Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam
Plot: Secretary Marion Crane (Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer and flees upstate. Along the way, she stops off at a secluded motel.
I would kill to watch this film without knowing that brutal twist. A modern audience watches this film, knowing how it all plays out. However, you cannot help but watch Hitchcock’s masterful slow build-up, giving away nothing, yet keeping the thrills rolling, and appreciate how an audience going in blind back then must have felt back then. Probably bloody terrified!
The film opens without a mention of Bates hotel, a psycho or even murder. Janet Leigh’s iconic Marion Crane is a bored secretary, having an affair with down-on-his-luck Sam Loomis. They want to get married, but his debts stop them from realising their dream. They are relegated to private hotel trysts whenever they are in the same city. One day, Crane snaps, after a stressful day of work, takes 40 grand from her boss’s latest client and flees to California to be united with her love. The film keeps this crime thriller ticking over nicely, Hitchcock in no rush to take his film about of the female-centric Noir it makes itself out to be. There are nail-biting scenes where Leigh awkwardly talks her way around suspicious policemen and second-hand car salesmen. It is just as thrilling as the horror stuff, yet perhaps more so, seeing as it isn’t the film we came to see, yet one we are enjoying regardless. Then, we finally get to Bates Motel, where Leigh is forced to spend the night. Still, anyone who had no idea how this film would turn out would have been treated to the reveal of a lifetime. Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates, one of cinema’s hidden gems. You can tell that something is off with the setting, but you cannot put your finger on what. Anthony Perkins’ performance is faultless. Usually with the older films, you appreciate performances as something that worked in an older time. Take Janet Leigh’s performance as Marion Crane. It is hard to pick something she particularly does wrong, other than coming across as a token of her age: the horror starlet of the 60s. Meanwhile Perkins could be dumped into a 21st century movie and still earn approval from critics everywhere. The dialogue is delicious, instantly quotable and promising so much. “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.” When you know where Psycho’s twisting narrative is going to come to an end, it feels so obvious, but back then, it must have been delightful teasing. Perkins is the right balance between nervously deranged and quietly intelligence. You have no idea if he is going to be the villain of the piece or yet another red herring, but regardless of the conclusion, he burns atmosphere, forcing you to endure this nightmare of a horror, determined to find out what happens. And no sooner does that glorious dialogue scene end, Psycho’s top scene goes along. Forget the visual mastery of Hitchcock’s direction, but think about the time period of the film. What Hitchcock does here, no one had done before. The ground must have opened up beneath the audience’s feet: what could possibly happen next?
And this sense of unpredictability fuels the second half of the film. What direction is left for this spine-chilling horror to take? Cinema lovers tracking down this movie for the iconic shower scene might wonder if the remainder of the picture will hold up. Surely, once you’ve seen what you came to see, you can turn the movie off and go to bed. But that would be robbing yourself of several great moments. If Hitchcock’s mid-movie powerhouse scene casts the rest of the movie in shadows, it doesn’t mean there is nothing waiting to be found out. A private detective wanders an empty house in a scene that stretches forever, but ends so swiftly that you will struggle to fight back a scream. The finale sees Vera Miles stumbling around the house where everything tends to end in death, a killer stalking her. She is given a choice: run for the safety of outdoors or hide in the basement. You can feel the audience screaming at her to not go in the basement. She goes in the basement. The scene is pure, unadulterated terror at its finest. This is where every horror fan should go for old-fashioned, honest scares. That brings us to the epilogue of Psycho. I don’t usually like the writers to over-explain what we just witnessed, as sometimes the imagination is better off doing the bulk of the work. Can you imagine this movie left unexplained and what nightmarish alternatives we could have concocted? As it stands, Hitchcock takes time to explain the psycho and their motive behind it all. It creates, perhaps not a sense of mystery, but a figure that has been cemented into movie history, although surprisingly not endlessly subjected to naff sequels. As a result, Psycho is allowed to stand proud, a true monument to horror cinema.
Final Verdict: Psycho might be dated, yet it still shows horror directors everywhere how it is done. Slow, suspenseful, totally powerful. Tremendous.