Friday, May 30, 2008

This Month on TCM: Psycho (1960)

Tomorrow, TCM plays Alfred Hitchcock's most notorious film, Psycho.

Psycho often strikes me as a very modern film and yet also at times seems very dated— probably since it coincides with the beginning of the end of the studio system— a direct product of the emergence of television. It's opening titles have never dated, however. The justly famous score is positively one of the most brilliantly conceived in all of movie history. The titles put you in the mood, if you have to wait a bit to get to the "modern" thrills. The genius of the film is in how it defies audience expectations, which is what, in many ways, keeps it fresh decades later.

The exposition is done very well, except perhaps the opening scene, which goes on a little long and is a little talky. The film is about a woman who steals $40,000 and plans to use it to run away with her married lover, but her plans are sidetracked when she stops at the Bates Motel where she encounters off-kilter Norman Bates, who she finds is at the mercy of his mother.

Brilliant use, in the driving sequence, of Marion’s thoughts through her perceived ideas of how the next few days would play out in the voice-over of the characters from her office. This is not only suspenseful but shows Marion's vulnerability and ultimately her indecision about her actions.

Nice set-up of “mother” in the window of the house when Marion arrives at the Bates Motel. Anthony Perkins is brilliant— particularly in the moment when he turns on Marion in their dinner conversation, when she suggests sending “Mother” to an institution (“People always call a madhouse, ‘someplace,’ don’t they? — ‘Put her in someplace.’…. They cluck their thick tongues and shake their heads and suggest oh so very delicately…”). The whole cast, all things considered, play their parts with a sense of subtlety, particularly in light of the later horror films that Psycho inspired.

Hitchcock astounds with his camerawork— it’s surprising to think that at age 60 he made so many bold choices throughout. The famed shower sequence will remain a staple of film study for eternity— the spiral shot from the drain to Marion’s eye is as fresh and fascinating as it must have been in 1960. The lesser-known murder in the movie is just as brilliant a shocker. The climax is another flawlessly staged piece— Lila’s hitting the bare light bulb a touch of genius.

Finale, in which things are “explained” is a deadly bore—the movie would have been better off without it. The film is a stylistic virtuoso, a director’s piece if there ever was one, even if, on first viewing one gets a little impatient waiting for the thrills. The fact that the Motion Picture Academy didn’t bestow the Best Director Oscar to Hitchcock for Psycho is one of the single greatest blunders in the history of the Oscars. Many famous lines are uttered throughout the movie by Norman Bates, not the least of which perhaps summed it up— “We all go a little mad sometimes.”

Psycho (1960): A virtuoso director's piece with some terrific acting besides, a stunning example of audience manipulation and a defining example of audience expectations gone awry.

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