Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Premise: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) embezzles money from a bank and then flees to the Bates Motel and discovers the terrible secret of the owner.
What Works: Psycho is widely considered the best film Alfred Hitchcock ever made, but there has been so much praise heaped on Psycho and it has been so influential on the horror genre that it can be difficult to appreciate how innovative this film was at the time it was made. One of the outstanding innovations of Psycho is in its structure. The film uses a false first act and this fulfills a few functions. First, it gives Marion Crane (Leigh) a back story. In many horror films, a character like this would be introduced and dispatched within the first ten minutes. By spending time establishing her back story, the film lays the groundwork for the appearance of later characters and brings them to the scene of the crime with a sense of purpose. Second, Psycho’s false first act carefully sets the tone of the story by filling it with many shady characters so that by the time Marion arrives at the Bates Motel, Norman seems like the least threatening character in the film. Psycho pushed boundaries of sexuality and violence for the time of its release and now, fifty years after the film was first seen, it is still special. The film could never be considered crude by today’s standards but it isn’t anachronistically puritan either. The film is frank enough to make its point, whether about Norman’s psychosis, the murders, or Marion’s troubled romantic relationship. And yet the restraint that Hitchcock uses, whether by intent or due to the limits of the censorship at that time, gives Psycho a sleek quality that makes it an arrow point of the film. Another innovation of this film, and perhaps the most groundbreaking idea of Psycho, is the killer with a psychosis. Psycho introduced the idea that the likeable but shy man living next door might have severe psychological issues. It is this idea that every psycho killer film that followed Psycho adopted, from high profile films like Fatal Attractionand Silence of the Lambs to the low budget slashers like Friday the 13th and Maniac to more recent films like Hostel Part 2 and Vacancy. The credit for conveying this psychological depth can be divided between several elements including the scripting and effective use of visuals, but it is Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates that makes Psycho one of the strongest portrayals of madness ever on the screen.
What Doesn’t: The one element of Psycho that has dated is the long monologue at the ending in which Norman’s psychosis explained. It is verbose and pretensions and largely redundant. But on the other hand the scene was necessary for a 1960s audience and there is a pay off by buttressing this monologue of science and rationality with the last scene of Bates’ enveloped in his madness, swearing he wouldn’t harm a fly.
DVD extras: The Universal Legacy Series edition of Psycho includes a commentary track, featurettes, a documentary, stills, a promotional reel, and trailers.
Bottom Line: Although it never earned any Academy Awards and was largely dismissed by critics at the time of its release, Psycho has earned its place as one of the landmarks of American cinema and one of the brightest spots of the horror genre.
Episode: #22 (October 10, 2004); Revised #309 (October 10, 2010)