First, let me say this: I am, or at least was, a Hitchcock virgin. As an avid movie watcher, even I have long considered this a travesty. My limited knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock films is enough to indicate that I would probably love them. Typically thrillers (my favourite genre), with classic “old Hollywood” actors and actresses, often filmed in black and white, they combine some of my favourite things in a film. So I asked around as to which of Hitchcock’s works I should visit first, and the general consensus was urged me to try ‘Psycho’ – a “masterpiece of the macabre”.
Psycho tells the tale of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a troubled man who lives in an old, dark house adjoined to a motel, the now iconic Bates Motel to be precise. When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a weary traveller, happens upon the motel, it is clear from the moment she meets Norman that her stay is ill-fated (I will talk more about that famous shower scene shortly). A police officer, a private detective and Marion’s sister all end up at the motel in search of the missing Marion, all the while suspense mounts, leading to the terrifying and entirely satisfying climax where the killer is finally revealed.
Janet Leigh is a vision in this film. Upon starting, the first thing we see is Marion in a non-descript hotel room with a married man, and she truly emotes both a passion and a pained love for him. But she knows it must stop and is firm with him. We then see Marion at work, where her attitude comes across in one simple quote – “headaches are like resolutions. You forget them as soon as they stop hurting”. She is strong and clearly doesn’t believe in medicating simple ailments, and it is that strength which ultimately gives her the confidence to impulsively steal $40,000 from a customer who asks her to put it in the bank for him. As she goes on the run, the viewer really feels her fear and nerves. Though she is ultimately killed, various exchanges with men in the film show just how strong a female character Marion is and Leigh is perfect as Marion. Anthony Perkins is equally as mesmerising, portraying a creepy yet likeable character, to start with at least. You’d be forgiven for finding Norman Bates to be a little odd, though you could attribute this to his isolation and his overbearing mother. His hobbies include taxidermy and watching guests in the first cabin through a hole in the wall though, so yeah, maybe he is odd to say the least. When the depth of his psychosis is revealed, Perkins gets this across even with just a look. And boy, those looks gave me chills.
All of that praise is not dished out lightly. I am stunned by how visually impressive this film is, even in black and white. The shower scene – possibly one of the most famous death scenes in movie history – isn’t actually that graphic or gory. The angles from which the scene is shot leave more to the imagination rather than leaving everything on show. A blurry figure approaching the shower is visible through the curtain; an odd flash of the knife; blood circling the drain – note, no actual slashing. The music throughout really adds to the atmosphere and ups the ante. I found myself holding my breath at times, purely because of a tempo change; the film became a truly immersive experience. Another device I really enjoyed was the use of weather to exaggerate the tone. For instance, when Marion arrives at the Bates Motel, the rain is torrential – a symbolic warning if there ever was one. Hitchcock truly is a master of detail, considering every angle, every sound effect and every background.
To say this film is now 55 years old is astonishing – it certainly doesn’t feel it. Sure, it’s filmed in black and white, and the fashion, cars and general aesthetic is clearly from the 1950s. But the acting is stellar, the direction is clear and I found myself genuinely surprised by the twist at the end. ‘Psycho’ may have been my first, but it definitely won’t be my last Hitchcock film.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh