"A boy's best friend is his mother"
Having embezzled $40,000 from her employers, Secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) flees in her car. After narrowly escaping the clutches of a suspicious Police Officer she pulls into a quite motel during a heavy rainstorm. The owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) greets her warmly and explains that they don’t receive many guests due to the freeway being moved. After offering
Marion supper at the house he
shares with his mother,
has to then retract the offer following an off screen argument with the old
woman… A few days later when Norman ’s
disappearance in noticed a Private Detective (Martin Balsam) tracks her
movements to the motel but he too goes missing. Fearing the worst Marion ’s boyfriend Sam (John
Gavin) and sister Lila (Vera Miles) head to the motel to search for the missing
Psycho contains one of the most famous scenes in all cinema history as well as one of the most recognisable scores and most unexpected and shocking twists. Even without these three key elements though it would still be a five star film.
Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho in 1960 at a time when the
code though diminishing, was still in effect. It caused outrage at the time for
its scenes of perceived sex and violence though feels very tame when viewed
today. Censors and critics were worried not only by the violent shower scene
but also by things which today seem mundane. In one scene Janet Leigh is seen ripping
up a piece of paper and flushing it down the toilet. This seems pretty unremarkable
to me but at the time of release it was the first time in mainstream film and
television history that a toilet was seen to be flushed on screen. The idea
that people were outraged by this is almost laughable now but this was still a
time when the opening scene showing John Gavin and Janet Leigh in bed together was
considered outrageous. Another problem for the censors was the nudity
associated with the shower scene. Many were unhappy that Janet Leigh was seen
in her bra but when the side of her breast was visible in that seminal scene
there was much debate as to whether it should be cut. In the end it was left as
it was though the film received cuts in countries as diverse as Britain, New
Zealand and . Singapore
Controversy aside the film is a masterful tale of mystery and suspense. Hitchcock creates a creeping and claustrophobic atmosphere with the use of some clever camera angles and film lenses which mimic what the human eye sees. The cinematography is exceptionally beautiful and the lighting is both shrewd and commanding. Like many of the best films shot in black and white, Hitchcock’s sill of creating light and shadows is used to perfection. He isn’t afraid to light the background and leave actors in near darkness if the scene calls for it. His camera angles are both incredibly complex and beautiful. Sometimes it feels as though the camera is floating on air as it sweeps through the Bates house and travels up walls before turning ninety degrees to point straight down towards the floor. In other moments fast cutting means that you almost miss the unique angles that the director is producing.
The famous shower scene is a prime example of Hitchcock’s use of impressive and complex angles. The scene lasts for just three minutes but employs seventy-seven different camera angles. Many of these are extreme close-ups and brings the viewer into the room with the killer. Some of the angles feel unique and include a look up towards a shower head with the water cascading down but not hitting the lens as well as many glimpses of Janet Leigh’s body. The scene is shot in such a way that you feel as though you are seeing more than you are and in reality never see the knife enter her body and despite her nudity, only catch the merest glimpse of the side of a breast.
The plot is original but simple and effective. It also opened the door for a thousand slasher films to follow, many of which follow a similar premise. The story and Anthony Perkins’ acting almost made me feel sorry for the boy next door Norman Bates. Perkins plays him as a friendly and shy young man who looks out for and protects his overbearing mother, Norma. He has a sort of nervousness to him which went hand in hand with his shy and almost old fashioned nature. His performance is one of the highlights of the film. Janet Leigh is also very good and was Oscar nominated for her performance. She portrays Marion Crane as an astute and talented woman who knows how to take care of herself. Her performance in the shower scene both before and during the attack was excellent. Before the attack she can be seen washing away her sins and then during, conveys all the terror one would expect with an incident of that magnitude. Vera Miles and John Gavin are both well cast as the sister and boyfriend respectively but are overshadowed by others. Martin Balsam feels as though he is from a different era as the Private Detective but was solid. Balsam also starred in 12 Angry Men, another film for which I gave a rare Six Stars.
The score is one of the most impressive aspects of Psycho. It was written by Bernard Herrmann and has become one of the most famous in the history of cinema. It is an integral accompaniment to the visuals and I believe that it is at least a quarter responsible for the film’s lasting success. The score reflects the mood of the piece and its characters perfectly and rises and falls in line with the action. The famous EEK, EEK, EEK, EEK, Ohh, Ohh, Ohh, B-dum.. B-dumm… B-dummmm…. portion has been copied and ripped off in films, music and television and is known by people who will have never even heard of the film, let alone seen it.
Despite the score and the shower scene my favourite part of the film was the twist. I wasn’t even expecting a twist and was completely shocked when it came and by what it was. It is surely one of the greatest movie twists ever. How I got this far without knowing what it was I don’t know but I’m extremely grateful that I did.
For me Psycho is a near perfect film. I cannot think of a single shot or movement that could be improved upon and it rightfully belongs in the conversation of the best thrillers ever. It is massively influential, remains timeless and is not in the slightest bit dated. I’m only annoyed it’s taken me twenty-six years to finally getting around to seeing it.