Psycho (1960)

Ending Halloween month strong with the big one. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Not the crappy remake. None of the crappy sequels. The original. The great movie. How does it hold up? Doe sit have the thrill it used to? Is it dated? Let’s find out.

For those who don’t know, Psycho is a 1960 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It is the godfather of all slasher films. Its influence and reach in the horror genre cannot be overstated. The story follows Marion Crane, played by the delightful Janet Leigh, as she makes a big mistake followed by an even bigger mistake. We meet her and her boyfriend Sam, played by John Gavin, in a hotel room after a lunch hour tryst. They lament the fact that they can’t just get married already. Sam is broke. He lives in the back of the hardware store where he works. Their future together isn’t very bright until Sam can get some money together. It’s a little old fashioned, but also very understandable and in some ways very modern. They are meeting in a hotel room for a little adult time after all. It feels very contemporary in an odd way.

Back at Marion’s office, a real dreck of a guy comes in and hits on Marion and throws $40,000 cash on her desk like it’s nothing. He is a real obnoxious jerk. Marion is supposed to deposit the cash. Instead she takes the money and runs to Sam. What follows is an iconic driving sequence in which Marion is followed by a suspicious police officer with the most intense aviators you’ve ever seen. Seriously, his sunglasses are deeply intimidating. They are massive black holes where his eyes should be.

Marion eventually finds herself at the Bates Motel. The place is isolated and run by Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins. The two have a sandwich before bed and share a conversation. This conversation scene is one of the most perfect scenes I’ve ever seen. The acting is understated and naturalistic. They convey so much subtext and hit dramatic beats in such a subtle way that you don’t even realize all the layers at play. Anthony Perkins in particular exudes a shy nervousness that feels childish, yet when Marion makes a suggestion regarding his mother, he changes. He doesn’t turn into a raving maniac, his transformation is subtle and seems to be coming from within. The change happens behind his eyes and everything about him responds to that change. It is chilling without ever trying to chill. The camera work here is the kind that is completely brilliant without ever calling attention to itself. When the angle changes, it’s creates a brand new layer of meaning and intensity. It’s a truly fantastic scene.

Of course there is the famous shower scene. Spoiler alert for a 60 year old movie. A character gets murdered in a shower. It is one of the most often studied and referenced scenes in all movie history and with good reason. Somehow it still carries visceral shock value even all these years later. The editing and the music combine to create a true symphony of emotion. It’s a horrific scene that still works.

This is a good place to mention the filmmaking in general but the editing specifically. This film is shot and edited in a very modern way. It genuinely feels very contemporary. The rhythm and pacing of the film especially in the first half feels very fresh. The scenes have a nice clip. The editing keeps everything moving, and the moving camera work gives every scene that sense of urgency modern films seem to have.

Is the film scary? In the scary scenes, yes. The movie isn’t all about horror though. There’s a lot more going on here. The film is really about a theft of $40,000 and the investigation into the girl who stole it. It’s about normal people who come face to face with something they can’t really comprehend something they’ve never encountered before… the “psycho” of the title.

There are some moments that drag. In the second half there are a few scenes that feel like they could have been cut way way down or removed entirely. An exchange with the sherif could be shortened. The scene with the psychologist could be trimmed, some even argue excised entirely. I wouldn’t go that far. I think it serves an important purpose, but I think it could be cut in half to great effect.

There are three scenes that made me jump and grit my teeth in fear. The shower, the stairs, and the cellar. All scenes involving Norman’s mother. All scenes famous for the power of their filmmaking and their impact. They carry the same impact. In the 31 days, I’ve seen some insane things, but these scenes from 60 years ago still carry quite the punch.

There are two scenes that feel perfect to me. The first I’ve already mentioned. The second is when Detective Arbogast, played by Martin Blosom, interrogates Norman. The scene is so well written as Arbogast’s questions trip up Norman and expose his lies. It’s a wonderful performance from Blosom who still feels friendly and easy going even as he grills the stammering Norman. It’s also a great performance from Perkins as Norman, who convincingly falls to pieces before our eyes as he lies to cover his other lies and he trips over his lies repeatedly. It’s such a great scene.

It’s a little dated, but it’s also very contemporary. It’s genuinely scary. It’s brilliantly directed. It’s perfectly acted. It is a great movie. You should definitely see this at some point in your life, why not make it Halloween weekend?

It’s my cup of tea. A+

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