At the end of 5th grade, my safety patrol group didn’t go to Washington D.C. (like all the other groups did), but we went to Universal Studios Florida instead. In addition to all the rides we did, my father & I went to a Monster Make-Up show and Alfred Hitchcock attraction. I vaguely remember the Hitchcock attraction and remember the Monster Make-Up show to be funny and a little gross. While wandering the gift shop after, I bought a coffee mug with the infamous Hitchcock silhouette and a Bate’s Motel door hanger (that cleverly says ‘Do Not Disturb In the Shower’). A few weeks after the trip, my father came home from Blockbuster with a rented VHS copy of Psycho. He figured since I survived the attraction, I could handle the movie. He figured right. Completely different from any movie I had seen up to that point, Psycho thrilled me and continues to intrigue audiences even 52 years after its release.
The movie begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) laying next to each other in bed. They discuss the future with Sam asking for a little more time to get things together and Marion wanting to be married soon. Upon returning to work, Marion’s boss and current client enter. After some one sided flirting on the part of the client, he drops $40,000 cash on Marion’s desk with her boss instructing her to deposit it in the bank now (as he didn’t want it sitting in the office over the weekend). As she leaves, she makes the decision to steal the cash and run away with Sam. While traveling, she begins to get sleepy and pulls off to the side of the road to get some sleep. She’s awoken the next morning by a cop who feels like there is something not right about her (she acts suspiciously during her interaction with him). Trying to blend in more, she goes to a used car dealership to trade in her car (with an Arizona license plate) and get a different car (with a California license plate). Once back on the road, she travels a little more before finding herself in the middle of a terrible rain storm. Pulling off to the side, she finds herself at the creepy Bates Motel. Before going to her room, she joins the hotel attendant Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) for supper. During their conversation, she learns more about Norman and his overbearing mother. After deciding to return to Phoenix in the morning, she goes to her room to shower and then sleep. While showering, she is attacked by a silhouetted figure thought to be Norman’s mother. Upon discovery of what has happened, Norman disposes of the body and covers up the murder. A week later, Marion’s sister Lila Crane (Vera Miles) finds Sam and they begin, with the assistance of Det. Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), to retrace Marion’s steps. This leads them to the Bates Motel where the truth of Norman is almost more then anyone can believe.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho is possibly his most well remembered films. Of the four films on the AFI Top 100, it sits closer to the top then any of the others. So many other films after it owe a lot to the film. For one thing, it was one of the films to push the boundaries with the Production Code. Before the MPAA had a ‘rating’ system, films were judged under a very strict, very ridged code. It was more of a pass or fail system; films either were released or not. With more films coming from Europe that didn’t fit in the codes standards, bold American directors started to push the boundaries themselves. The opening scene of the film set the tone for what was to come. Not only did it have two unmarried people sharing a bed, but they were sharing a bed in their underwear. Sexuality was usually slyly implied, but here it was being openly seen. There is no doubt in the mind of the viewer what had just occurred between the two characters. The shower scene was wrought with images that years earlier would instantly banned. Even the moment where she throws the ripped up paper in the toilet and flushes it caused issues.
In reading about the making of the film, it was interesting to learn that the film owes a lot of it’s look and feeling to the fact it was done on shoe string budget. Hitchcock set out to create a film for under $1 million, thus many things had to be cut back. The sets were sparse and simple. Costumes weren’t made, but bought off the rack. Even the famous Bates house was cobbled together from other sets (including pieces of the house from Harvey). Filming in black and white served two purposes for Hitchcock. The first was it helped to keep the costs of the film down and the second was to avoid the film appearing too gory. By keeping it in black and white, the blood (Bosco chocolate syrup), looks realistic without crossing a line that seeing it in color might have done.
With each repeated viewing, I am always amazed by Anthony Perkin’s performance in the movie. While the other actors are all fantastic, it is Perkin’s as Norman Bates that steals the movie. You see him struggling from the moment he comes on screen. While you may not understand until the end, repeated viewings really add a dimension to his performance. There are moments where you see him struggling between the personalities and those moments where ‘Mother’ is at her strongest. Plus, the ending is one of the most brilliant moments in film history.
As with many of the films on the AFI list, Psycho is more then just a well made film. It is also a film that blazed a trail for the films that would proceed it. It is easily argued that Psycho is the first slasher film and brought a unique style to a wider audience. While it is not my personal favorite Hitchcock, it is his most accessible and will always be his most well remembered.