As revered as Alfred Hitchcock deservedly remains among critics, as much as he is an embodiment of studio-system auteurism, some of his movies just aren't that good. Or rather, they may not be as good as they are influential. Hitchcock's influence on modern suspense and horror is undeniable, and yet there are several of his films – particularly a few of his last – that simply don't have the same cache of greatness as his earlier triumphs, either because they weren't conceived with the imagination and passion of his most celebrated classics, or they repeated the techniques of their predecessors to significantly lesser effect.
'Psycho' was released in 1960 to a hailstorm of controversy, which followed the already vociferous controversy of the film's production. Suffice it to say that the film has gone on to become one of Hitchcock's signature works, not to mention a benchmark box office success both in terms of its public promotion and the money that campaign generated. But is Hitchcock's 'Psycho' still as terrifying as on the first day it drew back the shower curtain on audiences?
The Facts: 'Psycho' was released on June 16, 1960, after a long and storied series of production delays and interruptions: when Universal balked at funding the film, which they deemed too lascivious to produce, Hitchcock deferred his director's fees and took on the production costs himself in order to get it made. When the film finally arrived in theaters, it earned some $32 million in receipts, thanks to Hitchcock's shrewd, provocative marketing campaign, which featured the director giving the audience a tour of the Bates home and Motel. Additionally, the film was initially rejected by the MPAA for nudity and extreme violence, but after Hitchcock held the film for several days without making any changes, he resubmitted the same cut and it was approved.
Subsequently the film was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction, although it won no awards. Meanwhile, Janet Leigh won Best Supporting Actress for her turn as Marion Crane at the Golden Globes. 'Psycho' still enjoys a 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Although its violence is comparatively tame for today's audiences, 'Psycho' is really still as scary now as it was in 1960. Hitchcock expertly builds suspense, not just in terms of the murder sequences, but throughout the entire movie, first as Marion Crane steals her boss' money and tries to make a getaway, and then after she is killed, as Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) tries to evade capture by investigating parties, and of course, protect his mother. That the film successfully transfers its sympathies from the "main character" to Bates is a testament to Joseph Stefano's script, especially since the sinister undercurrent that runs under each scene only builds more and more intensely to a fever pitch by the film's conclusion.
Hitchcock, of course, seemed to instantly and intuitively understand certain aspects of human psychology, particularly in terms of audience manipulation and thematic reinforcement, and 'Psycho' is seeded with subtle but undeniable details that intensify the emotional and thematic dynamics of the story. For example, in the opening scene between Marion and her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), she is undressed – admittedly provocatively – but in white, indicating her purity, at the very least, of intent. After she steals the money, however, she's next seen in a black brassiere and slip – a cue that she is no longer the wholesome young woman who simply wants to get away and marry the man she loves. The fact that her murder comes right after she basically decides to return the money is a sort of plot twist in that she is never given a chance to atone for her crime, and is instead punished for it.
The stylization of the dialogue may be a byproduct of the decidedly more melodramatic tone of movies at the time in which 'Psycho' was made, but it also works to intensify the suspense in the story. Marion is probably the worst offender, acting standoffish to a police officer and then basically arousing suspicion in any-and-everyone she meets by being impatient and vaguely rude in almost all of her conversations. But when Sam and Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) visit the Bates Motel to investigate her disappearance, their motives seem conspicuous and obvious as they attempt clumsily to confront Norman about his knowledge of Marion and the money she stole.
Finally, Hitchcock's direction in the film is nothing short of brilliant. He uses similarly stylized camera angles and set-ups to both heighten and humanize the point of view of the characters, such as when Marion and Norman eat dinner in Norman's study: the camera looks from Marion's seated point of view up at the taxidermied animals perched in the corners of the room, and the lighting and perspective gives them an ominous, creepy feeling. The shower scene is a marvel of deception because it really does seem like you see much more than is actually revealed, both in terms of nudity and violence. Later, the murder of Detective Arbogast is shot in a dreamlike, surreal way that makes it powerful and unrealistic, particularly when it concludes with Norman's mother descending on her victim with a gigantic knife and delivering the death blow.
What Doesn't Work: Although there are few actual problems, that heightened pitch of the storytelling and dialogue is genuinely anachronistic, at least to contemporary viewers, and it may seem unsubtle, particularly when Sam is very belligerently questioning Norman about how and when he would move away from the hotel and start a new life. But that razor's edge dance of the dialogue and performances actually intensifies the suspense because it seems so obvious something is wrong or amiss that we can only wait in anticipation for when the characters will discover that and react appropriately, whether they're pursuing the truth or trying to cover it up.
What's The Verdict: 'Psycho' is a really, really great movie that still literally send chills up my spine, and works beautifully as a horror film, murder mystery and character study all at the same time. What may be most interesting is how this film in particular seemed to influence the subsequent 50 years of suspense and horror-themed movies that were made, not only because it opened the floodgates for what filmmakers could show on screen, but by creating a template for those filmmakers to use when constructing their own tales of madness, depravity and death. (The vast majority of Italian giallos owe an enormous debt to the film's unflinching, stylized depiction of violence, and especially to its climactic explanation of the mania or psychological disorder that drove the criminal to such violent acts.)
Of course, its impact also extends to the groundbreaking and heightened advertising the film used, which prohibited audience members with "weak hearts" from attending, and which obviously further sensationalized the moviegoing experience for mainstream viewers. But as a terrifying portrait of mental disorder, played out as a genre-bending, convention-demolishing thriller, 'Psycho' is a brilliant piece of entertainment and an amazing work of art.