Psycho (1960)
By: Julian on November 14, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Universal (Australia), Region 4, PAL. 1:78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 1.0, French DD 1.0, Spanish DD 1.0, Italian DD 1.0. English, French, Greek subtitles. 104 minutes.
The Movie
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam
Screenplay: Joseph Stefano
Country: USA
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Think Hitchcock, and most will think Psycho. By far his most popular achievement, Psycho is also one of the genre's most iconic films – even those who don't know its content would be able to attribute the infamous 'shower scene' to this film, and Bernard Herrmann's screeching violins is one of the most imitated shock-scores in cinema.

Psycho begins with Saul Bass' irresistible opening credits sequence, scored to Herrmann's music, which was sadly passed over for the US film industry's top gong. The blonde Hitchcock has cast in (what we believe to be) the protagonist's role is Janet Leigh, mother of future scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis. The film opens with Leigh's Marion Crane, an office clerk for a real estate agent in Phoenix. During a Friday afternoon lunch break, Marion sees her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) on the sly, and the pair is emotionally fraught – Marion wants to marry but Sam, stricken with crippling alimony payments, simply can't.

Returning to work, Marion finds her employer George Lowrey in the depths of a business deal with a brash cowboy, who entrusts Lowrey with a forty thousand dollar cash payment. Uncomfortable with that amount of money being left in the safe over the weekend, he asks Marion to deposit it. But Marion has other things in mind – seeing the $40,000 as a solution to her and Sam's problems, she takes it and tells Lowrey she's feeling sick, and won't be back that afternoon.

Marion heads to Sam's place out of Phoenix, attracting the suspicion of a highway patrolman who sees her sleeping parked on the roadside. When she gets to the next town, she sells her car so as to throw the cops off the scent. Driving well into the night, with rain pelting down, Marion stops at the Bates Motel – twelve rooms, twelve vacancies, twelve showers. The proprietor is the softly spoken Norman (Anthony Perkins) – a bit of an odd bloke who appears to take quite a shine to Marion. Norman, a taxidermist in his spare time, is charged with the care of the motel (which has suffered a lag in business when the highway was diverted) and looking after his wheelchair bound mother. Marion has dinner in the office parlour before retiring to her room. Norman spies on her for a bit through a peephole before himself retiring, to the old two-storey house behind the hotel that's occupied by him and dear old mum.

This leads us into what is arguably one of the most iconic scenes in horror cinema – Marion takes a shower. And she's stabbed, repeatedly, by a shadowy figure as Herrmann's score screeches, before she expires in the running bathtub. The figure runs off – moments later, we hear Norman's anguished cry of "mother? What've you done?" Son goes down, discovers Marion's corpse, and works to hide all evidence of mother's wrongdoing.

By Monday, Lowrey finds out about Marion's disappearance. Discovering that the $40,000 was not deposited, he assumes that Marion went on the lam with the cash. He gets in touch with Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles), and they decide to avoid contacting the police, instead hiring a private investigator Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Arbogast's investigations lead him to the Bates Motel and, when things don't appear to add up, he enlists the help of Lila and Sam to ascertain whether Marion met to foul play.

Based on Robert Bloch's 1959 novel of the same name, Psycho has proved one of the most influential works in modern horror cinema. Claims of Hitchcock's sublime originality are evident here – this is particularly clear in the shower sequence. One of the most talked-about scenes ever filmed, the shower sequence has been the source of thousands upon thousands of words of discussion – some scouting its relevance metaphysically, allegorically, metaphorically… film pretension aside, it's a terrific piece of horror. Herrmann's music is what makes it so terrifying – and the fact that the composer had to convince Hitchcock to use his score in what was intended to be a music-less film is incredible.

Joseph Stefano's screenplay didn't deviate too much from Bloch's brilliant, and dreadfully underrated, novel. "Mary" became "Marion", and Stefano wisely scraps the idea of Norman being an alcoholic. Much of the final sequence was repeated verbatim in the film, although the antagonist's crimes were diminished somewhat. Bloch's description of Marion's murder is hilarious and very pulpy: "It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head." Bloch based his work on Ed Gein, the notorious Wisconsin murderer who was arrested in 1957.

The film is incredibly well acted, containing Hitchcock's trademark scenes of rat-tat-tat dialogue. Particularly commendable is, obviously, Anthony Perkins' Norman – a role he reprised in four sequels. It's a sublime piece of acting by Perkins, who fashions Norman as a neurotic, bumbling, shadow of a man.

Hitchcock used a number of experimental devices when filming Psycho, and his collaboration with cinematographer John L Russell produced some brilliant work. Just see the flair used in shooting the shower scene (where subliminal penetration of the knife totalling a few frames was used), or the second murder as the victim comes tumbling down the stairs. Or that chilling final shot. Visually, Psycho is a feast, and Hitchcock's decision to shoot in understated black-and-white works to its profound merit.

The censors had some huge points of contention with Psycho's objectionable content. The shower scene was scrutinised heavily, and the MPAA sent the print back to Hitchcock saying that part of Marion's breast was filmed. In one of Hitch's most audacious moments wrangling with the censors that so carefully inspected his work, he returned the print untouched, saying he had excised the offending scene. It was no longer a problem. Further, was the shot of a toilet flushing – unseen in films of that era, the humble toilet carried a connotation that the censors found morbidly offensive. As far as I'm aware, this shot remained intact despite the MPAA's reservations.

Psycho was also a platform for Hitch to unleash his hysterical ad campaigns that he utilised, perhaps to greater effect, for The Birds three years later. No one was allowed admission into the cinema once the film had commenced. It was a riff on Henri Georges-Clouzot's technique for 1955's Les Diaboliques, and it had the punters coming in droves. Also of note is the theatrical trailer, included on this disc, where Hitchcock launches into a grim procedural analysis of the Bates house crime scene. He's interrupted by Marion (who is actually played by Vera Miles in a blonde wig) screaming, before the title appears. Hitchcock shot a similar trailer for The Birds, which is far more blackly funny. 

Also released at the same time, as Psycho was Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, whose central character is a repressed psychosexual fruitcake. This film was universally panned as being one of the most appallingly profane movies ever to be committed to celluloid. And although comparing the two might be unfair, it's unavoidable – and I've always felt Powell's film comes up trumps, at least conceptually. They do, however, make a tremendous double feature.

A lot has been said about Psycho, and it'd be impossible to cover it all here. To sum it up in a word, Psycho is essential: one of the premier entries into the horror genre and a defining work of cinema.

Picture is presented in 1:78:1 with 16:9 enhancement. For the most part, it looks good – generally artefact-free.
Four audio tracks are provided – English, French, Italian and Spanish Dolby mono. It's adequate.

There was an audio sync problem with this, which seems to be a common observation throughout reviews of this disc. It's very distracting, and whether the Region 1 release has rectified this remains to be seen.
Extra Features
The aforesaid theatrical trailer, and cast and Hitchcock profiles. There are also extensive production notes. Weak, given that Region 1 was given a feature length documentary and a host of other extras. This version has been released in Australia, albeit in the Psycho box set, which contains this film and its three sequels.
The Verdict
Absolutely superb – my heart was in my mouth for the final reveal. Hitchcock didn't make anything quite like it since, and the horror genre would never be the same again.
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score

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