Psycho (TCM Presents)

“So, anything good playing tonight?”
“Psycho.”
“I’m in.”

It seems as though TCM has learned that there’s some cash in replaying old films under their brand. I didn’t hear about it until recently (I have a cable box but it’s not plugged in) or I would have gone to see Double Indemnity, and I might have gone to see the Jaws 40th. But Psycho (on the really big screen) was not to be missed, and so The Boy, The Flower didn’t. The Flower shares my (and Alfred Hitchcock’s) opinion that Psycho is a comedy. And as Beetlejuice said, “It keeps getting funnier every single time I see it!

Michael Keaton at the height of his powers.
Of course, he was talking about The Exorcist, which isn’t really very funny at all.

The thing about Psycho is that it’s not Hitch’s most watchable film, but imagine for a moment, if you will, being a moviegoer in 1960 and knowing nothing about this film going in. You’re expecting a suspense thriller, in the vein of Dial M for Murder or Strangers on a Train. And there’s Janet Leigh doing a little impromptu embezzlement (or is it just outright theft?) and you’re sure that the bag of money is going to be the McGuffin. You’re pretty sure what’s going on.

Then, bam! First act closer and you no longer have any idea what’s going on. But you’re pretty sure you saw gallons of blood and possibly a nipple. And you were already reeling from seeing a toilet literally being flushed ON SCREEN.

Of course, the most shocking thing in Psycho was the presence of a toilet that was actually flushed. Another Hitchcock first!
That’s the contract of the guy who negotiated for the studio: “We think this pic’s gonna bomb, so forgo your salary and you can have a share of the profits.”

Hitch completely subverted the expectations and made probably the only big box office a slasher has ever made. There are other horror films that rank high on the all-time box office, including Jaws and The Exorcist which are in the top 10, but the slasher films that followed, like Wait Until Dark (which is not strictly a slasher, but both followed and set up quite a few of the conventions), Halloween, and every other film produced between 1979 and 1989, when they made money, made not due to boffo box office, but more due to very low budgets and greater than zero box office.

It’s nigh impossible not to be spoiled, so quickly and firmly did Psycho take hold of the imagination. It’s a shame, since it would be so much better if you went in blind. But since Psycho relies heavily on shock for its greatness, it also loses something on repeated viewings. At the same time, the kids and I were pointing out all kinds of stuff we hadn’t noticed before. When Marion steps up to the Bates Motel office and looks up at the house, you can really see Mother Bates walk past the window, very clearly. As The Boy pointed out: Hitchcock didn’t cheat. (Actually, he did cheat, because he was deathly afraid people would figure it out, but it’s hard to see, at least in retrospect.)

The awkward supper shared between Norman and Marion in the room full of stuffed birds just doesn’t come across on TV like it does in a theater. On TV, it looks weird. On the big screen, it’s menacing.

We all go a little mad sometimes.
I wonder what Hitch’s NEXT movie will be about?

And the scene where Detective Arbogast climbs the stairs and meets Mother is done in one amazing shot that it’s hard to figure out how they pulled it off. Now, you can see this clip online—hell, you can see the whole move as well as all the iconic clips online—but the murder shown isn’t the one we saw. The one online is not a single shot, and it cuts from straight on to overhead when Mother appears, but in the presentation we saw in the theater, the camera actually swoops backward up the stairs and overhead, no cuts. We all kind of gasped at that, but maybe it was because something had been restored or re-edited for this anniversary. (Or perhaps the 50th anniversary, although I’m pretty sure that’s the last one we saw, in preparation for The Flower seeing Hitchcock with us.)

Of course, the famous Psycho murder music by Bernard Hermann overshadows the fact that the whole score is awesome. It gives you suspense, like you’d expect, but then shifts seamlessly into horror. There’s also a remarkable sympathy to the film, in between all the stabby notes. It’s generally agreed that Hitch wanted to have the shower scene be music-free, though according to some legends (perhaps started by musicians), the scene without music tested and got laughs instead of shrieks. The more likely truth is that he heard the score Hermann prepared and realized he had a better movie on his hands with it.

This is one of those movies you can go over and over and see something new. If you’re a movie lover, it’s a must-see. And if you’ve never seen it, somehow, what’s wrong with you?

It's true: For years, if you Googled "Pointy Breasts" my blog came up.
Fun fact: By far the biggest hit on my original blog was a picture of Janet Leigh in a bra.

 

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