Weekend Film Recommendation: Psycho

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Part of Alfred Hitchcock’s magnificence as a filmmaker stemmed from his restlessness. He ruled 1950s cinema, delighting both audiences and critics with big budget, suspense-and-romance movies shot in glossy color. The studio heads at Paramount Pictures expected that for the final film he was contracted to shoot for them, he would go back to the well that had made him world-famous and Paramount executives very rich. But the suits misjudged the genius’ desire to keep pushing the envelope rather than repeating himself. Hitch announced that he wanted to make a low-budget, black-and-white horror film based on the exploits of real-life serial killer. The studio execs wouldn’t touch it, so he got the money together on his own and used the crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show to shoot the movie. The result was a trendsetting, nerve-shredding masterpiece: 1960′s Psycho.

The story opens with Marion Crane (an achingly vulnerable Janet Leigh) and her lover (John Gavin) discussing how they can never get married because of the financial constraints they face. Enter one of Hitchcock’s most inspired MacGuffins: $40,000 in cash that Marion is entrusted by her boss to deposit in the bank. Impulsively, she steals the money and drives to visit her lover, getting lost on a lonely road in a rainstorm. Fortunately, she finds an empty motel, where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, in his signature role). The lonely young man tends the failing motel, while also watching over his emotionally disturbed mother. As shown in one of the movie’s many beautifully scripted and acted scenes (with evocative incidental music), Marion and Norman connect with and at the same unnerve each other:

I was blessed to see Psycho many years ago with no idea of the plot or legend of this film, and for that reason I will reveal no more of the story other than to say that it’s a masterclass in horror and psychological tension, with coruscating performances, direction and camerawork (The staircase sequence with private investigator Arbogast and the subsequent shot of Norman carrying his mother down to the fruit cellar are both technical marvels). The famous score by Bernard Herrmann is one of his best, and amps up the terror almost beyond belief. Credit also must go to screenwriter Joseph Stefano for realizing that Robert Bloch’s novel had to be significantly altered to work as a film, particularly in terms of building out the backstory of Marion Crane and re-conceptualizing the character of Norman Bates.

It is difficult to appreciate today how challenging it was for Hitchcock to get this film past the censors in 1960, but to give you one example of how strict the prevailing norms were, this is the first American movie to show someone flushing a toilet (Think of the children!). There is of course much more here than that to upset the censors, but Hitch mostly got the sexuality and graphic violence he wanted, thus pre-figuring what the 1960s would later bring in a flood to movie audiences. As ever, the Master was ahead of the curve.

p.s. With the aid of fellow director Barry Levinson, Mel Brooks brilliantly parodied the most famous scene in Psycho in his 1977 film High Anxiety.

p.p.s. The 2012 film Hitchock focuses heavily on the making of this movie. Although it garnered mixed reviews, I thought that Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren have rarely been better.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.