Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Is there anyone out there who hasn't seen 'Psycho', who has no idea what happens when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) makes an ill-advised en suite decision at the Bates Motel?

Didn't think so.

Is there any need for me to write this, especially with in-depth articles here, here and here?
Probably not.

And yet here I am, eleven films into this Hitch-fest, and I'm more convinced than ever - not that I really had any doubts before - that 'Psycho' represents Hitchcock at the top of his game. For the record, this is what makes it a classic:

Saul Bass's starkly simple titles - simple, but with the key credits fracturing. Seldom have the opening credits set up the 'feel' of a film with such economy.

Bernard Herrmann's score - has a composer ever meshed with a director as fully as Herrmann did with Hitchcock? His music for 'Psycho' is what a soundtrack should be - an integral part of the film, woven into its narrative, characters and imagery.

And speaking of imagery - the Bates motel, the old dark house looming behind it. Forget Dracula's castle, forget the Overlook Hotel, don't even mention the house on Haunted Hill, this is the essential iconic image of the horror genre.

And would it be so iconic if Hitchcock had shot 'Psycho' in colour? Well, Gus van Sant shot his exercise-in-pointlessness remake in colour and ... well ... anyway ... moving swiftly on. Hitchcock's 'Psycho' is in black and white. After spending most of the 50s shooting in technicolour (1956's 'The Wrong Man' being a notable exception), it's tempting to describe 'Psycho' as a return to Hitchcock's roots - a film underpinned by a constant sense of menace, much as 'Shadow of a Doubt' was. Certainly, there's an energy, an edginess that sets it apart from the likes of 'Rear Window' or 'To Catch a Thief'.

And yet it's modern: it pushes forward, pushes the envelope. The almost-nudity of the shower scene (deliberately blurry focus when Hitchcock drops in an overhead shot of Marion, arm outstretched to fend off her attacker). The use of editing to create the impression of images more graphic than are actually shown. Forty-eight years down the line, it's still a striking, shocking, impressively realised scene.

And it flips audience expectation on its head. This is supposed to be our protagonist. Who's going to take centre stage now? Private eye Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam)? It's kind of late in the game, but surely logic dictates that he's now the main man by default, the guy who puts it all together, who nails Bates (Anthony Perkins)?

Actually, no.

'Psycho' delights in pulling the rug from under your feet, all the way through to the final moments where a sanguinary bit of voice-over and a creepy superimposed image tell you the whole story.

Marion's not the main character. Nor is Arbogast. It's not Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles), either, despite her woman-in-peril bit near the end.

And no, it's not Norman Bates.

It's his mother.

But don't be scared. She wouldn't harm a fly.

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