Rated R, despite being an extremely dated R. This is a film nerd thing that's now starting to become general knowledge, but a lot of this can probably be attributed to the famous shower scene. (You know, the only scene that anyone can reference without actually having seen the movie.) It looks like she's getting cut up. It looks like you are seeing nudity. But it's one of those things where the story is conveyed and the blade never pierces anything, nor does the camera show anything that would be considered genitals. Still, it is a movie about murder and the film is named Psycho. Still, this might be an R rating that I'll contest.
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
When I still had the film class, I used to do Hitchcock October. The only thing we'd study was Hitchcock. We'd only watch Hitchcock movies. It's not like I was lacking for amazing Hitchcock movies to fill the month, but I was always bummed that Psycho was not allowed on that list. After all, besides Frenzy, it is the only R rated Hitchcock movie out there and our diocese has a hard-and-fast rule about never showing R-rated films. But not being able to watch Psycho has always made me want to revisit it. I mean, this might not be the healthiest thing to say, but Psycho was one of my early obsessive films. As much as I watched the Star Wars and Star Trek films on a loop, Psycho was also on that list. I remember how excited I was when I got the widescreen VHS copy with a reflective CD-like background on the box. I'd watch that thing on repeat. But as an adult, I never rewatched it. Like many of my obsessive movies, I found little reason to revisit it when there were so many movies out there that I hadn't seen. After all, I knew every line of the film. What new observations could I make?
There's one big takeaway that the adult me learned about 12-year-old me. As much as I loved the movie, I always found the second half of the movie extremely tedious. I never really recommended it to anyone. After all, a first-grade me recommended The Invisible Man starring Claude Rains to a group of students at my lunch table. (Behavior that would now be considered hip was very uncool in first grade.) I had learned my lesson to never recommend anything that would be considered slightly boring. I always thought that a movie that was named Psycho and was touted as one of the greatest horror movies of all time presented as kind of odd, considering that it only had two murders and one more scaryish scene in it. Wasn't this movie supposed to wreck a 12-year-old? I'm ashamed to say that I wished back then that the body count was way higher, given this film's reputation.
But adult me doesn't find the movie boring at all. It's actually a tight little film. In my head, this movie was three hours long. It's not even two hours long. It's great. Yeah, the movie is split. But when I realized what Hitchcock was doing in the segmenting of stories creates something absolutely genius. I remember hearing the stories of Hitch demanding that the movie theaters locking their doors after the start of the film to prevent late attendees. I remember seeing the absolutely bizarre trailer for this film, with Hitch himself pleading with his audience not to spoil the twists of the film. It's because Hitch (and credit also probably has to be given to the author of the novel Psycho is based on, assuming he followed the same format) has a completely outlandish plot structure. He Game of Thrones'd you way before Martin ever considered not writing his last books. From anyone's perspective, the story is a suspense story about Marion Crane stealing $40,000 and what she'll do to get away with it. The Norman Bates story only hints at sinister things with the shrillish voice of Mother echoing from the house on the hill. Instead, Marion is given this very complex storyline. She has moral decisions to make. She goes through a lot of the steps that happen to a dynamic character. And then, this random character who isn't introduced but moments before murders her. But from the audience's perspective, it's this old lady who is so grotesque, that her face is hidden.
And that's where the genius really starts. Because Anthony Perkins delivers one of the greatest horror movie performances in this film. Honestly, I was obsessed with Anthony Perkins after seeing him in Psycho for the first time. He's so relatable and earnest that he actually shifts the focus away from this tense suspense story involving Marion Crane to having the audience root for the guy who is covering up murders. I think that's why I thought the second half of the movie was a bit dull. I don't have the investment with Lila and Sam that I do with Marion or Norman. Because Norman can't be on screen too much without tipping the hand of what is going on with Norman's mother, I keep wondering what he's up to in all of those scenes. I also adore that the protagonists are way off about what happened to Marion. They know that Norman is somehow involved, but they're still watching the first half of the movie. They're doing a follow-the-money thing and they are way off. When Arbogast disappears, they can't divorce themselves from the stolen money plot to see that people who go into the Bates Motel have a hard time leaving.
But back to Perkins and his portrayal of Bates, it is sublime. Bates is this waif of a proprietor. I talked about this in my presentation of Touch of Evil, how this archetype would be something to pay attention to. But all of these male figures pick on him. We know that he's not exactly on the up-and-up. A rewatch lets us know that he's a straight up psychopathic murderer. So when people are picking on him, we have this split in reaction. He's both the sympathetic character and the villain. It's kind of perfect.
I never realized how pervy the movie was though. Like, there's not a plot point that I didn't get when I was younger. But Sam and Marion's relationship is really weird. Yeah, we have the same thing that happens in Strangers on a Train. Sam can't marry Marion because he'll be in hock to his wife. But it definitely feels just a shade dirtier than Hitchcock's other outings of the era. I remember when I saw the Vince Vaughan remake of Psycho by Gus Van Sant, I thought it was super odd that Norman started pleasuring himself to the peephole as one of the only actual changes to the film. But watching the film again, it's really obvious that Norman is sexually aroused by peeping in on Marion Crane. It's the reason that the hole is there. It's the reason that he puts her in cabin one. He's really super gross. For all of the sympathy that I swear that Norman garners, that new slant on the peephole scene is probably very important context that I've been ignoring my past viewings of the film.
I wonder if this movie is considered offensive. I know that after Split and Glass, people with DID had issues with the portrayal of people with the disability as psychopathic killers. The end of the movie, with the speech and everything, portrays Norman's personality as almost innocent in the events of the film. It's actually progressive of him to think of that idea. But it doesn't deny that something is fundamentally off about Norman to think that he could be both Norman and his mother. I mean, it isn't a flattering portrayal, but I don't know how many people are actively angry at Psycho today.
There is one moment that really rubs me the wrong way about such a great movie. The shower scene is so nuanced and impressive, but the other murder seems lazy on Hitchcock's part. Arbogast ascends the stairs. It's gorgeously shot, seeing each foot scale a step. Then we go to a bird's eye of Mrs. Bates flying out of the bedroom. She slashes and we cut to Arbogast's face, a knife would bisecting it. It's the way that Arbogast falls that's insane. The idea is that he's falling down the stairs, but manages to reverse his steps perfectly. I always want to like this death more, but it looks so distant from reality.
But besides the Arbogast death, Psycho is an even better movie than I remember it. It's a much faster and engaging film than I remember it being. Sure, it's a horror movie with two murders, but I don't even care. It's so well crafted (shy of Arbogast) that I could watch it annually and still enjoy it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.