This will be my 100th film review and to celebrate the occasion I thought I would review one of my favourite of psychological horror films – Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. Adapted from a novel by Robert Bloch, this film is a real classic of psychological horror genre, which practically revolutionised the way horror films were shot ever since its premiere. Relatively innovative in how it presents the characters, story and the ending at that time, Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is as suspenseful and frightening as it is entertaining, and is definitely a “must-see” for anyone who has even a slightest interest in the genre.
The film opens with the shot of apartment/office buildings in Phoenix, Arizona. This is seen as a big and bright city which will later be contrasted with a gloomy, eerie and secluded place where Norman Bates’ hotel stands. Then, we see our heroine, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who is having a lunch-time love-making session with her lover at a small hotel room, and passionate lovers discuss how they can shuffle their lives to accommodate each other better. By the standards of film censorship of that time, showing half-naked actors discussing their lustful affair, which could avoid “respectability”, was already a bold move. Marion Crane, who works as a secretary to a real estate agent, craves money to pay off her lover’s debts so they can settle down together, and this gives her a push to steal $40.000 in cash from her employer’s client. The characters’ dialogue at the real estate office is astute and meaningful: “I buy off [unhappiness] with $40.000”, exclaims the client at the office, and Marion later says: “[I] cannot buy off unhappiness with pills [from a headache]”. If before the stealing, Marion sports white underwear, showing off her innocence and loveliness, when she comes homes with the money which she has already decided to steal on the way home, she sports black underwear, emphasising her mischievous side and deception. Such instances throughout the film show off Hitchcock’s exemplary attention to detail, making the picture more powerful overall. What is also interesting here is that, unusually for that time, as a lead character, Marion Crane is so imperfect. She is unfair to her employer, trying to establish a perfect life by deceitful means.
With the stolen money, Marion hits the road. Here, comes the tension which Alfred Hitchcock is so well-known for. With the tense music in the background, we follow Marion in her car as she makes her getaway with the stolen money, keeping our breaths because the tension is insurmountable: Marion spots her employer noticing her in her car when she is supposed to be at home “sleeping off” her headache, and then a policeman pursues her because he spotted her acting nervous. Undoubtedly, the policeman here conjured up by Hitchcock will later be an inspiration for the policeman in Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise” (1991). The policeman in both films has a well-defined jaw line and wears aviator sunglasses, representing the epitome of masculinity and authority. He is the very manifestation of “a machine-like emblem of patriarchy’s lethal authority” [Bernie Cook in “Thelma & Louise Live!:The Cultural Afterlife of an American Film”], to be contrasted with the law-breaking females on the run.
Later, due to bad weather, Marion has little choice but to lodge overnight at a hotel, run by the eerie young man, Norman Bates. Bates is a character in his own right. Played masterfully by Anthony Perkins (“The Trial” (1962)), Bates at first appears friendly, shy and insecure, but, later, he also seems to have a dark and unsettling demeanour to him, which frightens Marion. Bates transforms from a considered and helpful hotel owner into a disturbed “peeping tom”, spying on his guest, whilst experiencing radical mood swings. As the threatening atmosphere intensifies and Bates’ behaviour becomes even stranger, the whole Bates’ Motel transpires into some sort of a setting for a trap and the events unfolding take a sinister turn. In the hotel, Marion needs to hide her money, and she cleverly hides the money in plain sight, under some newspaper in her room, before “dinning” with Bates. Over dinner, Bates comes out as a lonely man with a domineering mother and with a strange hobby for taxidermy: Bates stuffs birds (undoubtedly, a reference to Hitchcock’s future “The Birds” (1963)). Here, Hitchcock plays expertly with its audience’s imagination and formed beliefs. In the strange surroundings of the Bates’ Motel, we, as the audience, never really know what is going to happen in the next second, and I do not think there is a movie out there where suspense or tension is higher than it is here. Hitchcock employs a variety of different shots and tools to create this atmosphere of eeriness and uneasiness. For example, the recurrent use of reflections in the film, for example, of Marion in a mirror in her hotel room, creates this subtle impression of her in “a conflict”, battling her duality between goodness and self-preservation, and cunningness and deceit.
Then, of course, comes one of the most notorious of all horror scenes: the scene of the murder of Marion in the shower. It is so unexpected that the plot will involve the murder of one, who, with her moral dilemma, was central to the story, that it is all the more thrilling to watch. This is probably one of the best scenes in modern horror cinematography. Here, the “shocking” music (composed by Bernard Herrmann (“Citizen Kane” (1941), “Taxi Driver” (1976)) and the shot of Marion’s eye as she lies dead in the bath probably provided inspiration for many later psychological horror films, such as for Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965), which includes a similar close-up shot of an eye. The ingenious camera-work helps things along. In the film, often camera moves independently of any character present in the frame. For example, the camera is present in the hall where no one is around, overhearing a conversation between Bates and his mother, and also focusing on the money wrapped in the newspaper after Marion is killed. This effect of a hidden third-person present gives the picture its eeriness, and augments the sense of another, unseen and mysterious being being part of the commission of the sinister deeds in the story.
After the murder of Marion, Bates painstakingly covers-up the “deed” of his “mother”, and even sinks Marion’s car in the swamp, when a private investigator arrives sent out by her ex-employer seeking his money. The inquisitive detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam (“Twelve Angry Men” (1957)) looks like a prototype character of every detective made after this film, for example, Lieutenant Colombo, created in the late 1960s. Arbogast is curious and determined to uncover the truth. After his disappearance, we also see the opposite of him – the sceptical Sheriff Al Chambers, who is again contrasted with the new “believers” in something odd happening at the motel – Marion’s sister Lila and Marion’s boyfriend Sam. Here, as in the first part of the film, true suspense begins, and Hitchcock never quite so much as hints to his audience whether Marion’s disappearance will amount to anything more than a missing person case. In fact, the film has at least three twists with Hitchcock “teasing” his audience mercilessly regarding the outcome of each, saving the best one for the final “showdown”. Also, again, as Marion’s change from white to black underwear in the first part of the film when she stole the money, after the murder has happened, Bates sports black shirt, rather than white as before, accentuating his complicity in the evil dead.
Cleverly-constructed script written by Joseph Stefano (“The Black Orchid” (1958)) seems faultless, but only on the first glance. The problem here is that the beginning of the film or the setting of the scene takes too much of the film’s time and is to dragging with the result being that the ending and the final twist do not have sufficient running time. This means that upon watching the ending, the significance and the true realisation of everything that has happened before the end may not “sink in” with the audience as it should. The twist ending is done too hastily, and that is why it may not be as memorable, perhaps, as, for example, Marion’s drive to the motel, which took at least twenty minutes of the film’s running time. This makes the film’s story very unevenly spaced out, especially with regard to the beginning and the end, which feel like two completely different movies.
Despite this “criticism”, the impact of “Psycho” since its release is undeniably powerful. Not only Hitchcock shot a successful horror in black and white and on a low budget, he made a classic out of a film where he “killed off” his beautiful leading lady early on in the film and made the ending which questions nearly everything which was going on in the film beforehand; this is something which was almost unthinkable to be done in films at that time, paving the way for many horror film-makers to do the same for decades and decades to come.
Despite a too slow a beginning and a too hastily-done ending, “Psycho” is still a great film, a true classic with unbelievable twists, and, surely, is among the very best in psychological horror genre. It has great characterisation, presentation, acting and music; and with Hitchcock’s unparalleled talent for creating suspense and tension, the movie is a true joy to watch, which will be enjoyed even by people who are not fans of the genre. 10/10