Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Joseph Stefano
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Janet Leigh
Runtime: 109 Minutes
Original UK Release: 1960
Smaller scale than his previous work on North by Northwest, Psycho is a miracle of restrained, breathlessly brilliant misdirection in the medium of cinema.
The film’s opening half is so unusual in its prolonged setup and moderation. Placing the individually mundane pieces into play in a tightly edited manner, it lingers around Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane with questionable intent as to where its narrative will take us. By the time she reaches the Bates Motel, you find yourself confounded as to where exactly this supposed thriller is even going – with the shock of the first act’s climax feels all the more outrageous in nature due to this extensive lead-up.
The death of Janet Leigh is still one of the most shockingly effective and effectively shocking sequences in the history of film. Following which, the film opens into a no man’s land of possibility, where the audience has no idea what is going to unfold, seeing the likes of John Gavin and Vera Miles come toward their confrontation with Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates and his mother – and Perkins delivers a disquieting, darkly empathetic performance that hides the madness just beneath the veil.
We’re subject to the suggestion of violence through ingenious editing and tight visual construction, with a savagery even more implicit in its sound design, including Hermann’s startlingly necessary and unnerving soundtrack. The black-and-white photography evokes so much more terror in its unknown pallet than stark reds ever could.
Joseph Stefano’s screenplay is far superior to the source that it’s based on, transforming it into a tantalising piece of Californian Gothic fiction; a melting pot of bloodthirsty wrath and sexual desire, and a play of pleasant dirtiness underneath proceedings Hitchcock was so well attuned with. Pleased to overexploit its narrative and reasoning, Psycho is his most broadly affecting and horrifying masterwork.