What does everybody know from Psycho? The shriek, of course: there are few (if any) musical cues as iconic as the stabs of Bernard Herrmann’s violins. Even as a kid playing make believe in, say, 1993, I knew the sound movie knives made. It’s notable then that they almost didn’t: the shower scene was supposed to be silent, and originally Hitchcock had asked for a jazz score. But Herrmann, working with a razor thin music budget, ignored him, and hired a string orchestra instead, because he liked how the sparse sound of the string arrangements played with the film’s black and white color palette.
Riverview Theater, April 20
Directors: Alfred Hitchcock
Producers: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Robert Stefano, Robert Bloch (novel)
Cinematographer: John L. Russell
Editor: George Tomasini
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam, Patricia Hitchcock
Genre: Horror / Mystery / Thriller
Premiere: June 16, 1960–New York
US Theatrical Release: Sept. 8, 1960
US Distributor: Universal Studios
Hitchcock approved, of course, and watching the film again after a number of years, I’m struck by just how clear-eyed Hermann’s vision was. If the studio found the film’s content excessive, the filmmaking itself is anything but. Taut as wire from start to finish, and still remarkably scary, Psycho is a movie so efficient it’s elemental, and a model of the kind of brilliance constraint can create. Even the black and white stock, chosen because it was cheaper, is made resonant: from the bright white of the infamous bathroom to the deep shadows of the Bates mansion, it’s hard to imagine a film do more with its limitations.
Not a single scene is wasted, misplaced or superfluous. Each builds tension, draws out character, and sets the next event in motion. Even the melodramatic opener throws us into conflict: late for work after an afternoon tryst, Marion Crane gets in argument with her boyfriend Sam about money. When the money they’d need to start a life together lands literally on her desk in the next scene, we know what’s going to happen. The gears turn on their own, no dialogue is necessary, just the shot of the cash in an envelope on the bed as Crane hurriedly packs. Even the interstitial moments are nervous: behind the wheel on her way out of town, thoughts rattle around Crane’s head. Will she be caught? What will her new life look like?
It’s all misdirection, of course, as the breakneck noir plot gets sideswiped at the end of the first act. But it feels meaningful as it unfolds. Janet Leigh may be the original doomed blonde, but she’s also the character that makes everything happen. Her performance walks a tightrope: she’s intrepid but foolish, sympathetic yet obscure, and by the time she steps into the shower for the last time, we’re convinced she’s the protagonist.
The problem, of course, is that there’s another one waiting in the wings. Anthony Perkins does similarly towering work as Norman Bates. In a strange way, we root for him, too. At once all-American and awkward, creepy and sweet, he first becomes our eyes when he spies on Crane through his peephole, then again later as he cleans up the murder. But before that, Marion and Norman have dinner in the motel’s parlor, where, flanked by stuffed birds, he tells her that “we’re all in our private traps.”
It’s a brilliant scene, where a lot is given and taken away, including the film’s own design. Psycho is a trap, a thing as steely and sharp as anything Hitchcock ever made. The second and third acts similarly bait and switch, upending us again just when we’re feeling like the chain of events is settled. Even the film’s ending does little to defuse the film’s cool menace: the psychologist’s demystifying exposition is no match for the killer’s unsettling inner monologue, or the film’s final shot of Marion’s car being pulled from the swamp.
In fact, the only restful moment in the film is also it’s most terrifying. Marion reaches for the shower curtain and finds it, only to tear it down as she collapses. After disappearing down the drain, the camera dissolves to a close-up on Marion’s unblinking eye, the shower still running in the background, before slowly zooming out, first taking in the whole bathroom, then drifting to the money on the bedside table, before turning, finally, to the window and the mansion outside. In one continuous, astounding shot, Hitchcock unmoors his viewers from the plot. The relentless forward motion of things has halted, and we hang in the air like ghosts, between worlds, wondering what comes next.
Other films have effectively mimicked this sensation of dislocation: the Coens’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men comes immediately to mind, as do Mulholland Drive, Enter the Void, and Uncle Boonmee Who Remembers His Past Lives. But I doubt any of these successors have managed to completely recreate what viewers must have felt in 1960, when Hitchcock convinced theater owners not to allow late entry to his boundary-pushing masterpiece. Perhaps this is why Psycho continues to inspire sequels, remakes, biopics, and even (this past year) a TV show: the film’s vision is so enthralling than even when it ends, it’s hard to believe it’s over.