Original release: June 16th, 1960
Running time: 109 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Joseph Stefano, Robert Bloch
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam
I distinctly remember my first experience of Alfred Hitchcock being his widely acclaimed masterpiece, Psycho. I was in my first year of university and attempting to expand my cinematic horizons and catch up on so many of those ‘must-see’ films that everyone talked about. I sat down to watch Psycho with all of these expectations of it being thrilling and scary and utterly wonderful, and was, regrettably, monumentally under-whelmed. Not only did I not especially love the film but I actively didn’t like it.
I’d seen it circling the top of various ‘favourite horror film’ lists and I’d heard and read people who regarded Hitchcock as a master and Psycho as a representation of such. I sat there completely perplexed by all of the praise lavished upon it; it didn’t scare me, it didn’t thrill me, it didn’t shock me, it didn’t even entertain me for a hundred minutes or so. For a few years I had no particular inclination to revisit the film but, as I got a bit older and found myself gripped by other films from the Master of Suspense, I occurred to me that maybe I should. So, with Halloween fast approaching, I decided it was time to re-watch it and see whether my opinion had changed at all.
It’s incredible how much a film’s music can permeate society, and I’m not talking about the famous shower scene here. When the grey bars fly across the screen and Bernard Herrmann’s music kicks in to introduce Saul Bass’ title sequence for Psycho, it immediately sends shivers down the spine. The fracturing of the letters combined with the thrilling strings is a wonderfully evocative and now famous opening to a film which they both suit down to the ground. In considering how I reacted to this opening sequence now – when compared to my disinterested initial viewing – I became aware of how a subsequent decade of devotion to all things cinema had clearly changed how I respond to films nowadays. This seemed to bode well for a reappraisal of a film held aloft by esteemed critics worldwide; and boy, did that turn out to be true.
Most people will already be aware of the twists in the film’s plot, let alone the general premise, but we’ll remain as far from spoiler territory here as possible. The film opens on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a secretary in Phoenix, stealing $40,000 from one of her employer’s clients and fleeing in her car towards her boyfriend in California, Sam (John Gavin). Caught up in a heavy thunderstorm, she pulls up and takes refuge in the otherwise deserted Bates Motel where she chats and has dinner with proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). She learns that he lives alone in the large house overlooking the hotel with his domineering mother who is outraged that he would consider bringing some other woman up to the house; this does not bode so well. Back in Phoenix, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) hires a P.I. named Arbogast (Martin Balsam) to track down her missing sibling.
The performances from all of the players are good, with Anthony Perkins doing a fine job as by-far-and-away the most interesting character on the screen. Like his turn in Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962), Perkins imbues the character with an all American naivety caught up in a situation that seems far too malign for him. As we learn more about Norman however, he and his mother take on a sinister edge all of their own.
What I liked the most about this revisiting of Psycho was just how thrilling I found it. Having known the twists for years (even before my initial viewing) and having seen the film before and not been moved, I was utterly gripped by the more tension-filled scenes despite their outcome effectively being a formality. In particular, I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes in which Arbogast, and then Sam, come into contact with – and question – Norman Bates about whether he has seen Marion. Perkins manages to perfectly balance geniality with furtive glances and nervousness keeping us on the edge of our seats.
It’s perhaps too wide a swing to say that my feelings towards Psycho have gone from dislike to masterpiece in one sitting, but I must admit that my appreciation for Hitchcock’s cinematic technique – the now legendary shower scene now a prime example – is so great that it is hard not to be awed by what is on screen. It’s also interesting to consider the film given the vast quantities of academic writing about Hitch and women that are now widely available though they seem better suited to another day. For now, let’s just say that if you’ve never seen Psycho, and need something to chill and thrill on Halloween, you could do an awful lot worse.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.