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.
As Vertigo opens with a hypnotic credits sequence – the camera panning from a pair of woman’s lip to her open eye before zooming into her pupil with psychedelic spiralling effects – you know that Hitchcock has returned to his pulpy origins after his detour into neorealism.
Like all Hitchcock’s best pulp, the plot is pure hokum. But beneath its surface lies a gripping examination of escalating obsession.
Detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) retires from policing force after nearly falling to his death in a rooftop chase, striking him with acrophobia. An old college friend (Tom Helmore) hires him to investigate his suicidal wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who appears to be possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother. As his own feelings for her grow, is Scottie able to get to the bottom of this supernatural mystery, Scooby-Doo style?
Hitchcock was always superb at bringing out the darker side of actors usually famed for their whiter-than-white roles (think Cary Grant in Suspicion) and in his final Hitchcock collaboration James Stewart gives an intense performance. Vera Miles was initially lined up to play Madeleine, but became pregnant just before filming. While she would have no doubt been superb, Novak makes a beguiling lead.
Visually the film is outstanding, most notably for the use of “dolly zoom” shots (invented by the uncredited second-unit cameraman Irmin Roberts) used to convey the sense of vertigo with great effective. The technology was so revolutionary that just one dolly zoom lasting no more than a few seconds reportedly cost $19,000.
The film’s momentum briefly dips after the Big Twist is revealed with still a third of the movie to go (a decision Hitchcock agonised over). It picks up again when it shows the tragic futility of holding on to guilty memories, but if you’re watching the film for the first time there’s a whiplash effect as you have suddenly drop your investment in the central mystery.
Upon its release the reviews were lukewarm. None of the critics berated it, but it was only from the late ‘60s onwards that people began to rank it as one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, or even one of the Greatest Films of All Time. As for me, I think it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s an extremely engaging film that’s worthy of attention, yet I wouldn’t call it one of Hitchcock’s absolute best. But I admit that’s a minority opinion.
The Wrong Man is an odd beast. In some ways it represents a lot of what we’ve come to expect from Hitchcock: an innocent man falsely accused of a terrible crime by the cops etc., but in its execution it is wholly different from everything we’ve seen from the director so far.
In every other “innocent hero falsely accused” Hitchcock story the protagonist had some clue that leads them to the true perpetrator. A description of the criminal; a missing belt; a name on an envelope; a confession etc.
In contrast, the hero in The Wrong Man, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), is accused of bank robbery and taken in by the police for extensive interrogation, but both he and the audience have no real idea why. We’re forced to watch him struggle for justice in a legal system that assumes his guilt, which proves to be an agonising strain on him and his wife, Rose (Vera Miles). There’s no quick-fix clue for our hero to hunt down and resolve the misunderstanding. This is a MacGuffin-less Hitchcock.
Why the more realistic tone? Well, because it was a true story. The 1951 Balestrero trial appealed to Hitchcock’s self-confessed fear of police and he decided he wanted to tell Manny’s story as faithfully as possible.
And when Hitchcock says he wants to do something faithfully, he bloody means it. The film was shot in the actual locations in New York City where the original incidents occurred four years earlier. Even the prison scenes were shot in a jail in Queens with real-life inmates as the extras. The tension you see on Henry Fonda’s face as he’s hauled through that claustrophobic hellhole…that ain’t acting.
Speaking of Fonda, he’s outstanding here. With an understated performance he conveys the overbearing weight of his ordeal making him very relatable. Plus he actually looks like a regular middle-aged bloke, rather than a glamorous Hollywood actor.
Vera Miles is also fantastic as Rose, displaying the crucial fact that false accusations don’t just disrupt the lives of those accused. They affect everyone around them too. Her struggle through the process is as gruelling as his.
The Wrong Man may lack the flashy editing or pulpy stories that made Hitchcock popular, but it smacks of brutal authenticity. Nowadays it’s somewhat overlooked. Absolutely worth checking out.