Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and John Gavin.
After embezzling $40,000 from her employer, Phoenix office-worker Marion Crane flees the monotony of her mundane existence with dreams of starting a new life in California with her boyfriend, Sam Loomis. As night begins to fall, an exhausted Marion decides to spend the night at a remote motel owned by Norman Bates, a peculiar, reserved young man under the control of his ailing but domineering mother.
By the end of the 50’s, Alfred Hitchcock had cemented his Hollywood legacy as the ‘Master of Suspense’, churning out such classics as Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959). However, it is 1960’s Psycho – written by Joseph Stefano and based on the novel by Robert Bloch – in which Hitchcock’s taste for the macabre truly shines. From the opening bars of Bernard Herrmann’s theme to the film’s climatic revelation, Psycho drags the audience through a gripping roller-coaster of twists and turns unlike anything that had came before.
As the movie begins we are introduced to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a young office worker embroiled in a love affair with Sam Loomis (Gavin), a California based store owner and recent divorcee. We learn that Marion longs to be with Loomis but because of his alimony payments and poor financial situation they are forced to remain apart. However, when Marion is entrusted with depositing $40,000 in hard cash on behalf of a lecherous client of her boss, she sees an opportunity to create a future for herself and Sam. Deciding to steal the money, Marion flees Phoenix and embarks upon a cross-country drive to reunite with her lover, until fatigue sets in and she happens upon a decrepit old motel with en-suite facilities.
While the first act of Psycho deals with Marion’s crime, the narrative is truly set in motion upon her arrival at the Bates Motel. Her subsequent encounter with the owner, Norman Bates (Perkins, in his career-defining role), has become the stuff of movie legend. Bates – dividing his time between running the motel, caring for his mentally disturbed mother, and a morbid fascination with taxidermy – finds himself captivated by the young woman. However, as with Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock’s representation of the mother-son relationship is anything but conventional. Seeing Marion as a corruptive influence on her son, mother takes matters into her own hands, brutally murdering the lead character in the iconic “shower scene”. This expertly-crafted montage – accompanied by Herrmann’s chilling score – is an unrivalled thrill of cinematic brilliance that shows Hitchcock at the very peak of his art.
After Marion’s demise attention shifts towards the investigation into her whereabouts, led by private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), along with Marion’s sister Lila (Miles), who has launched her own search with Sam. Tracing Marion to the Bates Motel, Arbogast confronts a suspicious Norman and attempts to interview mother, much to Bates’ refusal. Passing this information onto Sam and Lila, Arbogast returns to the motel and ventures into the Bates house-hold where his search for mother comes to an abrupt and violent conclusion. Sam and Lila notify the local sheriff following Arbogast’s disappearance and – after learning that Mrs. Bates has been dead for ten years – they pay their own visit to the motel and uncover the shocking truth behind Norman and his web of deception.
Shot on a modest budget and filmed entirely in black and white with the crew from his television series, Psycho was Alfred Hitchcock’s attempt to reinvent himself as a filmmaker. It accomplished this and much more. Psycho is a innovative masterpiece that breaks with convention at every opportunity. Drawing heavily on the novel’s structure, Psycho’s multi-layered narrative is explored through several character perspectives, and while Marion’s early death is present in the book, the decision to kill off the film’s protagonist – and indeed the largest box-office name in Janet Leigh – was unthinkable to audiences of the time. But this merely serves to draw us into the true story of the complex and disturbed Norman Bates, for which Anthony Perkins is exemplary in the role(s).
From the opening scene depicting the scantly-clad bodies of Marion and Sam to the unprecedented levels of violence, Psycho was notable for disregarding many of the Hollywood taboos of the time. Highly influential, it’s success led to the blood-soaked ‘slasher’ and ‘splatter’ genres that would follow in it’s wake, paving the way for classics such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), along with countless sub-par imitations and low-budget ‘gore-fests’. Despite the film’s advancing years, Psycho remains a chilling and unsettling experience that easily stands above many of today’s thrillers. It is a fine example of Hitchcock at his very darkest and his best, displaying a level of technical quality synonymous with his body of work and featuring a haunting musical score and fine performances all round. A true classic; this is highly recommended, essential viewing.