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The Test of Time: Psycho (1960)

03.21.2013by: Ryan Doom

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh

Under examination: Psycho

If Hollywood has perfected anything, it’s ensuring that a good thing is never left dead. Just about every sacred film has either been remade, sequelized, prequelized, or turned into a handy dandy television program. You’d think that some things should be off limits like The Wizard of Oz or Casablanca, but even those have been maximized for more straight cash. Even the great works of Alfred Hitchcock aren’t immune. After Hitch was six feet under, three sequels of his greatest work, Psycho, ran the title into the ground until Gus Van Sant remade it in ’98 to show it “respect.” And thanks to TV, we’re now able to mine even deeper for stories no one has asked for (and ruin all the mystery of Norman’s childhood) with the new show on A&E (The Bates Motel, which The Arrow loved). With that said, this column looks at the classics, so it’s time to look into perhaps the biggest horror movie of all time: Psycho.

Part of the charm of Hitchcock's Psycho comes from Hitchcock himself. If you’re bored, head to the trusty Youtube and watch some of his trailers. It’s a hell of thing, really, as he was one of the last true personalities of filmmaking. When he had a new project, Hitchcock sold it the way a salesman sells tin siding to an unassuming sucker – in person and door-to-door. Ok, so he didn’t stomp through neighborhoods, but he did the next best thing by starring in his trailers and introducing his movie to audiences and selling them on horrors within it. His personality was as big, if not bigger, then any of his flicks and off the top my head, only Tarantino keeps that sort of artistic cockiness alive and well. Let’s face it, not too many people have the balls to make themselves look more important than the movie itself. Especially when you’re a bald, fat, slow talking Brit.

Michael Bay needs to include himself on posters giving a thumbs up.

THE STORY: In case you’ve missed it, Psycho revolves around a young woman, Marion Crane, who got a case of greed and steals money from her boss. She decides to make a run for it, but hits a rainstorm, gets sleepy, and stops for a refreshing evening sleep at the Bates Motel where she gets dead by one pissed off mom. Her son, world famous mama’s boy Norman Bates, plays cleanup man. Everything is cool until the dead woman’s family comes looking for her and figures out that Norman’s mom is dead, and Norman is his mother! He was the killer the whole time! Scary stuff, man.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP:

Everything? Well, just about. Psycho is a classic (obviously), and it’s so damn iconic that it's tough to know where and how to even begin an examination. So much of it remains ingrained in my head from years of watching and re-watching that I tend to think about it has a unified piece. But …that’d make a boring ass read so let's break it up by the very first things that I think of, like that Rorschach test…without the test. (I always see a bat).

The first thing? The score, by Bernard Herrmann, still gives me some mean goose bumps. A ton of movies (literally, there’s a study about the weight of film out there) have recognizable scores, but Psycho perhaps is one that invokes the most feeling and emotion with those violins screeching back and forth. It’s enough to make anybody anxious and uneasy. Modern movies wish they could come up with something that frightening just on music alone.

Even Norman is shocked by the lousy artwork in his home.

Secondly, the acting is top-notch. On one hand, Janet Leigh’s short performance (who famously only sticks around for the first quarter) is damn memorable. Those sequences still work perfectly where the cop follows her around and paranoid, she stares straight dead ahead into the camera pondering how badly she’s f-ed up. It’s been parodied many times, but her performance works; she’s playful, panicked, terrified, and a bit of a bitch. That’s a range of emotion. On that other hand, of course, there’s Mr. Perkins who could have taken Norman Bates into the clichéd territory before the cliché was even established. He could have been over the top, or menacing, or possessed, but he’s just a quiet dude living a dull life. Ok, so there’s some buried issues, but who doesn’t have a few. I always found the scene where he pushes Marion’s car into the pond or tar pit (I never could tell) behind his house and watches it sink. There’s that moment where the car almost doesn’t sink, a look of near pants-pooping then relief which tells us all we need to know about him. He loves his mom, and will do anything to keep her safe.

Lastly, the direction by Hitchcock is stunning, as is the camera work by John L. Russell. What more can I say?

WHAT BLOWS NOW:

Let’s be honest, if I sit here and trashed Psycho I’d be lying out my ass. I can’t trash it. That’d be like talking shit on the Mona Lisa, saying it’s not hip enough, or her smile blew or digital paints have more color. Some things can’t be improved upon (and if you think they can we have problems). However, what I can ponder is if the film stands up as a horror film still today. Rewatching it, I think it stands as a masterpiece of suspense and psychological terror. But as horror…perhaps not. The genre has changed enough that it really doesn’t resemble where horror went. Psycho shows the path where horror came from and I think fans can appreciate it, but would it scare someone today if they’d never seen it? I doubt it. And if it’s lost that effect, does it really hold up? 

We have to include the shower scene. It's the law.

Psycho came out way back in 1960 yet only a few elements really seem out-of-date. If there’s any major complaint, it’s the end, which is the usual bitch people have. For whatever reason, Hitchcock added the sequence to make sure no one was confused by poor Norman’s actions. He gave us a shrink who explains that everyone, including the audience, understood why Norman did what he did. Even though that last scene removes the punch of the big cross-dress reveal, it also helps solidify Norman as a sympathetic killer. Psycho is Norman’s story, a tale of a f*cked family and a little kid who couldn’t figure it out. Sure, he stabbed a woman and a private dick, but in the end, it’s Norman who we feel for, not them. Hitchcock gives us just enough to know he’s not only a nutbag, but a nutbag whose mom really, really, really messed him up. He's a guy who never had a chance.

THE VERDICT:

So…does Psycho hold up against the test of time? As a piece of master filmmaking, of course. Stupid question. As a horror film, maybe not. It has all the elements (creepy old house, murder, lust, greed, madman, a bad wig), but the fear factor has obviously lessened over time. However, Hitchcock once said that he viewed Psycho as a sort of comedy, and with that thought, who the hell cares if it’s frightening today or not. It’s just damn good flick. And we can't ask for anything more than that.

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Boo.

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