Psycho: 50th Anniversary [Blu-Ray]
"We all go a little mad sometimes." Yeah, maybe sometimes, Norman, I'll give you that. Some people are schizo, some are perverts, some are taxidermists, some are cross-dressers, and some are murderers, but one person should never have all of these traits within him. You got to spread that shit out, Norman. You even get into your car from the passenger side. As dinner goes, you cook a good one, not a great one. And your poker face is shit. So...no, you can't come to my birthday party, and you're going to have to deal with it whatever way you know how. I'm just going to hit the tub for a bit. I'm leaving the door unlocked in case there's an emergency of some kind. In the meantime, enjoy my review of Psycho's 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray Edition.
I can't wait to show my eventual children Psycho. It's a movie whose rewatchings are rewarding, but seeing someone else watch it for the first time is special. It helps if one isn't already privy to the bazillion (understatement) film twists that have proceeded it. I can't recall my first viewing, but "Norman, is that you, boy?" was a phrase that permeated my childhood. The Bates family were creepy characters I didn't fully understand at the time, despite the mundane ending where a psychiatrist lays Norman's mental illness out Bond-villain style. But the level of his insanity was enough to limit my ability to disassociate the character from the actor. My eight-year-old self somehow thought that Norman Bates' actions were what gave actor Anthony Perkins AIDS. This isn't something I've ever admitted to anyone, and I'm not sure this is the proper time to have done so.
This is far from the first special release granted to this film, but now the video and audio get super souped-up for Blu-ray. This movie is older than everyone who comes to this website (not fact-checked), but it has aged better than any of us. It's a spectacular looking print, especially considering Hitchcock used a television crew and shot as quickly as possible. This was a cheapo, on-the-fly production, based on a so-so novel by Robert Bloch. Nothing about it exuded "classic movie," because all of the classic elements Hitchcock used were new at the time. That's just how the man worked. Add to this an exhaustingly rendered HD 5.1 stereo surround mix, and Psycho sounds scarier than it ever could have. I'll let the purists decide whether it was needed or not.
Psycho may be the most misleading film of all time. Many (but definitely not all) of its accolades come from horror and thriller fans, all for a movie that is extremely limited in all things horrifying. There isn't even one whole story being told here. As viewers, we're not given enough time to put our eggs into the basket before that basket reaches upheaval. We're meant to believe that the story will incorporate the money, but it's never about the money. In Psycho, it isn't even about what the money represents; it's the perfect mechanical MacGuffin as done by the master.
In beautifully contrasting black and white shades, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) invites the audience to sympathize with her thieving-for-love motives. Hitchcock greases those wheels, letting us see her in various stages of dress. Her emotions are worn on her sleeve, paranoia and apprehension muffling her public interactions. It's almost certain that she will have to pay for her crimes, only it's assumed that the justice will come at the hands of someone wearing a silver badge. Then, through a torrential downpour, the sign for the Bates Motel shines, and all previous assumptions swirl down the drain.
The infamous shower scene, far ahead of its time both morally and theatrically, is frightening indeed. But it's also hilarious, after all these years of envelope-pushing within the horror genre. My youth certainly informs this. Initially, Hitchcock envisioned the scene sans Bernard Herrmann's recognizable stringed orchestral score. Without the stabbing strings accompanying Mother's stabbing knife, the quick editing becomes slightly campy, but also more voyeuristic and disturbing, like a snuff film. Not being able to show knife penetration or nudity did not hinder Hitchcock from making the bathtub an instant danger zone.
From there, Lila Crane (Vera Miles), Sam Loomis (John Gavin), Detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), and others match wits with Norman and his absent mother, all on the hunt for the disappeared Marion. More twists and surprises are peppered throughout, salting the wound left by Marion's brutal murder. It's not my job to tell the whole story, just to interest you enough to want to know the rest for yourself. It's hard to believe that you, reader, haven't watched this yet. Even if you're a naive person who thinks that black-and-white movies have nothing to add to today's cinema, it's one-of-a-kind viewing.
More so than the shower scene, the preceding dinner scene is far more affecting from a story standpoint. It interrupts the busy suspense of Marion's life and introduces Norman so late into the game that he's immune to suspicion. His stuttering flirtatiousness during check-in is innocent and cloying. But once his inner sanctum is breached, the dialogue between Norman and Marion becomes more introspective and challenges perceptions. The ominous nature of the stuffed birds lends the first touch of the macabre, dampening the tone of the crime thriller. Norman's oft-displayed inner child is comfortable and unsettling, constantly switching, enough to bring out the righteousness in Marion, had she lived to see through to it. That's what I like to think, that she would have given the money back. But instead, Hitchcock deconstructed cinema and Sam Loomis would live the rest of his life a single man.
If the medium is the one being judged here, it's hard to deny the power of the Blu-ray release. Minor transfer imperfections in the video are outweighed by the all-around gorgeousness of the low-budget filming. The layered soundtrack sounds incredible through headphones, especially where the score is concerned. Panning effects that weren't present before are great additions. Psycho demands to be in your collection, and I'm not responsible for what will happen if you deny it.
Most of these features were on the Universal Legacy Series DVD release, but fortunately, all remain rewatchable. Hitchcock was very post-modern, and the multitude of ideas he came up with are sometimes worth more attention than the movies themselves. And, of course, there are the great audio/video transfers I mentioned earlier. On to the additional material.
Stephen Rubello, author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, provides a compelling commentary that steps on some of the knowledge attained in other features, but is still filled with interesting stories and facts. For instance, this was the first film to show a toilet onscreen, which was then flushed. Hitchcock used this gratuitously in order to make his 1960s audience uncomfortable just before the pivotal shower scene. "The Making of Psycho," at 90 minutes, is a perfect companion piece to the commentary, combining archival footage and interviews to completely inform viewers about all things Psycho. Janet Leigh and Patricia Hitchcock, among many other crew, friends, and family, give deep insight into just how this movie took over a cinematic generation.
"Newsreel Footage: The Release of Psycho" is a neat shorter extra that talks about the film's unique debut. Convincing advertising and Hitchcock's demands for theaters to not allow patrons in after the start time caused quite a controversy, and only helped the sales further. "The Shower Scene" gets its own short and tells about the shooting and editing process, as well as the MPAA battle Hitchcock had to sneak his way out of. "The Shower Scene: Storyboards by Saul Bass" is just that, by a man who falsely claimed to have directed the shower scene himself. "The Psycho Archives," "Posters and Ads," and "Lobby Cards," as well as the theatrical trailer and photograph selections, are all promotional items and set photography, and all are worth a one-time look. Some very striking imagery is in there, and Leigh in a bra is never a bad sight.
Pulling back from a Psycho-centered scope, the disc presents us with "In the Master's Shadow: Hitchcock's Legacy," a fan-centric documentary where multi-era directors talk about the influence that Hitchcock's films have had on their own. Very good, convincing fun here. The "Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview Excerpts" feature is a François Truffaut audio interview with Hitchcock, by way of translator, that speaks about -- but isn't limited to -- Psycho, accompanied by relevant clips.
After all that, what can be left? Just a haunting impression in your psyche, that's all. Maybe you're afraid to take a shower now. Maybe you'll only go to high-end hotels. You'll think twice about stealing $40,000 from work, and you definitely won't go looking in anyone's basement for their as-yet-unseen mother. There are many lessons to be learned from this one.
Reviewed By: Nick Venable