Continuing our look at groundbreaking cinema, Tom Jolliffe revisits Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho…
When listing some of the greatest directors of all time, a name that may pop up with regularity during the discussions, is Alfred Hitchcock. A master craftsman and impeccable weaver of enthralling stories, Hitchcock had already delivered a string of masterpieces which still remain fresh. He’d had a pretty great record from Rebecca onward (and plenty of excellent and iconic works before to be fair) but the 50’s started a run with films like Rear Window, Vertigo (often voted incredibly high on best of lists, and topped the Sight and Sound list too), and North By Northwest. Vertigo certainly managed to weave a story that was ahead of it’s time in terms of how elaborate and seamless it was.
In 1960 though, Hitchcock broke the mould. He visited the horror genre, often dismissed as lower class B material. He created an intellectually challenging, enthralling piece of cinema anchored by great performances, but he also tore up the rule book to some extent. In one, the film dealt with the complexity of paranoid schizophrenia, a subject little understood in society at the time and not particularly covered a huge amount in cinema. Hitchcock certainly had an interest in neurological and/or psychological conditions, of which he’d dealt with in Vertigo, and indeed in Rebecca too. Norman Bates, who is revealed as the film’s antagonist, is a fascinating character, played with jovial, naive innocence by Anthony Perkins, but additionally a doting son driven to desperate measures to hide ‘Mother’s’ criminal acts. Hitchcock takes delight in toying with the audience, setting up characters to appear destined to play out a predictable arc, only for things to take a shock turn. In the case of Bates of course, it happens at the finale.
Hitchcock’s gift for the unexpected was none more evident than a mid-film turn. A slow burning thriller which saw Janet Leigh absconding with money extorted from a client. Great, memorable, iconic moments (see the reference of stopping at a crossroads and seeing her boss unexpectedly, riffed by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction when Bruce Willis sees Ving Rhames crossing in front of him). Leigh was a star name. She was the big name in the film, (seemingly) the protagonist in a getaway story that plays out with tension. It’s when she takes a shower in the desolate and dated motel she stops at, that the film shifts into something more horrific. The shower scene itself was a moment that stuck with audiences and shocked them. It caused actual physical reactions of nausea and shock. Quick cuts, by today’s standards not that graphic, but audiences then closed their eyes and their imagination filled in the blanks, giving Psycho a reputation for violence that preceded it.
It takes guts to kill off your star and protagonist so far into a film. It was a revolutionary moment and one which many have tried to repeat since and almost never matched the impact. Hitchcock’s rug pull remains one of the greatest of all time. So our new protagonist Vera Miles, as Marion Crane’s sister investigates her sisters disappearance, tracking her to Bates’ motel. It’s almost two movies in one, and a lot of publicity at the time was devoted to ensuring film goers kept the twists to themselves. That kind of marketing was something new and unique of the time, and probably something nigh on impossible to pull off in the internet age.
Psycho remains one of the greatest horror films of all time, because of its unique structure and brilliant twists. Hitchcock was hitting the peak of his powers, though nothing beyond Psycho quite matched up to his run of films including Vertigo and Rear Window. He’d return to B movie territory with The Birds, with no less of a unique handle of the genre. Then again, when you’ve had that run, culminating in Psycho, how do you hope to top it? It’s now iconic. The film was nominated for four Oscars, including Leigh and Hitchcock. Somewhat disappointingly overlooked though was Perkins, whose turn as Bates is still one of the most fascinating horror performances ever, and when you look back at the subtleties in his performance, you appreciate it even more.
What are your thoughts on Psycho? Let us know in the comments below or on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.