It was a spine tingling time as a 13 year old on a Tuesday in June of 2001.
The American Film Institute was revealing their annual Top 100 list that they would do every year. That year’s was entitled 100 Years, 100 Thrills. As the countdown was concluding, I had made a $5 bet with my dad (the most I could afford at that time) over which would be number one. He was going with Jaws, while I was rooting for Psycho. By the end, Jaws was number 2, and I had won five dollars, bragging for some time afterwards.
Psycho is one of the very few films one can put in the category of “anno domini” (A.D.). In other words, these films changed cinema going forward, films like Citizen Kane (1941), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Star Wars (1977). While there were certainly horror movies before Psycho, such as Universal’s 1930s monster movies and The Night of the Hunter (1955), all the Mike Myers, Jason, and Freddy flicks are in debt to Hitchcock’s most known film.
After being asked to deposit cash for a client, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) decides to steal the $40,000 dollars (roughly $350,000 dollars nowadays) so she can finally settle down with her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin). On the way, she makes a stop at the old Bates Motel, run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who runs the place as well as takes care of “a boy’s best friend”, his mother.
Okay, I understand most people would know what happens in a movie six decades after it is released, but there are still some who have probably only heard of it. If I were asked to not ruin only one movie in my life, it would be this one, as the twists keep on coming right up to what is hands down the greatest movie twist ever put on screen. Mother would be upset with me if I did.
Hitchcock himself was so worried about spoilers he went as far as buying as many copies of the book the film was based off of (he had previously bought the rights), telling theaters not to let anyone in after the opening credits, and not letting critics see the film ahead of time. It actually helped the ticket sales.
Without question, one of the key aspects of the film comes from it’s composer Bernard Hermann. While he composed the works of other Hitchcock films like Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), he is clearly most remembered for Psycho. Using an orchestra made up of only stringed instruments, the music seeps out of the pores of ever frame into our brain and never leaves. What John Williams did with scaring people out of the water in Jaws, Bernard Hermann did fifteen years earlier with stopping people (including star Janet Leigh) from taking showers.
There are few scenes in the history of cinema as famous as the shower scene. Even those who have not seen the film have paradoied it to death, with the “ree! ree!” score. While most modern day horror films (which I admit I have not seen a lot of so I am speculating) would rely on lots of blood and effects, Hitchcock relied more on emotional reaction. A murder of this kind would certainly be quick, and the victim would see it all end in the blink of an eye. Even without tons of blood (which was actually chocolate syrup), the scene is still the most effective horror scene ever filmed.
One cannot see this film without being affected by the performances, most notably that of Anthony Perkins. Like a little boy in a man’s body, we see him with his hands in his pockets and munching on candy and so on. We feel for him and pity him. It is probably the greatest performance ever given that was never noticed by the Academy.
Norman Bates is one of the most important of all film characters, mainly
because, even after multiple viewings, we still feel ourselves relating
to him as well as pitying him throughout (most) of the movie. His
situation is fraught, perhaps more so then our own lives (excluding the
current pandemic), wishing (at least on first viewing) he can find some
form of salvation from his past.
While the fear of being murdered is indeed a real one we all feel, there are the less extreme fears that Hitchcock brings to light in the film (as well as his other films). The fear of committing a crime without a second thought. The fear of being followed by the police (Hitchcock was vocal in his fear of the police). The fear of getting our moms upset.
There is, of course, one part of the film that audiences nowadays know to be redundant to say the least. It is in the last ten minutes or so of the film, and is the speech given by the psychiatrist. Being that the film was from 1960, it was probably something that was needed for audiences at the time. While I also feel it is unneeded, I have another theory as to why it was tacked on.
In an interview with Dick Cavett, Hitchcock (who also displays his wonderful sense of humor) hints at how making a suspenseful film is somewhat like making a roller coaster. The speech at the end is indeed a chance for the audience to “breath”, like the roller coaster wheeling in slowly to let the riders out (there is another segment in the film like this after the shower scene, although that scene is arguably needed in the story).
Parents, while the film is indeed rated R, it should be noted it was not rated R at the time of release (the MPAA rating did not exist at that time). It is arguably more of a strong PG-13. When it was released, it was definetly new to see the amount of sexual content on screen (no visible nudity; a character shown in a bra and slip and kissing). I would think middle school and above are okay, depending on if your child is okay with black and white.
The most intriguing thing to me about Hitchcock (who I am happy to go on the record in saying is the best filmmaker of all time) is that no one else knew the psyche of their audience better. At the end of the AFI special I previously mentioned, the most memorable thing to me was when Hitch’s daughter Patricia (his only child) stated why her father is so special as a director:
“He made his pictures for you. He didn’t make them for the critics. He didn’t make them for anybody else but you, the audience”.