Psycho (1960)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 June (3.05 am, Saturday)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Even watched for the first time, it must be almost impossible to get the same shock value as audiences catching Psycho on its initial run in cinemas more than fifty years ago. The film’s been copied so many times, not just literally with Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake, but ripped off in so many ways by so many directors in far too many movies. I guess a more recent contemporary would be The Blair Witch Project, which was also made cheaply and grossed millions from clever marketing and an unsettling narrative, but the comparison ends there. Psycho is just about in a league of its own.

I’ve now seen it on many occasions. My first viewing actually left me a little disappointed, which prompted me to wonder what was wrong with me. What now seems apparent is that I watched it after no doubt seeing other pictures that had plundered its imagery and shocking moments mercilessly and its effect was inevitably diluted.

Later screenings have been far more profitable. These days, I really buy into the contention of Psycho’s maker, Alfred Hitchcock, that it’s ‘a fun picture.’ The whole thing’s a big joke, and the butts are, of course, us – the audience. There’s the gag of spending the first half of the film building up sympathy for the main character, not to mention hiring a star name to play her, only to refute all narrative convention by seeing her meet a violent end. But the even bigger laugh is the switch in empathy from poor, doomed Marion (Janet Leigh) to doomed, deadly Norman (Anthony Perkins). There’s a scene in which Norman’s trying to remove evidence of Marion’s very presence in his motel by submerging her car – which contains her possessions and also her corpse – in the nearby swamp, only for it to pause mid-sink. Admit it, you were willing that car to resume its journey to the bottom, weren’t you?

This isn’t the place to go too deep into the plot, or to dribble and indeed spout drivel over the infamous shower scene. You can read numerous and brilliant dissections of one of cinema’s most famous moments elsewhere, discover a body double was used despite Leigh describing in interviews the horrific process of filming it, take in the debate over whether Hitchcock or Saul Bass directed it and then make up your own mind, review it frame by frame (along with the storyboards), and so on. All that really matters is that it’s a deeply shocking scene, though I’m more disturbed with the shot of the blood seeping into the plughole then dissolving into Marion’s unseeing, dead eye, the camera slowly zooming out to take in more of her vacant head. It’s clever stuff. All that build-up, the exploration of her rather sad love story, her decision to steal the $40,000, the inner monologues that fuel her sense of paranoia, the encounter with the roadside cop, buying the used car, running away, seeing the sign for the Bates Motel just as it seems she may succumb to the relentless rain on her windshield, innocently flirting with Norman, the sandwich, the resolution to take the money back and try to set things straight… Snuffed out in 45 seconds of extreme violence and a carcass is all that remains.

Yet for all Hitchcock described it as effectively a comedy, Psycho is a deeply pessimistic piece of work. None of its characters are happy, or achieve anything close to happiness. If they do, such as the look of peace on Marion’s face after she has decided to return the money and clean her conscience (and her body, in the fateful shower), it’s soon destroyed. Norman’s story is a sad one. In the end, all the lives we are invited to peer into seem wasted and pointless, a tale that sets itself at odds with the dreams offered by the land of opportunity. Little wonder the film made its money back many times over. Not only were audiences enjoying the work of a genius, there was also the genuine sense of identification with characters whose hopes were all for naught.

Psycho: *****

12 Replies to “Psycho (1960)”

  1. I wonder what age you were when you first saw the film Mike? I’m pretty sure my first exposure to it was in the summer of 1980, a few months after Hitchcock’s death, when BBC2 showed it. That would have made me about 11, and it sure had an impact on me. I’d seen Hammer and Universal classic horrors of course, but this was an entirely different beast, no monsters or ghouls to distance it from the real world.

    However, it’s never been a favourite Hitchcock for me, despite all its critical plaudits. I think your final point about the essentially depressing nature of the story and the cold eye it casts over all the characters may be the key to that. It’s a movie that certainly shocked me on first viewing, and one which I admire very much, but not one that I could say I ever warmed to.

    1. Thanks Colin. Sometime in the mid-eighties, Channel 4 ran a massive season of Hitchcock films – one per week – and that was my first glimpse of Psycho, at the age of around 14/15. To be honest, it was one of those films that had become playground legend – along with anything with ‘Zombie’ in the title – and I guess it was just the weight of expectation. That said, I do recall feeling an unbearable level of tension whenever anyone was stupid enough to enter the house…

      Whilst I’d certainly agree that it isn’t amongst my favourites of the great man’s work, I should also confess that I just can’t find much to fault in it. Even the psychologist’s speech by Dr Exposition at the end didn’t ruin it…

      1. Oh I agree, in terms of storytelling, acting, directing and all the other technical aspects, there’s not a thing to criticize. I certainly don’t dislike the movie, I admire it greatly, but I wouldn’t find myself drawn to it in the way I would with the likes of Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo and countless others.

      2. North by Northwest probably stands as my favourite these days, just because it’s a perfectly made, blistering thriller. Everyone seems to have done overtime in order to make perfect cinema out of it – that Bernard Herrman score is just superb. Vertigo is, I think, the one I admire the most, but it’s also quite a pessimistic piece of work.

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