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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Psycho (1960)
4 Stars

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Patricia Hitchcock, John Anderson, Frank Albertson.
1960 – 108 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 3, 1998; Updated August 28, 2013.

From the original "Master of Suspense," "Psycho" is Alfred Hitchcock's most widely known and talked-about film, a towering achievement for a relatively low-budget horror picture that, at the time it was made, cost only $800,000. Based on the novel by Robert Bloch and loosely inspired by cannibalistic Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, the movie came at a time when Hitchcock was tired of helping variations on the same old spy plots and longed to stir things up. Deferring his usual salary for a slice of the hoped-for earnings, he went out on a creative limb and, as a result, forever altered the future of an entire genre. "Psycho" terrified audiences in 1960 and, surprisingly, still holds up today. This is a scary and immersive motion picture, both entirely potent and enormously entertaining.

Tired of the life she's been living and wishing to be able to marry longtime boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin), Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) makes a rash decision to steal $40,000 in cash from the Phoenix bank she works at. Filled with paranoia and a little guilt, Marion trades in her car and skips town. Having driven all day and into the wee hours, she makes the fateful choice to stop off for an overnight stay at the rustic Bates Motel. Before the evening is over, she will meet the end of a very sharp knife while taking a shower. When motel manager Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) discovers the body, he believes it is the work of his invalid mother, her silhouette peering out from the upstairs window of the house overlooking the motel. Not knowing what else to do, Norman disposes of the body by putting her in the trunk of her car and driving it into a nearby swamp. When Marion never shows up, older sister Lila (Vera Miles) grows concerned and enlists the aid of both Sam and police detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) to investigate her disappearance.

At the time of its release, "Psycho" was viewed in certain circles as a rule-breaking, wildly explicit film, dealing in brutal murder, risqué (for 1960) sexual situations, and themes involving Norman's Oedipal complex and transvestitism (never mind it was also the first time a flushing toilet was seen on film). Although these elements are not nearly as shocking in the twenty-first century, Hitchcock's Psycho remains a miraculous motion picture of bravery and innovation. It is no wonder it consistently ends up on any—and sometimes at the top—of the list of all-time horror greats.

The screenplay by Joseph Stefano is way ahead of its time in both its dialogue and construction. For those unfamiliar with the iconic shower scene (is anyone?), it would come as a huge surprise that the character of Marion, who has been established as the protagonist of the story, dies within the first hour. There are actually two murder set pieces in "Psycho," and they are both dazzlingly executed. The sequence where Arbogast is attacked as he mounts the staircase in the Bates' home is exceptionally composed and cut together, powerful enough to still creep viewers out and cause them to jump in their seats.

The character of the occasionally charming, partly threatening Norman Bates will always be associated with the late, irreplaceable Anthony Perkins, who never had a role as memorable as this one. He is perfect as the tall but slight, somewhat shy Mama's boy who isn't yet aware of—or doesn't want to face up to—the bitter truth about himself and his mental state. As the film's anticlimactic heroine Marion, Janet Leigh was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for this monumental role. Her Marion is a tragic figure of poor decisions and circumstance; she is not a bad person—realizing that she has made a terrible decision, she plans to return the next morning to Phoenix and face the consequences moments before heading to shower—but one whose misguided actions have led her to a destination of doom. Long before the film's more macabre aspects kick into gear, Leigh manages to vibrantly come alive, her character faced with so many dreams for her future it has culminated in a crisis of conscience.

Transcendentally influential as a cinematic masterpiece and a piece of artwork in motion, "Psycho" continues over a half-century later to capture the attention, respect and adoration of new generations of moviegoers. Hitchcock weaves a spell of command and tension that begins in the first half—a scene where Marion stops at a car dealership and believes a policeman across the street is watching her is as nail-biting as any of the more perilous later moments—and doesn't stop until the final revelatory minutes. Additionally, John L. Russell's black-and-white lensing is superlative, bringing a great deal of atmosphere, foreboding and mystery that might not have had the same haunting effect in color. It almost goes without mentioning the flawless string-laden music score by Bernard Herrmann, ripped off many times since but never equaled. As in "Halloween" eighteen years later, it is impossible to imagine "Psycho" without that music, its striking orchestrations sending an unavoidable shiver up one's spine. As a groundbreaking horror film that paved the way for what was to follow, "Psycho" is a richly modulated study in the darkest regions of a person's psyche and a paragon of style, mood, and undeniable terror.

© 1998 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman