Psycho (United States, 1960)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Halloween is rightfully considered to be the father of the modern slasher movie. Ultimately, all the Friday the 13ths, Nightmare on Elm Streets, and Screams owe their existence to that one low-budget film that crept its way across motion picture screens in 1978. Yet, as important as Halloween was to the way that the horror genre developed during the '80s and '90s, John Carpenter's thriller did not invent this brand of terror; it re-invented it by paying homage to one of the most frightening films of all time: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. (Not only did Halloween star Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of Psycho's Janet Leigh, but the character name of "Sam Loomis" was re-used.)

There are those who will argue that Psycho is Hitchcock's best film. I am not one of them. Psycho is a brilliant excursion into fear that pushes many of our primal buttons, but it lacks the story and character complexity of Vertigo and Rear Window. Yet none of Hitchcock's films 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 (there are stories of 3-mile long lines at drive-in entrances), and its popularity has not waned over the last four decades. In fact, the fascination with the film has grown to the point where 1998 will see the unthinkable: a remake.

However, although the plot can be redone, the characters recycled, and even the music reused, no one - not Gus Van Sant or any other director - can recapture the uniqueness of this movie. The very idea of remaking Psycho is bad, because Hitchcock's version is definitive. The shower scene alone stands as one of the greatest single examples of execution and editing in the history of cinema. How can anyone re-do a sequence that was perfect in its initial form? And how can Vince Vaughn succeed in the role of Norman Bates, when everyone associates the part with Anthony Perkins? Vaughn will be seen as more of an impostor than Roger Moore when he first took over for Sean Connery as 007.

Actually, going by the description of Norman Bates in Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, upon which screenwriter Joseph Stafano based his script, there was no way Perkins could have been considered for the part. Bloch's vision of Norman is a fat, balding, middle-aged voyeur. To make the character more sympathetic, Stefano completely reworked him, and Hitchcock was able to use Perkins. The result is one of the cinema's most chilling and memorable performances. Perkins became so identified with Norman Bates that it altered the trajectory of his career. For years after Psycho, he shunned talking about the part until, in the '70s, he finally made peace with Norman, and eventually returned to play the role in three Psycho sequels.

With Psycho, Hitchcock dabbled in cinematic taboos, pushing the censorship envelope. For example, this was the first American motion picture to feature a toilet being flushed (most movies of the era didn't even acknowledge the existence of toilets). Also, Janet Leigh is shown in her underwear on more than one occasion, and, during the famous shower scene, it's possible to see hints of flesh (most of which belong to a body double). The script also features a man speaking the word "transvestite" - a line that survived in the film only after a Herculean struggle on Stefano's part.

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.

Story-wise, Psycho is not extraordinary; its true ingeniousness lies in its construction. Hitchcock and Stafano have developed the movie in such a way that it consistently flouts expectations. There are two major surprises: the shower scene murder and the final revelation about Mother. A viewer who sees the film for the first time without knowing about either will experience the full impact of what Hitchcock intended. The greatest shock for the uninitiated is the early exit of Janet Leigh. This is doubly unexpected because, to this point, the screenplay had tricked us into accepting Marion as the main character. When events dispel that illusion, and the point-of-view shifts to Norman Bates', viewers are understandably nonplused. In order to keep this crucial aspect of the film secret and intact when Psycho opened in 1960, there were no advance screenings and no one was admitted to a showing after the feature had started.

Whenever anyone speaks about Psycho, the first images that come to mind are those of Janet Leigh being hacked to death in the shower. The scene is so famous that even people who have not seen the movie are aware of it. Bernard Herrmann's strident, discordant music has been used in countless other movies to denote the appearance of a "psycho." The brilliance of the scene lies in the editing. Those who go frame-by-frame through it will note how much is left to the imagination. We see a knife, blood (actually chocolate syrup), water, and a woman's naked body (with certain parts strategically concealed from the camera), but only briefly is the penetration of the blade into the flesh shown*. The full horror of the murder is only hinted at on-screen. It takes the power of the viewer's imagination to fill in the blanks. (Presumably, that's the reason why so many of today's unimaginative movie-goers, who are accustomed to having a screenful of gore presented for their consumption, find Psycho tame.) It's not surprising that the movie generated a wave of shower phobia - some people, made aware of their vulnerability during a shower, started taking baths. (Janet Leigh is one such victim -- she claims that she never took a shower again after making the film.)

Today, Psycho still holds up extraordinarily well (another reason why a remake seems pointless). With the exception of Halloween, no latter-day horror/thriller has been capable of generating as many goosebumps. The black-and-white photography is perfect for the film's tone and mood - the starkness of color would have blurred the nightmarish quality. 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.

*As pointed out by reader John Upper, the popular "myth" about the Psycho shower scene is that the knife is never seen to penetrate the flesh. This is not true. In Upper's words, "...A frame-by-frame examination of the shower scene shows that the knife point disappears against the actress' torso just below her navel for the last three frames of one eight-frame sequence." In order to see the penetration, the movie must be run in slow-motion, but it actually happens, albeit only once and briefly.

Psycho (United States, 1960)

Ranked #96 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1