Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #22
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh
Some movies have penetrated pop culture so completely that even if you haven't seen them, it feels like you have. When I popped Psycho into my DVD player today, I knew that as soon as I saw a shower, a murder wasn't going to be far behind, and that the killer wasn't the mother but the son dressed as the mother while the mother's skeleton sat in a chair. I didn't know much else, but that second point was crucial enough to make all of the movie's clever development useless to me. The big reveal at the end is that Norman Bates keeps his mother's corpse in his house and sometimes loses his mind and "becomes her" to kill people who stay at his motel. But I knew that going in, so at least forty minutes of development and red herrings were wasted on me. I was left to simply appreciate Hitchcock's storytelling and cinematography, both of which are second to none in this film.
Okay, that's not entirely true. I had no idea that the catalyst for all the murder and mayhem that takes place in the movie is an office worker absconding with $40,000 of her boss' money and stopping in a motel way off the road to keep from being pursued by a nosy policeman. In fact, a good thirty minutes of screen time roll by without any sign of Norman Bates. The movie at first appears to be simply about a dishonest woman stealing from her company and running away. Once she stops at the Bates Motel, though, it's obvious that no good will come of her time there. And indeed, shortly after a fairly innocent but still creepy conversation with the innkeeper, Marion Crane is murdered in the shower by a tall dark figure. Her friends and family start worrying about her – and the $40,000 – so a private investigator is sent to the Bates Motel to gather information. Again, there's an innocuous conversation and, soon thereafter, a murder. Before long, Marion's boyfriend and sister show up at the motel and the truth about Mrs. Bates is revealed when Norman tries to kill yet again and is thwarted. A psychiatrist explains Norman's mental illness to the survivors, and two of the film's best shots occur in the final two seconds or so. First, we see Norman sitting in his cell, thinking to himself in the "Mother" voice, and just before we go to the closing shot his mother's skull is superimposed over his face. It's delectably eerie, and way ahead of its time. Finally, while the title card reads "The End" we see Marion's car being towed from the swamp where Norman let it sink to hide her body. The credits roll, and the film goes out on a high note.
Let's revisit the fact that I saw the ending coming the entire time even though this was my first time seeing Psycho. It's not Hitchcock's fault at all. He actually does a brilliant job giving just a couple of hints at what's really happening that would easily be missed the first time around and surprise the hell out of an audience when they first see Norman in the dress. This is the fault of a generation of people who saw a movie and told their friends about it. I can hardly imagine anyone who saw the movie more than a week after its initial theatrical release not knowing what happened. The same goes for The Sixth Sense, or really any popular movie whose plot hinges on a big twist. Unless you left the room when people were talking about the film, didn't consume any media, and wore earplugs while you waited in line at the cinema, you were going to know what happened in Psycho before you ever saw it. Now, fifty years later, the same is true because of how strongly the film has been woven into the fabric of our popular culture. It takes away from the thrill of discovering the movie's secret, but it doesn't take away from the quality of the movie. Psycho is still one of the greatest psychological thrillers ever made, and no amount of overexposure will change that.
The Good: I thought the superimposed skull on Norman's face at the end of the movie was completely awesome and chilling. It's just subliminal enough to be truly unsettling. The stock answer of "the shower scene" is also an acceptable answer. It still has all of the power that it had in 1960.
The Bad: A few of the performances are awfully stilted. Not Anthony Perkins' or Janet Leigh's, thankfully, but a few of the supporting roles.
The Skinny: Of course it belongs on the list. It's a classic. #23 might be a tad high, but you won't hear me complain.