“Oh, we can see each other. We can even have dinner but respectably in my house with my mother’s picture on the mantel and my sister helping me broil a big steak for three,” says Marion Crane. Sam Loomis responds, “And after the steak, do we send sister to the movies? Turn mama’s picture to the wall?”
Alfred Hitchcock had a monumental task ahead of him in choosing a follow-up project to his critically and financially successful 1959 film North By Northwest. Hitchcock was unsure of what to choose until a long-time assistant introduced him to Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho (which came out that same year). Hitchcock bought the film rights to the novel and, in order to get the film made (and Paramount to distribute it), he raised the money for the film’s budget, shot in black-and-white using his TV crew (from Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and took a 60% back-end deal in lieu of his usual fee. The resulting film would make cinematic history. I first saw Psycho for a film class when I was in college, but I did not get to see it on the big screen until five years ago at Film Forum in a new 35mm film print for its 50th anniversary. I got to see it a second time on the big screen a couple of months ago in a beautiful DCP screening. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, it’s still an unforgettable experience.
1960’s Psycho follows a real estate secretary who steals $400,000 in cash and journeys to see her boyfriend in the hopes of helping him pay of his inherited debts. A stop along the way at the secluded Bates Motel, however, proves to have disastrous consequences. Hitchcock gathered together a wonderful cast that included Anthony Perkins (as Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (as Marion Crane), John Gavin (as Sam Loomis), Vera Miles (as Lila Crane), Martin Balsam (as Milton Arbogast), John McIntire (as Sheriff Al Chambers), Simon Oakland (as Dr. Fred Richmond), Frank Albertson (as Tom Cassidy), Pat Hitchcock (as Caroline), and Vaughn Taylor (as George Lowery). Perkins is sympathetic and unsuspecting as the loner Norman Bates. Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Leigh brings strength and vulnerability to the troubled Marion. Gavin and Miles shine as Marion’s boyfriend and sister, respectively; their search for Marion brings out courage and conviction. Balsam brings toughness to the private detective Arbogast.
Best Director Oscar nominee Hitchcock draws strong performances from his cast and stages some terrifying murder sequences (including the infamous shower sequence). Joseph Stefano’s screenplay is a largely faithful (to a point) adaptation of Bloch’s novel, with a few big changes such as the expansion of Marion’s character (including a name change from Mary to Marion) and a change in Norman’s physicality as well as some minor changes. It explores how the sins of the past can return to haunt in the present (exemplified by Norman and his issues with his mother, Marion and the money she stole, and Sam and his inherited debts). John L. Russell’s Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography reflects the tone of the film, showing large contrasts between light and dark in many scenes (the driving scenes with Marion are a good example). The Oscar-nominated production design by Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy, and George Milo is incredible; the main highlights include the interiors and exteriors of the Bates Motel and the Bates’ sinister-looking house (whose exterior was inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting The House By the Railroad).
George Tomasini’s editing moves the film at a great pace and heightens the murder sequences. Bernard Herrmann delivers a thrilling, intense score dominated by an all-string orchestra. It is the best score he ever contributed to a Hitchcock film, and his memorable main theme serves the film well (it also wonderfully complements Saul Bass’ terrific opening title sequence). Hitchcock’s Psycho is a brilliant, disturbing film that became the most profitable film of his career as well as his best-remembered. It also helped pave the way for what became the modern horror film. If you ever get a chance to see the original Psycho on the big screen, do not pass up the opportunity (also, please avoid Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake; it just proves how great a director Hitchcock was with the same material).