(United States, 1960)
Even today, watching Psycho can produce a powerful aversion to taking a shower. Arguably the first slasher movie ever made, Psycho is also one of the best, and stands as one of the finest examples of craftsmanship to come from director Alfred Hitchcock. Over the course of a long and fruitful career, Hitchcock made countless masterpieces and near-masterpieces, but none was embraced as fully and as fearfully as Psycho. On a personal level, I remember very clearly the first time I saw the film. I was in my late teens, it was a Halloween weekend (circa 1985), and the copy was a well-worn VHS tape rented from an Erol's video store. The movie didn't exactly scare me at the time, but it gave me the creeps, and, later that night, I was glad to be taking a shower in a stall with a door, not a curtain. For me, the impact of Psycho has grown each time I have seen it. The first impressions are entirely visceral, but, once you've seen it two or three times, you can start to appreciate intellectually what Hitchcock has accomplished. The movie works on so many different levels. Think about the audacity necessary to kill off the leading lady halfway through the film and generate a twist ending that still has the power to surprise those few new viewers who haven't had the final revelation spoiled. Psycho can, of course, be seen on any occasion, but it's at its best on a cold, windy night. Watch it alone and in darkness, right before taking a shower.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The film starts out in traditional fashion for a Hitchcock thriller. A woman, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), desperate to find a way to be with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), embezzles money from her boss, then goes on the lam. She's not an apt criminal, however, and she leaves a wide trail. A used car salesman assesses her nervous mood and uses it to bilk her out of some extra cash. A somewhat-ominous policeman shadows her, almost to the point of stalking. If anyone could ever be said to look and act guilty, it's Marion. Eventually, she ends up at the out-of-the-way Bates Motel, where the shy-but-kind manager, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), offers her a room, a meal, and a sympathetic ear. During her conversation with Norman, when he speaks about the traps that life places everyone in, Marion resolves to return on the following morning and give back the money. Events of the night, which involve violence and the jealous rage of Norman's twisted mother, put an end to Marion's plans. Soon after, others arrive at the Bates Motel looking for her, including Loomis, a private investigator named Arbogast (Martin Balsam), and Marion's sister, Lila (Vera Miles). They all make horrifying discoveries.
One of the best (but not the best) films of Alfred Hitchock's legendary career, Psycho is a brilliant excursion into fear that pushes many of our primal buttons. None of Hitchcock's films has had as profound an impact upon the American psyche as this one. When it was initially released in 1960, it was a huge box office hit, and its popularity has not waned over the last four decades. Story-wise, Psycho is not extraordinary; its true ingeniousness lies in its construction. Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stafano have developed the movie in such a way that it consistently flouts expectations. The painstaking care with which Hitchcock composed every scene is evident in the quality of the final product. Psycho may not represent the master director's pinnacle, but it is the motion picture for which he is best known, and its legacy is inarguably one of the most far reaching of any film to come out of a Hollywood studio.
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