It’s hard to know what to say about Universal’s bare-bones re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic and seminal horror film. In the absence of significant extras, we’re left with what Basil Fawlty once referred to as The Bleedin’ Obvious – that Psycho remains a masterclass of narrative pace, acting, cinematography, scoring and sheer creepy thrills, and that the years fail to diminish it in any way.
If you have yet to see Psycho and are unacquainted with its core plot, read no further, for this is one of the films where you will remember where and when you first saw it, and the television that you saw it on.
This remains so even in an age which has distilled Psycho’s influence through two or three generations of film-makers; killing the lead female character at the halfway point of the movie is still an audacious bit of plotting, and the very last thing you expect in a black-and-white movie from 1960.
Bernard Herrmann’s rabid and chilling score opens the movie on a falsetto note of hysteria well-matched by the frenetic pace of the Saul Bass titles, and soon we are zooming with typical Hitchcock voyeurism into a private assignation between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her lunch-time lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Hitchcock played out his erotic interest in strong-willed, icy blondes as far as the censors of the day would allow, and Janet Leigh’s semi-garbed opening scene is strong stuff for a mainstream film of the period.
When $40,000 in cash drops into Crane’s lap as an office-errand, she sees the chance to pay off Loomis’s undeserved debts and start over, but the long drive to her lover’s hometown is fraught with paranoia; Hitchcock lays on unbearable suspense as a highway patrol cop (Mort Mills looking remarkably like John Cassavetes) shadows Crane suspiciously, a terrifying figure of authority behind his mirrored glasses.
Exhausted by the journey, and an ironic 15 miles from her destination, Crane checks into the Bates motel, winning the instant admiration and lust of proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), an oedipally-locked loner caring for his cantankerous old mother in the spooky old house looming over the templated lines of the motel itself.
Pretty soon Mrs. Bates realises that sonny-boy has the hots for Crane, and descends to commit one of cinema’s best-known murder-scenes, leaving a horrified Perkins to literally mop up, dispose of the evidence and deal with the torrent of private detectives and concerned relatives that show up looking for Crane and the missing money…
The shower-scene murder used seventy camera set-ups for forty-five seconds of film, and Hitchcock discarded a prosthetic, blood-spurting ‘ Marion dummy’ for a nude stand-in and a now-legendary coup de grace of editing, sound effects and scoring. There is actually little blood and no real nudity in the scene, but when the censors demanded that it be shortened, Hitchcock simply agreed and re-submitted his sleight-of-hand murder unaltered. Satisfied with the (non-existent) snips, the film was passed by the censor.
Hitch was a master publicist, and for the Psycho campaign proclaimed that patrons would not be admitted to the auditorium after the movie had started, a policy enforced on first run by Pinkerton guards hired by the studio. This suggests that there is something in the first ten minutes so crucial to the film’s plot that the rest will not make sense to latecomers, which is not true. It’s more likely that Hitchcock was simply flexing his control freak credentials, as he realised that he had created his most powerful and disturbing work of horror yet, and had measured every beat, shot, music cue and sound effect to within an inch of its life.
Hitchcock was the master of the ‘impossible shot’, levitating his heavy cameras around the set as if they were smoke, and increasing our sense of prurient voyeurism and rubber-necking. The track-back from Anna Massey’s murder in Frenzy (1972) represents arguably the perfection of his omniscient filmic ‘eye’, but the shot in Psycho where we hear Anthony Perkins insisting to his mother that she hide in the fruit-cellar just seems plain impossible: the camera tracks up the stairs, dwells on the door, rotates on two axes and locks off rock-steady as an ariel shot downwards. Notwithstanding advances in film-making technology, this kind of thing would intimidate any modern director.
Scripted by Outer Limits maestro Joseph Stefano from Robert Bloch’s chilling novel, the script and pacing of Psycho is mercilessly lean, and supported by a generally first-rate cast; Janet Leigh was nominated for an Oscar and Anthony Perkins should have been too. That said, John Gavin does nothing exceptional with his cookie-cutter role as The Boyfriend, and Simon Oakland’s end-of-film turn as Dr. Richmond has an out-of-date acting style that jars with the rest of the movie. However Psycho‘s blood-chilling final shot overcomes this, as just for a fraction of a second we spy something horrific in the closing shot of Norman…
Although Universal’s reductionist archive releases rely on genre and reputation for sales, it would be a mistake to ignore the small selection of extras in this release, which features an acceptable if not perfect film transfer. The ‘production notes’ and biographies are extremely well-written and quite extensive compared to the usual entries supplied.
More importantly, the bundled trailer for Psycho is an absolute must-see – running at well over 6 minutes, it features only one (horrifying) shot from the film itself. The rest is Hitchcock himself (by now a popular and practised television personality by dint of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series) making a leisurely round of both the exterior and interior sets of Psycho, and talking to camera about the terrible murders that happened there with typically macabre glee. In fact, Hitch even drops a bit of a spoiler in there! Hitchcock’s poor acting only helped to endear him to us, and despite the great man’s delightfully wooden delivery, his sense of comic timing –and of timing in general – can’t help but extend from his films into his frequent and extended trailer appearances.
There are plenty of substitutes and poor cousins for Psycho, but at the low price you can pick this up for, there’s no excuse for any horror fan – or even any film fan – not to have this classic work in their film collection, particularly since the current 2-disc ‘special edition’ has such derisory ‘extras’ content.
Psycho is available as part of Universal’s Cinema Classics Collection in the ‘horror’ category. RRP is £15.99, though it is commonly available at £4.99 via Play and elsewhere.