Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho continues my string of films from the BFI’s Greatest Films of All Time that I have seen before. In fact, I had the opportunity to see it on the big screen two Novembers ago as part of a double feature with Sacha Gervasi’s campy Hitchcock.

Psycho is such a popular film and so many of its scenes are justifiably famous that it’s a bit difficult to appreciate how groundbreaking it was at the time. Watching the BFI list in chronological order helped keep it in perspective. Psycho was released the same year as Breathless, L’Avventura and La Dolce Vita and two years after Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Perhaps surprisingly, Psycho shares some traits with those contemporary films. Backing away from the vivid colors of Vertigo (and North by Northwest which came between), Hitchcock employs black and white to great effect. Although Psycho’s Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) doesn’t travel the same social circles as those in L’Avventura or La Docle Vita, she does share some of their discontent and dwells in similar moral gray areas. She is as self-possessed as Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard, a character also on the run from the law in Breathless.

What might be most striking in watching Psycho in the context of these other films is how it handles the main characters. Of all the films on the list so far, all guide the viewer through the experiences of the main character(s) through the entire narrative. Psycho is one of the most daring narratives so far in that we are first introduced to Crane who is murdered a third of the way through the film. Hitchcock then plunges viewers into some troubling territory as he almost dares them to sympathise with Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who becomes the focus of the rest of the film.

Those who search for Crane, Arbogast, the detective (Martin Balsam); Lila, Marion’s sister (Vera Miles); and Sam Loomis, Marion’s boyfriend (John Gavin) follow Marion’s trail to the now infamous motel. Hitchcock positions Bates as the quaint hotel manager being harassed by these interlopers. They brashly approach him with, initially at least, scant evidence. Hitchcock portrays them in such a way that it is difficult for the view to remain aligned with those who are in the right.

Like L’Avventura, Psycho challenges expectations regarding the disappearance of a woman, but does so in the opposite way. Unlike the Antonioni film that never solves its mystery, Psycho undermines the mystery by presenting it in all its gory details. Hitchcock takes what could have been a murder mystery and creates something wholly unique.

The one unfortunate aspect of the film comes at the very end with the very dated explanation as to Norman’s behavior. Mired in the beliefs of the age, this explanation casts an uncomfortable shadow over all that went before.



Very Good



NEXT UP: La Dolce Vita