Psycho ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

"They'll see and they'll know, and they'll say, 'Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly....'"

It is often said that, in the battle of book v. film, book always wins. After all, so much more detail can be packed into the 500+ pages of a novel, while a movie frequently begins to creak as it passes the two-hour mark. And this truism is borne out by our experience—most adaptations do fall short of their literary counterparts. But this is not because of any intrinsic fault in cinema as a medium. Rather, these adaptations' failure is usually a failure of imagination and ingenuity. Ticking off the major plot points of a novel and eliding the psychological and observational detail (the meat of any good book), one is naturally going to turn in a film unable to wade past shallow middlebrow waters. Instead, the mood evoked by the novel should be recast in a cinematic light. Reimagine visually, dispose with exposition, visualize the internalized elements, and cast aside specifics to the extent they do not lend themselves to the world of the movie.

Along with The Godfather, Psycho is a master class in turning a mediocre book into a grand film. Hitchcock and his screenwriter Joseph Stefano take the overarching sense of creep and decay hanging over Robert Bloch's potboiler (along with the shocking idea of a stabbing in the shower) and abandon most of the rest. Instead of a middle-aged, overweight, overtly repellent Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), we are given a young, kindly, handsome Norman—slightly jittery, but in an endearing way. And instead of beginning with Bates and briefly glimpsing Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) as one in a series of his victims, we begin with Marion, a fully-formed woman who acts in a moment of desperation and thus embarks unwittingly on a trip into madness. In the process, they deliver a brilliant exploration of 1950s Momism fears, the dangers of trusting strangers, and a host of Hitchcock's favorite pet themes.

Chief among these is the misanthropic Mother. With the exception of Shadow of a Doubt, it is difficult to find a Hitchcock film that presents matrons as anything but unhelpful annoyances at best (e.g., North by Northwest's dismissive smart-aleck), and mentally disturbed harridans at worst (e.g., Notorious' murderous, controlling Nazi). Here, Mother is a poison that rots from birth onward, fostering an emotional instability that persists even after her death. Indeed, death does not kill her—it merely disembodies her, granting her terrifying omnipotence.

But this is only the most obvious of Hitchcock touchstones. There is the MacGuffin (here, the stolen $40,000). There is the (semi-)innocent on the run (really another, larger scale MacGuffin). There is the mistrust and general incompetence of the police. There are the food-sex-death associations. There is the cool, attractive blonde, punished for taking an active role in her life. There is the bird as a harbinger of doom. Most importantly—and key to the shock of the film—is the specter of evil lurking in the most everyday of locations.

In fact, nearly every location in the film is ordinary and yet swathed in latent menace. The hotel at which Marion and boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) meet at the outset is seedy, a place of illicit doings that practically uses shame as currency. Marion's office is host to a crass oilman who drunkenly propositions her in mid-afternoon. And of course the Bates motel and the Gothic house on the hill behind are far more sinister than they appear.

All of this exists chiefly to provide us with the shower scene—with all due respect to Eisenstein's Odessa Steps sequence, the finest example of montage in the history of cinema. Every element of the scene is so precisely choreographed, so well thought out, that the viewer truly believes she has seen a stabbing. Yet we see no nudity, no gore. All is suggested by the juxtaposition of cross-directional images, evoking a sensation of onslaught far beyond what footage of a gaping knife wound could produce. And just as the scene is impeccably structured as a series of colliding images suggesting worlds beyond what is actually shown, its narrative impact lies similarly in what surrounds it. Because Hitchcock fully invests himself in the Marion character, so do we. She is sympathetic and recognizable, a good person having made a mistake in an attempt to be with the man she loves. Who can't relate to that? At the outset, we believe that the film will be about the aftermath of her mistake. And when she and Norman meet and eat and talk, we believe their relationship will animate what comes next. This (combined with the fact that Janet Leigh was the only star in the film) makes her ensuing death not only shocking but draining. With no protagonist left, the audience is unmoored and must latch onto the only other person around—Norman. Hitchcock forces the audience's hand, culminating in the masterful sequence surrounding Norman's sterilization of Mother's crime scene and the audience's inevitable gasp when it appears Marion's car might not sink in the swamp. With no exposition or overt sign-posting, Hitchcock maneuvers his audience into sympathy with the devil.

The riches don't end there. Bernard Herrmann's haunting strings-only score, its aural slashing fitting the film like a glove, remains a creative high point in that respected composer's career. Hitchcock's trademark macabre wit is on full display ("Insect or man, death should always be painless."). Leigh has never been better. As Hitchcock so often accomplished with his leading ladies, Leigh's limited range is put to character-based use, making Marion an average but uneasy woman, her attempts to hide her wrongdoing manifesting stiffly as befits a non-criminal. Perkins gives a bravura performance—one need only contrast with Vince Vaughn's clammy, tic-ridden display in the ill-begotten remake to see what fine work Perkins does. To achieve the tone and the audience identification Hitchcock sought, Norman must come across not only as tiptoeing the line between harmlessly awkward and slightly unhinged, he must skirt the boundary between madness and sympathy. Norman must suggest the possibility of insanity lurking beneath, but must make that insanity justifiable, almost natural, earning the viewer's understanding rather than revulsion. Perkins does so flawlessly, and Hitchcock's brilliant use of mirrors and reflections to visualize the thematic duality reinforces this tension between surface and identity, expectation and reality, parent and child.

And so, as always, we arrive at the end. The chilling final scene, with Mother's sad, mad voiceover, lingering with the audience long after the final shot of Marion's car being retrieved from the swamp (a superficial restoration of the necrotic, not unlike Norman's care for Mother).

Or rather, we stumble to the end. First, we must endure the film's only misstep—the stilted diatribe by the psychiatrist (Simon Oakland). Why did Hitchcock stick with the scene? Was he afraid that a 1960 audience was not yet sufficiently immersed in superficial psychobabble and so would be confused by Norman's split personality? While Norman's condition isn't particularly plausible in real-world terms, it needn't be for the film to work. If any explanation was needed, a simple line or two would have sufficed. Eventually, though, Dr. Windbag runs out of breath, leaving us with Mother. Looking agitated but oddly serene, Perkins conveys the warring internal factions, dominated by a woman convinced of her essential righteousness and actualized by a child willingly sacrificed to maintain the sanctity of her cloistered world, just another stuffed bird. Were it not for the penultimate scene, this would be the perfect film. As it is, it's not far off.

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