March 28, 2012

Classic Review: Psycho (1960)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Joseph Stefano. Based upon the novel by Robert Bloch.
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire

The granddaddy of all slasher films, Psycho tells the story of a man driven to madness by an overbearing mother, or so it seems so at the beginning.

When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer, she flees, only to find herself at the creepy and derelict Bates Motel, run by the pleasant but oddly sinster Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Soon afterwards, a private Detective (Martin Balsam), Marions' boyfriend, Sam Loomis, (John Gavin) along with her sister, Lila (Vera Miles) come to Bates Motel looking for Marion. All of them make startling discoveries about the true nature of the Bates Motel and its' caretaker.

The Queering
Watching Psycho for the first time recently, the old saying that "familiarity breeds contempt" kept running through my head. Unfortunately for Hitchcocks' classic slasher flick, I knew too much of the plot going in and the infamous shower scene failed to do much of anything for me. At the time of the release, Hitchcock took extreme measures to avoid the plot from becoming widely known so as to avoid spoiling the shocking twists. He was quite wise to do this. I spent most of the first part of the film, forcing myself to pay attention and not give into boredom. After the shower scene and my knowledge of the plot dropped off, I became a lot more engaged with the film and Hitchcock's mastery of the cinematic medium became more apparent.

However, given the nature of the villian, I was a little worried that the film was going to engage in some rather overt transphobia. Ultimately, I am not sure that this was he case. Yes, the bad guy does crossdress, (technically speaking) but the behavior in this case is more reflective of multiple personality disorder, than anything to do with the experiences of transgender/transsexual individuals. There's even a line from a psychologist at the end, explicitly stating that the character is not a transvestite. I might otherwise make a point about the problematic terminology used here, but given that Psycho was made in 1960 I don't really feel like it. Furthermore, other than a single instance of limp wristedness, I did not notice any attempt to overly feminize the villian, nor did I discern a queer subtext. Ultimately, the film is much worse when it comes to stigmitizing mental illness and one need look no further than the title for proof of that.

For me, there are also some interesting issues related to the attempts of certain parties to censor Psycho or more precisely, what some censors wanted to censor. Objections were raised over the use of the term "transvestite". The shower scene had one shot of female buttocks removed and some censors were worried that a shot of Curtis's nipples had made it into the final cut. Psycho is also famous for quiet likely containing the first scene where a toilet is being flushed and Hitchcock had to fight hard to make sure that this moment was not cut. Oddly enough, the fact that two people are brutally murdered on screen does not seem to have raised quiet the number of objections as the above items, although some film critics apparantly did protest the graphic violence after the film was relased.

From a technical perspective, Psycho is very well constructed, using complex camerawork and bold editing during key sequences. The image of the Bates Motel and shower scene have become etched into our cultural memory for a reason. Anthony Perkins gives the most chilling performance as Norman Bates - the audience does not need any line about the highway being undertraveled to know that there is a reason why no one stays at the Bates Motel. No one else really is given enough to do to leave much of an impression. I may have been underwhelmed by the lack of suspense to the plot (having forknowledge of what would happen before even seeing this) but I cannot deny Hitchock's genius in constructing this classic.

Anyone with an interest in classic films, horror and slasher flicks, or evenjust generally the history of cinema should drive themselves Psycho in order to see this.

The Rating


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