Even though I have seen Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) a bunch of times before, it is always exciting to be popping the film back in the DVD player. One of my favourite Hitchcock films, it is also without a doubt one of the greatest and most influential films ever made.
The first half or so of the film is probably cinema’s most famous macguffin. In an attempt to “buy off unhappiness” Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, steals a large sum of money from her employer so that she can start a new life with her lover Sam. It’s the sort of snap decision we all make, but Hitch takes it to a really extreme example. After a couple of days on the run, Marion spends a rainy night at the Bates Motel. Anyone familiar with the film will know what starts to take place here, as the socially awkward Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, begins to interact with his lone guest. I will veer into spoiler territory and say that this is in many ways where the narrative of the film really begins, as Sam and Marion’s sister Lila begin a frantic search for her. As much as the character arc of Marion is often dismissed or looked over when discussing Psycho, it is actually a really fully formed and interesting one. Her decision to return to Phoenix just before she is killed is a really good example.
Psycho is a rare film that I think actually improves with each viewing. Part of that is that a first viewing is dominated by some of the iconic high points – the ‘shower scene’ and the final reveal. But after you have seen it once, everything takes on a different weight and many elements of it are actually all the more chilling. In a funny sort of way, despite near universal acclaim, I feel like the film is a little underrated. People tend to focus on the aforementioned iconic moments, but there is also so much more. Both acts of the stark two act narrative work really well. The second half turns into a wonderful detective story, full of sharp P.I. chatter and patter. The extended scene of Norman’s interrogation at the hands of the P.I. engaged by Marion’s boss is one of the film’s best moments. As for the end sequence, it could so easily have come across as laughable and on paper it really should. But somehow, Hitchcock manages to ram it home awesomely, with the closing stages being both chilling and totally satisfying.
There is barely a thriller made since 1960 that has not taken a whole lot of inspiration from Psycho and the most influential aspect of the film is the soundtrack. Obviously the sound in the shower scene is unforgettable, but literally from the opening credits, the music is playing a massive role. The perfect way in which the soundtrack is used to create tension is the main aspect that has clearly been taken onboard by numerous filmmakers. The whip smart script is brought to life by the great actors involved. Janet Leigh nails it as Marion Crane’s woman on the edge. Her desperation to be with her lover and her guilt at the theft she has done, totally inform every move she makes onscreen and every line she utters. Whilst the performances are all really good, it is Anthony Perkins who truly startles. On first viewing, it is clear that there is something a little amiss with this momma’s boy. But re-watching the film, knowing where the story ends up, and you see just how masterful Perkins’ portrayal really is. Even when his character is acting totally over the top with mental illness, the final scene for example, Perkins is reserved, knowing he does not need to go similarly over the top in his presentation to achieve maximum effect.
There is possibly no film in history which manages to combine bombastic mainstream enjoyment with artistic merit quite like Psycho. A vast majority of you have probably seen Psycho, but if you haven’t, then I highly recommend it. The best thriller in history and also a perfect introduction to the world of classic cinema, even (actually especially) if you are someone who is not really into that realm of cinema.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
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Great film, but only an 82/1001?
Well played sir.
I had the fascinating experience of taking a college class primarily about Psycho last year. It’s a film that has held up remarkably well and it’s crazy to think about how much of pop culture has been influenced by it. (I wrote a paper for that class comparing Psycho with Hitchcock’s later film Frenzy, a film which might not have been possible if Psycho hadn’t opened the doors for sex and violence in cinema.) You’re absolutely right in your comments about the magnificent Anthony Perkins.
Have you ever seen Fear Strikes Out? It’s an interesting precursor to Psycho in that it shows how talented Perkins was at tapping into psychological torment. You should also see Psycho II, which is actually kind of good if you don’t take it too seriously. It’s no Hitchcock masterpiece but seeing Norman Bates and Lila Crane two decades later is worth checking out.
Thanks for the tips. I hadn’t heard of Fear Strikes Out, but I will try and track a copy down. I have a copy of Psycho II here which I am definitely hoping to have a look at soon.
Taking an entire class focusing pretty much solely on one film sounds pretty fantastic to me. Lucky you.
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