WARNING: There are heavy spoilers in this review. If you haven’t seen Psycho before or know practically nothing about it, you may not wish to read on. It’s more of an essay on a personal favorite then a prototypical review.
Psycho is Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, a revolutionary and daring spin on the thriller genre and shockingly underappreciated by today’s film junkies. It’s regrettable that so many think of it as simply the “shower scene” movie; it is, in fact, extremely rich and complex. More than any of his other works, Psycho epitomizes Hitchcock’s directorial ideals. He never wrote his own scripts, believing that dialogue shouldn’t be necessary to convey what’s happening at any given moment. Rather, he utilized all film techniques, instructing his actors to “act” as little as possible. Consequently, the performances in Psycho are completely devoid of scenery-chewing, allowing the camera work and atmosphere to command the screen. It’s this restraint that makes Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates so chilling. With his toothpick build and childish voice, Bates appears to be little more than a shy coward, making the revelation of his Psychotic nature shocking. And it’s precisely Bates’ persona that epitomizes Psycho‘s great influence on American cinema; it was a drastic turning point for Hollywood cinema, one that jump-started a completely new genre and directorial flexibility.
Some background—during the ’50′s and earlier, the “Hays Code” was in effect, consisting of a self-censorship committee that determined what could and couldn’t be made. If a director broke the code, his film couldn’t be shown. Not only did this place enormous restrictions on Hollywood filmmakers, it prevented American cinephiles from seeing the films of directors like Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, who had no such limitations in their work. Some of the rules look downright ridiculous now— toilets couldn’t be flushed onscreen, couples couldn’t sleep in the same bed, etc. By the late ’50′s, the Hays Code began to show a few signs of weakening—theatres became privately owned instead of being run by Hollywood, allowing each to show whatever it wished. But it was Psycho that truly ushered in a new era of motion pictures. The opening scene in the Phoenix hotel between Marion (Janet Leigh) and Sam (John Gavin) completely bucked the code, announcing that the audience was going to be seeing a different kind of film. Clothed in her white bra and summer dress, Marion oozes sexuality and rebellion, having just had illicit relations. Hitchcock refused to screen Psycho for critics, not because he had any doubts about its quality, but to keep reviews from ruining the suspense and freshness. That turned out to be a brilliant marketing move, and Psycho was a smash, going on to gross more than 15 times its cost.
Now to the film itself. Firstly, the manner in which Hitchcock splits the stories is radical but ingenious. In the novel on which Psycho is based, the entire plot revolves around Norman Bates. Marion arrives in chapter two and is dead by the end of chapter three. Hitchcock, however, begins the film with 40+ minutes of Marion. We learn about her love life, her place of employment, her general unhappiness. We grow to care deeply for her tormented personality. Then suddenly, the infamous shower scene takes place and boom! The entire character arc swings to Norman. To do this with an hour to go in the picture was an extraordinarily daring move by Hitchcock, but he slyly sets the unknowing audience up for it. During the parlor scene in the motel, about 10 minutes before Marion’s death, we get our first POV shot from Norman’s perspective. Additionally, the camera gradually begins to focus more and more on Norman, deftly shifting our attention away from Marion. This might go right over the uneducated viewer’s head, but Hitchcock is subtly readying us to change gears. So, smoothly, we glide to the story of Norman Bates. Up until now, we have experienced, more than anything else, extreme shock and surprise. But once Norman “takes over,” the suspense begins in earnest, as his storyline revolves around Marion’s murder, both directly and indirectly.
The visuals are exceptionally polished. Every shot drips of Hitchcock, from the extreme use of shot/reverse shot to establish emotional connections, to the masterful way he uses his actors. Example: The scene when Marion’s about to leave her house with the money. There’s no dialogue, nor does her face contort into hammy expressions. The camera handles everything. It focuses on Marion, then the stolen cash, lying on the bed, then back to Marion, etc. The pattern flawlessly presents the viewers with all they need to know about her emotions, what she’s thinking, without a wasted moment or cheesy line. This is precisely what Gus Van Sant doesn’t do in his wretched excuse for a shot-by-shot remake in 1997. Every scene may indeed have similar composition on the surface, but all the delicate touches that make Hitchcock’s version so exquisite are butchered, resulting in an over-the-top joke of a movie that saps away all the power of the original. The casting of Vince Vaughn as Bates is also a dreadful error. As mentioned above, Bates’ presence comes from his feeble appearance, while Vaughn is a hulking 6’5″.
Unfortunately, Psycho is viewed by some as a one-trick pony, a film that’s based around a single twist. These people need to re-visit the picture. It loses none of its luster on repeat viewings, quite an achievement for a movie that in many ways was an experimental piece. Though Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, and Vertigo are all excellent in their own right, I’ll take Psycho when discussing Hitchcock at his very finest.
99/100 [many, many viewings since have elevated this to my top 10 of all-time]