Universal // 1960 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // October 18th, 2010
"We all go a little mad sometimes." -- Norman Bates
If Jaws was the horror film that made us afraid to go swimming, then Psycho was the horror film that made us afraid to take showers, stay at motels, strike up conversations with shy and awkward men, and meet anyone's elderly mother. The impact of Hitchcock's 1960 hit on the horror genre, Hollywood's economic models, and even cinema spectatorship is hard to overstate. So it's great to see this classic treated so well in its first appearance on Blu-ray.
The plot of Psycho is all about working gal Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, Touch of Evil) and her ill-advised decision to steal money from her employer. The money is meant to fund her relationship with poor-but-sweet Sam (John Gavin, Imitation of Life) and perhaps transform it from a seedy fling to a respectable marriage. As she hits the highway to take the money to Sam, will Marion be caught by the police officer who eyes her with his steely gaze? Will she keep the money, or turn it back over to her boss? Will Sam welcome the funds or reject Marion for her criminal behavior? Such is the suspense of Psycho.
Oh, and along her route Marion makes a stop at the Bates Motel and meets its wholesome proprietor, Norman (Anthony Perkins, The Trial).
Spoiler Alert! If you've managed to miss Psycho for the past 50 years: 1) feel ashamed, and 2) stop reading.
As fans of the film will immediately recognize, the above plot description and its crucial omissions is, of course, a joke. It narrates not Psycho, but the movie that audiences of 1960 thought they were watching right up until Marion is suddenly killed almost halfway through the story. As she steps into the shower in her little room at the worn-out Bates Motel, she has apparently decided to return the money and atone for her thievery, inspired by a revealing conversation with Norman. The white tile of the bathroom, the cleansing water of the shower, and Marion's expression as she enjoys it connote a spiritual purification. This ritual is interrupted by the entry of a woman's shadowy figure into the bathroom who rips open the curtain and savagely stabs the screaming Marion over and over again. As the killer exits, Marion falls down dead and her blood flows toward the drain with the still-running water.
The brutal "shower scene" -- among the most famous in all of cinema -- comes out of nowhere, with Hitchcock not only refusing to prepare the audience for it, but actively misleading those who might have expected it. Just listen to the music cues in the preceding scenes: there's a moment when Marion and Norman are talking casually in her doorway without music on the soundtrack. He leaves, the camera stays with Marion, and the soundtrack immediately fills with Bernard Hermann's tense score as she sets about planning her next move. The aesthetic aspects of the film are leading us to believe that Marion is the character to watch, that it's her journey we're following, and that Norman is a brief distraction from its suspense.
The death of Psycho's apparent protagonist and the production's biggest star midway through the picture shocked audiences and also let Hitchcock explore the function of identification in film spectatorship. As the camera tracks back from the unblinking eye of Marion's corpse, a no-longer-viable vessel for audience identification, it seems to search around the motel room for another place to tether the viewer. Resting its gaze for a moment on the pile of money Marion has stolen (this film's MacGuffin, turned to a red herring), the camera then turns to frame the Bates family home out the window and we hear Norman shouting reproaches at his murderous mother. Hitchcock's camera has found its new point of identification, and now the audience will be asked to shift its sympathy to an unlikely new protagonist: the troubled young man saddled with a rundown motel and a homicidal parent.
Suffice to say, there will be no rest for the weary viewer in Psycho, as further investigation of Marion's "disappearance" by Sam and her sister (Vera Miles, The Searchers) eventually scramble expectations yet again. By the time the 1960 audience learned that Mother is nothing but a semi-preserved, dried-out old corpse and Norman has been dressing as her and killing people in her persona, they must have been truly discombobulated. By the film's end, Norman/Mother is behind bars and Hitchcock offers up some tedious exposition from a Freudian psychologist to reassure audiences that we could fold this whole strange story into comforting embrace of scientific knowledge. But is anyone really comforted? One doubts Hitchcock really wanted us to be, especially with the film's utterly chilling penultimate shot: that slow track in on Norman's wicked face, with just the briefest flicker of Mother's skull superimposed over it.
The fleeting skull image, and every other image in the film, will be easier to appreciate than ever with the gorgeous transfer Universal's Blu-ray provides. Psycho has never looked better on a home viewing format: the image is incredibly crisp and detailed, yet preserves the visible grain that makes it still feel like celluloid and connotes the grittier aesthetics of Psycho, compared to Hitchcock's 1950s technicolor opulence. The director's return to black-and-white stock is well-rendered, too, with nicely calibrated contrasts. The picture isn't pristine, as some flecks are definitely visible, but perhaps these help recapture a small sense of its original status as low-budget horror. Sound on this Blu-ray is perhaps a more controversial issue, thanks to the newly created 5.1 surround track. Purists can still listen to the original mono version that's included, but now technological advances have allowed sound engineers to tinker with that mono track and make Psycho sound like a newer film than it is. We get directional effects and a richer, more immersive soundscape, but does that really make aesthetic sense with an image that is obviously decades old? In my mind, the HD treatment of the picture works to restore a 1960 big-screen celluloid look rather than to modernize the image, so I have more mixed feelings about this (admittedly cool) sound project. Though it's nowhere near as bad, it reminds me a little bit of the colorization craze a while back, when folks also sought to drag old movies into the present by using new technology to "update" their aesthetics. But with Psycho's 5.1 track, you'll probably enjoy it if you just try not to think about these issues!
In our age of internet spoilers it's hard to imagine how Psycho managed to hold onto its twists and completely shock audiences, and its fascinating strategies for doing so (as well as lots of other info on the production) are well detailed in this Blu-Ray's generous special features. Almost all of the extras from previous releases of the film are ported over (though the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents offered on the 2008 DVD release is absent), and we get one new featurette:
* Commentary: We're treated to a fabulous track from Stephen Rebello, who published a whole book on the making of this film. As such, he knows everything about the production, has personally interviewed many members of the cast and crew, and even has personal details to share of seeing the film in theaters in the '60s. Rebello has clearly planned his commentary carefully -- and even reads it out at some points -- but maintains a relaxed, conversational tone. Rebello does a great job of culturally situating the film (pointing out, for example, the ways it inaugurated a decade of increased sex and violence in American public life), and also of placing it within film history and Hitchcock's career. Fascinating details abound: Hitchcock used 50mm lenses because they gave the era's best approximation of human vision, the Bates house was based on the Edward Hopper painting House by the Railroad, and American audiences were shocked to see a toilet on screen (especially one flushing -- gasp!).
* Making-Of Documentary: Far more than the standard ten minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, this 94-minute documentary provides an exhaustive look at all the phases of Psycho's production and release. We begin with the film's roots in a 1959 novel of the same title based on real-life Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein and are taken all the way through Hitchcock's bold release strategy, centered on an insistence that theater owners bar any patrons from entering after Psycho had started. Along the way, we see extensive interviews with cast and crew -- most notably Janet Leigh and screenwriter Joseph Stefano (who have both died in the years since these interviews). Many of the stories they tell overlap with Rebello's commentary track, but there are plenty of additional tidbits, too.
* Psycho Sound: This 10-minute featurette -- the only new extra for this Blu-ray release -- has sound engineers explaining how they created a brand new 5.1 surround track for Psycho. They talk about using new technology that allowed for a separation of the sounds on the film's original mono track and a redistribution among the different speakers.
* In the Master's Shadow: Hitchcock's Legacy: Interviewing lots of big-name directors (Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, William Friedkin, etc.) about how ol' Hitch influenced them, this 26-minute feature explores his enduring legacy. It's very well done, and has especially neat montages that pair Hitchcock shots with direct homage shots from other directors. We also see lots of kooky clips of Hitchcock goofing around in intro segments from TV's Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
* Interview: A 15-minute audio excerpt from the famous conversations between two cinema titans: François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock. It's fun to hear Truffaut's provocative questions, like when he asks whether Hitchcock was drawn to the shower scene because it was really a rape scene, and nice to get some direct exposure to Hitchcock himself.
* Newsreel Footage: This fascinating 8-minute feature gives us archival footage from Psycho's original theatrical release: the eager crowds lining up, the giant advertisement that covered its Manhattan theater building, and the lobby posters in which Hitchcock himself warned viewers not to show up late and not to give away the plot twists to their friends.
* The Shower Scene: By this point in the Blu-ray, you've already seen the shower scene half a dozen times between the film itself and the endless replays in featurettes. But here it is again, and in a format perfect for Film Studies classes: you can watch it in its original version, or with sound but without music. Supposedly, this option would help us understand how much music manipulates our emotions and reactions to film scenes. But the shower scene is so famous that you'll probably find yourself playing Hermann's score in your head as you watch, even though it won't be streaming from your speakers.
* Storyboards: Looking again at the shower scene, these original storyboards reveal that a lot more blood was initially imagined (though perhaps not by Hitchcock himself) than what made it to the final cut.
* Image Galleries: Five separate collections offer a plethora of images from Psycho: publicity shots, behind-the-scenes photos, posters, ads, and lobby cards. My favorite part was the way the publicity photos subtly revealed Hitchcock's and the actors' conception of each character: Perkins' poses for Norman are dynamic and varied (sometimes brooding, sometimes feminized), Leigh makes Marion look frightened and does a few proto-scream-queen shots. And Gavin? He has Sam stand square to the camera wearing a beige jacket and a blank expression. And, indeed, that pose pretty much sums up his character. Unfortunately, these galleries don't offer any navigation control, simply progressing through the photos at a fixed pace.
* Trailers: The original theatrical trailer is delightfully weird, with Hitchcock playing tour guide to the audience as he meanders around the Bates Motel and the Bates house muttering cryptic things about the plot. His tour is accompanied by a particularly jaunty score, elevating its humor. You'll have a new appreciation for the moment when he talks about and touches the toilet after hearing Rebello's discussion of what a taboo subject bathrooms were in cinema of that era. Later spots for the rerelease emphasize that it was too shocking to be shown in full on television.
Though Psycho is a cinematic masterpiece by many critics' standards (including mine), it is not a perfect film. Hitchcock puts little effort into the characters of Sam and Lila, who are major players in the second half and siphon attention and identification away from Norman. The scares hold up beautifully fifty years later, but the closing exposition feels quite dated -- both for psychiatry and for cinematic storytelling. And, suffice to say, the film's intimate link between homicidal psychosis and non-normative gender identity isn't a crowd-pleaser in LGBT circles.
It's a frequent occurrence in my household that my morning shower will be interrupted by an impatient knock on the bathroom door from my partner, who wants to come in to brush her teeth or some such thing. She has to knock because I always lock the bathroom door when I shower, a habit that has everything to do with Psycho and a whole lot to say about the staying power of this 50-year-old classic.
If you don't own this film yet and you're Blu-ray enabled, there is no earthly reason not to pick up Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray). Well, maybe the desire to shower without fear for the rest of your life...
Review content copyright © 2010 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (English)
* DTS 2.0 Mono (English)
* DTS 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Newsreel Footage
* Image Galleries
* BD Live