It’s June 17, 1960 and you live in New York City. You’re in the mood to watch a movie tonight and Alfred Hitchcock’s latest offering sounds like a fairly good bet. So you put on your over-blouse, tunic & favourite hat and head out. You reach DeMille theatre and are quite surprised to see a long line in front of the theatre to get in. While you are wondering what’s going on, the deadpan voice of none other but Mr. Hitchcock, blares out of the speaker. “I suggest that Psycho be seen from the beginning. In fact, this is more than a suggestion, it is required.” At that moment you look up and see a poster that says “No one… BUT NO ONE… will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance of Psycho”. You hurry in to buy your ticket and are thankfully admitted, being just right on time. While you are ushered hurriedly into the theatre, you wonder what all the fuss is about. Well, just hold on to your hat for a while and you’ll know why.
And that’s how the ever surprising ‘Master of Suspense’, Alfred Hitchcock starts his extraordinary story of Psycho.
Adapted from Robert Bloch’s book of the same name and starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in leading roles, Psycho is synonymous with horror and suspense cinema all over the world. The film opens in city of Phoenix, Arizona where Marion Crane (Leigh), steals $40,000 from her boss and flees to Fairvale, California to be with her boyfriend, Sam. She decides to spend the night at Bates Motel, a cozy motel tucked off the highway where she checks in with the friendly Norman Bates, (Perkins) owner of the motel. He coyly invites her to have dinner with him to which she agrees but soon hears his mother reprimanding him for his invitation. He still gets her dinner to have at the reception. They converse and Marion mildly suggests putting his mother in a mental hospital to which he famously replies “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother”. What happens next is for you to find out because a story like Psycho’s just doesn’t deserve to be given away. If Hitchcock has his way up there, I’m definitely going to heaven for this one.
While Leigh’s acting definitely has verve and authenticity, it is Perkins who you take home with you. He charms you with his boy-next-door mannerisms and while he convinces you of his casual demeanor by walking around hands shoved deep into his pockets, whistling like he has no care in the world, you can’t help but notice his air of mystery and his little oddities. You’re wary of him but still end up liking him and the conversations he has with Leigh just makes you sympathize with the poor guy. Perkins gives a performance so good, that he never really matched up to it in any other of his films and eventually fizzled out. And that is also probably why he went on to do 4 sequels of the movie.
Psycho is a landmark in ways more than one. Still considered as one of the scariest ever made, the iconic shower scene which contained unprecedented violence was way ahead of its times. The scene which lasted just about 3 minutes in the film featured 77 different camera angles and about 50 cuts. But then again, Hitchcock was no stranger to perfection. He repeated the magic again with his next movie, ‘The Birds’ which included scenes of birds attacking which was laboriously made of hundreds of shots by mixing live and animated sequences. But what really made Psycho so different from what the audience was used to, was the unexpected twist in the plot right in the middle of the movie. Hitchcock has you convinced that the movie is taking one direction while quietly brewing something in the background, something that I must say, turned out to be very delicious indeed.
A watertight screenplay by Joseph Stephano, an extraordinarily chilling musical composition by Bernard Herrmann and chcock’s cinematic magic makes me envy the people who actually saw the movie in theatres Alfred Hitback in 1960 because between the three of them, the movie must have been a treat on a big screen. Made on a tight budget of $80,000 (which was less even back then), the movie went ahead to gross $32 million just in the US. If that’s not a smash hit, I don’t know what is. And to think, Paramount Pictures wasn’t ready to finance the movie and Hitchcock had to do it himself. I bet some people in Paramount still curse their predecessors. I would.
Sure, it has been talked about and imitated to death but even after 55 years of release, Psycho doesn’t cease to shock and surprise. So, I guess all that’s left to say is you owe yourself to pay a visit to Bates Motel; Norman has a room ready up there.