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PSYCHO is an Alfred Hitchcock directed American suspense/horror film of 1960. The screenplay by Joseph Stefano is based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. The novel was loosely inspired by the crimes of Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein, who lived just 40 miles from Bloch.
The movie commences overlooking Phoenix, Arizona on a scorching, December (yes December) afternoon and peers into the window of a downtown, seedy hotel giving a voyeuristic view of a young couple who have just participated in a sexual encounter.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (the classically handsome John Gavin) are the couple. Sam is a divorced man who is the owner of a small hardware store in Fairvale, California. He is exasperated at having to support both his ex-wife and his father's debts. Marion on the otherhand is desperate to get married to Sam who thinks he is a burden to her because of his financial shortcomings.
Marion after her lunchtime rendezvous hurries back to the real estate office where she works as a secretary and her twittering, plain-faced work colleague (Pat Hitchcock); (watch out for the preverbial appearance of Alfred himself crossing the road as Marion walks into the office).
Marion's boss arrives back at the office accompanied by a loudmouth, rich, Texan oil baron client who has great pleasure in showing off the $40,000.00 dollars he has to spend on a real estate purchase for his daughter on her forthcoming nuptials. After flirting outrageously with Marion, blatantly eyeballing her feminine attributes, he wafts the wad of money infront of Marion who is asked to deposit the same into the bank by her boss. She asks if she can go home afterwards as she has a headache. Marion, now at her home, is seen packing a suitcase and although maybe it was not her first intention to embezzle the money she has had a change of heart. On her escape she parks at a layby to sleep.
A highway patrol officer awakens her, becomes suspicious of her agitated state and begins to follow her. When she trades her car for another at a car dealership, he notes the new vehicle's details. By the time Marion returns to the road, there is a heavy rainstorm which prompts her to spend the night at the only motel that is lit up off the beaten track - The Bates Motel which is completely secluded. Here she encounters the disturbed owner/manager, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). After registering under a false name/address Norman shyly prepares a snack for Marion in the parlour room at the back of the motel office much to the dislike of Norman's mother; who can be heard from the adjoining house berating her son regarding his sexual interest in the stranger which Marion overhears. Afterwards Marion returns to her room where she takes a shower. The film then goes on to depict the ensuing aftermath of this strange encounter and the dire circumstances that follow.
A week later Marion's sister Lila Crane (Vera Miles) contacts Marion's boyfriend Sam Loomis to find out about Marion's whereabouts on her disappearance, a private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is also interested to know what has happened to Marion and the $40,000.00 and the three work together to try to solve the mystery.
What I like about this film is the clever observation of human nature and the way it is shot by the director. For instance when the detective is questioning Norman Bates you can see a close-up under chin shot of Norman's jaw masticating a piece of candy and how this becomes more rapid and pronounced when put under pressure. I think this was done to show that when we are telling lies or feel we are being threatened our actions through anxiety are more pronounced to hide that fact. It is only a small thing but has great presence. Marion's underwear in the first sequence is white but when she has stolen the money it turns to black suggesting she is now a tainted human being for succumbing to temptation so the virginal colour is now out of bounds. The mood of the film changes from this moment on to a darker mode.
You get an insight into a small part of the mind of Norman from his bedroom. The small room resembles a child's - he sleeps on a cot bed with a tattered bunny rabbit missing one ear for company and decaying toy tin soldiers fill the shelves. Although an adult he hasn't sexually matured and the sexual sublimation of which is carried out through his hobby of taxidermy that almost quenches some of his desires but not totally due to the scene showing the voyeuristic manmade peephole view of Marion undressing. Marion's surname is Crane to identify Norman's taxidermy obsession with birds which I thought was a slightly comic touch.
When Marion opens her door to let him in her room to eat the supper Norman seems embarrassed and hesitant and instead suggests they eat in the office/parlour. This transpires to me that he is shy to be let into her domain as she will have control so he switches to let her enter into his domain where he has the control and feels comfortable - Marion opening her door metaphorically transcribes through Norman's eyes that she is almost offering herself sexually to him by opening her door (letting him in) which a virginal, sexually naive Norman is not ready for although he desires her. The highway cop on her tail is made even more characterless and sinister by the fact he never takes his sunglasses off and looms in the background like a tarantula that has found a fly in its web and can't wait to devour it and gives the main character heightened urgency to escape.
I felt an empathy with Marion and understand her thought pattern - when tempted to take from another we only think this would be acceptable if taking from a person we dislike or who is deemed to be unworthy of such good fortune and so our guilt is reduced so an immoral act is just.
It could be remarked that Norman Bates' home has three floors, paralleling the three levels of the human mind that are postulated by Freudian psychoanalysis: the top floor would be the superego, where Bates's mother lives; the ground floor is then Bates's ego, where he functions as an apparently normal human being; and finally, the basement would be Bates's identity. The interpretation could suggest Bates moving his mother's corpse from top floor to basement is a symbol for the deep connection that psychoanalysis posits between superego and normal identity which I find a very interesting concept.
The film holds resonance for me because the subject matter was unusual for 1960 and it was brave to broach such a subject that was still in its infancy as to cure and understanding. Also to cover the taboo subject of matricide in movies is very rare even for today. Bernard Herrman's musical score heightened the film's most intensive scenes of violence. I love the fact that audiences were told not to give away the outcome of the shock ending to others before they saw the film in movie theatres everywhere.
Although Psycho initially received mixed reviews in the beginning it smashed box office returns that prompted a re-review which was overwhelmingly positive and led to four Academy Award nominations.
Watch if only to understand why there was a surge in bathtub sales in the early 1960s!!!!
PSYCHO IS NOW CONSIDERED ONE OF HITCHOCK'S BEST FILMS AND OFTEN RANKED AMONG THE GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME!.
The Universal Blu-Ray costs £9.50 on amazon at time of writing.
Getting a Blu-Ray player has made me revisit a lot of classic films that I'd not seen for a while. Psycho, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock's most famous film, and probably his most influential. It revolutionised horror cinema and is still immensely effective.
Marion Crane steals $40,000 from her boss on a crazy impulse. She heads across country to be with her cash-strapped boyfriend Sam, but her conscience begins to trouble her. She stops at the Bates Motel, and chats with the friendly but awkward proprietor, Norman. Then she takes a shower.
It's a difficult to know how much of the plot to discuss in a review. The film has two immensely shocking developments, one of which occurs just before halfway, the other shortly before the end. Although they must have been surprising at the time the film was released, they're so well-known now that it feels like everyone in the world must know what happens. I'll assume everyone at least knows what befalls poor old Marion in the shower, but won't reveal much more. The shower scene is arguably the single most famous movie moment in history, and even if you think you don't know it, when you see it you'll recognise it.
It's filmed in black and white and is a low-budget movie by Hitchcock's standards. Apart from being set in a grittier world than some of Hitchcock's recent thrillers like North By Northwest, the first 40 minutes or so is reasonably typical of his work. It's filled with suspense as we watch Marion try to shake off a pesky cop who has pesky cop questions. Building suspense scenes around whether or not a criminal will get away with their crime, with the feeling that we're supposed to be rooting for the criminal, is a Hitchcock trademark. At least Marion is more sympathetic than, say, the killer in Frenzy.
Psycho maintains the illusion that it's a film about a woman stealing money for a surprisingly long time. The first hint we get that something isn't quite right comes when Marion overhears Norman and his mother having a blazing row. Mother Bates sounds crazy, while Norman is more than a little twitchy. Shortly after that, of course, the film changes focus completely.
Janet Leigh is very good as Marion, although her acting skills are probably overlooked since people remember her for one thing only, and about half the shots in her big scene were a body double anyway. But she wrestles with her conscience very effectively early on. The real star, of course, is Anthony Perkins as Norman. It is one of the finest performances in any film, and certainly the best ever madman performance. He's unbelievably naturalistic, an awkward young man tripping over his words and giving himself away by his verbal ticks long before anyone thinks to see what's in the fruit cellar.
After the film's first big climax we're introduced to the rest of the characters, who aren't so interesting but at least move the plot along. Martin Balsam is likeable as the private eye Arbogast, while Vera Miles and John Gavin are a bit bland as Marion's sister and boyfriend.
As with all Hitchcock, it's directed with an unbelievable visual flair, with a camera that floats all over the place. The lighting is very effective, especially in the scene with the swinging lightbulb. The editing on the shower scene is just about perfect. The sets are wonderful, especially the room full of stuffed birds. And the music is arguably the most influential thing about the movie - the skittering strings are excellent and add immeasurably to the tension, but it's the shrieking violin stabs in the shower scene that everyone remembers. Apart from maybe the music in Jaws, that scene has the most famous horror film music of all. The beauty of the best Hitchcock films is that, even when you've seen them half a dozen times, the suspense scenes are still genuinely scary. There's perhaps nothing in Psycho that can quite match the best bits of Rear Window, but it is still incredibly effective.
The great thing about Psycho is that in a lot of ways it feels like a cheap exploitation film. The location, the situation, even the black and white look, all suggest the kinds of movies people like William Castle were making. (The film even had a Castle-style gimmick, as cinema owners were encouraged not to admit latecomers.) This is how all cheap horror would look if it was directed by a genius. Psycho was unbelievably influential - it defined non-gothic horror in the 60s. It was even (according to popular legend) the first film to show a toilet onscreen (and certainly the first to show one flushing. It serves a plot function, it was some years before Hollywood was decadent enough to show a toilet just for the sake of it.)
Psycho is a seriously classy film, and if you only ever watch one horror film in your life, it will probably be this one. It's not genuinely horrifying - it's a bit too playful - and it isn't even Hitchcock's best film. But it is a great film nonetheless.
The film looks absolutely superb. The detail visible is unbelievable, and as with Casablanca, it shows that the format lends itself particularly well to black and white movies. There's perhaps a hint of digitisation on the whites, but it's nothing to worry about. It also sounds great, although my TV doesn't have the best speakers in the world. The annoying thing about it is that if you pause it for more than a couple of minutes it goes into a screensaver showing the Universal logo. I cannot for the life of me figure out why - you have to press 'enter' rather than 'play' to escape this and get back to the movie, although that might just be a quirk of my player. It also took a long time to load. But still, it's worth the wait.
As for extras, there are loads and loads. Probably too many. The 'making of' documentary is 90 minutes long, and covers everything you could possibly want, and more. It's interesting if you're interested, but I was mainly struck by how damn weird Clive Barker's accent is these days.
Another shorter documentary has various filmmakers talk about how Hitchcock influenced them. Great if you want to know what a bunch of random editors and composers think is Hitch's best work. There's a dull piece about remastering the soundtrack and an audio segment of an interview between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut (this is frustratingly slow, as a translator has to repeat each question and answer in the relevant language). There are also the usual image galleries, storyboards, and trailers (the original trailer is odd and rather tiresome, unless you happen to like Hitchcock's public persona. I do not.) There's also a film historian's commentary which, while better than some, is still not interesting enough for me to have sat through it all.
The best extra is an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the American TV show that made Hitchcock unbelievably wealthy. It's the really famous one, where Barbara Bel Geddes kills her husband with a leg of lamb and then has to convince the cops it was a burglar that did it. It was written by Roald Dahl, and the leading lady is terrific. They manage to cram about four pauses for ad breaks into the 28-minute running time.
But apart from a slightly ominous example of how much you can fit on a Blu-Ray, I'm not sure any of the extras add that much. When you've got a film as good as Psycho you don't really need them to. There aren't many films from the early 60s that are every bit as compelling now as they were when they were released. Psycho is one of them.