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Film Quarterly (1960) - Psycho





Hitchcock is said to be very pleased with this film, and well he might be. In it he has abandoned the commercial geniality of his recent work and turned to out-and-out horror and psychopathology: there are two gruesome knife-murders portrayed in more or less full view, and an attempted third one. The film begins with a drab, matter-of-fact scene in a hotel bedroom (the girl's unwholesomeness -- she later steals $40,000 -- is no doubt established equally by the fact of her being found in bed with a man, though wearing bra and half-slip, and by the fact that it is midday). It imperceptibly shifts to a level of macabre pathology, unbearable suspense, and particularly gory death. In it, indeed, Hitchcock's necrophiliac voyeurism comes to some kind of horrifying climax. Phallic-shaped knives swish past navels, blood drips into bathtubs, eyes stare in death along the floor, huge gashes appear in a man's amazed face, and so forth. So well is the picture made, moreover, that it can lead audiences to do something they hardly ever do any more -- cry out to the characters, in hopes of dissuading them from going to the doom that has been cleverly established as awaiting them. (It turns out to be a slightly different doom than the audience believes; and in the third instance it is thwarted, slightly improbably: in this we see the usual Hitchcock, unbothered by problems of motivation and concerned only with the joy of giving one more turn to the screw. But on the whole one does not need, in Psycho, the suspension of common sense usually required to enjoy Hitchcock.)

The key to the excellent shift in levels (it is perhaps more a smooth descent, from apparent "normality" to utter ghastliness) is provided, unbelievable as it may seem, by Anthony Perkins, who in this film is revealed to be an actor after all. Instead of the rather wooden person we have seen in Desire under the Elms or On the Beach, Perkins here gives us first a charming, shy, lonely boy; then a lecherous, dangerous, frustrated youth; then a frightened, sinister, criminally insane man; and finally he is revealed (there is no real reason to conceal the final twist, which is equally horrifying if one knows about it in advance) as a psychological hermaphrodite who has killed and mummified his mother but preserved her in half of his own personality, so to speak, and who "in her person" commits the murders motivated by the sexuality or fears of the other half of his personality.

All this is explained, in the obligatory rationality-scene at the end, by a young psychologist in the police office. This scene supposedly restores the audience to some real frame of reference. Meanwhile Perkins, sitting in a nearby cell, hears his "mother's" voice in internal monologue, meditating on "her son's" fate. The camera closes in, but not too close, on his face, now utterly strange, intense, mad. (It is probably the most apt use ever made of internal monologue.)

All this is very nice, if not quite the kind of thing one would recommend to sensitive souls. It is superbly constructed, both shot-by-shot and in the overall organization by which the shocks are distributed and built up to. (The music by Bernard Herrmann, an old radio man, is conventional suspense stuff but immensely effective.) Aside from Perkins, the acting is ordinary but satisfactory. Hitchcock is said to have once remarked that "Actors are cattle," and this is all that is really required in many of his pictures. The suspense mechanism is all; style is all; deception is all. To allow the personae involved to become human beings would destroy everything, in the usual Hitchcock film. Psycho is better: the people are acceptable, at any rate; there is no need to make excuses for them. Still, it is the film itself that grips one-in these times, a remarkable achievement, and a hint that "realism" in the cinema is perhaps not so important as people think. Psycho is full of jokes, twists, pieces of nastiness that one would think gratuitous in any other film-maker. Hitchcock forces one to realize that these things are the point. How lovely, he would doubtless say, about the way Janet Leigh, a faintly playful, quite sexy broad, is done in! She gambols in the shower, like somebody in an advertisement, while in the background a figure blurred by the shower curtain enters the room, approaches, grips the edge of the curtain ... Then, in a flurry of quick cutting which managed to get past the censors yet remains the goriest thing seen on film in a long time, she is stabbed to death, and slumps hideously to the floor in a series of movements over which the camera lingers lovingly.

Psycho is surely the sickest film ever made. It is also one of the most technically exciting films of recent years, and perhaps an omen: only, it appears, in films whose subject-matter is trivial and sometimes phony can Hollywood film-makers find the inspiration or the freedom to make really ingenious films. The trickery of Psycho is more imaginative and far more elegantly contrived than the all-out seriousness of Nun's Story, not to mention the gigantism of Ben-Hur.

There is, to be sure, a "serious" subject to all trivial films, and in the case of Hitchcock the elucidation of the hidden motives upon which he has built his seemingly unimportant remains an intriguing job for some intrepid critic. In the meantime, anybody who likes gore, or who likes Hitchcock, will be made happy by Psycho. The tone of Hitchcock's recorded plug for the picture-delightfully charlatanish, reassuringly and almost smugly personal -- is a perfectly sound introduction to the film.


(c) Film Quarterly (1960)