Monday, June 02, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Psycho

Psycho (1960) 10/10
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), on the way to the bank with $40,000 her employer has given her to deposit in the bank, instead takes off, realizing the money could get her boyfriend (John Gavin) out of debt, allowing him to marry her. Stopping at a motel, she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and everything changes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Okay, is this a spoilery review, or not? Not, I think. Which makes it hard to write a review, of this twisty, turny movie, because part of its brilliance is in the way it skews audience expectations.

I've seen Psycho three or four times. At first I didn't like it; didn't get it. But it was a friend's favorite movie and on his behalf I saw it again, and it was one of those "click" moments, where I was suddenly overwhelmed by everything that was happening in the film. It's not so much the movie itself, but the way that Hitchcock makes this spare little thriller (which was criticized as nothing more than an extended episode of his TV show) wring meaning and power and tension out of every moment, every inch of film, every camera angle. From shadows to wall decor, from costume to dialogue, each component is deliberate and adds to the overall experience, while still seeming stripped-down and raw. More...

The acting is extraordinary. Anthony Perkins kind of ruined his career by being so brilliant. Previously a teen hearthrob, playing unassuming, sweet characters who usually get the girl (Friendly Persuasion and The Tin Star come to mind), after Psycho he was relegated to horror, because his performance was so iconic.

Janet Leigh is also great. Stunning, really; she didn't make nearly enough movies, as far as I'm concerned. I like Martin Balsam as a private detective quite a lot; John Gavin and Vera Miles less so, but they give serviceable performances.

Psycho shows us people in isolation with their hopes and doubts, that which they'll accept and that which they cannot accept. A crucial conversation between Marion and Norman, in a room full of looming stuffed birds, lays out the movie's themes: People are trapped in prisons of their own devising; maybe they can escape, but probably they cannot. And the people in this film overlap without really interacting. This, too, is apparent in the conversation between Marion and Norman—they speak of themselves without truly connecting to the other—but it is reflected in virtually every conversation.

But, like many of Hitchcock's movies, Psycho is also about movies, and about audiences. We expect certain things, we become attached, we have sympathies and fears. And Hitchcock is playing games with us; he wants us to see that our expectations are merely formulaic, that our sympathies aren't necessarily well-placed. He manipulates us in a way that says, movies always manipulate the audience, so let's put our cards on the tabe. And it's brilliant.

(A boy's best friend is his cross-post.)