I'm not going to get into the question of whether this is Hitchcock's best film, but it has to be his most famous. On release many critics hated it, only to change their minds later after the film went ballistic at the box office and ended up garnering four Oscar nominations. They were freaking out because it's a horror film that's doing its job, basically. Anyway, many years later we got a prequel, two sequels, an unsuccessful TV spin-off and a shot-by-shot remake by Gus Van Sant that often gets called the most pointless film of all time. The sequels are apparently better than you'd think, though. Tarantino has claimed to prefer Psycho 2 to the original.
I should add, by the way, that this review is full of spoilers. Psycho can't be discussed properly in a spoiler-free fashion. If you're one of the few sentient beings on the planet who've managed to avoid learning what happens in it, go and watch it immediately. That's an order. Don't even think of reading this review until you get back.
Okay, down to business. One of the many interesting things about this film is how hard it's kicking against cinematic conventions of the time. Hitchcock was consciously going back to basics. He'd noticed how much money was being made by shitty black-and-white horror flicks and was wondering what might happen if someone ever made a classy one. Unfortunately Paramount didn't want him to make it. They'd been expecting something with Audrey Hepburn and they attacked the original Robert Block novel as "too repulsive" and "impossible for films", but Hitchcock went ahead anyway and did it on the cheap through his own Shamley Productions, using the crew from his TV show. This was his last black-and-white film, you know. Furthermore, note that production took place in the 1950s. The Production Code was still in force and Hitchcock had to fight just to get to show a flushing toilet and say the word "transvestite". He begins with Sam and Marion in bed, despite the fact that (a) they're not married, and (b) all the men in the audience are staring awestruck at Marion's bra. It's the first shot of the movie and already we're having to count the broken taboos. On the surface Psycho is a 1950s film, albeit one that was Oscar-nominated for its cinematography and art direction, but you don't need me to tell you that it's actively looking for boundaries to transgress.
I haven't even started on the story yet. There's a great deal of interest here, but the obvious thing to say is that it's bloody good. There's arty stuff going on for fans of themes and intellectual analysis, but at the same time it's one of the most wilfully perverse crowd-pleasers I've ever seen. Hitchcock could play intellectual games with the best of them, but fundamentally he was always a showman. This film shouldn't work at all. It has an outrageous bait-and-switch halfway through that you'd expect to have killed the story ten times out of ten, yet against all the odds the first half of the movie remains compelling even when you've seen it umpteen times before and you know it's about to get dumped on from a great height by the shower scene. The best character in it is the psycho killer. Hitchcock's openly cheating when it comes to, say, that policeman with the sunglasses. This film should theoretically be bollocks.
Let's look more closely at the bait-and-switch, though. Thematically Marion Crane and Norman Bates are pretty much the same character. They're both in dangerous situations of their own making, as the script lays out explicitly in the scene where they're talking to each other. Look at the motifs that follow around Janet Leigh. Everyone keeps talking about marriage and their family, obviously including their mothers. Morality's a slippery thing to nail down from the beginning. Then you've got the nudity, with Leigh stripping down to her bra three times (praise the Lord) and apparently this would have been toplessness had Hitchcock made the film a few years later. This has aesthetic attractions, but it's easy to overlook the fact that this isn't the usual audience-pandering but instead thematically significant. Our reaction to seeing Leigh stripping off is the same as Norman's and that's why he goes and gets his knife.
Crane and Bates have both made a mistake and we're watching their reactions to it. Both are terrible at being criminals, with the former making herself look as guilty as sin in the eyes of pretty much everyone she runs into, while the latter is such a bad liar that it's almost hypnotic. We already know that he likes falsehoods about as much as comments about his mother, yet here he's having to do it. When we watch Arbogast questioning him, the main thought in my head was whether the man's life expectancy should be measured in hours or minutes. Almost everything they see is reminding them of their guilt, so in an odd way I'd go so far as to argue that that red herring of a policeman is not only justified but crucial. It's only cheating for people who are second-guessing the movie and playing Spot The Psycho. Leigh's digging herself deeper with every word she utters and she's only got herself to blame for drawing the attention of that traffic cop, but she's as aware of this fact as we are.
For me, this movie is a study of the effects of having committed a crime. It's just that it starts modestly with a sympathetic example (stealing money) and then moves on to an unthinkable one. Leigh's response is to run. Bates's mind snaps, but he stays put. Ironically the late-night discussion between the two of them is what persuades Leigh to do the right thing and give back the money, with Leigh making more of a connection with Bates than anyone else in the film comes close to doing.
That's the clever stuff. The other keystone of this film is the magnificence of Anthony Perkins. It was Hitchcock's idea to make Norman Bates likeable, but it's Perkins who hits the role out of the park. As soon as he showed up, I could hardly look at anyone else. He's so guileless and open that your heart goes out to him when he's trying to, um, cover up a bunch of murders. He's sweet, but you can also see the twitching nervous scary fucker lurking underneath and it's a fascinating juxtaposition. You might even call him effeminate and it's certainly true that Perkins (the actor) slept with men, but that theory doesn't fly because the plot doesn't work if Norman Bates isn't heterosexual. An Oedipus complex, on the other hand... Anyway, Perkins is the real star of this film and as such is outrageously watchable, in my opinion doing something more difficult than the only man with whom you could really compare him, Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter is cool. Norman Bates is a mother's boy who probably wouldn't last two minutes in the real world and has screaming arguments with himself.
Incidentally Perkins's fee for this film was forty thousand dollars, i.e. exactly the amount that Marion Crane steals.
As a horror movie, you could call this the first slasher film. It feels like the spiritual father of Carpenter's Halloween
, with a major character being called Loomis and Janet Leigh being the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis. They're very different films, but they're the two classiest slasher movies to date. Leigh even takes a role in Halloween H20: Water
. Oh, and obviously Psycho is one of the many films based on dear old Ed Gein, whose other cinematic incarnations include Deranged, Silence of the Lambs and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films. Of the three famous entries in that list, this film arguably gets closest to the real man. Ed Gein really did adore his mother (who thought all women were prostitutes, except for herself) and was devastated when she died, leaving him all alone. You'll look in vain here for human-skin upholstery or boxes of pieces of salted genitalia, though.
There's only one part where this film feels dated and that's the psychiatrist at the end. It's not just its "Poirot in the drawing room"-ness, but the actor slightly hamming it up in the wrong way. However that doesn't matter because after that we go to one final look at Perkins and that smile. There have been some shudderingly evil smiles in cinema, but that was a good one. Oooh, I liked that.
Psycho's main problem these days is its own fame. We've seen the shower scene parodied so often, for instance, that it's hard to judge objectively on first viewing. Nevertheless it's still powerful, even though it's now fairly obvious that we're not seeing the knife going into the body. The music's what makes it. Hitchcock was so pleased with Bernard Herrmann's score that he doubled his salary and said later that "33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music." He also thought this was a technically perfect film and as far as I can tell, he's right. Personally I love it for being at once one of the world's best-respected works of cinematic art, but also basically good honest schlock. Anthony Perkins is awesome too.