Alfred Hitchcock is the most important, innovative director of all time and only select geniuses like Billy Wilder can make films as lastingly fresh as his. I got a chance to see one of his great masterpieces (he has at least 4 or 5) on the silver screen, and I jumped at the chance. After watching Psycho like one is supposed to view a film, I have an all-new appreciation for arguably his most well known work.
Coming off the heels of the epic spy thriller North by Northwest, Hitchcock gave his film crew a break and brought aboard the people who shot his TV show, secured a minor budget, and set about making a taut piece of shock horror to balance out his usual thrillers. Based in part on the story of the infamous killer Ed Gein, Psycho must have messed with the heads of audiences back when it premiered. It's overt sexual overtones, both between Marion and Sam and Norman's obsession with Marion, challenged even Hitchcock's envelope-pushing antics, while the legendary shower scene is more graphic than anything else you'll see from that time period.
Psycho takes Hitchcock's trademark style of audience manipulation and pushes it to the limit, weaving so many twists and turns that you could never anticipate where the story is leading- indeed, even after multiple viewings it loses none of its wonder- yet it is never loses track of its own logic, never folds in on itself to the point of confusion. It starts off as a simple theft. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a secretary at a real estate agency, receives $40,000 to put in a safety deposit box from an ostentatious client. Seeing a way to get her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) out of debt and free from crippling alimony payments, Marion promptly takes the money and runs, stopping only when rain prevents her from driving. She pulls into a rundown motel run by a kindly but nervous man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and checks in under a fake name.
Norman makes sandwiches for Marion, and as they converse over dinner it becomes increasingly obvious that we are no longer watching a film about theft or money. Marion, having heard Norman's row with his mother, gently suggests putting her in a home or a mental hospital so he could sell this profitless motel and move away. He at first angrily refuses this suggestion, retreating into the darkness of his mind as his own face sinks into shadows. Then he softens, and is even touched by Marion's kindness, which in turn cause Marion to rethink her actions and return the money. Then Hitchcock brings it back to darkness when Marion forgets her alias and uses her real name and mentions she's going "back to Phoenix"after saying she was from Los Angeles. Bates catches the slip, but the brief flash across his face of realization and his double-checking of the register after she leaves seals her fate. He found a woman who defied his mother's position that all women are evil, and she turned out to be a liar like "all the rest."
In what may be the ultimate film surprise, more than any film-ending twist or macguffin, is that Hitchcock murders his starlet and turns Norman into the protagonist. Consider when he must dispose of Marion's body by pushing her car (with her body in it) into a nearby tar pit. After it sinks halfway, the car suddenly stops, suspended in plain sight. The audience tenses with Norman, until whatever bubble of air was keeping the car afloat bursts and finally sinks, and we feel a certain relief with Norman. When a private detective looking for Marion and, later, Sam and Marion's sister arrive to try to sort out what happened, the tension comes not from these people trying to figure it out while under the watch of Norman and his mother, but from Norman trying to keep it all from unraveling. When the finale comes and the truth of Norman's mother is revealed, he is almost pitiable.
If the movie has a weak spot, it is in the psychiatrist's overlong speechat the end where he explains Norman's insanity. It starts off chilling and shocking, then keeps going until it's repetitive, anti-climactic, and almost unintentionally funny. Hitchcoc pulls it out of a tailspin when he cuts to Norman's closeup and the inner monologue of his "mother half," but think how much more effective it would have been if Hitch had cut to him right after "Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half-existed to begin with."
The most exciting thing about the film is how inept everyone is. Consider how jumpy Marion is when a cop finds her sleeping in her car. How skittish Norman is when people come snooping around looking for her. How Sam lacks any subtlety at all when he tries to sneak some information out of Bates. No one picks up a gun and magically knows how to use it, and Norman does not suddenly become a master criminal after disposing of Marion. Hitchcock's previous film, North By Northwest, created suspense by pitting a normal man against professionals, but here the borderline incompetence of nearly everyone on screen lets the audience identify with these characters, making the twists all the more shocking.
Hitchcock was never an actor's director; hell, he often didn't even place much value in the scripts. But Anthony Perkins is the great exception; sure, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, James Stewart, and the like were excellent, but none of them put in a performance that is remembered for the sheer acting of it. Everyone knows Rear Window and Vertigo, but not everyone would know the lead character's names. Mention the name Norman Bates, and everyone in the room is going to know exactly what you're talking about. Perkins' performance is quite possibly the most identifiable aspect of Hitchcock's entire canon; Psycho is at least his third best film, but 9 out of ten times you say his name people will start hacking the air with a fist and making screeching violin noises. And while we're on the subject of the soundtrack, Bernard Hermann's score must surely rank as one of the all-time greats, and it's the first score that is inseparable from the film, synonymous with its very name. Such an event wouldn't happen again until Ennio Morricone's immortal score for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (and, later, Jaws).
Psycho is the first of the slasher flicks, and it is still the best. It flies in the face of the current torture-porn mentality, which seems to believe that the more blood thrown against the screen the scarier the film. But consider how tense Hitchcock makes it with merely a splash of blood, in black and white no less. By the film's end it's such a white-knuckler that the momentum-killing denouement is almost forgivable because it flattens the heart rate. Most directors would kill to make a film this good, and it's not even his best.