It is common knowledge that the reputation of some films, even the classic ones and those generally regarded as masterpieces, changes through times. But few films suffer because of wear as original version of Psycho did. Simply, being one of, if not the, most influential film of all times is a great burden that could produce serious, sometimes even devastating, impact on its watchability among the newest generations of film viewers. In the last thirty nine years multitudes of filmmakers had seen this film and were very influenced by it. Those influences found way to produce themselves in the various rip-offs, homages, spoofs scattered all over the globe and in all kind of genres, including even video-clips. So, today it is really hard to find a living soul that could be spoiled about the major plot points of Psycho (and it would happen even without three unnecessary sequels and utterly pointless 1998 remake).
Thanks to that, Psycho is actually the film most often associated with the name of its director, the great Alfred Hitchcock. And, ironically, when it was originally released, it was considered to be the most un-Hitchcockian of them all. It was shot in 1960, at the zenith of Hitchcock's career, yet it lacked many of his distinctive trademarks. Hitchcock shot it very quickly and very cheaply, using his second-hand crew, cast of the relative unknowns and even distributed it as nothing more than cheap exploitation B-thriller. Hitchcock even didn't use his trademark technique of building suspense and instead simply shocked the audience with totally unexpected plot twists, and depictions of violence and sexual innuendo that were very daring for its time.
Plot of the film, based on the novel by Robert Bloch, begins in Phoenix, Arizona, where Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) works as office clerk in real state agency. Marion is utterly unhappy with her life, mostly because her lover Sam Loomis (played by John Gavin) can't marry her because of huge alimony owed to his ex-wife. One hot day Marion acts on impulse and steals 40,000 US$ from one of agency's clients. She begins her long road trip towards Sam's hometown in California. Along the way she would make a stop at isolated motel. There she meets the manager, lonely, sometimes odd but basically friendly Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) whose major problem in life seems to be his physically and mentally ill mother, living in nearby gothic house. Her short stay in Bates motel is terminated when she gets fatally stabbed under shower. Norman, convinced that his pathologically jealous mother committed the crime, hides the body and all traces of Marion. However, Milton Arbogast (played by Martin Balsam), private detective sent by the agency to retrieve the stolen money, tracked Marion to the motel. And Marion's sister Lila (played by Vera Miles) is also more than eager to find what actually happened to her sibling.
Psycho is not just the one of the most popular or influential films of all times. It is also one of the most studied films, with each shot and elements being subject of at least half a dozen monographs or even books. So, everyone who tries to review Psycho has a really hard task when it comes to telling something original. However, some things must be told, even at the risk of being repetitive. So, Psycho was very revolutionary film for its time. It was the first major Hollywood film to feature women dressed in underwear; the first major Hollywood film to feature toilet bowls and flushing water, but the most original thing was Hitchcock's use of protagonist who is to be killed half way through the movie. Such practice was unheard of until that time, and it is rarely used even today. That shouldn't surprise anyone – few people could imagine emotional shock and disturbing effect such demise had on the audience. The killing of Marion Crane per se, and not the blood, gore and suspense, make Psycho one of the scariest movies of all times (or to be precise, used to make it the scariest movie of all times, since the shock value is long gone among audience these days).
That killing was depicted in one of the most memorable scenes of all times. The legendary shower scene lasts 45 seconds, but in reality was shot in a week. For some people this scene, most remembered and most often quoted element of the film, is the embodiment of cinematic perfection. Brilliantly edited, with excellent use of black-and white photography, Bernard Herrmann's music and many tricks that cheated censors, this scene puts audience on the emotional roller coaster. In those 45 seconds viewers first satisfy their voyeuristic instincts, only to be shockingly reminded of the human mortality when the movie protagonist becomes totally helpless, naked and unshielded. The same scene also paved the way to future use of stereotype of "sex=death", cliche that made Psycho the great grandfather of all slasher horror movies.
However, the real horror of Psycho doesn't lie in the graphic or shocking depictions of murders. What is most disturbing in Psycho is the utter lack of foreshadowing. The audience, same as the unfortunate heroine, didn't know where the real danger was coming from. Slasher movies, same as Psycho, scare the audience because the danger doesn't come in the form of monsters or supernatural beings; the killings are committed by ordinary people next door, people who might be friendly and who might even not be aware of their own homicidal tendencies. Such was the role of Norman Bates, played superbly by young Anthony Perkins. That actor portrayed conflicting emotions and made the audience care for his character, and won sympathies that stayed until the end. Perkins played the role of his life, but, unfortunately, his acting triumph doomed his career - afterwards he was often typecast, playing cheap imitations of the same, mentally troubled character.
Psycho might be the most influential, but it is definitely not the best film of all times. It was splendidly paced, superbly directed by the master and still remains one of the most memorable viewing experiences. Even the time seemed to be kind to it, and without its own overexposure, Psycho might be truly enjoyed by new generations. However, the ending, same as with few other great Hitchcock's films, represents a disappointment. The last, terrifying scene that revealed the true horror of Bates' insanity, is ruined when Lila, the last of the protagonists, escapes the fate of their predecessors with the conventional yet unbelievable deus ex machina. This scene is followed with the scholarly, detailed yet overlong expose given by psychiatrist Dr. Richmond (played by Simon Oakland) whose expert opinion actually insults the audience - he just tells us what we already know. Perhaps such scene was needed for 1960s audience, unaccustomed to bizarre forms of psychotic behaviour, but today it slows the film that would end perfectly just with the last shot of imprisoned Norman Bates sitting and not harming a fly.
Psycho might be not perfect, but it is still watched and maintains its reputation, despite the fact that even those who watch it for the first time know everything about it. This strange fact is the ultimate viewing recommendation.
RATING: 8/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on December 14th 1999)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/539-psycho