This is a fascinating study in a film’s ability to misdirect and manipulate the viewer. A story that starts with a peek through a window at a “nooner” between Janet Leigh (as Miriam Crane) and John Gavin (as her boyfriend Sam Loomis)—another example of Hitchcockian voyeurism—seems to head toward Miriam committing a crime (for love) and the plot based on whether and how she’ll get caught.
But no! As Miriam books out of Phoenix, night descends, along with a drenching rain. As a result, she gets diverted off the highway and ends up checking into the wrong motel.
From the moment one lays eyes on Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, it’s fairly clear that this young man is a bit too twitchy for comfort. Nonetheless, Miriam shares sandwiches with him in a kind of parlor, where there are stuffed birds (Yes—birds! Think Hitchcock had a fetish for fowl?) staring at them with glassy eyes. And Norman, well … as the conversation proceeds, it becomes obvious that he may be a few utensils short of a full set.
If you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know what happens to Miriam, then stop right here. Rent the movie. See it online. Whatever. Everyone knows what happens in … the shower scene!
Yes, Miriam—played by the famous Janet Leigh—gets whacked. By a knife-wielding granny. Or so it seems. But it is just Hitchcock playing with our perceptions and assumptions again.
Having Vera Miles play Lila Crane, Miriam’s sister, was a stroke of genius casting. By creating an almost identical sister who’s alive and on the hunt with Sam for Miriam, this puts Norman in freak out mode. We hear and see him hiding his mother (who usually stays upstairs) down in the basement. This is after a private detective played by Martin Balsam tries to go up there and ends up taking a fatal tumble back down.
Hitchcock makes inspired use of shadows, light, and unique angles in the shots (including his famed “overhead” perspective), not to mention using an awesome editor. The quick, breathtaking flashes of the knife in the shower scene, the blood gurgling around the drain, and the shock of the final reveal when Lila heads for the fruit cellar are images that stick with the viewer long after the movie ends.
The way the camera pulls back in the same circular fashion as the bloody water in the shower while focused on Miriam’s eye after her murder, the image of Balsam’s flailing arms as he stumbles backwards down the stairs, the sound of Lila’s scream and the shifting shadows of the bare bulb oscillating above the skeleton she finds in the basement—accompanied by the shriek of violins—these scenes are beyond memorable. They are intense and exquisitely shocking.
Psycho is brilliantly written, cast, acted, and filmed. Right down to these closing shots of Norman, slowly grinning as the mother’s voice intones that she “wouldn’t hurt a fly”, and his grin morphing into a skull’s image (ever so briefly) as Miriam’s car is pulled from the swamp.
As both a psychological thriller and horror film, Psycho broke new ground. This one’s a must-see for anyone who loves a thrilling and thought-provoking scare.
Needless to say, I give this movie a hearty two thumbs up!