Monday, October 1, 2012

Psycho (1960)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
1960. Not Rated, 109 minutes.

Anthony Perkins
Janet Leigh
Vera Miles
John Gavin
Martin Balsam
Frank Albertson
Simon Oakland
Patricia Hitchcock
John McIntire
Vaughn Taylor

In the 50 plus years since its release, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been reduced to two iconic scenes: the shower scene and the big reveal near the end. It is known as one of the all-time great movies, but why has been lost in the shuffle. Everything outside the two moments I’ve just mentioned has practically faded into oblivion. This is too bad because the entirety of the story still sizzles.

That story begins not with the psycho but the victim. Marion Crane (Leigh) spends lots of time in seedy hotels with Sam (Gavin) whom she wants to become her legitimate boyfriend. He expresses doubts about his own ability to take care of her since his business isn’t exactly booming. Still, he agrees that he wants to spend as much time with her as possible, even out of bed. At work, Marion is a trusted secretary for a small real estate company. After all, she’s been there for 10 years. Therefore, it’s no surprise when her boss asks her to take the $40,000 in cash from the latest sale over to the bank rather than leave it in the office over the weekend. Seeing an opportunity to set her and Sam up, Marion literally takes the money and runs. However, she doesn’t go see her beau. Instead she takes off on a drive out of town. Tired, and having trouble seeing in a driving nighttime rain she decides to stop and rest. The only place to stay she can see is The Bates Motel. While checking in, she meets Norman Bates. He runs the place for his constantly angry mother who apparently never leaves the big spooky house at the top of the hill. He’s also obviously starving for a conversation that doesn’t involve mom berating him. Cutting to the quick, Mrs. Bates does indeed leave the house and stabs Marion to death during that famous shower scene. Still looking for his money, Marion’s boss hires a private eye, Det. Arbogast (Balsam) to find her. Eventually, her sister Lila (Miles) and Sam are involved in the search.

From here, Hitchcock gives us what is still a fairly unique whodunit. He shows us the killer, but soon casts doubt over what we’ve seen. Even so, the number of suspects remains sparse. The tale surrounding this is anything but. The director builds an interesting procedural and makes us sympathize with Norman Bates. Even though we plainly see him commit some despicable acts in an attempt to cover for his mother, we feel both sorry for and repulsed by him. He’s clearly damaged. To what extent, we’re not sure. Then, as the movie progresses what was once subtext floats to the surface. Sure, the passage of time and numerous other movies putting their own spin on what happens here have dulled the edge a bit. Still, the shift from investigation to character study is fascinating. All of it emanates from what seems like a throwaway line when we first hear it, before realizing that it was an ominous warning: “A boy’s best friend is his mother.”

Psycho is routinely listed among the top handful of horror movies ever made and with good reason. It has the storytelling that much of today’s fright flicks eschew in favor of gore and violence. That same gore and violence renders the kill scenes here a bit tame. Intuiting that action is less impactful than the lead up to and effects of it, that masterful shower scene is outdone by its own aftermath. Starting with the camera practically in her eye and slowly pulling back to reveal Marion’s lifeless body draped over the side of the tub, mouth agape, is still all sorts of unsettling. The morbid magic at work here is that it feels grounded in reality. With the current bent towards showing us death in ever more spectacular ways the simplicity on display here is sublime. Following this cleverly plain moment, complexities slowly unravel while appearing not to.

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