When someone dives into film headfirst their exposure to the so called “classics” will vary depending on their history. Keeping up with new releases can overwhelm and the list of films you’ve missed list only grows longer. Cinematic Shortcomings is all about making that list shorter.
The inaugural entry is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
Spoilers For Psycho Follow
Hitchcock is an artist in general that has mostly alluded me over the twelve years or so that I have considered myself an avid film enthusiast and before watching Psycho I had only seen two of his previous films in that time; Vertigo and Rear Window. I enjoyed both of those films, but I never felt like I should be holding them on a the same pedestal many people do. Vertigo, in fact, I just saw for the first time earlier this year after it was named tops on Sight & Sounds 2012 film poll. Like the previous champion of that list, Citizen Kane, I wasn’t sure what the fuss was about other than the fact that maybe it did some things first. I found Vertigo a far easier watch than Kane, but when it comes to my very brief opinion of Hitchcock’s filmography I would easily take Psycho.
Going into Psycho I knew all the twists, Marion gets the knife and Norman’s mom isn’t who we think she is, but I think the film is still rewarding without those shocks because Hitchcock knows how to shoot/cut a picture and Anthony Perkins is utterly fantastic as Norman Bates. I imagine the film’s effectiveness would only be improved having not know these reveals, but a great finale still sucked me in and I actually didn’t know how it played out exactly. It’s obviously just not the surprises that makes this film work.
Hitchcock builds an interesting character in Marion and in the little that we know about her (unmarried, lives with her sister and dating a financially strapped man) we can believe that she might run away with a large pile of cash thrown in her lap. On the run, she gets to remain mysterious and we are left wondering where she will go, but I’m not going to lie, Marion might be one of the worst liars in the history of film; laughably bad. But her intended mea culpa, right before Mother gets her, helps justify her jitterness as she realizes she is clearly in over her head. Just as that mystery is about to fade, Hitchcock brings in Norman Bates as the film transitions to its strongest asset.
Bates has always been considered a classic villain of cinema and the film would have been worth the watch just for Perkins’ performance. Even in his moments of sweetness and innocence, there is something always lingering just beyond those eyes that is unsettling; and that smile. I don’t know how Marion was so cool around Bates as I would spend about as little time as possible with him. The dinner scene with Marion is also an all-timer as things just get creepier and creepier and the slow reveal that this guys isn’t right in the head, starting with “A mother is a son’s best friend,” is about as affective as one could hope for. The long shadows and creepy taxidermy only add to the oddness of it all and I think Janet Leigh might have played things a little too straight in those moments. But I think Perkins best bit of acting in the whole film lasts for maybe on second on screen and that is that ear to ear grin he gives as mother when he busts in on Lila discovery the real mother. He is just so fucking happy going for that kill and the moment made me laugh with nervousness.
The film also feels way ahead of its time with the voyeuristic tendencies of Norman and the split personality disorder, but I think the film’s final rundown, telling us exactly what happened, is a huge disservice to the film. If a scene of that expository nature popped up in a big movie today it would be ridiculed to no end, but it would take a bit more than that to ruin this film. But seriously, where did that scene come from. I do wonder if they had to wait to reveal Norman was as crazy as he was until the end because they thought audiences wouldn’t be comfortable with that level of insanity.
The film’s final scene at the hotel is also the most affective, as we play a little cat and mouse as Lila and Sam search for any signs of her sister. Hitchcock’s camera sneaks around the property and he really gets inventive in the house. The camera comes most alive when we head into Norman’s house and it really lends to keeping the mystery alive around what the hell is going on in there. Sure he could have made a couple of camera moves a little cleaner, but between the swinging light and Arbogast’s tumble down the stairs, they more than make up for any little technical shortcomings.
The shower scene is still great, even when you know its coming, and it is cringe inducing when there is nothing really violent of note compared to today’s standards. I was actually a bit shocked how slow a build up the murder takes place at as we slowly see Mother open the door and creep in on Marion. Still, the balls to completely change your film’s direction like that is something I wish we had more of in today’s cinema and you can certainly see why the shower scene became so iconic.
Psycho is a well crafted thriller that set the groundwork for countless slasher films to come. Tame by today’s standards, it is endlessly more engaging than most of the horror films that followed. Hitchcock keeps the tension high and gets an amazing performance out of Anthony Perkins and this is the first Hitchcock film I would excitedly watch again.