Appreciating Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which premiered in New York City 50 years ago today, is not difficult. The subject of countless articles, books, and theses—not to mention Gus Van Sant’s ill-fated 1998 remake and a number of diminishing-returns sequels—the original shocker holds up extremely well; even after multiple viewings, the sheer pleasure of letting Hitchcock lead us through his maze of mayhem makes it a trip most of us will eagerly take again.
Psycho is one of those movies that, should it pop up on TCM or another television outlet, practically demands that you watch, even if just for a few minutes. The deliberately slow opening, with its jovial setting not just of place but of time—“Phoenix, Arizona…Friday, December the Eleventh…Two forty-three p.m.”—and the then-risqué va-va-va-voom shot of Janet Leigh in her bra; the first glimpse of the foreboding Bates house, and Anthony Perkins’ indelible Norman Bates (“Oh, we have 12 vacancies. 12 cabins, 12 vacancies.”); and of course the pair of murders: Leigh’s early exit in the shower, and Martin Balsam’s arguably even more vicious demise as he tumbles down the stairs.
The real wonder of Psycho is that Hitchcock made it at all. By this point he was the full-fledged, crowd-pleasing Master of Suspense, his last several films in eye-popping Technicolor and usually laced with sardonic humor (To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, and his most recent big-screen effort, North by Northwest). Practically simultaneously, he’d been christened one of moviemaking’s seminal figures by the founders of the nouvelle vague, and established himself as an amusingly macabre TV host via Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
At the height of these powers, he took much of the crew from the TV series to make what appeared to be a low-budget, black-and-white horror movie with a lurid title, at a time when such fare was mostly relegated to the William Castles and Hammer Films of the world.
But Hitchcock was after bigger game than just horror. Working with screenwriter Joseph Stefano from Robert Bloch’s book (itself based loosely on Ed Gein, the Wisconsin-born, mother-fixated serial killer who also inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, among others), he worked in plenty of then au courant Freudian Oedipal, visual and verbal jokes (Norman’s hobby is taxidermy, the better to ensnare Leigh’s Marion Crane; Mother Bates’ protest, “I will not hide in the fruit cellar! Ha! You think I'm fruity, huh?”), some eye-popping odd framing, and of course Bernard Herrmann’s inimitable score.
That score’s most famous piece, the stabbing, shrieking violins that accompany the murders, has of course been an influence all its own, not least on John Williams’ Jaws theme (which the Beastie Boys memorably pointed out by juxtaposing the two on “Egg Man”). An intriguing feature on the Psycho DVD allows you to play the shower sequence without the music; with on ly the sounds of the blade entering the flesh, it makes for a much blunter and disturbing effect.
As much as I enjoy and appreciate Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt, and even Hitchcock’s late effort at repeating Psycho with Frenzy, the little film from 1960 strikes me as the masterpiece that stands—if slightly—above them all.
If, for no other reason, that we all go a little mad sometimes.