Think back to the first time you were scared out of your skin, either in a movie theater or at the drive-in. For many baby-boomers, this experience occurred during the 1975 hit Jaws. For others, it was three years later with the father of horror Halloween. However, if you were ripe for the horror plucking in June of 1960, the grandfather of horror – Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – surely chilled you to the bone.
Frankly, no other Hitchcock film is as terrifying, but Psycho is not Hitchcock’s greatest work. While AFI declared Psycho Hitchcock’s best (listed at #18 compared to North by Northwest #40, Rear Window #42 and Vertigo #61) on the 1997 list, the order was revised (Vertigo #9, Psycho #14, Rear Window #48, and North by Northwest #55) on the 2007 list.
Even though there is no question that Psycho is a superb thriller and top-notch cinema, its plot and characters are arguably less enticing and complex than those of Rear Window and Vertigo. While the order is obviously contestable, my ranking of Hitchcock’s classics is as follows: Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, and North by Northwest.
In Phoenix, Arizona, Marion (Janet Leigh) reunites with a married man named Sam (John Gavin) at a cheap hotel to continue their love affair. Having never been wed, Marion expresses to Sam that she desires to have him as her husband and lick the stamps for his then ex-wife’s alimony envelopes. The pair long for each other, but Sam feels unable to escape wedlock.
Subsequent to their lunch-time rendezvous, Marion returns to her day job at George Lowery Real Estate. As one wealthy man pays for a $40,000 gift home in cash, Marion is given the responsibility of depositing the money in a safe-deposit box. However, Marion doesn’t deposit the money at the bank. Instead, she decides to steal the $40,000, pack up her belongings, and flee her apartment in her 1957 Ford.
While sitting at a stoplight, Marion locks eyes with her boss George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor). Now afraid that her boss will connect the dots, Marion drives feverishly into the night. After a brief encounter with a policeman, a switch of vehicles, and a torrential downpour, Marion decides to pull over at the Bates Motel and check into a room.
The cabin she is assigned to is fitting, but the hotel hand – Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) – quickly changes from a charming, young fellow who’s full of smiles, to an awkward, creepy loner who’s under the control of his crazy mother.
Although one scene does not make a movie, Psycho’s “shower scene” is both memorable and monumental. The sequence itself took seven days to shoot and encompassed 70 camera setups for a mere 45 seconds of footage. Anthony Perkins himself called the scene “chaste,” and continued to claim, “There is no violence in that scene, it’s all implied. It’s all good angles and clever music and very artful intercutting.”
From the moment Marion enters the shower and audiences see the first-person view of the showerhead to the eight brutal stabs and the blood running down the drain, Hitchcock’s shower scene is flawless. Capped off by a close-up on the drain and pan-out on Marion’s eye, this scene is worth every second of the time and effort invested. Of course, had the scene been shot in color (as opposed to black-and-white), Marion’s blood would have ran brown rather than red, considering Bosco brand chocolate syrup was used as blood. If Hitchcock makes one misstep with this groundbreaking sequence, it’s Marion’s still-contracted undead eyes.
Were it not for Bernard Herrmann’s score, Psycho would not be as effective. In fact, Hitchcock himself said that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” That’s why Hitchcock doubled Herrmann’s salary post-production. From the rainstorm to the shower scene, Herrmann’s use of a miniature string orchestra – and only a miniature string orchestra – intensifies every aspect of Hitchcock’s landmark thriller.
If you find yourself crestfallen with the humdrum horror of today and determined to find a feature that can shower you with suspense, screams, a superb score, and sophistication, then Psycho is the ticket. It’s an “Oscar-nominated shocker”. How many other productions can make that same claim?