July 23, 2004

Psycho (1960)
Grade: 90/100

One of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous films, Psycho is a departure from his usual style. Most Hitchcock movies from the 1950s have a happy ending and feature a top leading man, often Cary Grant or James Stewart. The glamorous leading lady is a love interest to the lead.

Psycho avoids the familiar Hitchcock formulas. An unromantic split personality murderer is in the lead and title role. Anthony Perkins was well known by 1960, from films such as On the Beach and Friendly Persuasion. But as a box office draw, he was not in the same league as Stewart or Grant. The ending is a tragedy, instead of the usual 'exonerated wrong man wins the girl' theme. The glossy color of preceding Hitchcock efforts is replaced with a gritty black and white low budget look, which is completely appropriate for the horror film that it is.

Certainly, Psycho is an outstanding film, and while it is not as strong as Rebecca or Strangers on a Train, it is more popular than either of those more traditional thrillers. Psycho is nervy, and it plays many tricks on the viewer. Janet Leigh is the star, without any doubt, for the initial third of the movie. But after he infamous shower scene, Perkins takes over, unusual for a Hitchcock villain.

Twitchy, calculating, mother-obsessed Norman Bates is almost a comic figure, particularly when his mood swings from discomfort to smug overconfidence. Another despicable triumph for Bates, however fleeting the glory.

Like any good murder mystery, Psycho mounts circumstantial evidence against the wrong suspect. We believe that Norman's mother is the knife-wielding assassin until the shocking climax. Indeed, so convincing are the clues that Hitchcock is forced to introduce a know-it-all psychiatrist to explain the plot twists.

As different as their characters are, Leigh and Perkins have one thing in common. They are both in a trap of their own making. Leigh's fantasy of marital bliss with dull John Gavin is dependent upon a theft that is certain to ruin the relationship instead. Leigh is capable of realizing her mistake, however, while Perkins cannot do so since his identity is permanently tied to his mother.

Earlier scenes in the movie prove to be nearly superfluous to the plot. Leigh is wakened by an intimidating police officer, who stalks her while she trades in her car at California Charlie's. This ties in later only when she leaves a scrap of paper behind calculating the remainder of her stolen loot. But as Gavin says, "Bates never denied she was here." If only he had thought of removing her name from the ledger.

The real purpose of the scenes with the officer and salesman is to demonstrate how difficult it is for an inherently honest person to get away with a crime. Leigh acts guilty because she feels guilty. The unredeemable Perkins acts suspiciously, but even the private investigator always supposes a less sinister motive for his behavior. The detectives, both amateur and pro, believe Perkins is an evasive man who shelters his sickly mother. But the talkative psychiatrist is the only person who recognizes Perkins for what he is, a psycho.

After Psycho, Hitchcock made a less forceful horror film, The Birds, and eventually directed another interesting movie with a deranged villain, Frenzy (1972). But Psycho was Hitchcock's last great film, and its urgent all-percussion score also ranks among the best works of Hitchcock's longtime composer, Bernard Herrmann.