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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Movies You Should Watch: PSYCHO

Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film PSYCHO is, perhaps, the most influential film of all time. It has been studied, dissected and analyzed in books and magazine articles — both for academic and mainstream readers — since its release.

Its audacity in killing off its nominal heroine at about the 45-minute mark still shocks today, even among young filmgoers who don't have the reflexive "They wouldn't kill Janet Leigh" reaction. (This is the same reaction that people had some 30 years later watching SCREAM, when they thought that Drew Barrymore wouldn't get killed.)

PSYCHO has been referenced in dozens of other movies, from Brian DePalma's 1976 CARRIE (set at Bates High School) to John Carpenter's 1978 HALLOWEEN (where a character is named Loomis after John Gavin's stoic hardware store owner) to Quentin Tarantino's 1994 PULP FICTION (where a driver gets recognized by a person crossing the street).

The shower murder scene is a classic of filmmaking, with its dozens of shots cut together to give the impression of a violent stabbing.

And, arguably, it killed off the mom-and-pop roadside motel.

Ignore all that for the moment. PSYCHO wasn't made to be studied by film students, it was made as an entertainment. And it's a good movie.

It draws you in from the first frame, when the Paramount Pictures logo is uncharacteristically presented in horizontal black-and-white lines. This is followed by two blasting chords from Bernard Herrmann's driving all-strings music and the opening credits scurrying across the screen led and followed by grey horizontal bars. After the credits it settles down, and fades into a view of a city. The camera aimlessly pans as titles specifically delineate the place and time. PHOENIX, ARIZONA. FRIDAY, DECEMBER THE ELEVENTH. TWO FORTY-THREE-P.M. Could be any place, could be any time. The camera moves forward, pans, picks a building, moves toward a
wall, picks a window, goes in. Could have been any of maybe a hundred windows we've already seen.

It could have been you.

The tale weaves its way around a woman who steals $40,000 and what happens as the people who lost the money try to find it. The $40,000 is a classic Hitchcock plot device known generically as the "MacGuffin": it drives the story and motivates the characters but the audience doesn't care about it.

The movie broke with a number of traditions, including killing the heroine off in the first hour and showing a flushing toilet. Because Hitchcock didn't want people walking in to the middle of the movie and wondering where Janet Leigh was, he instituted a policy that said moviegoers had to watch PSYCHO from the beginning, unlike the then-common practice of letting people wander in whenever they arrived and leaving when they reached the place where they came in.

Paramount didn't want Hitchcock to make PSYCHO at all, pointing out the shady nature of the characters and the events (including two brutal stabbings) but Hitchcock had script approval and really wanted to make a low-budget horror movie like the ones that were so successful at the time, especially Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 DIABOLIQUE. When Paramount said they didn't have studio space for Hitchcock to use, Hitchcock said that was OK, he would shoot it at Revue studios with the crew that shot his weekly TV show.

When Hitchcock offered to buy the film back, Paramount agreed (that's why the opening slide says "A Paramount Release" instead of "A Paramount Picture") and the copyright is held by Hitchcock's Shamley Productions, which also produced his TV show. The deal made Hitchcock a wealthy man. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in 1966 that PSYCHO cost "no more than $800,000 to make" and grossed $15 million in its two releases in 1960 and 1964, when movie tickets were $1 or less.

But best of all, the movie still holds up. The situations transcend time (although you can't buy a house in Phoenix for $40,000 any more) and the tension still stands. People still hold their breath when Vera Miles goes into the basement and approaches Norman's mother. And although the psychiatrist's explanation of Norman's problem is long and pedantic, the 1960 audience needed five minutes of calm explanation after the adrenaline rush of that last scene.

Universal's latest DVD release of PSYCHO also includes, on the second disc, an episode of the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV show directed by the Master Of Suspense himself, called "Lamb to the Slaughter." To say anything besides "You have to see it" would risk spoiling the surprises.

You have to see it.

Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO — a movie you should watch.

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