Sunday, March 11, 2012

100 Movies - No. 72: Psycho

72. Psycho (1960)
Horror, Mystery, Thriller, 109 minutes
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh and Vera Miles

Alfred Hitchcock directed 67 titles, including more than 50 movies, but most people would rank Psycho among his five best works. It's certainly one of his most influential.

The marketing for the movie was clever and audiences were refused admission after the show had started. Hitchcock wanted them to experience the story from start to finish. He also urged people that had seen it to avoid spoiling it for others. I mention that because I don't want to spoil the experience for you. It's more than 50 years old, so the following comments contain spoilers and assume that you have seen the movie. If you haven't, please stop reading now and remedy the situation as soon as possible.

Psycho might seem a bit tame by today's standards. It was shot in black and white to lessen the impact of seeing the blood. The murders appeared brutal through the clever cuts and camera angles rather than explicitly showing flesh being cut. As with all of Hitchcock's work, what you imagine in your own mind is more frightening than what you see on the screen. To truly appreciate the impact of the movie, imagine what had gone before when it was originally released.

Without Psycho, we may never have seen franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Saw. But unlike some of those mentioned, Psycho isn't remotely humorous. The reason is that Norman Bates, or someone like him, could exist. That's the most frightening thing about the movie. Compare it to Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker for instance. The Dark Knight is elevated above every other superhero movie because it could happen.

Hitchcock uses misdirection effectively by opening the movie as if it is a romance. Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, meets her lover and the audience assumes that she is the focus of the story. We see her steal the money and flee the city. The camera hints at her thought processes without the use of narration or dialogue, and we see her nervous reaction to harmless encounters. It's a fascinating look at how people change under stress.

Crane eventually needs to stop for the night and we are introduced to Norman Bates and the Bates Motel. The story still focuses on Crane's character, but changes dramatically after Bates attacks her in the infamous shower scene. This is usually the first scene that comes to mind when thinking about Psycho, and it's a shame in a way. The movie is so much more than a simple murder.

The plot switches as people start to wonder what happened to Crane, leading to a second murder. We then realize that Norman Bates, brilliantly portrayed by Anthony Perkins, is the true focus of the story. He's shy around women and outwardly calm, but clearly nervous when under pressure.

Until the revelations near the end, Hitchcock cleverly lets us think that the mother exists. In a way I suppose she does. This is a sad story and Bates becomes a character we can pity. If you think things through from his point of view, his actions make sense. Wouldn't you cover up a crime committed by someone you love? There are many layers to the story and several different ways to appreciate it.

The initial setup uses well-established Hitchcock techniques and themes. He misdirects us and uses suspense. The initial focus of the story, Marion Crane, is a woman on the run. Because she's in that situation, she becomes more interesting to us. The $40,000 she steals is a MacGuffin that serves no purpose other than to give Crane's character a reason for her actions.

Everything flows smoothly and the pacing is effective. It's hard to be bored even for a second. The term masterpiece is overused, but Psycho qualifies.

If you like Psycho:

I wouldn't label Psycho as a slasher movie; it's really a psychological horror story. Hitchcock is often thought of as someone who focused on horror, but that's not the case. Most of his films play out as mysteries or thrillers. One other Hitchcock film that does fall into the horror category is The Birds, starring Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren. Like Psycho, its true nature doesn't emerge in the early part of the story. It's structured as a romance, but changes tone when the birds begin to attack. We never know the reason for their actions, or whether our characters survive, but none of that matters.

See where Psycho ranks among my Top 10 horror movies.

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  1. Great review. Psycho is one of my all-time favorite movies. An icon.

  2. We need more Hitchcock on Blu-ray.