Psycho (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam
"Psycho", Hitchcock’s most notorious film, was arguably cinema’s first modern horror film - a psychotic murderer brandishing a huge phallic knife slashing to death everyday visitors to his secluded motel. The general plotline befits virtually every slasher film ever made, and it's all due to Mr. Hitchcock.
The film has a peculiar structure to it, cleaved in two halves – the first, Marian Crane played by Janet Leigh, an attractive yet deceiving woman who’s having a torrid affair with a recently divorced man, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). The opening scene sets her character’s dilemma, they want to move away together but with Sam’s alimony payments they don’t have enough money to make a life for their own. Marian works for a bank and when she’s given $40,000 cash to make a deposit she makes a split-second decision to steal the cash for herself. This is the typical Hitchcock frailty – an innocent woman pulled into a crime by necessity. The first half continues as we experience Marian’s lengthy escape on the road through the desolate roads and small towns of Arizona.
Newcomers to the film will already know and be anticipating the famous shower scene and so these road scenes, if not for Bernard Herrman’s pulsating score, may seem dull and boring. But you have to view the film in the context of the 1960’s audience. These scenes were crucial in misdirecting the audience away from the shower scene and what the film will eventually become. Hitchcock sets up a scenario similar to his previous film “North By Northwest” – a road-adventure film of an ‘everyman’ on the run from his antagonists. And so, when Marian Crane steps into that shower and is slashed to death, the shock is amplified. I only wish I was able to see the film as audiences did in 1960. It must have been quite an experience.
And contrary to popular belief Janet Leigh’s character, Marian Crane actually survives through exactly half the film. Pundits frequently refer to Leigh’s death during the first act, first third or even first reel of the film, but I actually timed it and it comes at exactly the half way point of the film.
The second half of the film is Perkins’ film. After the shower scene we see Bates systematically go through the step-by-step details of disposing of the body. Perkins is so good as the demented mama’s boy, with the ability to express child-like innocence and then subtly switch to chilling maniac instantly. Hitchcock embellishes his scrawny birdlike mannerisms in keeping with the bird-theme he runs throughout the film. Perkins even waddles and bounces like a bird. And take special note of the conversation when Martin Balsam questions Perkins in the motel office, Hitchcock frames a shot of Perkins’s neck, as he leans over the camera to look at the guest registry. With Perkin’s eating a peanut, we see his neck and adam’s apple bob and quiver like a chicken. It’s really creepy and a remarkable performance.
Of course, the murder scenes are what make the film the masterpiece that it is. The shot of Bates opening the bathroom door in the foggy background as Marian showers can still induce shivers down my spine. And Bates’ sudden lunge at Martin Balsam at the top of the stairs always makes me jump. But be careful not to miss the most subtle and perhaps brilliant moment of the film - watch Bates’ teeth at the very end of the film. Before the picture dissolves to the car being pulled from the water, Hitchcock very briefly superimposes the skull of his mother over Bates’ face. It’s short and subtle but so devious.
Despite the success of the film, no other filmmaker attempted to recreate the experience of “Psycho” until the 70’s – notably “Black Christmas” and “Halloween”. Now the theatres are saturated with knife-wielding killers. But it’s the original that stands the test of time. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Psycho (Collector's Edition)