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.





Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .