Appellate Judge Tom Becker goes a little mad sometimes.
Our reviews of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray) (published December 11th, 2012) and Psycho (Blu-Ray) 50th Anniversary Edition (published October 18th, 2010) are also available.
She might have fooled me, but she didn't fool my mother.
If there is a film that has been studied, parodied, copied, discussed, and homaged more than Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, I couldn't name it. It has spawned several books, commentaries, volumes of critical essays, a regrettable remake, and a series of late-in-the-game sequels, and made it prohibitive for families called Bates to ever name their sons "Norman." If it is not the most famous film of all time, it is certainly in the top five.
While the academic attention to Psycho makes sense—this is great filmmaking, and every frame is directed with a breathtaking precision and layers of extended meaning—it tends to reposition it from its roots. Above all else, Hitchcock made Psycho to be entertaining, an amusement park ride with surprises and thrills at every turn. Time may have turned it into a museum attraction, something to be revered, but looking at it nearly 50 years after its premiere, there's not doubt that Psycho is as much a masterpiece of popcorn as it as a work of art.
Universal's re-release of Psycho is a nice balance of fun and reverence, and this two-disc set is a worthy treatment of this classic.
Facts of the Case
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, Touch of Evil) is desperate for cash. She wants to marry her lover, Sam (John Gavin, Imitation of Life), but he is being crushed by the debts of his late father and alimony to his ex-wife.
When Marion's boss asks her to deposit a $40,000 cash transaction in the bank, she impulsively takes the money and runs. She's driving to Sam, but the more she drives, the more she's consumed with fear, guilt, and regret.
When a rainstorm hits, she gets off the highway, and on a back road finds the Bates Motel. "Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies," explains the owner, a nervous, chatty young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, Friendly Persuasion). Norman lives next door in a big, old house with his mother, who is "ill." Marion feels pity for Norman when she hears the old woman berating him.
Norman and Marion share sandwiches and conversation. She sees in Norman something of a kindred soul; both are caught in traps and would like to flee to a "private island."
Marion knows she has to go back and return the money, so she goes to her room, planning to take a shower, get a good night's sleep, and leave early in the morning.
But then, she encounters Mrs. Bates.
How exciting it must have been to have seen Psycho in a theater in the summer of 1960, before it was a pop phenomenon and its considerable secrets and surprises part of our cultural lexicon. Audiences screamed long and loud at the violence, which was shocking in its time and is unsettling even today. Some people fainted or got sick at the sight of blood running down a bathtub drain, a simple image that is still more flesh crawlingly raw than anything a current torture-porn film could serve up. The final reveal was the most shocking of shock endings, built with unbearable intensity and exposing such decay, depravity, and unmitigated horror that it was the stuff of nightmares.
Psycho was Hitchcock's last great film. As conceived, it was also one of his least prestigious, a low-budget "quickie" made in response to the cheap horror movies so popular at the time. Although for many, it's the film most readily associated with Hitchcock, it was really not a typical Hitchcock film, certainly not the Hitchcock of the previous decade.
Hitchcock in the '50s was known mostly for sophisticated and urbane capers, usually with a strong male star (such as Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant) alongside a gorgeous blonde (Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint) wearing beautiful clothes, generally shot in color, often with exotic locales. His films were suspenseful, yet sumptuous, thrillers with a strong angle of romance and sex.
Psycho didn't even look like one of these films. It was black and white, and a stark, harsh black and white, at that. Much of the action takes place indoors and in modest, even squalid, places: low-rent motel rooms, a rotting gothic house, a bland office. Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack, with its murmuring strings and shrieking violins, inelegantly pushed the audience to the edges of their seats from its opening strains.
There's no recognizable, comfortably handsome actor playing the hero; in fact, there is no hero; no heroine either, just victims and victimizers, sometimes the same character. We get two blondes this time, Janet Leigh and Vera Miles (as Marion's sister, Lila), but they are not the glamorous Hitchcock "ice blondes." Both are working women. Miles is really there as a device—Lila goes looking for Marion after she runs off with the $40,000.
Leigh is just great as Marion. Possibly Hitchcock's earthiest heroine, Leigh is sensual and passionate, desperate and driven. She spends a good portion of her screen time alone, and her emotions play vividly on her face. Her spectacular exit overshadows an accomplished, and ultimately heartbreaking, performance.
Anthony Perkins' turn as Norman Bates is, of course, legend, and it defined the remainder of his career. Hitchcock, uncharacteristically, sought suggestions from Perkins on how his character should be played. Many of Norman's "touches"—for instance, constantly eating candy corn—were from Perkins. Perkins was regularly typecast as a twitchy neurotic (or psychotic) after making Psycho, and he revisited Norman Bates in Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), and Psycho IV (1990).
The real star of Psycho, of course, is Hitchcock. If ever a film was a director's piece, it's Psycho. Hitchcock took a sleazy story about sex and murder and turned it into one of the most inventive pieces of popular art ever created, elevating it light years above its source, a novel by Robert Bloch based on the life of serial killer Ed Gein.
Every frame contains clues, symbols, subtle references, and foreshadowing. Hitchcock makes brilliant use of montage, particularly in Psycho's most notorious scene, the shower murder—arguably, the most famous death scene, if not the most recognizable sequence, in the history of film. The dialogue in Joseph Stefano's script is rife with ironies and multiple meanings, not to mention the blackest of humor.
Like a perfectly crafted roller coaster, Psycho constantly keeps us off balance and on the edge. In keeping with its central theme of the dualities of human nature, Psycho really is two completely different genre films uneasily cohabiting under one title. At the 48-minute mark—when one story ends and the other begins—the audience's expectations are so completely sandbagged that they never again presume to know what to expect. Hitchcock plays with perspective and tosses out a steady stream of red herrings. My favorite: "If the woman up there is Mrs. Bates, who's that woman buried out in Green Lawn Cemetery?"
When it opened in June of 1960, Psycho was not especially well reviewed; critics seemed as surprised as the audience by the Hitchcock outing, and not in a good way. It was only the film's popularity that brought about critical revisits, and by the end of the year, it was one of the most talked about films of its day.
Of course, it was, and remains, one of the most influential films of all time. Imitations began almost immediately. Schlockmeister William Castle premiered an earnest, yet wonderfully goofy, rip, Homicidal, exactly a year later. Other directors, like Herschell Gordon Lewis, took advantage of the explicit gore to turn out red paint-based schlockers. The entire "slasher" genre can be traced back to Hitchcock's ode to motherhood. The word "psycho" turning up in a title, whether it's Anatomy of a Psycho or Psycho-Circus, or the more recent American Psycho, is routinely associated with Hitchcock, and "more terrifying (or shocking or scarier) than Psycho" remains a standard advertising comparative.
Hitchcock's bravura direction netted an Oscar nomination; Perkins' bravura performance did not. In addition to Hitchcock, the Academy nominated Janet Leigh (Supporting Actress), and the cinematography and art direction. Besides Perkins, Sefano's script, Herrmann's score, and George Tomasini's editing were overlooked, as was the film itself.
Some years back, Universal released a very good edition of Psycho, with a better-than-average (though not Anamorphic) transfer and a decent slate of extras. While there was no commentary, there was an excellent 90-minute documentary, "The Making of Psycho," that includes interviews with Janet Leigh, Pat Hitchcock, .Joseph Stefano, Clive Barker, and Hitchcock's long-time assistant, Peggy Robertson. One of my favorite supplements was a vintage EPK/sales reel for theater owners about the release of the film, including the "No one admitted after the movie starts" policy and the whole, "Please don't divulge the plot" campaign. We also got an in-depth look at the shower sequence and a number of still galleries.
For this new Special Edition, part of the Universal Legacy Series, all the supplements from the original release have been ported over. In addition, we get a remastered, Anamorphic picture, along with some terrific new extras.
The new transfer really looks like great, a vast improvement on the old letterboxed video last time around. The contrast is excellent, the blacks deep. There's a fair amount of grain and some slight flecks and specks, but I suspect that these are just part of the film. The audio remains the original two-channel mono track, and it sounds fine, balanced and free of distortion, the way it was intended to sound.
This time, we do get a commentary, a fact-and-trivia-filled solo number with Stephen Rebello, author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Rebello is very engaging, tossing out bits of information that you might or might not have heard before. The best parts are when he relates his own memories of seeing Psycho in a theater in the '60s.
"In the Master's Shadow: Hitchcock's Legacy" features filmmakers talking about Hitchcock's enduring influence. Among others, we hear from John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Eli Roth, and Guillermo del Toro. This is far better than the usual back-slapping puff piece-type tribute to a great director. We get lots of clips, from Hitchcock's films as well as the films of those participating, and the filmmakers offer interesting and valuable insights. Watch for Scorsese's comparison of a fight sequence in Raging Bull to the shower scene in Psycho.
Some excerpts from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews from the early 1960s are included as an audio-only extra. Communicating through an interpreter, these are a great listen. Especially funny: François Truffaut finding as many ways as he can to express his disdain for the book on which Psycho was based.
Just for fun, we get one of the most memorable episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the long-running anthology series. The episode included here is "Lamb to the Slaughter," directed by Hitchcock and starring Barbara Bel Geddes. This one's a real treat, and it makes sense, too: Psycho was closer in spirit and production to what Hitchcock was doing on television, and "Lamb to the Slaughter" was one of his darkest and wittiest TV outings.
This one's an easy recommend. If you have the previous edition, the new transfer and supplements make this set a worthwhile double dip. If Psycho is not part of your collection, this set is a must-own.
It's sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son.
Fortunately, the Bates family is spared any more shame.
Psycho is one of the all-time great films, and Universal has done right by it.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Author Stephen Rebello
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