1960 was a solid if unspectacular year for film in America. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (one of the best films ever that you’ve never heard of) rightly claimed the Best Picture Oscar over a field of forgettable dramas. Most of the activity was going on in Europe, with Godard’s Breathless, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Antonioni’s L’Avventura ushering in a new cinematic era (albeit one that would take a couple years to hit Hollywood). But while audiences unknowingly awaited the New Wave, they turned to an old master for at least one more masterpiece.
Yes, 50 years ago yesterday, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho debuted in New York. I considered using this as an excuse for a Top 10 Hitchcock films list, but I decided against it. Not every Hitchcock film is a masterpiece; not every Hitchcock film is even a great film. But if you’re only dealing with the top ten, the difference is going to be rather negligible. So instead, let’s simply take a moment to look back at, arguably, the best of the best. If you haven’t seen Psycho, stop reading right now, for two reasons: first, there will be spoilers ahead, and second, you need the time to find a good hiding place before I come to hunt you down.
We’ll start, as the film does, really, with the music. Bernard Herrmann’s score is quite possibly the most brilliant piece of composition for a film ever. Eerie, grating, relentless, nightmarish; even before the iconic screeching of the shower scene, Herrmann’s strings set a most singular tone for Hitchcock’s film. Not even nominated by the Academy, of course.
Speaking of that shower scene, is there a better example of the suggestive power of editing? There is not a single shot in the sequence of the knife puncturing skin, and yet we receive such a vivid impression of the stabbing. When Hitchcock first submitted the film to the Hollywood censors, several insisted that there was a glimpse of one of Janet Leigh’s breasts (there is none) and demanded the director remove the shot. Hitchcock kept the print for several days, changed nothing, and resubmitted the scene. None of the censors complained. All in the editing.
Credit Leigh for making Marion Crane into such a relatable protagonist in such a limited amount of time. Even though she is a criminal herself, there is never any doubt that the audience’s sympathies are with her. Her voice is so strained, so perfectly capturing the mannerisms of a desperately anxious person trying to maintain an attitude of control.
But then, if you’re going to talk about acting, the real star is Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. The first time you watch, even if you don’t know that Norman is the killer, you know he is at least complicit in the murder; the way he cleans the hotel room is methodical enough to suggest that this has all happened multiple times before. Yet, thanks to Perkins’ pitch-perfect performance as the awkward but pitiable mama’s boy, we immediately switch loyalties from Marion to Norman in those moments after the murder. Is there any other director, any other actor that could’ve made us take the side of a serial killer? I can’t think of any other instance where it has been done so effectively. My favorite moment in the whole film is when the car holding Marion’s body is sinking slowly into the swamp, and, for that painful moment, stops. We see the panic on Norman’s face, and our own minds race, considering the consequences: will the body be found? Will Norman be caught? …and then the car slowly starts sinking again, finally swallowed by the much. That is suspense.
If there is any weakness in the film, it is that doctor’s bit of psychobabble at the end, the unnecessary details that supposedly explain Norman’s condition. It’s a little too pat. But thankfully, Hitchcock knew enough not to end on that note, and gave us that last, brilliantly chilling moment with Norman in the cell, and the creepiest smile in film history.
But still, there are few films as perfectly constructed as this. If you could only choose one film to teach how to make a great film, it might be this one. It’s one of the best examples of every aspect of a film working together in harmony to create a viewing experience that is at once entertaining and thought-provoking, with its Hitchcockian themes of voyeurism, guilt and mother/son relationships. It’s held up brilliantly after 50 years, and will surely continue to do so for another 50, and another, and another.