Psycho (1960)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Until I picked it up on DVD recently, I don’t think I’ve ever watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho from beginning to end. I know I’ve seen parts of it, some from the beginning, some from the end, but never start to finish the way a movie is intended to be seen.

I think the legend around the movie has always held me back. Frankly, I think I was secretly afraid to see it. Of course, this is the kind of feeling Hitchcock would have loved for me to have (though maybe not to the extent of keeping me from seeing it).

So now I have finally seen it and it wasn’t as horrific as I had thought it might be. Hitchcock’s films never are. They work on an audience’s fears and anxieties. They are some of the most participatory films ever made as they use an audience and its imagination to tell a great deal of the story.

Over the years, a great deal has been written about Psycho and I’m certainly not going to contribute anything new or terribly insightful. So I’ll just make a few random observations.

The first thing I noticed, particularly in the film’s opening, is how staccato and almost jerky the film is, producing a sense almost like walking the deck of a ship that is rapidly listing from side to side.

Bernard Herrmann provides a score that is almost a string of repetitive punctuations (particularly the famous theme used in the knife-wielding scenes). The camera work, in the opening, pans then zooms, pans then zooms, almost as if it can’t quite decide where to look, even though it is deliberately moving in on a particular building and a particular window.

I think this does two things. It somewhat disorients the viewer. What should I be looking at? It keeps us slightly off balance. It also announces the film’s theme, the conflicting motivations and behavior of the the characters, and the idea you may or may not be looking in the right place, that things may not be what they appear. (Is Marion a slut or a “good” girl? A thief or honest? Is Norman a shy boy or someone hiding something dark?)

Then there is Hitchcock’s decision to make the film cheaply (for about $800,000) and in black and white.

While it gives the film a low budget, horror film look, it also somehow gives it a sense of being more true than a glossier, colour, big budget film.

It’s said one reason Hitchcock chose black and white was because the film would be too gory for colour. This may be true. But I also think black and white gives the film a greater feeling of reality. (I’m not sure why this is so.)

Finally, as great a film as Psycho is, I can’t say it’s one of my favourite Hitchcock movies. To me, it seems more an exercise in what he could do in manipulating an audience. It’s a virtuoso filmmaking performance. But it’s less a film to be enjoyed than a film to be studied and marveled at. This may be because I’m not a big fan of horror, slasher films. But I don’t find Psycho an engaging film on a visceral level. It’s more a treat for the head.

It’s a little odd that so many horror films (and films of other kinds) are so intent on being as graphic as possible. Hitchcock, the master of film, achieves his effects by going the opposite way.

A film like Psycho works through what it doesn’t show but suggests. It lets the audience scare itself.

You would think people would learn from that and try to emulate it.

© 2003 Piddleville Inc.

Leave a Reply