Skip to main content

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho
(1960)

(SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

Indeed, Hitch’s view take was “I know all this, but I also know that the construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences all over the world to react and become emotional”. Psycho cost less than a million and grossed $50m, and in the US was only beaten that year by the mega-bucks Spartacus. It also fundamentally changed the horror genre. Without Psycho, no slashers, no giallo, no Leatherface. Not all of those are things to celebrate (if any), but they evidence that Hitchcock had struck a mother lode. The difference was that while he delivered the highest carat, undiscerning audiences would be content with any old pale imitation in a coat of gold paint.

Psycho has gone down as the most famous of his movies, even if it is relatively atypical in tapping as strongly as it does into horror elements. Nevertheless, it was clearly one of his proudest achievements. Perhaps unsurprising, since the razzle and dazze here was arguably a spotlight for his prowess at its most refined: no mega-star support from Cary Grant or James Stewart. No gargantuan budget (unlike his previous hit): “It was an experiment in this sense: Could I make a feature film under the same conditions as a television show?” Hitchcock felt justly rewarded for eliciting a fundamental response from his viewers, a visceral and overwhelming one: “My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on audiences, and I consider that very important… I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion… It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.

He’d try the same thing again, that kind of “pure film” horror with The Birds, and very nearly pulled it off (it cost a lot more and wasn’t as well cast, but on its own terms, it’s still one of his great late period achievements). Psycho, though, continues to impress in all sorts of ways, beyond simply that justifiably famous shower scene. Hitch insisted that was the principal attraction – “the suddenness of the murder in the show, coming, as it were, out of the blue” – and he “executes” it with maximum precision; while he and Truffaut discussed how violent the sequence is, the montage effect means you think it’s much worse than it is (the second murder is more explicit). And so celebrated is it, it’s probably inevitable that, like Citizen Kane and Mank – even more so in first drafts, David Fincher’s dad guided by Pauline Kael’s take – there’s an authorship issue that has been discredited. Namely, the notion that Saul Bass directed the scene.

The opening fifty minutes – it’s easy to forget we’re with Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane for almost half the movie – are completely engrossing, even before Norman takes centre stage and becomes one of cinema’s most celebrated and iconic villains. And that’s beyond the daring depiction of her affair with Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and her expressive bra. Marion’s spur-of-the-moment decision to steal $40,000 – about $350,000 today – and the resulting paranoia may be an extended red herring, but it’s totally gripping fodder of the sort Hitchcock thrived on. Particularly the nosey traffic policeman. He’s your classic imperious mirror-shades cop, and when she asks him if she looks as if she’s done something wrong and he replies “Frankly, yes”, you wish she could be a bit more together about her guilt.

Of course, this sympathy with the criminal will later be repeated with a far more culpable figure. When Marion stops off at the Bates Motel, the most immediately striking aspect of her interaction with Norman is that he is just a boy and she, despite the stricken anxiety we have witnessed, is a mature woman. Crucially, Marion leaves us as just she has decided to face the music for her impulsive action in Phoenix. She’s never able to atone. Superb as Leigh is during the opening section of the picture, probably most impressive is her ability to hold that unblinking stare in the final pull back from her crumpled form.

Perkins is also very good, but it’s also the case that the nervy, gangly, sexually anxious Norman isn’t a million miles from the actor’s own persona. Joseph Stefano talks about how this changed the character from the novel’s overweight, middle-aged slob, but most apposite is the sympathy Perkins’ bashful insecurity provokes. Look at Vince Vaughn in the irrelevant remake – or better still, don’t – for how significant that is (not that Gus van Sant was doing Vaughn’s Norman any favours, deciding what that peep hole scene really needed was some furious masturbation).

I can’t even remember if I knew about Psycho’s twists before I first saw it – that of Marion’s early exit and Mrs Bates true identity – but it certainly must be almost impossible to see the picture now without knowing. What’s interesting is that, unlike say a M Night Shyamalan movie, neither remotely impact the value of a repeat visit and in some respects even reward one. Norman’s responses are revealed as carefully gauged in his defence of his alter ego (“A son is a poor substitute for a lover”; “People always call a mad house ‘some place’, don’t they?”)

Once Norman takes over as protagonist (or antagonist-protagonist), you are with him as you were with Marion when it comes to the tension of his possible discovery. The superb sinking-then-not-then-sinking evidence of the car in the swamp. The very pushy Arbogast (Martin Balsam) tripping him up in his story and Norman’s stammering response. And then the alpha-male appearance of Loomis, the hunk lunk striking the pose of the school bully to poor Norman (it’s interesting how little sympathy is reserved for the classic hero figure here, even if Loomis eventually saves Vera Miles’ Lila). I’m not as impressed by some of the contributing detail as others: the taxidermy hobby that explains Norman’s preservation of mom, and Hitchcock fixing on his neck and his birdlike craning. Regardless, Perkins may be following in the lineage of previous well-drawn Hitch psychopaths in Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train, but his is easily the most sympathetic.

In some respects, I’ve always found Arbogast’s murder even more impressive than Marion’s. There’s something especially off-balance about it; the space is disorientating in its sheer openness, the attacker rushing into frame, in stark contrast to the claustrophobia of Marion’s demise. It’s also remarkable because Hitch is effectively pulling the same move twice – killing a protagonist – and effortlessly succeeding. When that leaves sorting things out to Sam and Lila, the same character spark arguably isn’t there, but the tension nevertheless remains well sustained. And if Miles isn’t given the most interesting of roles – she had signed a five-year contract with Hitch at the time of The Wrong Man, but had already fallen out of favour for ruining his Vertigo plans – she makes the most of it with Lila’s dogged determination, practically dragging Sam along for the ride.

Also worth mentioning is Patricia Hitchcock’s cameo (“I guess he must have seen my wedding ring”), Bernard Hermann’s superb score – again, massively influential on the future of movies – and Bass’ titles. There’s also, of course the five-minute coda over-explaining Norman’s malaise. It’s quite amusing in its cod-psychology, and Brian De Palma would later pay homage in his Psycho-redress Dressed to Kill. But if it can seem a little overcooked, it entirely makes sense that Hitch would recognise the need to let the viewer come down from all that tension, rather than cut swiftly to the credits in the manner he generally preferred.

There’s no way you could call Psycho elegant or finessed, but it’s as masterful and surprising as they come. The only shame is that this promised a veteran director with a new lease of life and intent as he began his seventh decade. Instead, he quickly bordered on the obsolete, as a new generation and style – an attitude Psycho partly instigated – eclipsed him.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

That’s what it’s all about. Interrupting someone’s life.

Following (1998) (SPOILERS) The Nolanverse begins here. And for someone now delivering the highest-powered movie juggernauts globally – that are not superhero or James Cameron movies – and ones intrinsically linked with the “art” of predictive programming, it’s interesting to note familiar themes of identity and limited perception of reality in this low-key, low-budget and low-running time (we won’t see much of the latter again) debut. And, naturally, non-linear storytelling. Oh, and that cool, impersonal – some might say clinical – approach to character, subject and story is also present and correct.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c