- Alfred Hitchcock
- Reviewed by
- Gon Curiel a.k.a. Groucho
- Review date
- Monday, November 27, 2000
Based on Robert Bloch’s novel, which in turn was based on a real-life case, the film centers around a character named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the manager of a highway motel. But that’s not really how the film is presented. The story first follows Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a smart and attractive woman who steals thousands of dollars to run away with her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) and finds herself in a whirlpool of paranoia as she hits the road.
Way into the film, Marion finds the Bates Motel. Tired, sick of running away, and losing heart about her scheme, Marion decides to stay, and finds out that the motel is empty (“Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies”), except for the manager and his sick mother, who live in a contiguous house. Bates is eerie but sympathetic, and Marion doesn’t worry much, even when she hears an unsettling argument between him and the crazed Mrs. Bates. But Marion is in for a shocker.
The surprise twist midway through the film switches genres like few films have ever dared. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay is a triumph in this respect, as it gallantly upsets the viewer’s experience by changing everything all of a sudden, including the main characters. From a point on, three characters take over: Sam, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles), and a private eye called Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Their interaction and their visits to the Bates Motel are continuously surprising and thrilling.
The film never loses pace, and as we are immersed more and more in the mystery, increasingly confused by the twists and turns, our nails clutch the seat and our hearts pump like crazy, and by the end, it’s all satisfying. Having just seen Psycho is a similar feeling as walking out of a rollercoaster ride. You experience horrible feelings up there, but you can’t help laughing nervously and wanting to do it again.
Hitchcock shot Psycho using his TV crew and the result is a low-key film that understates everything and turns out all the more remarkable. The fact that it isn’t like one of the previous lavish productions of the Master doesn’t mean that every aspect isn’t top-notch. John L. Russell’s black and white cinematography and George Tomasini’s sharp editing, for instance, are perfection. And Bernard Herrmann’s immortal all-strings score (a black and white score, he said) speaks for itself.
This film is mostly remembered for the infamous shower scene, a perfect example of Hitch’s subtle rule-breaking, and one of the best-directed scenes in history. Perkins is so unforgettable as Bates that he could never be disassociated from the role, the same as Leigh though her case wasn’t as grave. I understand Perkins didn’t mind that much—at least he cared to profit from it through a few sequels!
Psycho shook the Earth. It’s unfair to say some further thrillers were influenced by it; the very genre was influenced. There’s not much more to say. Only that it’s just no right not to watch it. This is much more than a must-see: it’s a representative of excellence in filmmaking, a vital part of our culture, and an integral element of life on this planet.
“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
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Other reviews of Psycho (1960): Vincent
- Alfred Hitchcock
- Reviewed by
- a.k.a. Vincent
- Review date
- Thursday, April 13, 2006
The plot of the movie is well known. A woman named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has stolen $40,000 and is on her way to her boyfriend. Even though she is a thief, she is in true Hitchcock tradition still somewhat of an innocent victim (she needs the money so her lover can divorce his wife and merry her and the person she stole the money from is a dislikable millionaire).
On her getaway she pulls over to sleep and is woken up by a traffic cop. His appearance for me is the scariest thing in the film. He is played by a man I never heard of before or since, Mort Mills, but he makes an unforgettable impression. When you watch the film alone, late at night he is truly scary. This encounter shows that Marion is hardly a capable thief and the first sign to herself that she has done a bad thing.
She decides to spend the night at Bates Motel which is run by a peculiar young man by the name of Norman (Anthony Perkins) and his unseen mother. In a conversation with her, Norman makes Marion realize she has made a mistake. She decides to go back home, but not before taking a shower which will result in one of cinema's most famous scenes.
What is most striking about the shower scene to me is that though it is frightening it is certainly not very graphic. There is very little blood and the knife that is used is never seen entering Marion's body. Hitchcock did a wonderful editing job and he used Bernard Herrmann's violins as a sort of sound effect. It must have been most shocking to the people who first saw it. Up to that point there has been nothing to suggest that a slashing is coming. Also Janet Leigh was the star of the film and you don't expect a star to die before the film is half over.
The movie then changes central characters. Up to that point the film revolved around Marion, but after her death it now focuses on Norman who comes across as very sympathetic. We assume that his mother was the murderer and he goes to great lengths to cover up her crime. Marion will be missed of course and her sister and her lover hire a private detective to find her.
The detective (Martin Balsam) eventually leads her trail to the Bates Motel where he too walks into a knife and so the sister (Vera Miles) and boyfriend (John Gavin) check out the Motel themselves. With them we learn to truth about Norman and his "mother."
This is probably Hitchcock's most famous and successful film. I don't know if it is his best. It is certainly doesn't look like it was made by the same man who had just made Vertigo or North By Northwest. Both films were made in glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope (well, VistaVision anyway) and had big stars in the leading role. Compared to those it looks like a cheap exploitation film, but that was the intention. I guess Hitchcock viewed it mainly as a directional exercise with nothing to take your eye except the story and the way it is told.
The film would not be the same without Bernard Hermann's top class music. He in my mind is by far the best composer of film music ever. He worked well and often with Hitchcock and they brought out the best in each other.
His work here is more exciting and powerful than his beautiful score for Vertigo but this movie called for that.
Anthony Perkins' performance however is crucial to the film as well though. He touches the right notes all the way through, always looking nervous, shy and innocent. You can't help feeling sorry for him when you see him with his hands in his pockets and chewing candy. The rest of the cast isn't of that standard I'm afraid. I never was a big fan of Janet Leigh and this film didn't change my mind. John Gavin and Vera Miles aren't much better, but their roles are pretty standard so you can't blame them I think.
Just how crucial Perkins' performance is was shown when Gus van Sant remade (literally) the film. The supporting roles were better filled with good actors such as William H. Macy, Julianne Moore and Philip Baker Hall. I even liked Anne Heche better than Janet Leigh. But Vince Vaughn as Norman was completely wrong. He came across more irritating than sympathetic and the film suffered immensly from it.
Van Sant's version was completely identical to Hitchcock's. All the set-up's and editing were the same. There were some differences though. The film was in color, it used a single take for the opening shot and there is some nudity here. All of these changes are minor, but there is one which I found strange to say the least. Now when Norman is spying on Marion when she gets in the shower he masturbates. I don't know why this was added and maybe Hitchcock would have liked to do it himself if the censors weren't around, but it seems somewhat out of place and it looks more funny than it should. The scene is a little symbolic for the film, which, just like masturbation, tries to recreate the real thing but is never anything more than a cheap substitute.
As much as I didn't like the new version, I'm still glad it was made. If nothing else at least it shows us that you cannot make a great film simply by remaking a great film. A very valuable lesson indeed.
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Other reviews of Psycho (1960): Groucho