Mother — what is the phrase? — isn’t quite herself today
Psycho took America completely by surprise in 1960, when middle-American theatergoers headed to the movies to see the latest offering from the director of the glamorous and sexy Rear Window and the Technicolor confection North by Northwest. Who expected the droll host of TV’s showcase for suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to get so down and dirty and tawdry?
The granddaddy of all slasher films and psycho-thrillers will never have the same impact as it did on first release. The murder of Janet Leigh has been parodied too many times to carry the same shock value for new audiences. The suggestions of sex and nudity, daring for the time, are tame next to the exhibitionism of horror cinema since the ’70s. The gruesome revelation of the mummified corpse of Mrs. Bates (ingeniously intensified by a swinging light bulb sweeping shadows across the hollow sockets of her skull) reduced original audiences to shrieks. Today, such surprises are part and parcel of the horror genre.
But Hitchcock’s craft is breathtaking. The eerie atmosphere of Norman Bates’ sitting room, with stuffed and mounted birds of prey along the wall as if frozen in mid-attack, creates a tension that Hitch shatters with the brilliantly orchestrated scream of the shower murder. Shot and cut into shards like reflections in a shattered mirror, it’s a transgressive assault on the audience at its most vulnerable (in the bathroom, naked and exposed) and a masterpiece of editing (Hitch entrusted the planning and execution to Saul Bass, who also created the slashing opening credits). The screaming violins still send shivers down my spine whenever I hear them.
And then there is Anthony Perkins, Hollywood’s gentle boy next door, as the troubled Norman, a voyeur who peeps on Janet Leigh as she undresses and who squirms in the emotional iron grip of his mother, squeezing him from beyond the grave. His fidgety, increasingly disturbing performance became so identified with his image that it all but destroyed his career as a romantic lead.
Psycho is pulpy and sordid and perverse, shot in black and white on a low budget to give it the tawdry feel of a B movie, and directed with the impeccable craft of a master who knew how to shock the sensibilities and shake up the expectations of an audience. Time may have dulled the shock, but the craft is as impressive as ever.
Originally published as part of the MSN “Cadillac of” series.