Combustible Celluloid
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With: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, John McIntire, Martin Balsam, Simon Oakland
Written by: Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 109
Date: 06/16/1960

Psycho (1960)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Shower Curtain

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If you have not seen Psycho, do not read any further. I wish someone had warned me about Psycho. I was born eight years after Psycho's world premiere. By the time I was old enough to watch and understand movies, the world had been saturated with Halloweens, Friday the 13ths and the like. I was told that these movies would never have existed without Psycho and that, even though it was rather dated now, in its time, it was very scary.

I was so jaded that I watched Richard Franklin's Psycho II (1982) before I ever saw the original. And so, even though I was a film buff at a very young age, I grew up with only a surface appreciation for Psycho.

Recently, working on another project, I did some research on the career of Alfred Hitchcock, and a simple matter of looking at his filmography in chronological order jolted me to a real appreciation of Psycho, and why it is as significant today as it ever was.

When Hitchcock was 54 years of age, he made a string of films that were among his biggest and most expensive, filmed in widescreen VistaVision and Technicolor with big stars and the comfort of big studios backing him. They were; Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), filmed partially on location in the French Riviera with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, The Trouble With Harry (1955), the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and the brilliant and bizarre Vertigo (1958), and lastly, at MGM, there was North By Northwest (1959), which featured its climatic confrontation on the face of Mt. Rushmore. These films, if not all masterworks, were at least interesting, and all had the "Hitchcock touch" to them. Hitchcock was perhaps the first popular director to have a certain "look" to his films that audiences could recognize.

At this point, Hitchcock began his television series, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Every week, millions of Americans thrilled to the Master's morbid sense of humor as he introduced grisly tales of suspense and terror. He became the first director-as-star. His name and face were household legend. The public, as well as the critics, were ready to accept him and his work as genius.

Hitchcock was now 60 years old, and his next film would be Psycho. This is the one film that proved Hitchcock a true and great artist. The age is the important factor. At that age, it would not be expected for an artist of Hitchcock's stature and popularity to make a such a radical change of direction.

Psycho begins with Bernard Hermann's brilliant score comprised of nothing but strings. The music itself seems to be running away from something, breathing hard, panicking, tripping over itself in its hurry to get away. Hermann was the only one who could have composed a score for a movie of this type. Twenty years earlier, he helped change cinema history with Citizen Kane, and now he would do it again. He, like Hitchcock, was re-inventing himself late in his career. (He would do the same thing again nearly twenty years later with Taxi Driver). The sound is raw and jarringly different from Hermann's lush scores on Vertigo and The Trouble With Harry.

The film then shows us Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, wearing a bra in the first shot (still shocking in 1960) in a lunchtime romp with a boyfriend who's in the middle of a divorce. She's an ordinary woman with ordinary temptations. She wants to have sex. She wants to be married. She wants to be rich. The audience goes along with her when she decides to steal that money. Who wouldn't have? Hitchcock twists our guts up as we watch her make every wrong move; being short with the cop, being curt with the car salesman. Guilt seems to be seeping out of her pores. On top of that, Hitchcock adds voiceovers into Marion's head, things that people may or may not be saying about her; what the car salesman says to the cop, what her sister is saying, what her boss is saying. The dialogue for these voiceovers is very disconcerting. It seems more real than imagined, yet on screen it's definitely being imagined. It's a great gimmick.

When she gets to the Bates' Motel, Hitchcock lets us breath a little easier. Norman Bates seems like a nice guy, a little weird, but a least he doesn't suspect Marion of anything. Then, 48 minutes into the film, Hitchcock makes the masterstroke of his entire career. Marion Crane is killed in a sequence unrivaled by anything in history to this date, save Eisenstein's Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.

Now, with one hour still left in the film, we're hanging, and we've got nothing to cling to but Norman Bates. Even this far into Psycho , Hitchcock has re-invented cinema. Cinema, as an industry, had come to rely on certain rules, that are to this day taken for granted. One basic rule is that you can't kill your protagonist halfway into the story. By blatantly breaking this rule, Hitchcock demonstrated power and bravery no one had seen since the dawn of motion pictures. This brazen act of audaciousness is amazing in itself, even if one doesn't take into account Hitchcock's age. Imagine, at 60-61 years of age, leaving the comfort of a studio, accepting a smaller budget ($800,000), shooting guerrilla-style on location, and using near-unknowns for a cast. This coupled with the total disregard for the rules makes Psycho, in a way, a feature with a young, independent spirit, kindred with some of today's independent filmmakers such as Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and John Sayles. To say nothing of the fact that, with it, Hitchcock reached his youngest audience ever.

Psycho is the kind of film that only a bold genius full of beans could make; a young upstart like Orson Welles and Citizen Kane or Quentin Tarantino and Pulp Fiction who burst onto the scene breaking all the rules and knowing more than any of the old timers do. If Hitchcock had used a pseudonym on Psycho, it would have announced the arrival of a great new filmmaker in his twenties. Other top directors such as Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet, Robert Wise & Mike Nichols & Sidney Pollack at the same age have not showed the same daring, not by a long shot.

This is not to say that it is unusual for an artist at 60 to create great things. There is great evidence to the contrary. John Huston made the brilliant The Dead at 81 years of age, Akira Kurosawa directed the sweeping Ran at 75, and Luis Bunuel created his best works in his 60's and 70's. Indeed, Psycho is a film made by an artist with a lifetime of skill and knowledge behind him. As crude and raw as the film may seem, it is intricately crafted, minutely detailed for maximum emotional and psychological impact. Every move, every sliver of detail was planned, and in a very short amount of time.

Normally, the old must make way for the new, but when the turbulent sixties rolled in it was Hitchcock who led the pack for filmmakers. Psycho made possible some of the bravest and best works in that decade. Its visually poetic treatment of violence alone is reflected in such works as Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch. Its cynicism, its treatment of the death of the American dream, shows in films like Dr. Strangelove, The Graduate and Easy Rider . All of these films, in turn, inspired more new and interesting artists. With one swift stroke, he stabbed the Technicolor fifties to death.

Unfortunately, after the fresh start of Psycho, Hitchcock only made two more great films before he died in 1980. There was The Birds in 1963, and, at the age of 71, Frenzy , an even more violent film than Psycho, but without the raw timing and inventive edge.

Now when I watch Psycho, I get chills, and it feels great.

In 2008, Universal graced us with a brand-new, remastered, two-disc edition. As far as I can tell, it's anamorphic for the first time, and looks a bit better than the previous release. It features many of the same extras from the last release: a documentary, "The Making of Psycho," featuring new interviews with Janet Leigh, Hitchcock's daughter Patricia Hichtcock O'Connell, writer Joseph Stefano and 'Hilton A. Green, a censored scene, newsreel footage and the infamous shower scene with and without music. New extras include a commentary track by Hitchcock scholar Stephen Rebello, an excerpt from Francois Truffaut's interview with Hitchcock, and an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (Lamb to the Slaughter). Best of all, a new featurette interviews modern-day filmmakers who have been influenced by Hitchcock (William Friedkin, Guillermo Del Toro, Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, etc.). Audio options include Dolby Digital English and an optional French language track, with optional English and Spanish subtitles. In 2010, Universal released a deluxe Blu-Ray edition for the film's 50th anniversary.

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