by Laurent Kelly
Psycho (1960) – Director: Alfred Hitchcock Adapted Screenplay: Joseph Stefano Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles OSCAR COUNT (0) – 4 Nominations – Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Janet Leigh), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction.
There is something very admirable about Hitchcock’s unwillingness to conform to traditional movie narratives. He set films in single rooms, thought up unusual camera techniques, turned histrailers into mini stories and subvertedaudience expectations as he pleased. Because of his unique vision, a lot of his films possess a certain cool edge lacking in a number of other golden oldies. His pictures are still striking and vital for their daring and innovative approach to handling drama.
Psycho is perhaps the prime example of Hitchcock as a cinematic rebel. Here the great man did something unthinkable and killed off the lead protagonist not even halfway through the picture. Just killing her off at all would have taken balls but Hitchcock didn’t even let her see the second hour. This is still remarkable by today’s standards. I mean can you imagine following Nicole Kidman on what appears to be a road movie only to see her brutally murdered out of nowhere. With this analogy in place it is easy to see why the famous shower sequence had so many tongues waggling.
The shower sequence is of course the film’s and indeed perhaps cinema’s most iconic scene used on countless covers for books exploring film techniques and history. And the praise is justly warranted as the scene makes an art form out of direction, cinematography, editing, sound effects, music (from the genius Bernard Herrmann), and acting with Janet Leigh’s shocked, intense expression of pain culminating in a final and deeply unsettling shot of her fear-stricken eyes. The scene is an asault on the senses, an unrelenting piece of violence which leaves no room for the audience to breathe and which still comes to mind almost every time I head to the bathroom.
It would be easy for any film to lose the plot after such an audacious and mind blowing piece of footage but it is to Hitchcock’s credit that he doesn’t attempt to outdo the scene but rather focuses more on the psychological stance of the film’s new lead character Norman Bates.
Perkins actually gave a stronger, more emphatic performance in the film’s underrated sequel but here he is still utterly compelling as a shy young man with serious emotional issues. In the film’s exploration of a seemingly normal individual who turns out to be the killer, Psycho did something that no other horror film had done before and that was to face the mirror onto society and show that the real monsters are actually among us and not the aliens, zombies and wild beasts that the genre had become largely accustomed to. Psycho was so important for the genre because it showed that horror could be both scary and psychologically capivating and that a minimalistic approach could actually provide deeper, more impactful scares than attempts to be elaborate and demonstrative.
Look at how for example we never actually see the killer in the flesh until the reveal at the end. In the two killing sequences the camera just shows us a hand wielding a knife arousing deep intrigue over Norman’s mother right up until the terrifying moment when we see the chair spin around and her skeleton appear.
Psycho features masterfully controlled plotting and set-pieces, solid acting, incredible cinematic flair and technique but most importantly it keeps you thinking long after the film has finished. What is most disturbing is not the act of violence itself but the idea of this seemingly fragile and caring young man who is so deeply unhinged and violent. Psycho stands out in the horror genre because it is just as concerned with getting under the skin of the characters as opposed to just targeting the skin itself.
DID YOU KNOW? Once he had earned the rights to the source material Hitchcock brought as many copies of the book as possible so that the ending would not be spoiled.