Sunday, 22 July 2012


"A boy's best friend is his mother"

Having embezzled $40,000 from her employers, Secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) flees in her car. After narrowly escaping the clutches of a suspicious Police Officer she pulls into a quite motel during a heavy rainstorm. The owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) greets her warmly and explains that they don’t receive many guests due to the freeway being moved. After offering Marion supper at the house he shares with his mother, Norman has to then retract the offer following an off screen argument with the old woman… A few days later when Marion’s disappearance in noticed a Private Detective (Martin Balsam) tracks her movements to the motel but he too goes missing. Fearing the worst Marion’s boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) and sister Lila (Vera Miles) head to the motel to search for the missing woman.

Psycho contains one of the most famous scenes in all cinema history as well as one of the most recognisable scores and most unexpected and shocking twists. Even without these three key elements though it would still be a five star film.

Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho in 1960 at a time when the Hollywood code though diminishing, was still in effect. It caused outrage at the time for its scenes of perceived sex and violence though feels very tame when viewed today. Censors and critics were worried not only by the violent shower scene but also by things which today seem mundane. In one scene Janet Leigh is seen ripping up a piece of paper and flushing it down the toilet. This seems pretty unremarkable to me but at the time of release it was the first time in mainstream film and television history that a toilet was seen to be flushed on screen. The idea that people were outraged by this is almost laughable now but this was still a time when the opening scene showing John Gavin and Janet Leigh in bed together was considered outrageous. Another problem for the censors was the nudity associated with the shower scene. Many were unhappy that Janet Leigh was seen in her bra but when the side of her breast was visible in that seminal scene there was much debate as to whether it should be cut. In the end it was left as it was though the film received cuts in countries as diverse as Britain, New Zealand and Singapore.

Controversy aside the film is a masterful tale of mystery and suspense. Hitchcock creates a creeping and claustrophobic atmosphere with the use of some clever camera angles and film lenses which mimic what the human eye sees. The cinematography is exceptionally beautiful and the lighting is both shrewd and commanding. Like many of the best films shot in black and white, Hitchcock’s sill of creating light and shadows is used to perfection. He isn’t afraid to light the background and leave actors in near darkness if the scene calls for it. His camera angles are both incredibly complex and beautiful. Sometimes it feels as though the camera is floating on air as it sweeps through the Bates house and travels up walls before turning ninety degrees to point straight down towards the floor. In other moments fast cutting means that you almost miss the unique angles that the director is producing.

The famous shower scene is a prime example of Hitchcock’s use of impressive and complex angles. The scene lasts for just three minutes but employs seventy-seven different camera angles. Many of these are extreme close-ups and brings the viewer into the room with the killer. Some of the angles feel unique and include a look up towards a shower head with the water cascading down but not hitting the lens as well as many glimpses of Janet Leigh’s body. The scene is shot in such a way that you feel as though you are seeing more than you are and in reality never see the knife enter her body and despite her nudity, only catch the merest glimpse of the side of a breast.

The plot is original but simple and effective. It also opened the door for a thousand slasher films to follow, many of which follow a similar premise. The story and Anthony Perkins’ acting almost made me feel sorry for the boy next door Norman Bates. Perkins plays him as a friendly and shy young man who looks out for and protects his overbearing mother, Norma. He has a sort of nervousness to him which went hand in hand with his shy and almost old fashioned nature. His performance is one of the highlights of the film. Janet Leigh is also very good and was Oscar nominated for her performance. She portrays Marion Crane as an astute and talented woman who knows how to take care of herself. Her performance in the shower scene both before and during the attack was excellent. Before the attack she can be seen washing away her sins and then during, conveys all the terror one would expect with an incident of that magnitude. Vera Miles and John Gavin are both well cast as the sister and boyfriend respectively but are overshadowed by others. Martin Balsam feels as though he is from a different era as the Private Detective but was solid. Balsam also starred in 12 Angry Men, another film for which I gave a rare Six Stars.

The score is one of the most impressive aspects of Psycho. It was written by Bernard Herrmann and has become one of the most famous in the history of cinema. It is an integral accompaniment to the visuals and I believe that it is at least a quarter responsible for the film’s lasting success. The score reflects the mood of the piece and its characters perfectly and rises and falls in line with the action. The famous EEK, EEK, EEK, EEK, Ohh, Ohh, Ohh, B-dum.. B-dumm… B-dummmm…. portion has been copied and ripped off in films, music and television and is known by people who will have never even heard of the film, let alone seen it.

Despite the score and the shower scene my favourite part of the film was the twist. I wasn’t even expecting a twist and was completely shocked when it came and by what it was. It is surely one of the greatest movie twists ever. How I got this far without knowing what it was I don’t know but I’m extremely grateful that I did.

For me Psycho is a near perfect film. I cannot think of a single shot or movement that could be improved upon and it rightfully belongs in the conversation of the best thrillers ever. It is massively influential, remains timeless and is not in the slightest bit dated. I’m only annoyed it’s taken me twenty-six years to finally getting around to seeing it.



  1. This is a great review.

    Psycho is my number one movie, but as a screenwriter (unsold) it is equally impressive to study.

    Most movies have a three act structure, beginning, middle, and end. Psycho has two three act structures. You have Marion's arch then you have Norman's and his mom's after that.

    If I had a movie to go back in time to see it would be this one. I would love to see that crowd in the theater when it opened for the first time.

    Alfred also made it a closed showing. Back then you could walk into a movie in the middle and watch it until you reached the spot you came in on. Alfred didn't allow that. When it started the door closed and you had to wait until the next showing.

    1. Thanks. That's an interesting point about the structure, I can't say I noticed it. I'm just so grateful that I got to 26 and still didn't know the twist. I don't know how I managed it!