THE 28: #17, PSYCHO
Anthony Perkins: Norman Bates
Janet Leigh: Marion Crane
Vera Miles: Lila Crane
John Gavin: Sam Loomis
Martin Balsam: Detective Milton Arbogast
John McIntire: Sheriff Al Chambers
Screenplay by Joseph Stefano (based on the novel by Robert Bloch
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Full confession: I never saw PSYCHO until after I saw PSYCHO II in the theater in the summer of '83. This is a gross transgression, but my access to Alfred Hitchcock's iconic movie was limited to individual scenes, references, and parodies. I knew of the famous shower scene and the whopper twist, none of that came with context. PSYCHO existed in concept only. I gave PSYCHO II a look because Poplar Bluff, MO, at that time only showed four movies a weekend and I had already scene RETURN OF THE JEDI and WAR GAMES. I don't recall the fourth option, but it hardly mattered. People were up in arms over a sequel to one of the masterpieces of horror and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Later, I saw PSYCHO on VHS and I was captivated.
PSYCHO is one the great misdirects in the history of cinema. The film opens with Janet Leigh's Marion Crane embezzling $40,000 in an effort to be with her married lover, Sam Loomis. She is on the road from Phoenix to meet up with Sam in his small hometown in California. So far, this is usual Hitchcockian fare. An everyday innocent caught up in a plot much bigger than they are for love. Tension. Paranoia. We wait for things to spin out of control. They do, but not nearly in the way we expect. Certainly the way Hitchcock directed it works against his previous movies. Those were elegant and expansive. PSYCHO was filmed in gritty black-and-white and looks like a low-budget exploitation picture.
A torrential rain forces Marion to pull off the road and check into the Bates Motel, a roadside spot overseen by the meek Norman Bates and the domineering spectre of Norman's mother. Before PSYCHO, my exposure to horror films had been limited to the old Universal monster movies, B Picture monsters and ghosts, and comedies like ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (which almost made this list of Top 28). Sure, I'd seen HALLOWEEN and EXORCIST (and they terrified me), but my consumption was selective. I didn't appreciate the slasher films of the late 70s and 80s like I do now. PSYCHO was the first horror movie that made me truly realize how much a film could transcend its genre. Now, of course, this is a given. But, as a teenager in the mid-80s, I was a revelation.
The acting in this movie is impeccable and I love the way Hitchcock lets the camera linger over scenes. The dialogue between Marion and Norman in the sitting room behind the motel lobby is allowed to unfold and we have opportunity to learn about them. We are convinced we know how this is going to go. Norman engages in some voyeurism and watches Marion undress through a peephole. She wears a white bra and panties, a visual representation of her innocence, even though she has committed a crime. Marion is constantly being watched. We get the sense Mother watches everything from that giant house looming over the motel.
Then, the infamous shower scene. A third of the way through the film, the assumed protagonist is brutally murdered in her room. We never see the knife puncture her flesh. We get flashes. Sounds. Screams. Bernard Hermann's perfect score, screeching score. It is a moment of pure cinema. A moment told through images and sound, suggesting without explicitly detailing. Now, we have a new protagonist and he is a monster. I try to imagine an audience in 1960 wrestling with that.
PSYCHO is widely regarded as a masterpiece for good reason. The American Film Institute lists it as the 14th best movie ever made. It currently ranks 34th on the IMDB Top 250. For a young movie lover still trying to develop a personal taste, it represents a kind of awakening very few films provide.