"She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?"
-- Norman Bates
Psycho is a 1960 horror film directed by Alfred Hitchcock that many consider to be one of the director's greatest achievements. The story begins in Phoenix, Arizona, where a young secretary named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) embezzles forty-thousand dollars from her employer then skips town in the hopes of running away with her long-distance boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin), who lives in the small town of Fairvale, California. As Marion makes her way north, she stumbles upon the Bates Motel, a small establishment off the main highway, and decides to stay the night before pushing on to her destination. She meets the young Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the caretaker of the motel, and after exchanging some pleasantries, Marion elects to turn in for the night. Before bed, however, she opts to take a shower...
I think you'd be a bit hard-pressed to find many a film fan who doesn't know the next sequence of events, as Psycho's shower scene has reached a certain stature of fame, or infamy, over the years. From that scene, the rest of the film serves more as a mystery than as a horror film, but none of that really takes away from the fact that Psycho manages to be one of the greatest films ever made.
For me, Psycho has been a recognizable film for as long as I can remember. To be honest, my first interaction with it was a rather negative one. When I was about four years old, my family decided to take a trip to Universal Studios Hollywood. The park had a "special effects stage" attraction, where one of the rooms focused on the cinematography of Hitchcock's films. At such a young age, I was introduced to the shower scene, and I was absolutely horrified. I instantly became terrified of bathrooms and showers, and it took me quite a while to get past that fear. In addition, it took me another sixteen years before I could sit down and watch Psycho in its entirety, but boy am I glad that I did.
The history of the film itself is a rather incredible one itself. The making of the film is chronicled well in David Thomson's book The Moment of Psycho, and Thomson offers some interesting insight on the film as well, if you have a chance to read it. One of my favorite little tidbits about the film's release is the fact that Hitchcock essentially forbade anyone from entering theaters after the film had begun to play (a tactic that is alluded to in the trailer at the end of this review). His reasoning? Hitchcock thought that a viewer needed to see Psycho from the very start lest they miss an important piece of information. It was a truly groundbreaking idea for the time, and audiences ate it up.
Over the years, Psycho has become considered one of the most groundbreaking and important films to appear in cinematic history. Arguably Hitchcock's finest film, it does manage to live up to all the hype. The screenplay itself is a wonderfully-written mystery that almost plays as two separate stories. In the first half, we have a tale of love, crime and extortion, but as soon as the shower scene occurs and we as the audience lose our main focal point in Janet Leigh, we're left a little bit adrift. That's when storyline two kicks in, and we're thrown into the midst of a murder mystery in which we think we know the answer. The kicker? Well, I'll leave that to the film and to Hitchcock. What's truly great about the screenplay, however, is that in the midst of all this horror, confusion and mystery, we still get an ample supply of comedy. If you pay close attention, there's a number of bits of dialogue that are meant to be played out for comedic effect, and they're so perfectly-placed that they might even manage to draw a bit of out-loud laughter. Essentially, this screenplay has it all: horror, mystery, comedy, drama and romance. It brings it all together in such an effective manner that there just might be something for everyone.
While the storyline tends to ebb and flow throughout the film, one thing that does remain consistent is the high level of acting performances we receive. Leigh starts out as the apparent lead, and she does an incredible job with the role. At times, she manages to seem both vulnerable and invincible at once, and it's this duality that makes her both appealing and fascinating until her untimely and sudden demise. From there, the disillusioned audience has no choice but to pick up on the film's seeming sub-lead: Perkins's Norman Bates. And let me tell you, Perkins steals the show. The more I watch the film, the more I become mesmerized by just how strong a performance Perkins manages to bring forth. It's a subtle but profound type of brilliance, and I think it's often under-appreciated. Perkins slips through so many emotions even in the course of only one scene that it might be difficult for the casual viewer to keep up with it all, but I would argue that he brought forth one of the greatest performances in cinematic history.
The rest of the cast fills out rather well mostly because each person plays their part to a tee. Vera Miles comes in for a supporting role as Marion's distraught sister. She teams up with Gavin's Loomis hoping to find answers. Gavin is probably the weakest link in the film (a thought that Hitchcock shared), but even he isn't all that terrible. It's just that, in comparison to the talent around him, there just wasn't any way for him to keep up. Of all the supporting characters, however, I have to tip my hat most to Martin Balsam, who plays the private detective Milton Arbogast. He's a wonderfully-consistent addition to the cast, and he and Perkins combine for one of the film's best scenes. It's just a well-rounded cast all around, and I think the acting in the film has taken a bit of a back seat to the screenplay and the direction itself. Someone needs to herald it, so why shouldn't I?
One of the most effective components of Psycho, however, is its cinematic score. Composed by Bernard Herrmann, I can't quite say it's the most instantly recognizable pieces of music, but it definitely has to be high on the list. Though not quite as iconic as, say, John Williams's score for Jaws, I think Herrmann still managed to create something truly brilliant with his score. The bit from the shower sequence might be the most recognizable from the film, but the rest of the score is so splendidly-crafted that it's hard no to enjoy it from start to finish.
At the end of the day, Psycho proves to rank near, if not at, the top of the list of horror films, and it also manages to be ranked very highly on the list of greatest films of all time. I myself would have to place it within the top five greatest films I've ever seen, and that's saying quite a bit considering the amount of films I've seen. If you haven't had a chance to take in this iconic film, then maybe this Halloween season should be the time to do so. It's not as terrifying as it may have used to be, but it's still so profound that it's easy to understand why it's reached such an idolized place in cinematic history. Congratulations, Mr. Hitchcock. You created a masterpiece.
Movie Review Summary