October 15, 2011


Psycho may be Alfred Hitchcock's most famous thriller, because of its two notorious scenes of violence. Aesthetically and thematically, Psycho stands apart from the other films generally cited as among the director's best (Rebecca, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, and North By Northwest). It was independently financed by Hitchcock, and shot with the same crew that worked on his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And so it lacks the silky glamour of his 50s films, and is a decidedly more American Gothic than Rebecca, even though both films are about powerful women who manage to maintain control of people and places from beyond the grave.

Because of its filming conditions, Psycho resembles television more than the movies, and its dramatics are corny the way 1950s television dramas were. (It's also economical the way TV has to be.) The story is straightforward, less sophisticated than a lot of Hitchcock's movies (e.g. Rear Window) and less darkly humorous (e.g. Strangers on a Train), but it has all the tantalizingly delicious Freudian psychology of Oedipus and Vertigo, fashioned compactly into a thriller that reshaped the way people made thrillers, and the way people saw them and talked about them and wrote about them. And somehow, its corniness, its simplicity, its one-track direction toward the big reveal, all work for it. Psycho wouldn't have been as memorable, I don't think, if Hitchcock had made it like his other movies.

Hitchcock can never be accused of putting on airs in his movies: he's at his best when he revels in the low arts. His apparently instinctive approach to movies as low art has made his work deliciously entertaining, much like Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946), Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958), and Stanley Donen's Charade (1963) (three of the great American thrillers). I think most if not all good thrillers are inherently comfortable with their vulgarity. These movies deal with seedy people whose complicated lives are far from glamorous or tidy. Norman Bates is a genuine lunatic with the most dangerous facade of them all: the facade of a sweet, friendly, handsome boy-next-door. He's a villain who's sympathetic, dominated by the even more villainous presence of his mother. And Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) isn't the pure heroine: she's a thief (a one-time thief, but still a thief).

Hitchcock's previous films were certainly suspenseful, but they weren't so centered around the big reveal at the end. People didn't expect the movie's only star, Janet Leigh, to be slashed to death midway through the film, and they didn't expect the movie to then shift gears and be about Norman Bates and the secrets lurking in his creepy old house. I would imagine that even those who had read Robert Bloch's 1959 novel--on which Psycho was based--were expecting some Hollywood-style changes to protect the heroine from the grisly fate of being butchered in the shower. That simply couldn't happen.

With Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam.

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