"We all go a little mad sometimes..."
Where does one begin in talking about Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, one of those watershed motion pictures that can literally be said to have helped change the course of the development of movies as we know them? Here is a film that has been studied, analyzed and digested over the course of decades of scholarly attention and fan obsession, and anything I say to praise its greatness has doubtless already been said many a time. But truly, if there are any titles that a series called "52 Perfect Movies" immediately conjures up, Psycho has to be on the short list. The perfect blending of commerce and art, it represents the greatest heights to which popular entertainment can aspire.
At the time Psycho was made, the Hollywood film industry was at something of a crossroads. The "golden age" of the silver screen was coming to a close. Studios were rapidly losing their power, and the directors (and to a certain degree, the actors), were gaining more creative control. The often draconian hold of the censorious Hays Production Code limiting what film-makers could put on screen, was starting to lose its grip--a process that would continue over the course of the 1960s. It was the perfect time for a film like Psycho to come along.
Psycho wasn't the first of what we'd call "modern thrillers", having been preceded by pictures such as the French triumph Les Diaboliques, but what it did was popularize the concept amongst mainstream American audiences. It was something of a departure for Hitchcock, who, since coming to Hollywood, had become known for sumptuous, full-color "event movies". This time out, he went back to basics, stripping everything down to the bare bones, for a lean, mean, suspense machine of a movie that never stops being endlessly fascinating and never fails to work on every single level, a half century after the initial shock of its famous surprise ending has worn off.
This is the kind of film that the word "timeless" was meant to describe. Literally from the opening shot, we are drawn into this ominous, brooding, somewhat seamy world of adultery, larceny, intrigue and God knows what else. Janet Leigh is perfect as the sultry, flawed and yet charismatic Marion Crane, a main character we come to identify with only to witness brutally murdered not yet halfway into the picture--surely one of the boldest narrative maneuvers ever attempted in American cinema up to that point in time.
Her murderer, although we do not know it at that time, is the deranged Norman Bates, played with boyish charm and naivete by a young Anthony Perkins, whose performance was inexplicably denied the Oscar nomination with which Leigh's was recognized. Nevertheless, he is note-perfect as the stammering, seemingly harmless Bates, caught in the ultimate Oedipal struggle with his off-screen "mother"--it's easy to see how 1960 audiences would've been totally caught off guard upon discovering the true nature of that relationship.
And speaking of that, Psycho was particularly groundbreaking in its relatively frank approach to sexually charged subject matter. Remember, this was still a relatively culturally conservative time in American pop culture (to give you an idea, Psycho is the first American film to depict a flushing toilet bowl), and so Norman's cross-dressing, not to mention Marion's nudity during the shower scene, was pretty heady stuff.
It's that shower scene, naturally, that everyone still talks about to this day when discussing this unquestioned classic. A masterpiece of editing, sound design and photography, many have called it the finest scene ever put to celluloid, and it's tough to argue that. One of the most amazing things about it is that anyone who sees it, especially for the first time, will swear they saw way more skin and blood than they actually did--they may even claim to have seen the knife penetrate Marion's flesh, which we never do. That's powerful film-making.
That scene, and so many others in Psycho, would have lost so much of its impact were it not for what may be the most famous film score of all time, composed by Hitchcock veteran Bernard Herrmann. In an era of sweeping studio orchestral pieces, Herrmann chose to go with a small, all-strings ensemble, a relatively unheard of approach that would later become much more popular thanks to its success in Psycho. Not only the unforgettable staccato sounds of the shower scene cue, but every single cue in the film is burned into the consciousness of film lovers the world over. For my money, only the work of Sergio Leone rivals it in terms of combining such high levels of both originality and pure skill.
Films would be different after Psycho, particularly those films meant to scare, upset or disturb us. No longer would monsters and other supernatural things that go bump in the night be the primary tools of those purveyors of cinematic terror. Rather, Hitchcock proved in his brilliant adaptation of Robert Bloch's novel, that the most fearsome monster of all is the human mind itself, and it could be the one residing in the person living right next door to us. This became the message of modern horror: The monsters are us.
Hitchcock was known for his uncompromising perfectionism, and perhaps nowhere does it come across so powerfully as in Psycho. Making the most of a streamlined production crew assembled from the staff of his TV show, Hitch's fingerprints are on every single one of the great John L. Russell's breathtaking shots, in the almost palpable lighting that reminds us over and over again why this film had to be made in black and white, despite the industry's transitioning to color at the time. Nearly every line of Joseph Stefano's script has become an iconic quote, not just those given to Perkins and Leigh but also to outstanding supporting players like Martin Balsam as the hard-boiled Det. Arbogast, and Vera Miles as Marion's bereaved sister Lila.
Perhaps the finest intersection of art film and pop culture, Psycho has truly stood the test of time, and remains that one movie that film students most relish digging into. This is not some moldy "classic" forced upon younger generations by preachy academics--this is a living, breathing masterpiece, and a joy to experience over and over again.
For more, please check out The Vault of Horror's ongoing series, "Psycho Semi-Centennial"!
NEXT UP: Dr. Strangelove (1964)