Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Watch Psycho online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Warning: This contains mild spoilers.
“I think that we’re all in our private traps. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.” So says Norman Bates, the titular psychopath and lone proprietor of the Bates Motel (although his mother is also present). On one level, he’s referring to the isolated motel he uses to lure in his unsuspecting prey, but on another, this is Hitchcock telling his audience that – for 109 minutes – they are mere playthings in his maze.
Speaking to BBC’s Monitor programme in 1964, Hitch outlined his approach to making the movie. “[Psycho] was intended to make people scream and yell and so forth,” he said. “But no more than screaming and yelling on a switchback railway… you mustn’t go too far because you want them to get off the railway giggling with pleasure.”
This idea of a horror movie as a rollercoaster ride is familiar to modern audiences, but in 1960, it proved too much for many. Some critics were appalled by such vulgarity and the usual suspects called the film to be banned. But it was an instant hit at the box office and by the time the 33rd Academy Awards came along Hitchcock’s curious little B-movie (meaning US censors considered it “morally objectionable in part”) was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh and Best Director for Hitchcock. Today, of course, it is widely considered a timeless classic.
A perfect synthesis of film grammar, story structure, shot composition, editing, acting and – lest we forget – music, Psycho weaves its claustrophobic magic from the first frame until the last. Based on the novel by Robert Bloch, who was inspired by Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein (subsequently the basis for dozens of other movies, most notably The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Alerted to the book’s potential by his assistant Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock acquired the rights for $9,500 and then set Peggy the task of buying every copy of the book she could find so the story’s twists could be preserved.
Spoilers, you see, were something that concerned Hitchcock greatly; after all, what’s the point of building an elaborate trap if people know in advance what’s going to happen? But, upon its release in 1960, the movie-going public trotted into theatres like innocent lambs – and cinema was changed forever.
Luring the audience in with a standard noir-ish plot – real estate secretary Marion Crane (Leigh) goes on the lam with $40,000 stolen from her employers – we’re as hopelessly unaware as our protagonist is when she stops at the sinister Bates Motel, decorated by an alarming number of beady-eyed stuffed birds. Norman (Perkins) is the unnerving manager, although we get the impression his elderly and angry mother, bed-bound, is still the boss here.
The audience subconsciously knows the rules of story – Marion is the heroine and it’s her story we’ll be following. But then it comes – slap bang in the middle of the movie (well, 47 minutes in): the shower scene. A mere 45 seconds in duration, the sequence nevertheless took a week to film – one quarter of the film’s entire production schedule – and required 78 set-ups and 52 cuts to achieve. It’s astonishing now as it was shocking then – Leigh (and her body double) in the shower, the flashing knife – all set to Bernard Hermann’s perfect, excoriating score. The artistry and hard work that went into those 45 seconds is covered in (a lot) of detail in the superb documentary 78/52 by Alexandre O. Philippe (read our review plus where to watch it here).
Audience jaws hitting the floor as Marion’s body slaps down in the tub, her life blood (really chocolate sauce) swirling away down the plughole, the movie switches focus to Norman, as a succession of people arrive at the motel looking for Marion. What follows provides further jump scares, until we arrive at that final scene and discover the truth about Norman’s mother.
Shockingly effective to its 1960 audience, Psycho’s brilliance remains undimmed to this day. Yes, callow youths, brought up after the slasher genre Psycho inspired, may find it corny and about as scary as the Playmobil movie, but anyone with more old-fashioned patience and an appreciation of cinema history will surrender to the joyous terror of Hitchcock’s trap once again.
Psycho is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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