Classic Film Kid: Psycho

Hello everyone, it’s the Classic Film Kid again. Today, its a return to true classic territory, as we step inside the world of Norman Bates with Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal work Psycho. I’ve never stepped into the world of the famed director before, so this should be fun!

Psycho is split roughly into a two-half structure: the first focuses on Marion Crane, an office clerk who steals a large sum of money and runs away to live with her boyfriend but she must first stop off at a motel for the night. She meets the very strange Norman Bates, and the rest is history. Then the second half is the search for her conducted by her sister Lila, who learns of the backstory of Norman and his Mother, as well as Norman’s dangerous psychological predisposition.

I don’t think I need to state this, but just in case you didn’t know – it’s a classic. Psycho is an absolutely brilliant piece of cinema that’s now become iconic and for good reason. It’s so hard to resist a film that just tells its story superbly and has this talented a director behind it. But now it’s time to work out just why this film works so well.

First off, I did mention the two half structure for a reason. It’s a kind of unusual structure for a film, both modern-day and back then, even with the thematic link between the characters and the story. However, spending that much time with Lila’s sister and her own journey to the Bates Motel and meeting Norman allows the film to fully ‘breathe,’ a technique that most modern films and shows overlook. Most modern horror films would have limited the first half to the shower scene, allowing for some jump scares before the title rolled. Having an entire 45 minutes devoted to a separate plot is an amazing way to be introduced into the strange and twisted history of the Bates Motel.

We start the film seeing Marion Crane at her regular job, and you’ll notice right off the bat even if you’ve never seen one of Hitchcock’s films that he is amazing at setting up characters and kicking off a story – even in the ordinary setting of an office, we can sense that Marion wants to get out of there. She’s having a problem paying for her wedding, and when somebody asks her to deposit some money into the bank, she steals it. The build in the first half is superbly-done, and even though endless pop culture references in movies have given most of the twists away before I watched this film, it’s still fascinating seeing how we get to the conversation between Norman and Marion, and of course the shower scene.

Anthony Perkins is fantastic, and the dialogue that he’s given only helps him to deliver more on his performance. The dinner with Marion is another great example of allowing the characters breathing room, as he relays about his ‘mother,’ talking about how ‘she just goes a little mad sometimes.’ He’s a rather introverted character, and while the way he talks about the mother and some of the musical cues in this scene might give the game away a little too early as to the true extent of Norman’s condition, it’s a great scene nonetheless.

Speaking of the music, I couldn’t help but notice Bernard Herrmann’s amazing score. It really helps bring the mood out in certain scenes, and you get a great sense of his style. He makes little scary pieces before ramping up the volume when necessary. The music in films is always a great indicator of the scale and the tone and Herrmann’s music manages this almost perfectly.

When we get to the second half, there is undeniably a lag in pacing. Going from the shower sequence and Norman cleaning up the murder to ordinary life again is a little jarring, but it’s understandable why – there needs to be a bit of rest before the story picks back up again, and sure enough it does. As Lila begins to interrogate Marion’s boyfriend about her disappearance, the pace starts picking back up again. Even if we as the audience know what happened to Lila’s sister, there is still plenty of mysteries to solve, so the momentum never truly stalls.

Now it’s probably time that I mention this, and I wouldn’t necessarily call this a flaw that I have with the film but it is worth mentioning – since this movie came out, the quality of acting and filmmaking has certainly got better. Anthony Perkins is brilliant as I’ve said before, but while the performances of people like Janet Leigh and Vera Miles are by no means bad, they’re also not as impressive as someone my age usually sees in acting. Maybe it’s the way that their roles are characterised, but it does usually involve something like ‘talk, discover something scary, scream’ and then rinse and repeat that formula. As I said, I’m just coming at this from a modern standpoint and I bet that at the time this acting and scripting was top-notch, but it is something to point out when somebody my age watches a film as old as this.

The film still looks great – on our Blu-Ray copy, it looked really crisp and clean despite being a black and white film, and Hitchcock is still unrivalled as far as cinematography goes. Iconic shots such as the shower scene, the ‘mother’ killing Arbogast on top of the staircase and the much-parodied Mrs Bates reveal still hold up as masterful today, and it really helps you get into the experience and the story of Bates Motel much more.

As the film closes out, we’re treated to another famous scene – a slow shot of Norman alone in the prison cell, the Mother persona taking over him and delivering a creepy monologue, and I’ve always loved the little detail of Norman’s face subtly forming a skull before the end credits roll. Superb job. So, I think we can all agree Psycho is fantastic.

Despite how the acting could be seen as a bit dated from a modern perspective, the film holds up surprisingly well and that is thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant direction and an intriguing story that lets us in on the mind of a fascinating character. It’s obvious why Psycho still has appeal, judging by the multiple sequels and award-winning TV shows. The filmmaking, also – while the shot for shot remake in 1998 should stink of laziness, it just goes to show that Hitchcock’s techniques were so good they could very easily be replicated and still maintain their power.

Psycho gets a strong 9, maybe even a light 9.5 out of 10.

Well, that’s all from me. Now that the COVID-19 panic has stuck everybody indoors, that means there’s even more opportunity for me to get reviews done. I’ve got a Doctor Who article planned to celebrate 15 years of modern Who, but there will also be some Studio Ghibli and James Bond reviews coming. Till then, this is the Classic Film Kid, signing off!

Alex Paine

Alex Paine started reviewing films on the site IntoFilm when he was 9, but now his forte is classic films and TV on the wonderful site The Geek Show. He puts his opinions into detailed reviews with plenty of geeky banter on the side. And in terms of classic films, he has seen some of the greats. Although he still hasn't watched Citizen Kane. Or any of the Godfather films. Or The Shawshank Redemption. Or Apocalypse Now. Or - Let's just say he has a lot more work to do.

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