#3: Psycho (1960)
Director Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” isn’t just The
Great Slasher/Haunted House film of all time, it’s also one of the greatest films period. And what’s most remarkable is that though the story of Marion and Norman and Mother is now a full half-century old, there is no movie-lover walking around today too “sophisticated” to be knocked over by it. No matter how many films, horror or otherwise, you might have seen over the course of your post-modern lifetime, if you walk into “Psycho” cold -- unaware of Hitchcock’s treasure trove of groundbreaking surprises -- your jaw will still hit the floor at the precise moments the then-60 year-old director wanted it to.
And that’s the other thing that’s so impressive and unique, “Psycho” doesn’t look, feel, or perform like a story told by a middle-aged director at the top of his creative game. The films immediately surrounding it, “North By Northwest” “Vertigo” and “The Birds” most certainly do (which isn’t a criticism), but tucked in the middle of those polished, elegant accomplishments is this gritty, low-budget ($807,000), black and white grinder that’s positively bursting with the kind of energy, fresh ideas, and healthy contempt for the rules that you only ever see in audaciously arrogant and talented young directors looking to stake their claim. “Psycho” is the “Reservoir Dogs,” the “Easy Rider,” the “Night of the Living Dead” of its era, but those were all films birthed by first-time directors. Prior to 1960, Hitchcock had helmed over fifty
From the opening Saul Bass titles set to Bernard Hermann’s iconic and immortal score, Hitchcock starts things off with the promise of a high-level energy experience he never breaks, thanks mainly to the fact that what the mischievous master has planned for his unsuspecting audience is one the greatest cinematic mind fucks of all time.
1. We’re assured by a lifetime of movie-going experience and knowledge that our protagonist is the lusciously gorgeous Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) – that her story is what this movie is about -- and so we blindly follow her and are invested in her and are rooting for her for a full fifty minutes before Hitchcock brutally has her knifed to death in a motel shower. The shock that comes from this experience is not only the result of a justly famous murder scene but also due to our own personal storytelling equilibrium being unceremoniously ripped out from underneath us. The decision to kill Marion is so cinematically wrong that we keep waiting for it not to be true, for her to survive or wake from a terrible nightmare. It was all just a dream, right?
2. Our real protagonist is Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, in one of the screens greatest performances) and we’re not introduced to him until after a full 28 minutes have passed.
3. Oh, wait… Our protagonist is really our antagonist and—what the hell is going on here?!?!?
And it’s here that we pause to recognize the fact that we live in a world where Matt Damon’s won an Oscar, Alfred Hitchcock hasn’t, and ask where is your god now?
Even more impressive, however, is that even after you know exactly how the story rolls out, even after you’ve memorized every twist, turn, camera angle (and curve on Ms. Leigh’s otherworldly figure), the power the story still holds to grab you and creep you out – to soak you in the rich atmosphere of cinematographer John L. Russell’s shadows and composer Hermann’s shrieks – never fades, for this is the “Goodfellas” of re-watchable horror films. And whether it’s the ever-competent private investigator played by Martin Balsam or Marion’s flinty and determined sister (Vera Miles) entering the unforgettable production design of Mother’s dreadfully spooky old house -- even though you know he’s doomed and that she isn’t, you still scream – sometimes out loud – “Don’t go in there!”
Best of all, “Psycho” is without a doubt the perfect introductory Halloween/horror experience for kids of a certain age. Sexy, but not too sexy; intense, but not unrelenting; violent, but mostly in the mind’s eye. What it most certainly is though, is perfect, a perfect piece of storytelling told by a paunchy, aging, jowly journeyman director who wasn’t about to let the fact that he had absolutely nothing left to prove get in the way of taking our breath away like nobody’s ever done before or since.
Thanks mainly to the presence of Perkins and Miles, 1983’s “Psycho II
” is well worth a look and, though far from a classic, a surprisingly successful and entertaining attempt to bring Norman Bates into the 80’s slasher genre that he helped to kick-start.
As a special Halloween bonus, over the weekend Big Hollywood contributor Charles Winecoff has agreed to let us publish some “Pyscho”-relates passages from his well-received biography, "Anthony Perkins: Split Image
." So be sure to look for that and a lot of other Halloween-related posts, including my final two picks.