I think it’s hard to realise the magnitude of Hitchcock’s achievement with this film with the handicap of hindsight; I wish I could somehow erase all knowledge of it from my mind so I could view as if for the first time: I think only then could I appreciate just how revolutionary & subversive this film really is.It seems Hitchcock deliberately set out to change the film-going habits of the Western world, & it also seems that he succeeded. Apparently when it was made (1960) filmgoers were in the habit of wandering in & out of films at the theatre irrespective of the film’s starting & finishing times. Trailers for ‘Psycho’ blazed the message: “Make sure you watch this film from the beginning”. Those who heeded this advice could have been forgiven for wondering why: a young woman (Janet Leigh) steals a large sum of money from a business partner of her employer. On the road, she stops at the Bates Motel in order to divert attention from a suspicious cop, & with her boyfriend, her sister & a private detective also on her trail. The proprietor is one Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who, although a little edgy, seems basically OK – apart from a slight maternal fixation. What’s the big deal, they might ask – psychological drama, girl on the run etc. etc.: so far, so Hitchcock. After chatting with Bates for a while she retires to her room for a shower, which in hindsight was probably not such a good idea…
In an age when Hollywood was still largely dominated by the star system, half an hour into the movie Hitchcock takes his main lead – an attractive, curvaceous blonde – & kills her off, & with a savagery rarely portayed on the big screen. He then takes what seemed like a fairly conventional movie & turns it on it’s head. No longer is the lead character an attractive yet vulnerable young woman on the run, it is now a twitchy nervous antithesis of a Hollywood or even a Hitchcockian leading man (i.e. Cary Grant, James Stewart, Gregory Peck); no longer is the film a run-of-the-mill crime thriller, it is now a journey into the mind of a madman.
I have heard that Hitchcock himself regarded this film as a comedy, & although I’ve never seen it this way myself I wonder if this is where for him the humour lies: the delight of taking accepted Hollywood movie conventions, turning them upside-down & inside-out & yet still producing a hugely successful blockbuster by mangling all the rules. I’m sure it made him laugh anyway!
Mention has to be made of Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of Norman Bates – he is simply magnificent & puts in one of cinema’s greatest performances. His representation of an unhinged madman masquerading as normal is brilliantly done & totally believable. His desperate attempts at normal behaviour & conversation are overlaid with a nervy touchiness; & his twitchy, constantly changing facial expressions make it clear before you know anything more about him that you’re looking at a man torn with internal conflict. He delivers lines such as ‘Mother isn’t quite herself today’ with a superb drollness that is somehow also loaded with hidden meaning, & in hindsight also very funny. The end scene where we finally see Norman in his true colours done by anyone else would just look silly (i.e. the recent remake) but he makes it extremely chilling – for me one of cinema’s great scenes.
The directorial craftmanship is equally suberb: who else but Hitchcock could come up with anything like the famous shower scene? Shot over 7 days using 70 different camera set-ups for a minute or so of a naked girl being stabbed in a shower – & yet not showing any nudity that would have upset the censors of the time, or even showing the knife plunging into her flesh, such was the attention to detail. In my opinion it probably still is the greatest cinematic sequence ever made.
And how can I do a review of ‘Psycho’ without mentioning the score? Definitely one of the best ever, it helps create a mood of tension throughout, & complements the direction & cinematography beautifully. Certainly the shower scene wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective without those high-pitched stacatto violins mimicking screams & the stabbing knife, then the plunging doom-laden bass strings.
The scripting, the cinematography, the acting, the music, the sets, but particularly it’s subversive delight in turning conventionality on it’s head to stunning effect make this film a masterpiece by any standards, a description that still applies 40 years later & I think will do for generations to come.