How could I have possibly made it through seven films in my classic movie review series without any Alfred Hitchcock films? I correct my mistake this week by reviewing his most famous and influential film, the 1960 thriller Psycho. I am writing this review under the assumption that anyone reading this is already aware of the film’s plot twists. Even if you have not seen the film, you have probably been made aware of them through cultural osmosis. However, if anyone reading this is not aware of Psycho’s two major twists, I envy you the experience you could have. Stop reading this review now and go see the movie.
The movie opens like most Hitchcock films: a normal person in a situation well over their head. In this film the person is Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a real estate secretary who gets in well over her head when she steals forty thousand dollars from a rich client. Like most virgin criminals, Marion is not very good at covering her tracks. She is seen leaving town by her boss, arouses the suspicions of a police officer and pays for a new car in cash. Slowed by a blinding rain storm, Marion decides to pull over at a small hotel. The hotel is run by the lonely, somewhat geeky Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his “mother.” Norman and Marion have a somewhat normal conversation over sandwiches and Marion realizes she did the wrong thing and decides to drive back to Phoenix. Unfortunately for her, she decides to take a nice, warm shower first.
The shower scene remains terrifying even to this day; and everyone who sees it now knows that it is coming. Imagine the shock it must have been to 1960 audiences, who had never seen a protagonist get killed so early in a movie. Hitchcock went so far in keeping his secret that he ordered theater managers not to allow anyone into the theater after the movie started. He did not want people wandering in late, wondering what happened to Janet Leigh.
Everything about the shower scene can be described as piercing. It pierces your eyes with its short, rapid cuts and pierces your ears with Bernard Herrman’s jarring score. Perhaps that is why most people still believe that they saw the knife enter the body, because the score and editing has left them feeling as if they themselves were stabbed. The fact that the shower scene remains as effective today as it did in 1960 is a challenge to today’s directors who try to shock the audience by showing as many gory details as possible. Psycho’s shower scene never once shows the knife piercing the skin. There is blood (actually chocolate syrup), but not a lot. Blood and guts are no substitute for good, old-fashioned filmmaking.
As Norman Bates, Anthony Perkins created a new kind of movie monster: the lonely, somewhat nerdy boy-next-door with severe psychological problems. It is truly a landmark performance, yet to be surpassed. To date, only Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector even comes close. We like him at first and even feel sorry for him when his mother scolds him. It is for this reason that we adopt him as our protagonist after Marion is killed. He manages to play Norman’s boyish charm and dark side equally well. For me, one of the most terrifying images in the film is when he turns and looks back away from the swamp when he hears Sam (John Gavin) calling for him. He looks positively evil at that moment and credit must be given to the shadows of the cinematography.
Still, it was Janet Leigh who received the film’s only Oscar nomination for acting. She is much deserving of it, keeping the audience interested for the first part of the movie when she is often the only one on screen. Making it even more exceptional is the fact that a lot of her dialogue is thought, rather than spoken. It is the subtle changes in her facial expressions during these inner monologue scenes that keep it both believable and suspenseful.
Of course, the other factor that keeps our interest during the first part—and the rest of the movie—interesting is the music. From the very first moment when the opening credits begin to roll, the score pierces our ears with its shrieks. The chorus, or variations of it, has been used and re-used in tons of horror movies since. I like to think it is because no composer can come up with anything better.
I am a little baffled as to why Psycho is rated R today. It is terrifying, no doubt, but there is no more graphic material in it than you could find on television every night of the week. It seems like today it should be rated PG. Even Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is rated PG and it is more graphic and just as terrifying. Nevertheless, Psycho is a must see film for anyone who considers themselves a movie fan. It remains one of the true masterpieces of cinema. I give it an A+.