Brought to you by the master of suspense himself, Psycho (1960) is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s best and most influential film – something not easily said given that the director has put out at least 47 films in his 60-year career. But, none of his other works have garnered the same praise or have left as large an impact as this 1960 psychological thriller, which brought us the iconic shower scene – a pop culture touchstone that continues to be one of the most recognizable scenes in cinema history.
The film is largely considered to be the first of the slasher film genre, an honor it contests with Black Christmas (1974), which was, at least at heart, more of a slasher film than Psycho. And if Psycho’s not the first, then it largely influenced it.
But enough with the praise, for now. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Let’s move on to what makes Psycho one of the best films in cinema history.
Based on a novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, Hitchcock’s seminal masterpiece stars Janet Leigh (Touch of Evil), Anthony Perkins (Five Miles to Midnight), Vera Miles (The Wrong Man), John Gavin (Back Street), and Martin Balsam (12 Angry Men). These are all fairly well-known actors and actresses for their time, but Leigh, in particular, was one of the biggest names in the industry and the definitely the largest box-office name of the entire cast. Even more impressive is when you realize that Janet Leigh, who one could call an honorary scream queen for her role in this film, is the mother of ultimate scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis from the Halloween franchise. Talk about it running in the family.
Real-estate secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer’s client so she could run away with her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and start a new life. While making her way from Phoenix to Fairvale where her boyfriend lives, Marion is overcome from exhaustion while being caught in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. She is forced to stop at the mysterious Bates Motel and encounters the friendly Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who lives alone in a mansion behind the motel with his supposedly sickly mother.
SPOILER WARNING STARTING HERE! GO WATCH THE FILM, THEN COME BACK! OTHERWISE, SKIP DOWN OVER TO THE CONCLUSION.
Psycho is an immortal contribution to not only horror, but to the art of film, in general. Unlike most films from its time, Psycho holds on its own and remains both relevant and entertaining to this day. In a time filled with high-octane blockbusters and nerve-racking jump scares, it continues to thrill those who choose to immerse themselves in it – thanks to its timeless plot and a pacing that even modern audiences can appreciate.
Even if you go in knowing every twist Psycho holds, you can’t help but be drawn into the lives of these characters – each one sympathetic, brilliantly-written, and masterfully portrayed.
Hitchcock forces you to notice the most unsuspecting aspects of these character’s lives, drawing you into them while also drawing you further away from the inevitable end. Things like Norman’s meticulous clean-up of Marion’s cabin after her murder would be something that most modern films would gloss over or not even show at all. But, Hitchcock plays this scene out, not leaving anything to the imagination – all to speak volumes about how much Norman cares for his mother and to draw you away from suspecting the meek and caring Norman Bates – a man who turns to be one of the most infamous serial killers in cinematic history, a man who’s first line in the movie is “Gee. I’m sorry.”
At the time, critics condemned Hitchcock’s absence of subtlety. They criticized his slow build-ups and sudden shocks as being ineffective. And yet these are things that, if executed as masterfully as Hitchcock did in Psycho, would be praised today for its drama and ability keep the attention of audiences during scenes that would, otherwise, be considered mundane by today’s standards.
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is possibly one of the best performances in cinema history. His portrayal of a resigned recluse can only be described as beguiling, yet off-putting at the same time. Without knowing the twist beforehand, one would never suspect the timid young motel proprietor as anything more than. It’s a result of perfect casting and a director that knew exactly what he wanted.
Janet Leigh was only in the movie for 45 minutes, but her performance combined with a masterfully delivered script turned her into a character you would not soon forget. Her death, even if you knew it was coming, is be nothing short of devastating – all thanks to her sympathetic portrayal of a girl in love who was just short of redemption.
And I would be damned if I didn’t mention that classic musical score arranged by Bernand Herrmann. It’s a score that reminds you that you’re watching a Hitchcock film. The sharp, piercing sound of strings that were clearly recorded on a budget was the bow atop of Psycho. It’s a classic and I love it. More than that, Hitchcock himself said that 33% of Psycho‘s impact was thanks to the music.
Psycho is as much as a character study as it is a psychological thriller. It focuses on developing interwoven characters that come and go as the story unfolds. In total, the film presents us with four protagonists who are introduced at different parts of the film. Such as Marion Crane who, for the first act of the film, is the only protagonist we know, but dies 45 minutes into the film.
P.I. Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is presented as the protagonist in her place and, like Marion, he is presented as a sympathetic character that, after only a few scenes, the audience can grow to like as much as Marion. But also like Marion, he dies after only 30 minutes on screen.
After him, we are lead to follow Marion’s sister, Lila Crane, and Marion’s boyfriend, Sam Loomis. They are again introduced as strong, well-developed characters whose motives are clearly presented and, despite only having followed these two characters for the final 30 minutes of the film, are deeply sympathetic, as well.
Doing this trend of false, interchanging protagonists is something that is not easily executed to such successes. Back in the day, this type of twist was unheard of and left many dissatisfied with the film. But since then, many other films and TV shows have used this technique to great effect. An brilliant example would be the award-winning series Game of Thrones (2011-), a show that thrives on the death of multiple sympathetic protagonists.
I completely understand why Psycho would turn-off a lot of young movie lovers – it’s in black-and-white, the production is undeniably low-budget (even for 1960’s standards), and the acting may seem a bit off compared to the acting that we’re used to nowadays. But despite all its faults and it being nearly 60 years old, Psycho still has much to offer to the modern cinephile. Its plot, pacing, and performances combined with suspenseful storytelling techniques make it easy to understand why Psycho is considered a masterpiece and a classic.
It’s just as enjoyable to watch now as it must’ve been nearly six decades ago. And with a story this timeless and thrilling, it continues to captivate audiences to this day and will continue to do so in the years to come.
If you’re a cinephile or just someone who loves movies, especially horror flicks, I truly recommend adding Psycho to your watch list.