Psycho (1960): Hitchcock’s Masterpiece

In the fifty six years since 1960, thousands of horror films have been released to scare and shock cinema audiences around the world. Most horror releases, however, fall flat both critically and at the box office, as they forget story, tension and pacing, in their pursuit of gore and violence. They remain pale imitations of the most influential, thrilling and atmospheric horror film of the 20th Century, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
Psycho is just as dark, chilling and full of tension today, as it was for audiences who saw the initial release of the film in 1960. The combination of low-key lighting, a fantastic all strings score by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, personal cinematography full of close ups and the brooding mystery which surrounds the Bates family, makes Psycho thought provoking and utterly unforgettable.
The incredibly deep mystery and tension which floats through the small Bates family, has been seized upon by many writers and directors since. The family is of course the building blocks of all of our lives; nobody can choose their family and must embrace their good points and peculiarities alike.
The families depicted in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Shining (1980), copy the dark mysterious and threatening family unit of the Bates household, with fantastic and brutal terror, yet they don’t equal Psycho’s dysfunctional family as they are too eager to rush into revealing the secrets and murderous qualities of the families. Hitchcock succeeds so much with his depiction of a dysfunctional family because he takes his time in revealing little hints about them visually and using mystery as a tool to make us guess and speculate, as to what is truly going on in that house on the hill.
By 1960, Hitchcock was the most famous director in the world. It isn’t possible, here, to mention all the classic films he had been responsible for in the thirty plus years he had been a director before Psycho, some of the most famous being: Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1959), not forgetting his most recent effort before Psycho, North by Northwest (1959).
The success of the classics mentioned above and the many other films made by Hitchcock prior to 1960, had created boredom within the ‘master of suspense’. He was sick of the big budget, star fueled, movies he had churned out year in year out, he wanted to forget Cary Grant, James Stewart, Grace Kelly and go back to basics, with an unknown cast and crew , with a low budget, like how he started with the Expressionists in Germany in the 1920s.
Thus Psycho was born and bought by Hitchcock and Paramount for a nominal fee and put into production on a measly $1,000,000 budget, which was a mere third of the $3,000,000 budget of Hitchcock’s last film North by Northwest (1959). Hitchcock was naturally surprised, along with Paramount, to find the film gross the highest of all his film thus far in his career by 1960, a staggering $32,000,000, which remained unbeaten by him for the rest of his career.
Psycho tells the story of office worker Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who steals $40,000 from her boss and goes on the run, with the hope of securing a better life for her and her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin).
Crane is an uncomfortable and human heroine, as she bumbles through encounters with the law and a used car dealer, as she creates suspicion around her flight from the city into the wilderness. Hitchcock uses his infamous tension to make us squirm in our seats, as he pumps us full of dramatic irony, as we know Crane is guilty, as she tries to squirm her way out of situations, forcing us to watch ever increasing close ups as the world begins to creep in on Crane and expose her secret.
Crane’s flight comes to an abrupt end at the eerie Bates Motel, as a pathetic fallacy inspired thunderstorm, forces her to break off her journey. Here we are presented with the imposing, now classic, Gothic old house on the hill, next to the motel, which can still be seen on the back lot in Universal’s studio.
The Bates Motel also introduces us to the dorky, child-like proprietor, Norman Bates. He is tall and stick thin, dressed in black, he is warm and generous to our heroine, yet there is mystery and evil inside him, like Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922).
Hitchcock is then quick to intensify the mystery of the motel further, with the introduction of the shadowy Mrs Bates, as we see her chiaroscuro light in the upstairs window, yet we never see her face. We forget all about the initial plot of the film, the stolen $40,000, as we are paralyzed with apprehension of the silhouetted old woman in the window.
A scene of wonderful symbolism fills us with dread as we learn more about the childish hen-pecked Norman Bates, in the parlor of the motel office. Darkness covers the walls of the parlor as Crane and Bates talk in low lit close ups. Hitchcock presents us with imposing stuffed birds surrounding them on the walls, some flap their wings as if about to swoop down on Crane, symbolising Bates as a potential predator and Leigh as his prey.
Crane’s end comes in one of the most famous and visually terrifying scenes in cinema, endlessly copied and parodied. Crane is stabbed by a shadow-faced Mrs Bates in the shower, as Hermann’s music stabs with her; the knife seems to plunge directly into us as we see the murderer from the POV of crane.
Hitchcock pounds us with close up after close up from over fifty different angles in the shower, as blood sprays the walls and the music continues, yet we never see the blade enter Crane’s skin, we imagine for ourselves, thanks to thee fantastic editing of Hitchcock. The director masterfully slows his cutting as Crane slides down dying, as the blood gurgles in the plug hole, brown and dirty, an effect achieved by using chocolate sauce, to make the blood darker on black and white film. Unsurprisingly, Janet Leigh later claimed in an interview that she only took baths at home after filming the shower scene in Psycho.
At this point we are struck with fear; we have rarely been in this situation before in cinema, with our heroine dead halfway through the film. Hitchcock then transitions our hero love and loyalty to the awkward Norman Bates, Sam Loomis and Lila Crane, Marion’s sister, we must choose who we wish to align with for the rest of the film. Can we accept the troubled mysterious young man? Or will we join the cause for the facts with Lila and Sam? You decide.
Although many years have passed since Psycho thrilled and terrified audiences in the cinema in 1960, it has lost none of its magnetism and freight. Psycho is an experience built for the cinema, long before home media dragged down cinema attendances, and is naturally best seen in a darkened room, with a huge screen and pumping sound, as Norman Bates stands before us the size of a giant and Bernard Hermann’s score pumps through the speakers, sending vibrations through our mind and body. Psycho must be seen to be believed.


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