movie film review | chris tookey


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  Psycho Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
9.74 /10
Anthony Perkins , Janet Leigh , Vera Miles
Full Cast >

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Joseph Stefano from Robert Bloch’s novel.

Released: 1960
Origin: US
Length: 109

Blonde thief on the run (Janet Leigh, pictured) stops off at wrong motel, and meets a boy (Anthony Perkins) who really loves his mother. Contains awful warning against excessive personal hygiene.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Fun and frolics down at the Bates motel. This is either a movie classic or the product of a sick mind - or possibly both. Anyway, it's the mother of all slasher movies, and a masterpiece of horror film-making. Yet it was more comprehensively savaged by the critics than any other film of high quality, except Peeping Tom.

The American critics generally commended Hitchcock’s technical brilliance but thought it had been misapplied; British critics were almost unanimously hostile. One, C.A. Lejeune of the Observer, “grew so sick and tired of the whole beastly business” that she walked out. On both sides of the Atlantic, critics were needled by Hitchcock’s refusal to allow special press screenings, which meant they could not see the film in advance of the general public, and by his refusal to accommodate latecomers into the film, which they felt savoured of a publicity stunt:

“Don't worry if they won't let you in. If you are lucky enough to miss the beginning, you will miss the end and the middle too.”
(Paul Dehn, News Chronicle)

Others were needled by his insistence that critics not give away any of the plot twists:

“Hitch, old cock, I am so much your admirer that I will not only not give away the end. I will not even give away the beginning and the middle. This is the worst film you have made."
(Ivon Adams, Star)

“If you haven't guessed the ending after the first 25 minutes, you're a square. You never read a book. You don't know anything of the facts of life.”
(Leonard Mosley, Daily Express)

The film also flew in the face of critics' expectations of Hitchcock. It was not one of his cool, glossy thrillers, but a venture into the most violent end of the horror genre. Nowadays, when almost any slasher movie is described as Hitchcockian, it's easy to forget that this was his first horror film, and the first of its kind in the commercial mainstream.

It also turned out to be one of the most profitable movies of all time. In return for a $780,000 investment, within 12 months it had returned over 14 million dollars. By the end of 1960, the tide of critical opinion was changing, to keep in line with the film’s popular success.

America’s most influential critic, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who had described Psycho on release as “old melodramatics”, was having second thoughts by the time of his end-of-year round-up :

“Old-fashioned horror melodrama was given a new and frightening look in this bold psychological mystery picture. Sensual and sadistic though it was, it represented expert and sophisticated command of emotional development with cinematic techniques.”

Psycho received four Oscar nominations - for Hitchcock's direction, John L. Russell's photography and the art direction by Joseph Hurley and Robert Clatworthy, though not for George Tomasini's skilful editing, or Bernard Herrmann's brilliant and innovative score. Over the years, Psycho has risen hugely in critical esteem - although as late as 1972, the three US film guides still rated it only at 6.33. It has even paved the way for a whole new genre - the “slasher” movie. Many will doubt whether this influence has been for good.

The film isn't perfect and suffers from a dullish middle half-hour, where Hitchcock is clearly manoeuvring more characters so they can visit the Bates motel. But his use of the camera throughout is masterly:

“Consider the moment in Psycho when Norman Bates carries his mother down to the fruit cellar. In literary terms there is almost nothing there: a young man carrying a limp body out of a room and down some stairs. Yet in the film the overhead shot with its complicated camera movement communicates to us precisely that sense of metaphysical vertigo that Hitchcock's subject requires at that moment: a sense of sinking into a quicksand of uncertainties, or into a bottomless pit; communicates it by placing us in a certain position in relation to the action and controlling our movements in relation to the movements of the actors. The cinema has its own methods and its own scope.”
(Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Films, 1965)

In another famous scene, Norman Bates sits beneath stuffed birds of prey; and it is pleasingly ambiguous whether he is like them, or (because of his position underneath) one of their potential victims. Hitchcock uses parent-child references and imagery throughout to bolster up his main theme of parental oppression; and the climactic exploration of the house turns into a tour of Norman Bates’s psychotic personality, ending in the fruit cellar, where there lurks the repressed, hidden cause of his behaviour. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the film is the way it invites us to understand, even empathise with, a disturbed personality.

But it's the shower-scene which everyone remembers from Psycho - and not only because it’s cleverly shot: it is a revolutionary moment in cinematic story-telling, for the way it suddenly, brutally leaves the audience with no one to root for - and makes us transfer our sympathies, naturally enough, to the one character we feel we already know: the villain (who, we gradually realize to our horror, is mad)! It is probably the most brilliant narrative twist in the history of cinema.

“My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don’t care about the subject-matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound-track and the technical ingredients that made the audiences scream. I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this. It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.”
(Alfred Hitchcock interviewed by Francois Truffaut, 1968)

“Norman Bates is the Hamlet of horror roles.”
(Anthony Perkins)

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