Psycho is in a class of its own; its brilliance insuperable by many. Released in 1960, in the wake of a spate of successful films, Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho as if it were his last, foregoing the wry humour and beguiling romance that set the tone of his previous films, and favouring the clinically menacing. Such bold and drastic departure from the familiar Hitchcock bent yielded a result that continues to fascinate and astound its viewers decades after its release, and is indisputably the paramount of horror films, with many filmmakers strove to follow its example and consequently failed. Pioneering a new genre called the “slasher film” without too heavily depending on the gratuitous violence and gore, Hitchcock evokes the old school horror, the preoccupation of which is a mixture of psychology and suspense.
The film promises no let-up on its shuddering excitement; the audience’s breath is held bated from start to finish. One important factor of its success is that it plumbs the mortal fears we can all relate to. For instance, the fear that breeds out of the gnawing guilt of having committed a reckless wrongdoing. The sequence with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) driving away with the stolen money and incidentally having a curious cop tagging along is no less of a gripping moment worthy of note than the famous shower scene.
After failing to master her discomfiture under the dogged inquiry of the cop, Marion decides to exchange for a new car to cover up the suspicion. The aftermath of such rash act is like an unwakeable nightmare where one narrowly escapes from one mishap only to find oneself in another- dismayed that the cop pursues her to the car dealership, Marion hastily shoves a thick layer of cash to the dealer and flees, too late to calculate on this ill-conceived precaution, which only invites more questioning on her furtiveness. These extremely tense moments are accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s score, the frantic, hurtling pace of which accentuates our growing fear of what more disasters might lay in store for the hapless Marion.
Anthony Perkins plays the bashful, twitchy, enigmatic motel proprietor who helps finalising Marion’s “comeuppance.” He is one of the primal examples of calm menace, who hides behind his seemingly smooth, innocent façade, and is actuated into impulsive acts of violence when an object of desire conjures up keen pangs of repugnance and hatred. Such unsettling behaviour is attributed to a lifelong thrall to his domineering mother, whose memory he keeps alive by occasionally merging her personality with his. He loves and abhors his mother in equal measure, turning aggressive and agitated once a harmless suggestion is hazarded to have her institutionalised. Perkins said in an interview that he felt inclined to sympathise with his character’s perverseness because he believed his conflicting nature to be the result of a bruised past.
Perkins’s vivid and subtle portrayal of the notorious figure had cemented its spot as one of the most memorable in the cinematic history, whereas the actor suffered from an interminable period of typecasting. He reprised the role in three sequels, but none of them achieved the same historical significance as the original. Hitchcock’s ingenious directing technique also has much to be thanked for for the character’s formidable presence. As is instanced in the prolonged sequence with the killer meticulously moping away the blood and making sure the room is spick-and-span before freighting the body to a nearby swamp and sinking it, the director chooses to dwell on the chilling sophistication of a seasoned killer with his spoliation of evidence. The horror of the calm after the storm can be even more hair-raising than that of a sudden assault.
The austere aesthetic of the camerawork endows the film with a hard-boiled exactness that resembles a documentary. Seeing the film one is reminded of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Jules Dassin’s noir masterpiece The Naked City (1948), in that what ultimately horrifies us is not the graphic expressions of vice and villainy, but a prevailing sense of matter-of-factness that attends the story of crime.