This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
It’s a Hitchcock classic on day twelve. Every film fan’s best friend is Psycho.
It is nigh on impossible, these days, for new audiences to approach Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with a completely blank slate. Few won’t recognise Bernard Herrmann’s iconic string score or have some awareness of the film’s still shocking halftime twist. And, of course, there’s that shower scene, which is surely among the most famous in cinematic history and will always inspire someone in the room to announce: ‘did you know they used a melon for the stabbing sound effect?’ What’s remarkable, then, is just how little the film seems tarnished by its widespread cultural familiarity. Psycho still hits all the right notes.
Conceived, to some extent, as an exploitation picture, Psycho overwhelmingly bests expectations thanks to Hitchcock’s smart directing, cinematography and top notch cast. Janet Leigh is terrific as Marion Craine, the misguided clerk who dreams of running away with her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) but hasn’t the money to find their sunset. When a wealthy client deposit’s $40,000 with her workplace, Marion seizes the opportunity for a quick buck and embarks on a journey that will lead her to the, now infamous, Bates Motel.
There waits another sensational, career-defining performance, with Anthony Perkins playing mummy’s boy Norman Bates, a young man with energy and charisma but a darker underbelly. Do we like him? It’s hard to say at first but it becomes easier to answer as the film runs on. Among the grandest achievements of the film are its structural, freewheeling complexity and moral ambiguity. Does Marion deserve her fate? Her transition from a white bra and purse before stealing the money to a black one after certainly seems to suggest she does.
But what of the audience? Psycho is among the most archetypal of Hitchcock’s films by virtue of the thematic emphasis the Rear Window and Vertigo director places on conceptions of voyeurism. In the very first scene, Hitchcock’s camera glides from a wide shot down under the open window of the room that Marion and Sam have just had sex in, whilst later we watch Norman spy through a peephole but also we share his view. Except, Psycho has it in it to be equally subversive. It is a film in which seeing really is believing and so viewers ought to be careful of what they do and don’t actually see. Like Norman’s stuffed bird collection, our beady perspective is fixed.
Hitchcock’s commitment to ensuring Psycho, which is based on the eponymous book of Robert Bloch, reach the big screen saw him overcome the reticence of Paramount, who refused to dig deep for the film, and offend a squeamish Disney. Produced on a budget of just $800,000 – small even in 1960 – Psycho saw the master of suspense ditch his high end team for the scrappier crew behind the television series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. Colour was sacrificed and wages were sliced but Hitch knew what he was doing.
Indeed, the film’s technical flourishes are the cherry on its cake. Bar one particularly dated effect -involving a mannequin – Psycho continues to technically impress. Its shower scene, comprised of fifty remarkably efficient shots, is both a contemporary coup and moment of cinematic genius. Add to that the enlivening score that impressed Hitchcock so much he as good as doubled Herrmann’s pay check and you have a yourself a classic horror. Halloween owes this one a lot.