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Five Favorite Films: Psycho (1960)

June 24, 2011
This mini-category will give my commentary on my all-time favorite films. If you do not love these motion pictures, shame on you.
  • Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
  • Released by Paramount
  • Based on the Robert Bloch novel
  • Rating: ****
Everyone’s favorite chubby British director was already making hits in the 20’s and 30’s, and he was a film and television superstar by the end of the 1950s thanks to his endless stream of brilliant movies and one of the best anthology series ever to hit the air waves. His recent films were known for their vibrant use of Technicolor and for a variety of experimental techniques. In 1960, he opted to take on yet another experiment at Paramount, and the resulting film would be my favorite of his works.

Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, based loosely on the Ed Gein murders, was not exactly the classiest novel in the bookstores at the time. Nevertheless, Hitch saw potential in the book, and he worked with screenwriter Joseph Stephano to work out the narrative’s problems and to make the story suitable for film audiences. Even with these efforts, the script was still an adaptation of a trashy horror novel, and Paramount was less than willing to throw a lot of money at it.

Here’s where Hitch showed off his brilliance. He opted to film the picture on the cheap in black and white with his Alfred Hitchcock Presents crew. Thus, the movie became a low-budget exploitation flick from a man who had rightfully earned the title “The Master of Suspense.” This would be the equivalent of a Harlequin romance novel from William Shakespeare. As one would expect, Psycho puts to shame all films similar to it, as Hitch really knows how to manipulate his audience and to shift their sympathies constantly and drastically as the story develops.

However, all of the directorial talent in the world can only make a film work to a certain point. The solid script needed solid actors to be a solid movie. Thankfully, Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh shine in their roles as the shy mother’s boy Norman Bates and the confused embezzler Marion Crane, respectively. Martin Basalm is also memorable as a private detective, and the rest of the cast is more than servicable, as well.

The final seal of quality comes from the gripping score by Bernard Hermman, one of his best. The infamous shower scene, even with all of its brilliant staging and editing, would not be as powerful without the signature kill theme. The main theme is just as memorable, and thanks to its use in an early sequence with Leigh, I cannot help but hear it in my mind whenever I am driving in the rain.

Without spoiling anything (as if the now-50 years of discussion have not spoiled the movie enough), I must applaud this movie for its constant twists. The way that Hitch plays off of the audience’s expectations with Leigh’s character is a perfect example of how he could make clever use of what was never meant to be clever in the source material. Also, the ending (while over-explained) was chilling and unexpected for viewers who came into the film without prior knowledge (a feat that is almost impossible to do anymore). And no Hitchcock film would be complete without his signature brand of dark humor, which is present and accounted for here.

This is one of those films that I have to watch more than once a year. Even though I know how plot points will unfold, I can still marvel at how masterfully Hitch can do it. All of his skills in building suspense and playing with the audience’s heads are at their peak inPsycho, and it really is a thrill to watch both as a critic and as a normal viewer. Ever since I saw it as a kid, I have been taken up in its near-perfection in every moment.

If nothing else could justify this film being one of my all-time favorites, I would say that its influence on horror films in general ensures its position. I can look at some of my favorite horror films of all time and see the direct inspiration drawn from Psycho:

    • Halloween—Everything from names and casting to suspense and atmosphere.
    • The Texas Chain Saw Massare—Using real-life killer Ed Gein as a major source.
    • Scream—Directly referencing and recognizing it as the proto-slasher film.

The movie would also produce two decent theatrical sequels in the 80’s, a pilot to a failed TV series, a sequel written for cable television by Stephano, and a bland shot-for-shot remake from the director of Good Will Hunting. Much like the imitators, the follow-ups do not even begin to stand up to the standard of the classic original film.

Even if horror films are not your thing, and even if you have this snobbish bias against movies made before your birthdate, you must see this film. And you really should check out some of Hitch’s other movies, too (North By Northwest and Rear Window are two other favorites of mine). Come on, people—he’s the Master of Suspense!

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From → Film Criticism

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