Psycho (1960)


It is hard to fathom what a major impact Psycho had on the movie industry.  The film will be turning 63 in the year that I write this, and it has been picked over by cinephiles and critics and the like for every single one of those years, to the point where parts of the shower scene are freeze-framed to see what techniques were used and what errors made it into the shots.  The structure of the film was unlike most at the time, many of the scenes pushed the boundaries of the already withering Hays Code and it even went so far as to begin changing how the public viewed movies.  

In reality Psycho was just as much about making money as it was making a good film.  Screenwriter Joseph Stefano adapted Robert Bloch's novel, working hand-in-hand with Hitchcock to get the story he wanted, and what he did want was a good film.  He also wanted it made cheap, realizing that a lot of poorly made low-budget movies were easily turning a profit.  Although Paramount wasn't really willing to have his back Hitchcock went on with it anyway, knowing that he could even make more money if he gave the public something worth watching.  

Therefore, the only major star was Janet Leigh, as Anthony Perkins was still up-and-coming despite being a romantic lead in a few films in the late 1950s and being praised for his role in On the Beach.  He worked largely with his television crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and cut back heavily on the location filming that his previous big budget productions, Vertigo and North by Northwest, had featured.  Instead, we get a great view of my hometown, Phoenix, in 1959, followed by one of the creepiest and most memorable film sets in cinema history.  

Marion Crane (Leigh) and her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) are having a secret affair.  She wants to bring it to the light although her sister Lila (Vera Miles) may not approve.  Sam, however, is worried about money, as he already owes alimony to his previous wife.  When a wealthy client (Frank Albertson) plops down 40 thousand dollars in cash on her desk, her boss (Vaughn Taylor) tells her to take it to the bank.  Instead, Marion packs her things and heads to Fairvale, California to be with Sam, hoping the money will give them the start they need.

Unfortunately, Marion goes missing, and Sam finds out what she has done when Lila arrives in Fairvale to confront him.  She is followed by Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a private detective hired by Marion's boss to locate her and have her return the money in order to avoid prosecution.  When retracing her steps it becomes evident that she stayed at a little-used motel on the outskirts of town run by an odd man named Norman Bates (Perkins), who isn't the most cooperative, especially when it comes to letting Arbogast speak with his mother.  As the trio's suspicions rise it soon becomes clear that Bates may have a number of secrets to hide. 

I'll have to admit when I first saw Psycho - either in a film class or a festival of old movies - I was disappointed.  It takes a major risk with the narrative structure, and though I now appreciate the last third of the movie more than I used to, it still has its problems.  Psycho is like listening to an album like Rush's 2112, where the first half is brilliant but, even though the second is fine in its own right, it's missing the intensity and sheer audaciousness of what came before it.  It doesn't help that the studio insisted the long exposition dump at the end by Dr. Fred Richman (Simon Oakland), Norman Bates's psychiatrist, which dulls what was a well-shot and quite shocking ending to the story.  What saves it at the end in Perkins's acting skills in the final shots. 

One of the advantages of knowing what happens after seeing the movie so many times is that, since I hadn't rewatched it in a number of years, I got to concentrate on much more than just the few classic scenes that are always referenced.  The scene with Marion and Norman in the parlor of his motel office shows just how important good dialogue can be, as a good portion of the plot is laid out in that conversation - another reason why the whole psychiatrist scene at the end is unneeded.  Even more tense than her meeting with Bates is when a highway patrol officer (Mort Mills) becomes suspicious of her behavior.

Psycho is full of little things like that which get lost due to the controversy around it - which there was, from Janet Leigh and John Gavin obviously having finished an afternoon quickie at the start of the movie to seeing an actual toilet flush - and all the praise it has received over the years.  The praise is warranted for the most part, although even Hitchcock was willing to admit its faults, from some stiff acting to the whole explanation at the end.  Still, it did what it was supposed to, which was was entertain and make Hitchcock a lot of money, which he got to keep since Paramount thought the movie was going to flop.

I find it an interesting bridge from the movies of the 1950s to those of the modern day.  Much of the movie still works after all these years, and that is due to the directing, Bernard Hermann's score and both Leigh and Perkins's performances.  The proof that Hitchcock came up with a winning formula is evident with Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake in 1998, which updated the movie for the time period, and in color, but otherwise kept everything the same.  Even with copying the entire film, and keeping Hermann's score, it couldn't equal the original.  Flawed as it may be, enough came together at the time to make it work in just the right way that it is still influential after all this time. 

Psycho (1960)
Time: 109 minutes
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
 

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