In many ways Psycho is a victim of its own success. As Hitchcock’s most well-known film, many of the iconic scenes, lines or plot twists are often familiar to modern moviegoers through parody and reference long before they see the film. The shock felt by original audiences has been softened by general pop culture awareness.
But those who know some of Psycho’s more famous moments, but have never got around to watching it, are missing out. It’s Hitchcock’s most famous film for a simple reason. It’s his best. And it remains the greatest horror/thriller ever made. But if there is anyone reading this who’s still totally in the dark about the plot details, don’t worry. I won’t spoil anything.
After stealing $40,000 from a client, secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) skips town and heads across country to join her lover, Sam (John Gavin). She begins to panic about her decision and stops off at a lonely motel for the night, owned by the awkward and shy proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Back home, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) becomes concerned and teams up with Sam and a private detective (Martin Balsam) to get to the bottom of Marion’s disappearance. But the truth behind the Bates Motel proves to be worse than they could have ever imagined.
Psycho is perhaps the most skilful example of directorial control over the audience. Hitchcock perfectly balances how much he shows with how much he leaves to your imagination, both in terms of visual depiction of the horror and in terms of plot revelations. The astounding delicacy of the film’s delivery means that even though Hitch misdirects the audience, you never feel cheated for being misled.
The rising tension in film’s first act is aided by career-topping performances from star Janet Leigh and composer Bernard Herrmann, whose slicing violins make the heart race each time you hear them.
And then there’s Anthony Perkins. It is perhaps sad that his career never escaped the shadow of Norman, but when his performance towers this high it’s not hard to understand why that is. From the way he clenches his jaw to his nervous stutter and crooked smile, he’s a wonderfully subtle blend of creepy and charming.
Psycho is the kind of masterpiece that reminds you why it’s brilliant each time you watch it.
In the sleepy town of Santa Rosa CA, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is over the moon when her favourite uncle, also called Charlie (Joseph Cotten), comes to stay with her family. Everyone loves Uncle Charlie, y’see. He’s charming, fun and generous. And, best of all, he’s not secretly a serial killer.
Oh. Oh, wait.
Yes, it’s another Hitchcock tale of growing mistrust. Our heroine starts to suspect that one of the people closest to her harbours a dark, sinister secret: is her uncle the “Merry Widow murderer”? As the paranoia grows, it’s only a matter of time until it’s Charlie vs. Charlie.
While the plot may sound like a retread of The Lodger or Suspicion, it’s executed better here than in either of them. For two main reasons. Firstly, the idyllic suburban setting is brought to life magnificently by the Great American playwright Thornton Wilder (Our Town) who collaborated on the screenplay. With the setting imagined with such believability, it only adds to the threat when the dark presence of Uncle Charlie begins to creep in.
The second thing that makes Shadow of a Doubt a success is the spectacular performance by Cotten as Uncle Charlie. He’s acts Cary Grant’s performance in Suspicion out of the water. The strong twin-like bond he has Young Charlie at the beginning seems almost genuine, making it all the more ominous when her ideal of him begins to shatter. As Hitchcock villains go, he’s up there with Norman Bates in Psycho and Bruno in Strangers on a Train.
When the two Charlies come head to head it plays out as an allegory of good and evil. The duality of Man: the Good Charlie and the Bad.
There are some baffling plot aspects, such as an absurdly shoehorned romance subplot that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, or when the detectives drop their investigation of Uncle Charlies after the other suspect meets an untimely death.
Hitchcock ranks the film as one of his very best. While I personally wouldn’t go as far as that, it’s still an extremely strong thriller that shows off many of trademarks that make up the Master of Suspense.
I first saw Psycho at the impressionable age of 12. It gave me nightmares for weeks. My Dad, ever a comforting parent, would leave nighttime notes under my door from the Bates Motel staff stained with blood (ketchup).
Despite (or because of?) the trauma, even since then I’ve been a huge fan of The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. In my teenage years I sought out his must-see classics – North by Northwest, Rear Window, The Birds, etc – but I never got round to watching many of his more obscure films. It’s time that changed.
Starting on July 1 I’ll be giving my thoughts on a different Hitchcock flick every day from his first finished film The Pleasure Garden (1925) to his final feature Family Plot (1976). From the masterpieces to the pieces of shit.
The murders, the blondes, the MacGuffins, the twist endings, the director cameos, the overbearing mothers, all covered here on Folding Seats. This is going to be a complete Hitchcock marathon. A Hitchcock-a-thon.
Countless critics and filmmakers have already written extensively on Hitchcock’s films. Practically every frame has been analysed ad infinitum. This marathon doesn’t hope to contribute anything new or significant. It’s merely a fan’s notes.
A brief disclaimer. I’ll be looking at feature films only, so don’t expect any commentary on his wartime propaganda shorts or any of his TV episodes on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I also won’t be covering the 1930 revue comedy film Elstree Calling, since Hitch only directed the “linking segments” between sketches, or Mary since it’s just the German version of his 1930 flick Murder!.
Other than that, I’ll be watching everything in Hitchcock’s directorial canon. By my count, this comes to 52 films.
52 films. 52 days.
Let’s do this.
See you on July 1.