Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam and Janet Leigh
Marion Crane has just stolen thousands of dollars from her former employer in order to clear the debts of her soon-to-be-husband and build a new life for them. Making a quick getaway, Marion stops in at the isolated Bates Motel run by the slightly eccentric Norman Bates, who owns the hotel with his domineering mother. While slightly unnerved by Norman’s odd behaviour, Marion thinks that she has escaped safely… until she decides to have a shower.
What to say about Psycho, from the master of suspense and arguably the most famous film director of all time Alfred Hitchcock? This film is not only one of the most famous horror films of all time, pioneering many of the tropes that would be popularised by the slasher films of the later 1970s and most of the 1980s.
But it’s also one of the most famous films of all time, without a doubt. Breaking new ground over what was considered acceptable in a major motion picture, defying the conventions that had governed film for decades, and ultimately making a whole generation of filmgoers terrified of getting into the shower. To put it one way, calling this film pretty famous is something of an understatement.
So despite the difficulty I admitted to having in reviewing the iconic Halloween (1978) earlier this month, let’s dive right into granddaddy of all modern slasher films, and all modern horror films for that matter. Let’s talk about Psycho.
The film is stunning in a visual sense, being filmed in glorious black and white, which ironically was only done by Hitchcock as a means to save money. But it’s a good idea that he went with it, with the lack of colour serving to emphasise the dark shadows, and the bright lights, creating a deeply unsettling atmosphere that simply would not be there had it been filmed in colour.
The now iconic score by regular Hitchcock collaboration Bernard Herrmann is also excellent, although there is far to praise here than those infamous screeching violins that score the shower scene, with lots of little themes peppered throughout that help establish the uneasy atmosphere of events, especially when at the dreaded Bates Motel.
The acting performances are also stellar, with a fine turn from Janet Leigh whose role in this film has now become something of a cinematic legend.
I would say something about spoilers at this point, but given that this is one of the most famous films of all time, with one of the most parodied and well-known scenes in cinema history, only someone who has had their head buried in the sand inside a dark cave located on another planet would not know the big twists of Psycho. But I now realise I’ve written a small paragraph on this issue, so consider this long tangent a spoiler warning.
When the film was released in 1960 Janet Leigh was the biggest star in the cast and thus was the main draw for audiences; people would go to see the film based on that popularity. And when you watch the film, her character Marion Crane is the first we meet, setting the plot in in motion when she steals money from her employer, and we ultimately follow her in her escape, setting her up as the heroine of the film.
That is, until 45 minutes later when she is killed in the now iconic shower scene, which at the time was considered a shocking and groundbreaking move. No director before had the balls to kill off their biggest star, and certainly not suddenly at the halfway point of the film, but Hitchcock had the biggest balls in Hollywood and he was willing to put them on the line.
Anthony Perkins is outstanding as Norman Bates, our slightly odd motel manager, who is hiding a truly monstrous thirst for blood, behind the mask of the eccentric “boy next door”. Perkins portrays the character in a very delicate fashion when we first meet Norman he’s a shy, nervous man, almost speaking and behaving like a young nervous boy. But just as we begin to sympathise with the poor man, dominated by his tyrannical mother, his mask of sanity slips off, just ever so slightly, allowing us just a peek at the monster beneath.
People often don’t understand how groundbreaking Psycho was at the time, and how much of risk it was for Hitchcock to make the film. With a dark storyline, adapted from the novel by Robert Bloch, which itself was influenced by the real-life murderer Ed Gein, many felt that the film would signal the end of Hitchcock’s career, given that previously he had made high concept, colourful and extravagant suspense films.
But Hitchcock being Hitchcock wanted to try something daring and controversial, doing whatever he could to get the film made, like filming it in black and white, using a TV crew instead of a film crew to shoot it and generally putting his reputation on the line, just to get this film out there. Ultimately, of course, it paid off.
Psycho is now deservedly regarded, as yet another masterpiece from the Master of Suspense, one of the most groundbreaking films of all time, and one of the greatest films in the horror genre, if not one of the greatest films in the history of cinema.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★