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Psycho (1960)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

PSYCHO (1960)

Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsom, John McIntire

Written By: Joseph Stefano, Robert Bloch (novel) Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

The Short Version

Behold, Alfred Hitchcock’s horror/suspense masterpiece.

Psycho is an early prototype of the slasher flick, and it changed movie etiquette for the better.

Oh yeah; it’s also got fabulous performances backed by one of the greatest scores ever.

Did I mention Hitchcock?

Psycho is one of the all-time cinema greats.  Of course it belongs in your permanent collection.

The Long Version

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The best there is.

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Savvy cinephiles will understand why I went with something chocolate.

“No one really runs away from anything.  It's like a private trap that holds us in, like a prison.  You know what I think?  I think that we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out.  We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other; and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”

Once upon a time, Alfred Hitchcock heard good things about a book.  He read the book, and quickly – and quietly – acquired the rights to film it.

He then decided to shoot it in black and white for less than a million dollars, to see what would happen if a good production team tried to make a low budget horror flick.

What happened is one of the best horror movies ever made, and one of the all time greats of cinema regardless of genre.

What happened is Psycho.

Deftly adapted by then-unknown screenwriter Joseph Stefano from the novel by Robert Bloch (which was in turn inspired by real life serial killer Ed Gein, who also inspired the likes of Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs), Psycho proves the very point that its director hoped to make: that talent and ingenuity can indeed trump budgetary obstacles to create a masterpiece.  Of course, having the power of Hitchcock’s name to grease the wheels even before his talent could be brought to bear didn’t hurt matters, either…

The film’s winning formula starts with savvy casting.  Robert Bloch’s vision of Norman Bates was one of a thoroughly unlikable, late middle age, overweight man who practically had a neon sign reading “bad guy” over his head to anyone who had ever encountered a despicable stereotype before.  Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph Stefano, however, had something different in mind.  In order for Psycho to work to its best level of effect, they reasoned, Norman should be a young, pleasant, thoroughly likable character whose initial vibe was more “aw shucks” than “oh hell.”  They wanted someone for whom the audience could be made to feel sympathy, and they certainly scored with Anthony Perkins.  Through Norman Bates, Perkins delivers the performance of a lifetime, presenting the audience with a “nice young man next door” who also happens to have a dark abyss swirling behind his eyes.  He is thoroughly believable both as the nice guy and as the demented murderer; neither aspect feels as though Perkins is stepping away from the center of one character.  He’s a monster the audience can feel sorry for in that rare way that only appears once in a blue moon, as it had decades before with Mr. Karloff and a creature created by a certain Dr. Frankenstein.  One simply couldn’t ask for a better title performance.

But Hitchcock and Stefano weren’t done making adjustments to Mr. Bloch’s story, which in its original form kept the focus squarely on its title killer.  To draw the audience in, Hitchcock and Stefano first put their focus on the film’s primary victim, Marion Crane.  Not only does this give the audience a traditionally “normal” character to latch on to at the start, but it also gives them a hefty shock when she steps into that shower not quite halfway into the picture and doesn’t step out again.  This is a masterstroke of manipulative storytelling, and one that Hitchcock cemented by casting Janet Leigh for the part of Marion.  After all, nothing bad could happen to an established star like that, and certainly not so early into the picture, could it?  In 1960, that was indeed unheard of, so Hitchcock was able to put one of his biggest shocks in the bag before a single inch of film was shot.  (And, perhaps needless to say, Leigh is outstanding in the role.)

But how to preserve that shock?  Back in 1960 and before, it was common practice for theatre owners to allow patrons to wander in at any time during a film and just stay through the next to catch whatever they missed.  (How barbaric!  And yes, I mean that.)  Hitchcock knew that latecomers expecting to see Janet Leigh during the second half of the picture would be scratching their heads wondering where she was, and so he demanded that any theatre showing Psycho should not allow any patrons in after the movie started.  Because he was Hitchcock, the theatre managers went along with it, and so his story kept its shock… and a dose of civilization came to the bijou that quickly morphed into (thankfully) common practice. 

One can’t help but wonder how many outstanding, twist-laden thrillers would never have happened if Hitchcock hadn’t made his demand.  I’ll be glad to never know.

With script and cast and even theatre managers in hand – all, let’s not forget, for a small budget for an “important picture” even by 1960 standards – there was still the matter atmosphere to attend to.   Of course, Hitchcock was and remains the all-time master of that from the Director’s chair – if I have to spell out the fact that the direction of Psycho is superb, you really need to see more classic cinema and discover the single greatest director in Hollywood history – but there’s more to atmosphere than just what the director can offer; for example: music.  For that, Hitchcock turned to Bernard Hermann, and what he got back was so outstanding that Hitch doubled the composer’s salary for a job well done.  Hermann felt that the frenetic emotions of Psycho called for an orchestra made up solely of strings – no horns or winds or percussion to speak of – and the result is one of the greatest, most often referred-to scores in all of motion pictures.  The “shower scene” cue (oh, that shower scene!) is recognizable the world over even be people who’ve never seen Psycho, but there’s so much more to Hermann’s work that those few repeating shrieks.  In the end, Hitchcock himself declared that the music was responsible for roughly a third of the movie’s thrills, and I’m not about to question his judgment.  Listen for yourself; I doubt you’ll be able to, either.

When all of it came together, Hitchcock and company had indeed delivered exactly what the poster art for Psycho had promised: “something new – and altogether different – in screen entertainment.”  For in 1960, the world wasn’t yet saturated by police procedurals, and the sciences of criminal profiling and forensic investigation as we know them did not really exist.  Prior to Ed Gein and the then only recently minted Charles Starkweather, the only serial killer most Americans had heard of was Jack the Ripper.  This kind of monster, though not totally foreign, was none the less something fresh in motion pictures, and the approach taken to portraying him in Psycho planted the penultimate seed in the creation of a whole new horror subgenre: the slasher flick.  (Fun fact: the movie’s script even refers to the attack in the shower as “slashing.”)  That subgenre wouldn’t fully come into its own until a man named Carpenter made a movie about a masked killer from Haddonfield, Illinois seventeen years later – starring Janet Leigh’s own daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, in the Leigh-analog role – but the major seed is here.  Not the first, mind, but…  Take a close look if you hadn’t noticed already; it’s an interesting evolution to trace.

Because let’s face it: you’re going watch Psycho.  If you’ve haven’t already seen it, you’re missing out on one of the essential films for your pop culture competency exam, and it’s a damn good one at that.  And if you have seen it before, you know already how good it is, and that it’s one of those movies that gives you something new to see every time, so there’s no excuse to not see it again.  Indeed, if you love movies at all, there’s no excuse not to own it, either.

Bottom line, Psycho is one of cinema’s all time greats, crafted by one of cinema’s all time masters.  This is one classic that very much deserves its lofty reputation, and then some.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2014

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