BP’s Top 100 Challenge #26: Psycho, by Sarah Brinks
I decided to undertake a movie challenge in 2017. This seemed like a good way to see some classic movies that I have unfortunately never seen. The Battleship Pretension Top 100 list provided such a challenge.
Psycho feels infamous at this point. It has become such a recognizable part of pop culture that almost everyone has seen it, heard the music, or knows the twist by now. Psycho even played an important part in changing how people went to see the movies in theaters. Until Psycho people walked in and out of movies without being slaves to start times, the way we are now. When it was released theaters put up cardboard cut outs of Alfred Hitchcock telling viewers to see the film from the beginning and not to spoil it for their friends. Otherwise people would walk in late and never see Janet Leigh because her character had already been murdered. I’m not sure how much I will bring to the conversation at this point, but I’ll do my best.
I was such a scaredy-cat growing up that I didn’t see Psycho until a film history class in college, when I began my fascination with everything Hitchcock has directed. Psycho is a not only an excellent thriller it is a masterclass in filmmaking. There is a lot to love about the film but the way Hitchcock build tension is masterful. While the murder scene is shocking it isn’t actually that scary. The one shot in the film that still haunts me is when Detective Arbogast is walking up the stairs in the Bates home and “Mrs. Bates” comes running out of her room with a knife and stabs him. The shot from the ceiling above the stairs is the one that still gets me every time. Of course, the scene when Lila finds the decomposing Mrs. Bates is pretty terrifying too, but it really is the tension that is the most powerful element of the film.
Bernard Herrmann’s score is a masterpiece and helps keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. His use of strings in particular adds to the tension in the film. I don’t know enough about music to give a detailed analysis of why the score is so creepy but I’m sure it is a genius combination of minor chords and time signatures. Whatever the reason it is very effective throughout the film. And of course, the infamous staccato violins during the shower murder scene are perfect.
The performances are wonderful throughout the film. It starts with Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. Leigh makes Marion sympathetic but there is no doubt of her guilt. She is desperate to be happy with Sam and she goes a little mad. Vera Miles as Marion’s sister Lila wonderfully balances being her own character while also mirroring some of her sister’s qualities like their tenacity and impulsivity. But it is Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates who gives the best performance. His performance as Norman is so subtle. He is so sweet and awkward but there is a distinct change when Marion suggests he put his mother in a home. He pulls off both sides of Norman perfectly. He is sympathetic but he also feels like a coiled snake ready to strike.
Psycho is possibly Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film and it is an incredible piece of filmmaking. We learned in the film class that I saw Psycho in about how he shot the shower scene with its seventy-seven camera angles and over fifty cuts and of course the chocolate syrup blood. There is also the shot right after the shower murder when he matches the shower drain to Marion’s dead, open eye. All those showy shots and techniques add up with the rest of the film to create a wonderful thriller. The final shot of Norman sitting quietly in a jail cell as his mother wrapped up in a blanket with a fly walking on his hand is tremendously creepy and leaves the audience unsettled.
Any excuse to watch Hitchcock’s film is all right with me. I hope I never find myself in a motel as creepy as the Bates’ but I do enjoy returning there on my television.
I’ve decided to rate each film using an arbitrary scale based on the board game Battleship (lowest: Destroyer, Submarine, Cruiser, Battleship, highest: Carrier)
Psycho ranking: Carrier