Psycho may have reached its half century, but the influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece still reverberates through modern cinema, and has had as profound an effect on the horror and thriller genres as Metropolis and Blade Runner has on sci-fi filmmaking.
Hitchcock’s classic has become so ingrained in our culture’s consciousness, in fact, that even if you’ve never seen the feature itself, the film’s music, subject matter and themes will seem immediately familiar.
Watched in high-definition for the first time (I suspect I’m not alone in only having seen Psycho on grainy old televisions and 4:3 VHS), Psycho takes on a dream-like quality, like a half-remembered nightmare.
Janet Leigh stars as Marion Crane, a frustrated thirty-something bank clerk who, against her better judgement, goes on the run with a wealthy customer’s $40,000 deposit. Tired, she pulls into Bates Motel, run by a disarmingly gentle Norman (Anthony Perkins), who lives alone with his sick mother, a passing shadow in the windows of the creepy Victorian house that sits on the hill by the deserted motel.
What follows is the stuff of movie legend. Hitchcock worked tirelessly to keep Psycho‘s plot developments under wraps during production, and to relay too much of what happens after Marion gets to the motel would be to spoil the film for the handful of people that have yet to see it.
It’s sufficient to say that Psycho remains a classic of suspense, even fifty years on. And while the conventions of acting and movie making have changed considerably in the past five decades, Perkins’ performance as Bates remains an iconic one. Simultaneously vulnerable, gentle and menacing, Perkins has sufficient charisma to either charm or still the blood with a single glance, and his protracted conversations with Marion and, later, Martin Balsam’s crumpled private detective, Arbogast, crackle with tension.
Joseph Stefano’s script is a brilliant adaptation, but it’s the things hinted at between words, in every twitch of Perkins’ shifty eyes, that truly bring his character to life.
Then there’s John L. Russell’s prowling cinematography, frequently static but occasionally mobile in a manner that defied the film’s budget and available technology, which is economical and eloquent. The now infamous shower scene is a justifiably iconic moment in cinema, but the unsettling sequence where Arbogast meets Mrs. Bates on the stairs still packs a kinetic punch, even after repeated viewings.
Watched on Blu-ray, the attention to detail in Psycho‘s every shot becomes more apparent than ever before. Norman Bates’ house, for example, is a time capsule of Victorian and Edwardian rugs and clutter, the clutter of Norman’s mother, preserved like the stuffed animals that hang on the walls.
It’s fascinating to go through each scene and see how Hitchcock’s pet themes are threaded through each one, from the repeated references to birds, eyes and voyeurism, and the way in which later events are constantly foreshadowed by earlier, apparently meaningless ones. Note, for example, the way Bates quietly explains to Marion how much he enjoys watching her eat, before creepily spying on her as she undresses a few minutes later.
Despite the inevitable hint of film grain you’d expect from a film of this vintage, Psycho positively sparkles in high definition. Every nuance and texture of its richly detailed set design, not to mention the eerie sparkle in Bates’ eyes, can now be fully appreciated.
The innovative, jarring shrieks of Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable theme are now similarly rich in this new Dolby 5.1 presentation, which has been remastered from the original mono track to hackle-raising effect.
As is frequently the case with current Blu-ray releases, most of the extras on this high-definition presentation were previously available on the Psycho Collector’s Edition DVD from 1998.
Nevertheless, the Making Of Psycho feature-length documentary is an excellent one for anyone who has yet to see it, and includes interviews with screenwriter Joseph Stefano, the late actress Janet Leigh, Patricia Hitchcock (the director’s daughter, who played a small role in Psycho), editor Paul Hirsch, assistant director Hilton A. Green, and costume designer Rita Riggs.
Far from the junket-style puffery we’re usually treated to on extras discs, this ‘making of’ is an illuminating and detailed account of how Hitchcock and his cast and crew created Psycho. Stefano’s recollections of his working relationship with Hitchcock, and how he subtly altered Robert Bloch’s source novel for the screen, are of particular interest, and he makes for an entertaining and likeable raconteur.
In The Master’s Shadow: Hitchcock’s Legacy will be of equal value for film buffs. The documentary doesn’t necessarily tell you anything you don’t already know (Hitchcock’s impact on cinema is well documented), but its interviews with such veteran directors as John Carpenter, William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese, along with Guillermo del Toro, Joe Carnahan and Eli Roth, provide a more personal insight into how Hitchcock influenced their filmmaking.
Elsewhere, there are shorter features on how Psycho‘s sound was (controversially) remastered for Dolby 5.1 systems, an examination of how Herrmann’s score affected the film’s legendary shower sequence, and some newsreel footage of Psycho‘s release in 1960, when Hitchcock, always the master of self-promotion, insisted that anyone arriving late to a showing of his film be barred from entering the cinema.
Rounding off the extras are some excerpts from a 1962 radio interview between Hitchcock and French director, Francois Truffaut, a feature commentary from Hitch buff Stephen Rebello, and a broad selection of production notes, original and re-release trailers, behind-the-scenes photos and other pieces of artwork.
Psycho‘s extras complement the main feature perfectly, and are as in-depth and compelling as a fan of the movie could want. In fact, this Blu-ray presentation is, for now, the definitive version of Hitchcock’s suspense classic, and it’s a movie that deserves to be seen in high-definition.
Psycho is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.