October 27, 2008
After his 1958 masterpiece "Vertigo" and the chase thriller "North By Northwest", director Alfred Hitchcock wanted to see if he could make an inexpensive Black and White movie that would scare the pants off of the audience. Apparently at this time period, low-budget, but poorly done, scary movies were doing quite well at the box office. Hitchcock wanted to make a low-budget scarefest that was well done. He apparently found the plot of "Psycho" (based on a pulp novel by Robert Bloch; and inspired by the gruesome exploits of serial killer Ed Gein; who subsequently also "inspired" the original "Texas Chainsaw Masacre" and "The Silence Of The Lambs") quite humorous. Paramount Studios, however, wanted nothing to do with it. So, Hitchcock paid for "Psycho" out of his own pocket, and used the film crew from his TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Although initially perceived by disgruntled critics as an ultimate sick joke, "Psycho" succeeded in scaring the pants off of the audience beyond Hitchcock's wildest dreams; by entering into our nightmares.
Watching "Psycho" again after all these years, I have to say it holds up extremely well. It is still a profoundly disturbing and unsettling film. It holds up because Hitchcock cleverly and continually deceives the audience; always keeping us off balance just when we might be feeling momentarily safe. Bernard Herrmann's music score helps tremendously. Saul Bass' title credits are cracked in half; instantly foreshadowing the fractured psyche of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and also perhaps the psyche of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). Thus, the audience is thrown off balance before the film's plot has even begun.
We begin by thinking the plot is going to be about Marion, who steals $40,000 from her boss to help solve her disasterous love affair with Sam Loomis (John Gavin). That is Hitchcock's biggest "red herring", but he throws in a few others as well. After driving through a rainstorm, Marion experiences the original "motel hell" when she winds up at the Bates motel and meets manager Norman Bates.
In Bloch's novel, Norman is forty-something, fat, balding, alcoholic and unsympathetic. Another masterstroke of Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano is transforming Norman into the image of actor Anthony Perkins, then age 27. Anthony Perkins gives an amazingly subtle performance. Norman is a loner. He's shy, but attractive. He stammers and smiles; all his boyish charms hiding deeper levels of secrets and deception, of course. He tells Marion, "We're all in our private traps. Clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out." Clearly, Perkins was deeply invested in the character of Norman (and later, unfairly trapped by him). One can only guess at how well Perkins understood about "Private Traps." Marion has overheard Norman's mother, Mrs. Bates, being very cruel to him. But he defends her: "It's not as if she were a maniac-- a raving thing. She just goes a little mad some times. Haven't you?" Norman is trapped by his mother on several levels, and Marion is soon a victim of the Norman/Mother trap. In the "Making Of" Documentary, Joseph Stefano reveals he was in Freudian therapy for his own "Mother Issues" while writing the "Psycho" script; and that puts yet another spin on the film's many twists and turns.
Marion is brutally murdered in the shower; in what is probably still the most terrifying 45 second sequence in cinema history. This infamous, brilliantly edited, sequence is also another example of Hitchcock throwing the audience off balance. Marion has been our sympathetic protagonist; and we have seen things through her point of view. When she is murdered approximately 49 minutes into the film, her "point of view" ends. The "point of view" now shifts to Norman, and he becomes the "protagonist", as a dogged detective (Martin Balsam), Sam and Lila, Marion's spunky and spirited sister, (Vera Miles) all eventually arrive at the Bates Motel--and it all works brillantly. At the end, when the secrets of Norman and Mother are revealed, a psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) explains it all rather glibly. But Hitchcock felt the psychiatrist's speech was necessary in getting the entire film past the strict censors.
"Psycho" is and always will be very much a "Hitchcock picture." But, in addition, the film ultimately belongs to Anthony Perkins. We are terribly sad and disturbed by Marion's horrid murder, but we also feel sorry for Norman. That may be the slickest of "Psycho's" bag of tricks, but it is also a tremendous tribute to Anthony Perkins' riviting performance. "Psycho" has often been imitated (Anthony Perkins returned for the much later "Psycho II", "Psycho III" (Perkins directed), and the intriquing "Psycho IV: The Beginning), but it will most definitely never be surpassed.
DVD EXTRAS: A fun Featurette shows how Hitchcock "sold" "Psycho" to audiences, and how he kept its "secrets." "The Making Of Psycho": Wonderful feature-length Documentary includes interviews with Janet Leigh, Joseph Stefano, etc. Documentary: "In The Shadows Of Hitchcock: Hitchcock's Legacy", (25 minutes), and an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" titled "Lamb To The Slaughter" with Barbara Bel Geddes (from "Vertigo") and much more.