Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, remains one of the great horror movies of all time. Indeed, I think it is the first great horror movie of the modern era. It turned what had been predominantly a B-movie genre into art, marking a transition in our cultural discussion and depiction of fear as it showed people, not things that go "bump" in the night, as the monsters. It also shows Hitchcock at his very best, showcasing the perfection of his craft as well as his wicked sense of humor.
Psycho is the story of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), an attractive Phoenix woman who absconds with 40,000 dollars in cash in order to start a new life with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). On the road, she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a lonely motel keeper. Soon her sister Lila (Vera Miles), a private detective and local law enforcement are on her tail as she seeks to escape from her "private trap" and set her life in order.
This premise sounds like an okay movie. But in fact this detailed setup is what makes it such a great one. Hitchcock really invests in Marion. We get to know her pretty well before anything serious starts to happen. We want her to succeed. She is motivated primarily by love, and that gets her into trouble we want her to be out of. We worry about Marion and how she will deal with her hasty crime, but we are also sympathetic. But then, that's not really what this movie is about, is it?
WARNING: Spoilers and stuff ahead.
One of my favorite things about Psycho is this great false setup. From the point of the murder on, it feels like an entirely different movie. The paranoia made obvious by the frantic music present all through Marion's flight from the law gives way to suspicion and confusion. Suddenly everything that was important (the money, Marion's plans, her moral dilemma, etc) doesn't matter at all. They go with her to the bottom of the swamp. It now becomes Norman's movie. He is, in a way, our new protagonist. He generates some serious sympathy in the discussion he has with Marion, even if he is a little (okay, a lot) creepy. He is also motivated primarily by love, and we want him out of his jam as well.
Of course, that all turns out to be our own deception, and I think that is what makes Psycho so great. We are impressed by the irony in the story, in what we know that the characters don't, but we don't see it coming for ourselves. We end up almost having to be more sympathetic to Norman than to Lila and Sam. Sure, what happens to Marion not even halfway through the movie is jolting, unexpected and terrifying, but what Norman has become (indeed was from the beginning) is, I think, even more so. Hitchcock gives full room for his genius to flourish. He lets us see into all the characters, and even lets in an awful joke or two (a favorite scene is the woman expressing that "all death should be painless", just moments after we have witnessed Marion's brutal murder), waiting until the closing moments to define "psycho", when we thought we already knew what it was.
I know, the graphics and effects date this movie quite a bit, and it is harder to be as shocked now as it was in 1960 given the amount of cultural exposure the movie has had, but that doesn't take anything away from it for me. We are left with an unforgettable movie experience nonetheless, which I hope you enjoy as much as I do.
NEXT TIME: We'll continue the October festivities with a look at Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.
by Chase Harrison