Film Of The Day: Psycho (1960)
Showing on ITV1 tonight. Now out on Blu-ray. You know it’s great. No excuse not to watch it again.
But if for some bizarre reason you’ve never seen it, stop reading now…
(Alfred Hitchcock, US, 1960)
Hitchcock slashes his way through conventional structure and taste – just make sure you’re there from the beginning
A woman, Marion Crane, has disappeared; a private investigator converges on timid motel owner Norman Bates, who is clearly hiding something – perhaps his mother, a witness to whatever happened to Marion. The P.I. goes to ask…and is brutally murdered. Suddenly, the onus falls on Marilyn’s sister, who herself ends up on the doorstep of the Bates motel…
That’s the plot of Psycho – if, as Alfred Hitchcock feared, audiences showed up halfway through. He was terrified enough by the prospect to demand that nobody was admitted once the credits rolled, an act without which Christopher Nolan or M. Night Shyamalan might never have had a career. But what, exactly, was he afraid of? In terms of shock, the action described above is no less frightening to latecomers than the sudden despatch of Marion herself is to those of us who start at the beginning.
Something else is going on, and it’s all about the first half of the movie. Marion Crane isn’t your typical Hitchcock protagonist – no ‘wrong man’ here, she’s the trademark peroxide blonde (sexy, scheming and guilty as sin) promoted from sultry support to leading lady. And, as a result, this isn’t your typical Hitchcock movie. From the very beginning, the replacement of Hitch’s regular cinematographer Robert Burke’s cartoonish Technicolor hues with TV cameraman John L. Russell’s pragmatic, TV-standard grey sets the standard for a brutalist, unflinchingly harsh world of seedy hotel rooms and crummy offices – a far cry from the tourist trap of North By Northwest. It’s not just Marion, with her criminal folly, who is at odds with taste and decency: the entire cast is venal, selfish and cruel…
…Except Norman: a shy, sensitive man who reignites Marion’s sense of self-respect and decency. The gorgeous delicacy of their late-night supper heart-to-heart might be Hitchcock’s finest moment, a scene streaked with macabre invention (we don’t need the looming shadows of those stuffed birds to tell us that Bates is clearly a screw or two loose) but also nakedly emotional in a way the director rarely achieved. OK, so we’re falling for a tall tale, dropping our guard so that Hitch can get us with cinema’s most invasive sequence, but somehow that doesn’t matter on repeat viewings. The scene is so good we’re prepared to drop our guard all over again, to give Norman a hug and trust him to look after us for the night.
A detective investigating a missing woman doesn’t claw at our anxiety in the same way: already, those latecomers know that they’ve missed something shocking. The power of the shower scene is that there’s no foreshadowing. It wrenches because it comes out of nowhere (and at a point where 1960 audiences were still recalibrating to the scandal of seeing a woman take a shower on-screen). It’s essential to see Arbogast’s, and then Lila’s, subsequent stories as minor variations of Marion’s journey, the film unravelling into an Escher-like repetition, getting madder and madder. That’s why the stolen money is such a magnificent Macguffin – the characters are going through the motions looking for it; but we know it’s hidden in the swamp. We’re just left to helplessly watch as history repeats.
And through it all, Norman Bates is the still centre, the one constant: a dutiful son, faithful to the last. Somehow, even after the shower scene (and fifty years of knowing HE DID IT), it’s Norman we’re drawn to. A lot is down to Hitchcock’s mastery of angle and emphasis, constantly framing the good guys as interlopers in that sly, subversive fondness he always had for the villain. But, really, the film simply couldn’t work with Anthony Perkins, who inhabits the role to a degree it’s possible he may never have fully returned from it. It’s an aching portrait of loneliness that’s as tender as it is terrifying, and still one of the best performances anybody has given. It’s also the reason I rate Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake so highly – not as a film, of course, but as an essay on the magnificence of Perkins, and the importance of finding the right actor to play those crucial roles. Sorry, Vince.