cast: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, John Gavin, and Janet Leigh
director: Aldred Hitchcock
109 minutes (15) 1960
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Universal DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by John M. Peters
Many film reviewers claim that Psycho is to blame for all the splatter movies we’ve had to endure over the last 25 years or so. There may be an element of truth in that, despite the fact there have always been nutters running around old house and slicing people into minced morsels – ever since Georges Méliès and his contemporaries realised that people actually liked being shocked. But however many times you watch Psycho (now available on a special edition DVD) it does shine with a class all of its own, and is probably only matched by John Carpenter’s homage, Halloween.
Hitchcock made Psycho in 1960 on a low budget, using the production crew from his popular TV series, and utilising their skills to shoot quickly on black and white filmstock. He also used Bernard Herrmann’s taut score to enhance the gritty realism of Robert Bloch’s original story, but it was the choice of Anthony Perkins to play Norman Bates that makes the film so memorable.
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Perkins’ youthful yet gaunt features convey both sadness and a warning that something isn’t quite right. Rather than signpost Bates’ strangeness, Perkins played him straight, careful to let only an occasional twitch or stare make you think he’s a bad ‘un. To keep the story in the realms of small town normality, Hitchcock dressed leading ladies Janet Leigh and Vera Miles in clothes far removed from the Hollywood glamour you’d expect them to wear. Despite Marion Crane’s lunchtime sex session at the film’s beginning, she does nothing to encourage Bates’ attack when she arrives at the motel. Yet, there is a vein of seediness throughout the film, enhanced by the close-ups Hitchcock uses and the b/w cinematography, which magnifies normality into something menacing.
Considering Psycho’s reputation for violence, both on-screen murders take barely a minute in total, compared to today’s epic bloodbaths. While Janet Leigh’s shower death has attained almost mythological status, the private detective’s murder, shot from a bird’s eye vantage point, comes as a great shock – and he’s sprawled at the bottom of the stairs before you even realise what’s happened. As with Halloween, little of the violence is actually caught by the camera lens; brief scenes of a knife plunging down are subliminally expanded by the viewer to include the victim, as there are little or no shots of the blade actually striking flesh. Yet Psycho has acquired a reputation for being vicious!
Little admired by the contemporary critics, Psycho has still quite rightly become a classic – both with audiences and with a generation of directors who grew up during the 1960s. Unfortunately, at the same time, its has been copied ad nauseum until there are so many Michaels, Freddys and Jasons running around on screen hacking nubile bits of skirt into little pieces that you lose sight of the fact that a normal-looking person can be a murderer – killers don’t need a hockey mask or a tricksy glove to frighten the shit out of you.
There’s no argument that Hitchcock is one of the all-time great directors; Psycho was just one facet of his talent.
DVD extras: a couple of tribute programmes, Masters Of Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock, and The American Film Institute Satute To Alfred Hitchcock, plus production notes, cast and crew details, and the theatrical trailer.