Should I Watch..? 'Psycho' (1960)
What's the big deal?
Psycho is a horror thriller film released in 1960 and is arguably the most famous film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, the film concerns a secretary who has stolen from her employer and makes a fateful stop at the Bates Motel en route to meet her lover. The film stars Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, Martin Balsam and Vera Miles. Shot in black-and-white and with a TV crew instead of a movie production team, the film was made for around $800'000 but it proved to be the most profitable film of Hitchcock's career with global earnings around $50 million. The film has been re-released several times and went on to earn four Oscar nominations. Widely considered one of Hitchcock's best films, the movie has maintained a lasting legacy on audiences around the world. After Hitchcock's death in 1980, a number of sequels and a 1998 remake have been released as well as a prequel TV series, Bates Motel.
What's it about?
The film opens in Phoenix, Arizona in the afternoon. After an extended lunch break tryst with her lover Sam Loomis, secretary Marion Crane wishes she and Sam could be together but monetary problems conspire to keep the pair apart. Returning to work, Marion is handed $40'000 in cash as a deposit for a property deal and is told by her boss to place the money in the firm's bank account. However, Marion gives in to temptation and decides to steal the money for herself. Quickly packing, she heads off out of town with the money to meet with Sam in Fairvale, California.
Wracked with guilt about the theft, Marion starts to get paranoid after a cop begins following her. Trading in her car with Arizona plates for a new one with Californian ones, Marion drives on until a heavy rainstorm forces her to rest at the Bates Motel. The sole proprietor, Norman Bates, checks Marion in and shows her to her room next to his office. Invited to dinner, Marion is concerned when she overhears a loud argument between Norman and his overly possessive mother...
Trailer - the long version
Det. Milton Aborgast
Joseph Stefano *
Release Date (UK)
15th September, 1960
Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Academy Award Nominations
Best Supporting Actress (Leigh), Best Director, Best Black & White Cinematography, Best Set Direction
What's to like?
Even with the passing of the years and the film's assimilation into popular culture, the ability of the movie to shock still surprises. Hitchcock is the perfect director for such material, throwing the audience off-guard at every opportunity he gets and never shying away from the gruesome details. These days, iconic scenes like the shower murder can be recalled in one's mind at a moments notice - even if you haven't seen the film. By today's standards, it looks fairly tame and isn't as surprising as it once was. But the combination of rapid cuts, that unforgettable string soundtrack and the roar of the shower as the deed is done... It is truly a masterful piece of cinema.
Holding the film together is Perkins. So entwined with the role throughout his career, I actually thought "There's Norman" the first time he appears on screen. But it is a brilliant performance - subtle and controlled one minute, visibly shaking and stammering with barely suppressed violence the next. Even during the quieter scenes such as his calm clean-up of Room One, he is magnetic and you are unable to take your eyes off him, no matter how much you want to. The third factor behind the film's success, after Hitch's direction and Perkins' portrayal, is the iconic score provided by Bernard Hermann and a small string section. With each stabbing note, the film's tension ratchets up even further until we as an audience, like Norman, can contain ourselves no longer.
- Hitchcock anonymously bought the rights to the novel from Bloch for just $9500 after Paramount had turned them down. He reportedly then made his secretary buy as many copies of the book as she could find in order to preserve the story's secrets.
- Hitchcock was convinced the film would fail until he heard Hermann's score. He was so pleased that he doubled Hermann's salary, later saying that 33% of the film's effect was due to the music.
- As memorable and legendary as the film has become, it has another less impressive claim to fame. It was the first film to ever show a toilet flushing on screen.
What's not to like?
Some of you reading right now will be questioning whether such a well-known movie, with its secrets and story long since becoming common knowledge, is still worth watching. After all, we know from the minute Leigh arrives at the Bates Motel that she's not long for this world. In truth, it doesn't matter that much - everyone knew that Anakin would turn to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader but it didn't stop George Lucas for making his CG-heavy, bloated prequels. It also didn't stop Gus Van Sant from remaking Psycho in 1998, as pointless an exercise as I can imagine.
The film suffers a little bit after the initial murder because up to that point, the character of Marion has enough of a story to tell before it is prematurely ended. After that, the film seems to drift in search of a conclusion with various characters finding their way to the Bates Motel looking for her. Any film which can unsettle an audience as well as Psycho does shouldn't be criticised but it does make watching the movie a strange experience. I'm not big on horror movies in general but the tension that Hitchcock creates in the picture is worth watching the film for.
Should I watch it, Mother?
Psycho remains a terrific film to watch, standing apart from other Hitchcock films by being less subtle and more direct in its approach. It grabs you and takes you on a very dark journey indeed, twisting itself to deliberately fool around with your expectations. Who cares if you know the story or the plot twist - that isn't what the film is about. It's about the journey rather than the destination - seasoned crime viewers will probably work out the truth fairly quickly - and that journey is one filled with fear, blood and nerve. It is exceptional.
Great For: Halloween, inspiring lesser film-makers, demonstrating how to do a proper horror film
Not So Great For: roadside motel owners, showers, lone female travellers
What else should I watch?
Hitchcock brought an unrivalled sense of genius to his film-making, many often playing tricks on the audience to great effect. The Master Of Suspense made a number of films over a sixty year career, many of which are frequently included on lists of the greatest films in history - Vertigo, North By Northwest, Rear Window as well as Psycho. His next film after this was The Birds, another classic thriller about an unexplained influx of birds who attack a small community. The movie was so effective that even today, my mother gets freaked out by masses of birds.
There are many other Hitchcock films to recommend that it's difficult to know where to start. The first Hitchcock film I ever saw was the somewhat experimental Rope, a tense thriller inspired by the real-life Leopold & Loeb murders in the 1920's. The film is comprised of a number of long takes designed to look like one, almost making the film feel like a play of sorts. You might also want to consider the crime thriller Dial M For Murder, the romantic thriller To Catch A Thief and the spy films Notorious and The 39 Steps.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox