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During the filming of North by Northwest Alfred Hitchcock was seeking material for his next theatrical project. He would find it in an unlikely location: an airport gift shop contained a new book called Psycho by Robert Bloch which fictionalised a series of murders that actually took place in Wisconsin. Hitchcock was hooked and found the story that he would invest his talents in.

Hitchcock had made two fundamental film making decisions before the filming on Psycho began in 1959: the first was to shoot it for under one million dollars. Even then, that was an extraordinarily low budget. To do so, he would employ his television crew over his film crew to cut the costs. Second, he wanted to do the movie in black and white. Despite colour films being prevalent at that time, he felt that due to the nature of the story that colour would have made Psycho much to gory. While it is not his best picture, Psycho is hands down the most well known Alfred Hitchcock film. This movie more so than any of his others has it's characters and unforgettable scenes forever chiselled into popular culture. If it's not his best movie, then why is it so well known and enshrined you ask? Check yourself into the Bates Motel for the answers.

Psycho opens in Phoenix, Arizona where we are introduced to two lovers laying in bed in a hotel room, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her boyfriend Sam (Jon Gavin, who also starred as Julius Caesar in Spartacus). Marion clearly wants to settle down and get married to Sam, while he is apprehensive to due to the debt he’s in; both parties feel as if they have no control over their situation. Upon returning to her work at a real estate office, her boss closes a deal to sell a property for forty thousand cash. Not wanting to keep that amount of cash in the office, he instructs Marion to deposit it into the bank immediately. She takes the money from the office, but instead of bringing it to the bank she takes it and intends to give it to Sam to pay off his debt. The drive to visit Sam proves to be a long one and when the weather gets bad at night, Marion pulls into the Bates Motel off the highway. The motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) sets Marion up with a room, and the two end up having dinner together. The conversation at dinner goes from pleasant to grim when Norman reveals that he lives with his mother in the house behind the motel, and willingly allows her to control his life; particularly Mrs. Bates didn’t like it when women showed up to the Bates Motel and talked to her son. Like Marion, Norman is in a trap of running the motel and taking care of his sick mother. The two part ways and Marion takes a shower before turning in. Here, Hitchcock shocks the audience by having Mrs. Bates murder his main character in the infamous shower scene, no more than a third of the way through the movie.

Norman finds the body in the motel room and cleans up his mother’s mess. He takes Marion and all of her possessions (including the forty thousand), puts it into her car, and sinks it into the lake on the property. After noticing her sister missing for over a week, Lila Crane (Vera Miles, who collaborated with Hitchcock in The Wrong Man) seeks out Sam for an explanation. With neither being able to come up with any answers, the rely on a private investigator (Martin Balsam, Academy Award winner for A Thousand Clowns) to question Norman. After some brief interrogation, the detective meets an untimely end at the hands of Mrs. Bates. Desperate for answers, Lila and Sam decide to take matters into their own hands and voyage to the Bates Motel themselves to find out what happened to Marion and the detective. As they get closer to achieving their goal, the film reaches the peak of its intensity and leaves the audience with a Hitchcock trademark of a shocking climax.  

The acting and the music were two factors in Psycho’s success. The two acting performances that carry Psycho come from Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Leigh embodies sexuality and extracts sympathy from the audience despite committing theft. She had great confidence in her screen presence and totally sells the audience as being a main character that you care for. Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates however, steals the show. He gives innocence and humility to a character that normally would come off as pathetic. Despite being an adult, he clearly resembles a child at times. In his seventh (of eight) collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann’s string orchestra performed the score for Psycho. Like any great score it keeps the movie moving, with its melodic flow literally pedalling the story at times. It’s most defining moment is in the shower scene in which the shrieking strings personify the blade stabs into the victims body. Ironically, Hitchcock had to be persuaded to have music accompaniment in this scene.

Alfred Hitchcock’s directing talents were magnified in Psycho, a perfect example of which is in the shower scene. The forty five second scene took seven shooting days to capture, with seventy different camera angles. Hitchcock had every shot meticulously storyboarded, and despite rumours there was no nudity in the scene. He experimented with different liquids to see which would show up best on camera as blood, and eventually settled on chocolate syrup. He even poured over which type of sound the knife hitting flesh should have. Camera angles in scenes sometimes embodied their intensity, as was clear in the conversation between Marion and Norman, moving to awkward angles throughout the duration of the scene. He even had Janet Leigh wear a white bra when she was behaving good and a black bra when she did bad things. The theme of personal conflict was clearly conveyed in his directing style. Despite the fact that Psycho feels dated and cheesy at times, it does not diminish Hitchcock’s remarkable directing effort here.

While the video transfer for Psycho is well done, the 1960 negatives are a completely different story. There is a great amount of wear and tear on the print, and is seen throughout the entire picture. Dust, scratches, and dirt are unfortunately ingrained vividly at times from start to finish. Perhaps these flaws are magnified due to the fact that it is a black and white movie. Psycho may be in dire need of a restoration somewhere in the near future. The video transfer itself does a good job of keeping the moving images clear, all things considered. The tones are stable, and there appear to be no signs of edge enhancement. Despite the flaws in the negatives of Psycho, I do not feel that it detracts from the movie itself. The transfer does a great job of showing off the cinematography, making the best of what there is to work with.

Being equipped with only a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack, the audio for Psycho really isn’t anything to write home about. The soundtrack generally sounds distorted, with the dialogue following suit at times as well. Somewhere down the line it would be great to hear Bernard Herrmann’s chilling score in a re-mastered stereo rendition, but the DVD gets the job done in this instance. However, issues like this and the video make Psycho come off as a dated thriller. Overall, the audio isn’t pleasant but it does its job.

In this single disc release of Psycho, Universal treats us with a wealth of extras. The jewel of this disc is the extensive documentary The Making of Psycho. Cast members Pat Hitchcock and Janet Leigh, screenplay writer Joseph Stefano, and a bunch of crew members and notable film makers contribute insights to the production of this film. Stefanfo probably gives the most interesting information as he worked very intimately with Hitchcock on the project. The documentary expresses that Hitch was clever in throwing off audiences and the press to keep the twists and turns of Psycho a surprise. They marketed Janet Leigh as the main character by featuring her on of the promotional posters. He also put out a casting call in Hollywood for the part of Mrs. Bates, and even featured an empty seat with her name on it in some press releases. The icing on the cake was not allowing anyone to enter movie theatres once the movie had started, and even wouldn’t allow early press screenings; those participating in the documentary suggest that this is why early reviews for Psycho were generally negative. One bit of trivia I got from the documentary was that Psycho was the first film to ever feature a flushing toilet. The documentary is very comprehensive and absolutely is worthy of multiple viewings.

The disc is rounded out with some promotional material, including Hitchcock’s theatrical trailer for Psycho. He is the definition of charming as the man himself gives a tour of the Bates Estate, which will surely bring at least a chuckle to you. The censored scene is very brief and may even leave you scratching your head, as it’s only a shot of Janet Leigh unlatching her bra. Some production designs and photos top off a nice disc put together by Universal. I thought an audio commentary with Stefano, Leigh, Pat Hitchcock, and even Vera Miles might have been a nice addition, as well as a music only track to highlight the iconic score of the film.  

Universal has put together a nice disc for a classic film. Even though Psycho may not be Alfred Hitchcock’s best film, it is undoubtedly his most widely known film. The shower scene and music cues in the movie are resonating from generation to generation in popular culture around the world. Having been nominated for four Academy Awards and earning the 18th spot (one of four Hitchcock movies on the list, this one being rated the highest) on the A.F.I. Top 100 List, Psycho earned acceptance and praise from fans and critics alike. It’s interesting to note that Psycho also would leave clues to alluding to Hitchcock’s next feature film, The Birds (1963). Psycho starts off in Phoenix Arizona, Marion’s last name is Crane, Norman equates her eating habits to that of a bird, and he has stuffed birds and pictures of birds decorating his office in the motel.

The inspiration for this review was to commemorate the passing of one of the film’s stars, Janet Leigh. Her role in Psycho as Marion Crane is her only Academy acknowledged performance, earning a supporting actress nomination. While Psycho may have held her most memorable role, she also was in significant films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Little Women, Houdini, and Angels in the Outfield(1951). Having passed away on October 3rd, 2004 Janet Leigh’s persona will forever live on in one of the most infamous scenes in the history of cinema where she takes a shower in the Bates Motel, in Psycho.