The essentiality of this film cannot be understated.
Not only did it popularize the slasher subgenre, the 1950s gimmickry its marketing genius of a filmmaker employed to promote it also changed our theatergoing habits to what we know them as today, coming in at the beginning and taking care not to spoil the end.
It is such an unflawed project, Gus Van Sant had to reshoot it shot for shot when he remade it in 1998.
And it still isn’t the Master of Suspense’s greatest work.
If you don’t know what to watch next, Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is available on Amazon Prime. Hitchcock himself produced this adaptation of the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch.
The psychological horror piece was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, and Best Art Direction – Interior Decoration, Black-and-White.
Marion Crane (Leigh) is a real estate secretary in Arizona who wants to marry a divorced California hardware store owner, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), but can’t because of his alimony debts.
When Marion’s boss, George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), asks her to deposit forty thousand dollars for a client, Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson), Marion takes the cash and runs.
During a dark and stormy night, she stops at the Bates Motel outside of Sam’s town, where the proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), lives with his mentally ill mother, Norma (Virginia Gregg, Paul Jasmin, and Jeanette Nolan).
Its success saw him personally bankroll the sexualized, bloody Psycho because the studios were still governed under the waning, puritanical censors of the era.
Hitch is an auteur who authors more with less, and he cut costs by using the television production crew for CBS and NBC’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965).
Resultingly, Psycho was released in black and white at a time when Hollywood was photographing its motion pictures with Technicolor CinemaScope to compete against TV, but it snagged the movie its two black-and-white Oscar nods.
Yet another reason why Hitchcock’s Psycho humiliates Van Sant’s is because Van Sant cinematographed it in color, but Psycho is a story which aches to be told in black and white, all looming shadows and German Expressionistic contrasts.
It externalizes for the viewer the antisocial psyche that the Gothic Bates Motel is a metaphor for.
And Hitchcock’s classical training in European art history groomed him to curate the iconic “shower setpiece.” It is to Western montage what Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) is to the East.
And he did it all without one line of spoken dialogue, harkening back to his studentship in silent, “pure” cinema, visceral sight and sound, conjured through his creative partnerships with editor George Tomansini as well as composer Bernard Herrmann.
The Master’s laissez-faire direction for his actors gets Leigh to deliver a performance which speaks to her acting chops and star power.
Her false protagonist is so devastatingly characterized, so effectively publicized as the star of the show, the shock value behind her exit stage left at the end of the first act humanizes her three-dimensionally.
The bolt of lightning that is Marion Crane courses across generations.
Leigh’s own daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, turns in the prototypical scream queen for John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) because of her mother’s tour de force, and the top-billed Drew Barrymore is killed off in the first scene of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996).
But Leigh’s lungpower is not what develops Marion into a sympathetic antihero.
The most suspenseful moments of the film are the least violent: when Marion is lying to the highway patrol officer (Mort Mills); and when Norman is fibbing to Private Investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam).
They stammer their way along their interrogations while we know what they’re trying to hide and what’s at stake for these audience surrogates if the authorities figure out what we already know.
This communal guilt between character and consumer is a verisimilitude the artist perfected in Rear Window (1954), with James Stewart’s voyeuristic protagonist caught in the act by Raymond Burr’s villain.
We all carry secrets we would die to protect, even the most polite company we would least suspect, and Hitchcock, with his well-documented phobia of authority figures, knows how to manipulate and exploit this universal right of passage for the human condition.
Psycho is even progressive for its time. Its depiction of Marion’s sister, Lila Crane (Vera Miles, who inspired Vertigo after Hitchcock’s muse, Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco, chose marriage over her collaboration with the Master), is proto-feministic.
Lila is an independent, intelligent deuteragonist who doesn’t use her sex appeal to get ahead.
Even according to queer theory, the text holds up more so than some of its genre fellows, like Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), making it clear the homicidal, perverted Norman is not “trans” just because one of his dissociative identities happens to be his mother.
But for everything Psycho gets right about its Freudian character study, that it subscribes to Freud at all counts against it. Norman’s mother is not to blame for his Oedipus complex, no matter how much she smothered him.
His personality would be much more nuanced and developed if the spoon-fed exposition delivered as dated psychoanalysis by Doctor Fred Richman (Simon Oakland) were more subtextualized.
If anything, though, it goes to show that Freudianism makes for better fiction than it does psychology.
Psycho is a study in the craft and technique that made Hitchcock’s cult of personality among the first to inspire the school of thought known as auteur theory.
The fact that Vertigo bests it is because only he could create something greater than perfection.