Alfred Hitchcock Retrospective: Psycho
By Tyler Davies.
The legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock is synonymous with his groundbreaking horror movie Psycho. Throughout the years, the 1960s classic has grown to become the epitome of the horror movie genre. In my eyes, no movie of its kind has surpassed it. It has spawned three sequels, a remake, countless imitations and even a TV series, but they amount to nothing compared to this masterpiece. Whilst it mostly remains commemorated due to the renowned shower-scene, there’s plenty to enjoy. I deem it to be a riveting and chilling movie which is worthy of all the praise it receives. The main reason I chose to write about it is that it continues to deliver frights no matter how many times I re-watch it.
The thrust of the movie is the adept suspense that Hitchcock builds throughout. Once the protagonist Marion Crane takes a bold step by committing theft then the audience is taken along on a spiraling journey, one enveloped by constant tension. Hitchcock uses several shrewd techniques to heighten the tense atmosphere along the way. Whether it’s Marion’s misfortunate encounter with her employer or when she is confronted by the sharp police officer – they all do a commendable job at ramping up the tension. Most notable, though, is the use of voice-overs. When Marion’s on the road we get to hear the (imaginary) voice of her perturbed loved ones as well as suspicious colleagues. It nicely sets the tone, making her getaway all the more vivid.
Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are customarily defined by an assortment of distinct characters/personas and Psycho is no exception (although credit must also go to Robert Bloch, who wrote the original novel). The main character, whilst not garnering my highest appreciation, is undoubtedly interesting. Her fluctuating persona makes her an absorbing character as she transforms from an innocently sweet secretary into an impulsive law-breaker. Despite this though, there isn’t a single moment when you are devoid of sympathy for Miss Crane, due to her despondent position which makes the audience benignant towards her crime. To use one of the films own metaphors: Marion Crane is essentially a stuffed bird, trapped in a relationship and job with dim prospects. This defines her as a character driven by circumstance and paints her as multi-dimensional. This is one of the movie’s strengths: each character is intrinsically layered.
Janet Leigh pulls in an earnest and unblemished performance as Marion. Some have her role etched in their memory because of the voluptuous image she exhibits; however, her performance is one of the most noteworthy parts of the movie. Sadly, I feel that she is overshadowed by the sublime Anthony Perkins. His role in Psycho gained him universal fame – and rightly so. He enacts the varying shades of Norman Bates with ease and no other actor could have handled the part with such success.
Norman Bates is a household name within the horror movie genre; an absolutely unnerving character. He is, by all means, an unlikely antagonist. I highly doubt many expected him to be revealed as the titular psychopath upon their first viewing. When we are initially introduced to him he is warm, jovial and quite quirky – none of which gives any indication of his true mental state. It is therefore stupefying when he is revealed to be a schizophrenic with a split-personality. All of a sudden, that moment of revelation turns Norman into a deranged and unfathomably complex person. It is the revelation that makes his character so fascinating and memorable.
There’s a scene that topples the revelation: the stupendously eerie denouement. It shows Bates, in solitary, wholly consumed by Mother as he thinks to himself. That single frame in which Mother’s skull is superimposed on Norman’s grinning face is utterly spine-chilling. It’s the very epitome of spooky. The entire scene is powerfully enhanced by Hitchcock’s skillful direction, coupled by the frightful voice of Mother (“‘Why, she wouldn’t even swat a fly’”).
Marion and Norman are two unforgettable characters. However, even the supporting characters manage to grasp your interest in some amount. For example: the suspicious police officer who constantly looms over Marion during her evasion seems as if he’s apprehensive of her crime. It’s quite unnerving the manner in which he eagle-eyes her. During my first watch I assumed he would be the villain of the story. In hindsight, I realise he was a red-herring; cunningly integrated to the story to convince us this would be another routine crime thriller.
Finally, the iconic shower-scene. That scene is a strikingly bold leap due to the alteration from a suspense thriller to a horror movie, but it’s one that thoroughly works. The scene alone is innovative and game-changing, as the story defies convention. I bet contemporary filmgoers were shocked to see the protagonist murdered halfway through the film; it’s a shock that resonates to this day. It actually makes me a little squeamish – a testament to Hitchcock’s superior aptitude for horror. The Bates Motel, with its bland and ordinary exterior, is consequently moulded into a sinister locale. One can therefore see why Hitchcock was attracted to the story because his movies have a propensity for turning an ordinary setting into something horrifying.
Psycho is a stomach-churning horror movie as well as a classic. The combination of a gripping and suspenseful storyline, fully realised characters, and sublime direction, successfully cement Psycho as a horror to last throughout the ages. One can truly say that Hitchcock was at the zenith of his career when he made it.