Psycho (1960)

Psycho is so entrenched in our popular culture that, even as a huge fan of horror movies, until now I have never really felt the urge to watch it.  I knew the story, I had seen the most famous scenes more times than I could count, I even knew all about the true story it is roughly based on.  I suppose I felt that the film had been ruined for me in a sense, and that it would hold no surprises for me- no suspense, and what would be the point of watching a Hitchcock movie without suspense?  Having finally watched it in its entirety, I realize I could not have been more wrong.

Marion (Janet Leigh) is handed $40,000 in cash to deposit for a client but decides instead to take the money and run.  As the weight of her crime weighs on her conscious she begins feeling and more importantly acting paranoid, attracting the attention of a police officer and a used car salesman.  Finally she checks in to the Bates Motel, managed by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who has a disturbing relationship with his mother.

The rest is cinematic history.  Much of the audience was likely drawn by Leigh's appearance in the film, and it must have been unbelievably shocking for them to witness her violent death halfway through the movie.  The movie then switches to the perspective of private investigator Arbogast (who is also suddenly murdered) before finishing up from the point of view of yet another set of protagonists.

I really enjoyed Anthony Perkins' performance.  His portrayal of Norman Bates has been
parodied and referenced to the point where I was expecting a one-note depiction of an awkward mama's boy.  I was surprised to see that Bates is instead boyishly handsome and charming in his own way. His mask of sanity slip now and then, but he almost always seems to realize when he has gone too far or said too much and reels himself back in.

When he is being interviewed by Arbogast he starts out cool and friendly but within a few questions he has been caught in a lie and ineffectually tries to modify his version of the story.  What he doesn't realize is that the local sheriff pretty much considers the case closed, assuming that Marion has run away with the money.  His problem, like Marion, is that he cracks under even the slightest pressure.

Technically, the movie is perfect of course.  The black and white photography is moody and beautiful with excellent use of shadow, and Hitchcock's direction is of course masterful.  The pacing is perfect (with one little problem I will go into later) and while I still found the movie to be suspenseful having known the story before watching it, even if I didn't the movie would have been a pleasure to watch.  It is always fascinating to watch people doing something they are expert at, and that is a fitting description of Psycho.

I have two problems with this film.  The first is the shower scene.  It just doesn't work for me.  I've not been stabbed to death in a shower so I can't say for sure, but I never get the feeling that the knife is actually even touching Marion.  I'm not saying it needs to be more explicit, but something seems off about it... knife seems to slow, angle is off, the way Marion slides down the wall seems overly theatrical and not realistic.  Having said that, the lead up is perfect.

Regardless of my hangup over the shower scene, it doesn't diminish the movie in any way.  That can't be said of the closing scene.  First we get Norman Bates shrieking "I'M NORMAN BATES" as he rushes into a room wearing his mother's clothes.  He doesn't even seem to be saying it, and it appears to have been dubbed in after.  Was this done in fear that audiences would not understand what was going on?  Next, we get a hammy, rambling speech by a psychiatrist explaining what exactly is wrong with Norman Bates, and it completely spoils the pacing of the movie.  Finally, a long shot of Norman Bates that would have been way more effective without his internal monologue.

I can forgive the last 10 minutes due to the strength of the rest of the movie.  Psycho is still an effective thriller and a masterpiece of suspense half a century later.  Who will even remember garbage like Saw in 2060?

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