Saturday, May 18, 2013

Psycho (1960)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                            Writer: Joseph Sefano
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                     Cinematography: John L. Russell
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles & John Gavin

Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest period of commercial success was certainly in the fifties. He made a string of hits that are all masterpieces, including Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and North by Northwest. But I would argue that he reached his zenith with Psycho in 1960. Certainly it’s difficult to make comparisons of that film with the big budget Technicolor blockbusters that preceded it, but I still think it’s a cut above. There is an extreme confidence at work in the film, bourn out of the previous decade, that would not survive into the sixties. Psycho, however, is like the Citizen Kane of horror films and yet, unlike Welles’ masterpiece, Hitchcock’s film continues to influence to the present day.

The story is so familiar that it hardly needs reprising here. Based on the original case of serial murderer Ed Gein, author Robert Bloch turned the raw material into a popular novel that was published in 1959. Hitch loved it and thought it would be perfect for his next film, but unfortunately the studio disagreed. One of the myths of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is that his decision to film in black and white was solely to make a brilliant version of the exploitation drive-in films that were so popular at the time. The truth is he owed Paramount one more film and they didn’t want to pay for Psycho. So Hitch decided to finance the film himself, which necessitated the low budget. The production of the film is also the subject matter for the recent biopic on the director, Hitchcock.

Everything about the film is perfect. Janet Leigh was a brilliant human red herring, the apparent star of the film who dies a mere forty five minutes in. Anthony Perkins is so good in the role of Norman Bates that he is thoroughly believable. Vera Miles, who was tragically unable to appear in Vertigo, is really underrated here, taking up the baton from Leigh in the film and carrying the heroine role to the conclusion. Hitchcock’s conception of the story is also spot on, with a wonderful script by Joseph Stefano that emphasizes the psychological aspects of the character of Norman Bates without obsessing on the murders. The shower scene is, of course, a masterpiece of montage, and when you add in Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score it’s obvious why the film has become an all time classics.

Charles Taylor’s essay on Psycho for The A List does a nice job of identifying what makes the film so great, though he doesn’t really present a coherent thesis for hanging his ideas on. The thrust of his argument, and it's a good one, is that this is a film of distances, between the audience and the characters and the characters with each other. The audience identifies with Janet Leigh from the start, as she is in every scene until she dies. When she meets Perkins the two seem light years apart, that is, until their scene in the parlor. Then it becomes clear to her how similar they are, trapped by circumstances that they have allowed to control their lives. But immediately Leigh separates from Perkins and decides to take control and go back home. After her death it’s relatively easy for the audience to switch their allegiance to Perkins because of the circumstances with his mother. Taylor makes a nice observation here. The audience is on Norman’s side as he attempts to erase the evidence of his “mother’s” crime and especially, though not mentioned by Taylor, when he is being grilled by the great Martin Balsam.

When it is finally revealed that Norman is responsible for the deaths the audience obviously pulls back their identification with him and, in Taylor’s words, “the distance between him and ‘mother’ has collapsed just as the distance between Norman and ourselves has suddenly become too wide to traverse.” Another point he makes is with Hitch’s subversion of audience expectations and the way in which a slasher film that is almost sanitary by today’s standards still packs more of an emotional wallop than almost anything that has been filmed since. And that is almost exclusively due to Hitchcock and his writer, Joe Stefano. Psycho is a masterpiece of storytelling, one of Hitchcock’s best films, and still one of the most influential movies in film history.

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