Friday, May 18, 2012

Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock guarded the plot of PSYCHO against publicity, and in 1960 audiences came to the film without being able to anticipate the unexpected twists and turns of the plot. More than forty years later, the movie's fame is such that even those who have not seen it are often able to sketch the basic outline of the story in a few words. This demonstrates the film's fame; what demonstrates it quality, however, is the fact that even those who know the plot before seeing it are seldom disappointed.
Very loosely based on Robert Bloch's pulp novel, which was itself very loosely based on killer Ed Gein, PSYCHO presents us with the tale of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)--who, in a moment of madness, steals forty-thousand dollars. Running scared, Marion checks into the out-of-the-way Bates Motel. And there, as the DVD production notes gracefully state, she becomes the most grossly inconvenienced hotel guest in cinema history.

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a deluge of low budget and badly made films that commanded box office business via tawdry subject matter, and according to lore director Alfred Hitchcock was curious to see what might happen if he himself made such a film--but made it well. Working with a remarkable script and gifted cast and crew, the result was a masterpiece. Although it is often described as a horror film, PSYCHO is less horror than it is a study in paranoia and suspense, and certainly a lesson in the fact that one need not bother with graphic gore or big budgets to impress audiences.
Much of the film's success is in its detail. Joseph Stephano's script is memorable for its repetition of verbal motifs and its extremely disquieting tone; Bernard Herrman's famous all-strings score builds tremendously upon it. The simple yet meticulous sets communicate building unease, and the strangely flat, semi-documentary black and white cinematography has a voyeuristic edge that is extremely disturbing.
There are elements that can be justly criticized--moments at which the script sounds a false note or characterizations seem a bit artificial--but these small points fade against the overall power of Hitchcock's vision, a vision that here makes viewers squirm even when there seems nothing tangible on screen to squirm about. But in the end, this is the film for which Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, and John Gavin will forever be remembered... and one of the several films that will forever be associated with one of the twentieth century's most masterful directors.
This DVD largely restores PSYCHO to its original form. Although the first few minutes of the print show wear and tear, for the most part it is remarkably pristine and (after years of pan and scan television broadcasts) is returned to its original ratio. While there is no audio commentary track, the DVD package includes the original trailer with Alfred Hitchcock, extensive production notes, and an extremely impressive documentary that includes numerous interviews, newsreel footage, production photographs, storyboards, and the like. Even if you have the film on VHS, you'll likely want to purchase the DVD. Strongly recommended.

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