One of the most, if not THE MOST influential horror movies of all time, 1960's PSYCHO is one of Hitchcock's all-time greats.
Looking for a break from big budget films after "Vertigo" and "North by Northwest", the director wanted to make a small budget, black and white thriller. This lean mystery was born.
After 60+ years, spoiler alerts seem unnecessary, but if you've never seen this classic, stop reading, go watch it and come back!
Featuring a mid-film twist that M. Night could only dream of, Hitchcock takes everything you've settled into after an hour and turns the story sideways.
Hitch also mixes sex, madness and mystery in a blend that was bold and shocking to the audience of the time.
The story opens with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) in a lunchtime tryst at a Phoenix hotel. For a 1960 hookup, this was pretty graphic.
Joseph Stefano's screenplay (based on Robert Bloch's novel) has some dated lines of dialogue, but his structure is brilliant. We immediately know that Marion is looking for something more.
When the perfect opportunity to steal $40,000 lands on her desk, she does so, escaping town and driving all night as Bernard Herrmann's perfect music score cuts through your ears.
The scenes with Marion waking up to a policeman knocking on her car window and selling her car to avoid being followed are some of my favorite in the film. Hitch's famous fear of policemen is front and center.
Marion's travel east eventually lands her at the worst lodgings in memory, the Bates Motel and it's socially awkward but seemingly kind young manager, Norman Bates.
Anthony Perkins IS Norman. Quirky, hesitant and quick to defend his invalid Mother he lives with, Norman is a disturbing blend of boy scout, loyal son and serial killer.
Perkins and Leigh are terrific in their scenes together., spinning a long conversation over a sandwich. Marion finds some wisdom in Norman's simple approach to loyalty and temptation, vowing to herself to return to Phoenix and make things right.
And then she takes a shower.
When this hit theaters in 1960, audiences were screaming in the aisle.
Set up a main character and her story arc for an hour and then have an old woman stab her to death in a hotel shower? NO ONE saw that coming.
Hitchcock builds almost constant suspense for the rest of the film after Marion's murder.
Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) goes to meet Sam and ask her where Marion is.
Private detective Milton Arbogast (the superb Martin Balsam) is hot on their heels.
Arbogast tracks Marion to the Bates Motel and meets Norman. The tension in their scene is so tight you cut it with the same giant knife Mrs. Bates used in the bathroom.
Murders are committed and staged creatively.
One murder that happens at the top of the stairs seems to have the camera a foot from the victim's face, falling down the stairs with them as one huge line of blood drips down their face.
Sheriff Al Chambers (John McIntire from "Elmer Gantry") meets with Sam and Lila, now on the trail of Arbogast and reveals some vital secrets about the Bates Motel.
Sam and Lila check in and meet Norman.
Hitchcock is relentless, using all the camera angles and editing tricks that made him one of the best filmmakers in history.
Check out the documentary 78/52 (also reviewed here on the site) for an in-depth look at the 78 camera set ups and 52 edits that comprise the most famous shower scene in film history.
It's just one component of what makes this film a classic.
The main titles by Saul Bass would be creative if someone debuted them today.
Herrmann's score is flawless, with plucking and screeching strings ratcheting up the horror and suspense. John Williams has named this score the inspiration for his "Jaws" theme.
The cast is superb from start to finish, with psychiatrist Dr Richman (Simon Oakland from "The Night Stalker") trying to explain the madness. Just when this talkiest scene in the movie seems to be going way too long, Hitch strolls you into a holding cell, where Mrs. Bates' voice decrees "She wouldn't even hurt a fly...." just as Norman's face seems to become a skull thanks to a couple inserted frames.
Hitchcock's bag of tricks has rarely been as effectively used.
Hitch famously had cardboard stand-ups in every lobby saying that managers were not allowed to sit anyone in the theater after the main titles. Audiences lined up in droves, driving over $40 million in box office against an $800k budget.
60+ years later, it's considered a modern classic of suspense and horror.
Norman: She needs *me*. It's not as if is she were a maniac, a raving thing. She just goes - a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?
Marion: Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough.
PSYCHO gets an A+
Followed 23 years later by a surprisingly good and underrated sequel, "Psycho II" and two additional sequels of declining value. Also needlessly remade in a shot-by-shot style by Gus Van Sant in 1998 that served only to remind you how good the original is by comparison.