Catching the Classics: Psycho

PsychoSince 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list is updated regularly and is currently more than 1700 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.

Out of all the films reviewed here, Psycho may be the least in need of an introduction. Everybody knows Psycho, whether they’ve seen it or not. We all know about the shower scene. We all know the “Psycho strings” sound that goes with it. I’m not even sure it gets passed down, exactly; I think it spontaneously forms in peoples’ heads sometime in grade school along with the Jaws theme. It’s almost impossible to discuss Psycho without discussing the plot twists, but that’s OK because everybody knows the plot twists. It’s not even possible to surprise somebody with them by sitting them down to watch it without telling them and skipping over the title, because they’ll get to that shower scene and say “Oh, this is Psycho!” It’s hard to remember sometimes that this isn’t how Hitchcock intended it be.

The twists were, after all, meant to be surprises. The beginning of the shower scene, with the scream, was shown in the original trailer, but the end of the scene was not. Hitchcock didn’t want anybody coming into the theatre late, and encouraged theatre owners to put signs up stating nobody would be admitted after the film started rolling, all to preserve the surprise that Janet Leigh wasn’t going to be the star all the way through. And of course, audiences were asked not to spoil the ending… which probably went about as well then as it does now. After all, nowadays Norman Bates — that clean-cut, soft-spoken young man played by Anthony Perkins — is #2 on the AFI’s list of the greatest movie villains. If you’ve heard of Psycho, you know almost all there is to know about the plot, because everybody talks all about it. And if you’ve heard of Alfred Hitchcock, you’ve heard of Psycho.

I can’t remember when precisely I first heard of Alfred Hitchcock. He wasn’t the first director whose name I knew; that was probably George Lucas, and then Steven Spielberg. He might have been the third though. Once you’re old enough to realize that there are people involved in a film besides the ones standing in front of the camera, you start hearing about classic directors, and Hitchcock’s name arguably outstrips them all. I’m still a relative newcomer to Hitchcock, considering the size of his body of work, having seen only six of his films prior to Psycho. With a bit of luck, I’ll get to them all one day (although I understand seeing The Mountain Eagle will take more than a little bit of luck.)

So as someone who has seen enough of his work to “get” Hitchcock, but not a large amount of it, how does Psycho fare? How well does a movie do when its twists are expected to be surprises, but have been common knowledge for decades? With most movies, the answer is anywhere from “good” to “very poorly”. While I’d argue that any film that couldn’t survive without surprise was a poor film to begin with, there are definitely a great many films that are quite good… but never quite as good as they were when you could be completely taken in.

Psycho is not one of those films. Even knowing all the major twists, knowing the moment they were about to appear on screen, it is still a very powerful film. Janet Leigh carries her portion of the film very well, and Hitchcock’s directing really emphasizes the notion that she’s the star and the “psycho” of the picture for that period. The story of a secretary spontaneously stealing $40,000 from her boss and slowly coming unhinged from the guilt is very much in keeping with Hitchcock’s earlier works. And then when the story shifts to the investigation around Norman Bates and his motel, Hitchcock continues to show his status as the master of suspense, with expertly crafted shots and a quietly unsettling atmosphere. The supporting cast may be a little thinly developed, and John Gavin may be a little stiff playing Janet Leigh’s boyfriend, but it hardly matters as by that point it’s Anthony Perkins’ show. He never plays his hand too hard, never gives the audience a direct reason to guess the truth of the situation, but it plays out subtly in his expressions, his voice, and his gestures. It’s a terrific performance.

There’s a reason why there have been numerous attempts at follow-ups or remakes, and why none of them have succeeded. Fear is driven by uncertainty; all fear is at least to a small degree the fear of the unknown. Know something well enough, and fear should vanish. Yet there’s something about Psycho that transcends this. Even when one knows essentially all there is to know about the film through decades of pop culture references, it’s still capable of making the hairs stand up straight on one’s skin. It sets the stage with a troubled young woman, and then brings in an even more troubled young man in a location that is steeped with creepy atmosphere. It preserves the suspense because even though the audience by this late date knows what’s going to happen, the characters don’t, and the craftsmanship of the film allows the audience to buy into the emotions of those characters and feel what they would be feeling. Small wonder it’s considered one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces.

Rating: 5 Stars

Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.

18 thoughts on “Catching the Classics: Psycho

  1. A horror classic in every which way. Still have no idea why the hell Gus Van Sant did a shot-for-shot remake of this, but oh well. So be it. Good review.

    • Yeah, I can’t fathom the reasoning behind the remake either. If you’re going to do it, and you really shouldn’t, it should at least bring something different to the table. Color surely isn’t a good enough reason, since it could have been in color to begin with if Hitchcock had wanted it.

  2. Would you believe that when I saw this about 4 years ago I didn’t know what the final twist was (clearly living under a rock) and got a proper surprise. It was BRILLIANT!

  3. Totally agree that Psycho doesn’t need the secrecy in order to be brilliant. Like so many of Hitchcock’s other films, Psycho is endlessly rich and nuanced. I love what you said about the Hitchcock mythology that forms in those who haven’t even seen one of his movies. I remember being terrified of the name “Hitchcock” when I was a child, and I didn’t even know why.

    Thanks for the review, and the reminder to watch Psycho again.

  4. Amazing review and great breakdown. I just watched this a few days ago and it continues to get even more epic every time I watch it. It’s refreshing to read a new perspective on a classic that has been picked apart for so many years now. Good job, Morgan!

    • Thanks, Victor. I’m sure you’re right about it getting better with each viewing (as opposed to most surprise-centered films). I look forward to rewatching this several times myself.

  5. When I saw it I have seen the other Psycho sequels, but have not seen this. I knew about the character of Norman Bates, but I did not know the main character. Hitchcock made me so interested in this lady that I forgot that this was actually Norman Bates’ story. Anthony Perkins was great because he made you want to believe that he was innocent

    • I can’t imagine seeing the sequels before this… actually, I can’t picture myself watching the sequels. :)

      Perkins was great, I agree. Apparently in the book Norman was a lot more odious; changing him to seem like just a shy but friendly young man was a great decision.

  6. Brilliant review, made me push Psycho to the top of my watchlist. And haha at asking the audience not to spoil the ending. Can’t imagine how that would ever work. Thanks for sharing!

    • Yeah, I imagine that much like today, there wasn’t a whole lot of care taken to avoid spoiling things. They probably didn’t tell their friends, but wouldn’t have had any qualms about discussing it with their friends in public.

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