I feel bad about this one.
I know that I’m supposed to be weak at the knees about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. Don’t get me wrong, this is an incredible film, but I don’t necessarily think its stood the test of time as well as others have and I think its a film which loses a lot of its impact once the final twist has been revealed and isn’t as powerful the second time round. Unfortunately, because “Psycho” has so often been referred to as one of the most important and influential films of the 20th century, I already knew the twist going in and I think missed out on a lot of what makes the initial viewing so special.
The story famously goes that Alfred Hitchcock sent out his people all over the US to buy out as many copies of the book by Robert Bloch as possible so that cinema-goers had no idea of the film’s plot going in. The story was shrouded in secrecy before it arrived in theatres and was a work of marketing genius at the time, with even the actors not being told of the final twist prior to filming the scene. I do wish I hadn’t already known the plot before sitting down to watch the film for the first time, because it would have been something so memorable. Never before had a film explored insanity, murder, depravity and sexuality in such a blatant way before and 1960s audiences were gobsmacked.
After being told that they cannot get married because of her married boyfriend’s debts, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 in cash from her employer and flees town . While driving one night on the run, the rain becomes too torrential and Marion checks in to the Bates Motel just off the interstate, run by mild mannered Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Bates seems pleasant and polite, perhaps a little strange considering he stuffs birds as a hobby and has an unusually close relationship with his mother, but Marion enjoys a meal with him as he complains what a hold she has over him but that she’s ultimately harmless and he’s happy to look after her. While showering after their meal, Marion (in of course arguably the most instantly recognisable and iconic scene in cinematic history), is brutally attacked by a shadowy figure with a knife and left to die. Norman confronts his mother after seeing blood and disposes of the body, of course to protect her and because he’s a good son. The rest of the film follows Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles), Marion’s boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) and Private Investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) as they seek to find Marion and interrogate Norman as to her whereabouts. Although the film is sixty years old, I won’t spoil the final horrifying twist in case there is one lucky reader who hasn’t heard of it and wants to see for themselves. I wish I had that opportunity.
“Psycho” is pretty damn scary now, so in the 1960’s I can imagine how unsettling it would have been for audiences. What is especially so shocking is the fact that the film’s protagonist is killed only a third of the way through the film, a technique which has been replicated a number of times since, perhaps most famously in 1996’s “Scream”, where the supposed star of the film played by Drew Barrymore is killed in the opening scene. The use of suspense and pacing leading up to Marion’s murder is beautifully done, so when it does happen, accompanied by that instantly recognisable violin score, its a brutal and unexpected shift in tone. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates toes the line perfectly between eccentric and psychotic, and many actors since have evoked this very same demeanour in their own villain roles since.
Despite all its groundbreaking thrills and undeniable achievements, “Psycho” is a little slow at times, the investigation side of things is often clunky and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and there’s a scene towards the end of the film where a psychiatrist explains to a room full of people the film’s major twist which really irritated me. It’s pretty obvious what happens and the fact that they took ten minutes to lay out the genius of it only detracted from the moment and its never a good look when filmmakers treat their audience as too thick not to be able to figure out a film’s plot points.
It was hard for me to take myself out of my own context and watch the film as if I was watching during Hitchcock’s era. All I know is, Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” was for me the far superior film and is an entity that I couldn’t believe was as sophisticated and exciting as it was considering when it was made. “Psycho” I felt doesn’t necessarily stack up to other horrors I’ve seen released since 1960, which I realise isn’t necessarily fair since it was arguably the first and paved the way for all the others since then, but there you go. “Rear Window” on the other hand, I will happily say is one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen, regardless of era. Hitchcock was undeniably a genius, I just think that “Psycho”, while impressive, isn’t necessarily the best example of how much of a great filmmaker he really was.
By Jock Lehman