying the trust of her employers – as leading female characters go in 1960, Marion Crane is pretty daring.
It’s to Leigh’s great credit that she’s so likeable then. She’s charming and warm, while displaying a kind attitude when confronted by the strange young man in the Bates Hotel. Her decision to return to Phoenix with what’s left of the money isn’t all that surprising in the end and that’s all down to Janet Leigh’s considerable talents.
Already a Tony Award-winner by this point, Anthony Perkins is even more impressive in the role that would go on to define his career. In his hands Norman Bates is a deeply-sympathetic psychopath, a lost soul that you can’t help feeling for. He’s clearly got issues, but Hitchcock masterfully brings out the humanity in the monster, so that even by the time he’s disposing of Marion’s body, we still empathise with him. Why else does he stall the sinking of her car in the swamp? The narrative has shifted and it’s Norman’s story we’re following now.
Marion and Norman aren’t too dissimilar either. Both are victims in life, both trapped by the choices they’ve made and both are essentially lost souls. One in particular is much more lost than the other, though.
We find out later just what Norman has been up to before Marian’s arrival, but there’s some wonderfully subtle hints of the exact moments her fate is sealed. Norman’s hesitation over which room to give her as he suspects her duplicity and his terse reaction when the doomed secretary innocently suggests the possibility of an institution for his mother both telegraph a fork in the road where maybe, just maybe, another outcome might have been possible.
Of course it’s always Norman at the wheel, but it’s these little moments that hint at Mother pulling the strings and the internal conflict going on within him that make Psycho such a fascinating film to watch again and again.
Of course, there’s plenty other reasons and we could be here all day analysing them. The gloriously oppressive use of eye and bird motifs reinforcing the themes of voyeurism and predation, the heightened state of tension due to Bernard Hermann’s timeless score, Saul Bass’s horizontal credits that establish an intensity from the opening seconds. It’s marvellous stuff and all contributes to Psycho’s none-more deserved reputation as an absolute masterclass in filmmaking.
It says so much that it’s still shocking, even now. That infamous shower scene is shot so brilliantly, so viscerally and so full of real terror, that you can feel every cut as what appears to be the blade of an old woman rips again and again through the flesh of her naked and very vulnerable younger “rival”.
There’s another shocking murder and a revelation in a fruit cellar that never fails to jolt the viewer, but what we have here isn’t a film that relies on its big moments to unsettle its audience. Sure it has its share, but Hitchcock isn’t called the Master of Suspense for his jump scares.
Instead, Psycho is a film that works by building tension layer by layer, whether by incident, inference or just atmosphere, until the audience is nothing more than a nervous wreck, pummelled into submission by a genius who set the bar for everyone else to follow.
Psycho is a classic, no doubt, but it’s more than that. It’s a masterpiece and one that can easily be regarded as one of the most important horror films of all time. In fact strike that. It’s one of the most important films of all time. And so much more besides.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy