Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark masterpiece of the macabre stars Anthony Perkins as the troubled Norman Bates, whose old dark house and adjoining motel are not the place to spend a quiet evening. No one knows that better than Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), the ill-fated traveller whose journey ends in the notorious shower scene. First a private detective (Martin Balsam), then Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) search for her as the horror and suspense mount to a terrifying climax where the mysterious killer is finally revealed.
By 1960 Hollywood had changed a great deal. The strict studio system was all but broken and the Golden Age was over. Although Alfred Hitchcock had fought the producers on many of his pictures during this time, he had also flourished. He was shrewd enough to play them at their own game and often his films were more interesting because of some awkward compromise, so it was always possible he would falter while a new breed of filmmaker would overtake. In fact, brilliant though North By Northwest was, had he continued in that vein he would have quickly become a bloated self-parody.
The reason I say this is because Psycho more than any of his others from this time, looks and feels like a classic Golden Age studio film. Its black and white, stark photography by John L. Russell, and nourish premise regress it by 10 years at least, more suitable to the time of Shadow of a Doubt and is as sharp and lean as that film. It must have been refreshing for an audience of a certain age to settle into such a familiar style. Of course, Hitchcock is lulling the viewer into a false sense of security, brilliantly using the familiar conventions to support a brave screenplay.
Hitch, The Master of Suspense, had been tightening the screws on the viewer and his lead character, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) as she wrestled with the paranoia and guilt of stealing her boss’s money so she could run away for a new life with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). By his own definition, nothing could happen to her until that last act because that wouldn’t be suspense. But then he takes away the safety net in the spectacular and still effective classic shower scene, pulling the bath mat from under the audience, so to speak! That moment hasn’t dated at all. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is still the most powerful screen murder. Hermann’s classic theme is set aside for the moment; George Tomasini’s frantic editing, the awful screeching and those lingering final seconds are all the more heartbreaking because we’ve come to know the character so well.
From this point on all bets are off and the film is unquestionably superb with Hitchcock clearly relishing finally being able to test the viewer. The narrative had already gently shifted focus to the nervy-perv Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in a clever scene where he brings Marion something to eat (it stops being her story when she joins him for lunch) which is audacious enough for a classic plot and Perkins excels under the uncomfortably close focus of the camera that reveals all the tics of one of cinemas greatest characters, the ultimate mummy’s boy, cleaning up after his bonkers parent who we only see fleetingly, in shadows, or hear her grating voice. Repeat viewings reveal layers upon layers in his performance.
The final act has a couple more shocks in store and the brilliant thing is, they are fundamental. Nothing is contrived and it withstands scrutiny. The ending is unusually indulgent for a Hitchcock movie, with Simon Oakland as Dr. Richmond revealing the intricacies of Mrs. Bates like a ghost story! But of course, she has the last word in a beautifully judged final shot that lives on long after the film.
This isn’t suspense, but a true properly scary horror, which in itself was a shock for the Hitchcock faithful, especially considering his regret over Sabotage (the difference being Psycho lingers on the horror). If you think I’m being over dramatic, consider Peeping Tom, released the same year, with a similar attempt to test the viewers willpower. Sadly, although a brilliantly successful film with a recent re-evaluation, the experiment backfired and destroyed director Michael Powell’s career.
Some say Psycho is Hitchcock’s best film and although I don’t quite agree, it’s difficult to argue against. It is as least his most memorable, a milestone in the horror genre and one of the finest films ever made, finding new fans in every generation.
Oh yes, and it was the first film to show a flushing toilet! Told you it was a new age…