Psycho (1968)
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Psycho (1968)

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And it just so happens, today is Halloween. This is the day when many people turned to horror movies to be scared. Everybody has their favorite for significant portion of the population the epitome of a horror movie is the slasher flick. We all know the type, a bunch of teenagers looking to party decide to have their sex/drugs/alcohol in some remote location. The supernatural serial killer appears, and one by one takes them off until only the survivor girl is remaining. While it is true, that there are some excellent examples of horror within this category, if you really want to provide a fright that will stay with the viewer long after the credits have rolled, you need to get into their heads that the psychological thriller. The undisputed master of doing this was Alfred Hitchcock. Among his amazing catalog of work one film stands out as one of the most frightening movies ever made; ‘Psycho’. For those who are not as well versed in classic cinema, I am of course referring to the 1960 version directed by Hitchcock. I am emphatically not discussing the 1998 remake by Gus Van Sant. This page for page reshooting of the classic may have every aspect of the original except for the talent behind the lens. As a side note, if you want to see some of the machinations that went on behind the scenes in order to get this movie made, I recommend the bio-flick, ‘Hitchcock’, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Helen Mirren. When you consider the elements that Hitchcock infused into his Psycho, the Master, dared to break many of the traditional tenants of the genre and in doing so established an entirely new way of making a suspense thriller into something that can surpass most horror films and shopping the audience.

Back in 1960 having an established leading lady wearing nothing but a bra and half-slip that only in the film but boldly shown on the poster was considered shocking by many. This may come as a surprise to younger members of today’s audience that this film came out and that sliver of time between the conservative nuclear family of the 50s and the growing rebellious movements that formed the 60s. Back then – this is lingerie almost never featured live models but dependent on sketches to avoid impropriety. Janet Leigh portrayed Marion Crane; an office worker is successful real estate firm in Phoenix Arizona. After a nooner with her boyfriend in a hotel during the lunch hour Marion goes back to work and steals a $40,000 deposit of voice just received from a wealthy Texan client. After taking the money in an envelope she flees the scene in her car only to be spotted by her boss during the escape. She drives away frantically until nightfall’s and she realizes she has to find some place to rest for the night. She happens upon an out-of-the-way motel, ‘The Bates Motel’, with its vacancy sign flashing in the darkness. Marion books a room with its owner, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Norman is very socially awkward particularly around women and office of the room adjacent to the office in case she should need something during the night. Unless you have come out of a very prolonged coma for your spaceship just landed, you undoubtedly aware of what happens next. While Marion is taking a shower the figure of a woman enters the bathroom, brutally stabbing her to death. The idea that a top billed after such as Janet Leigh would be killed off so early in the movie was unimaginable. Hitchcock proceeded in this fashion for the same reason he did every scene in his entire oeuvre; it was calculated carefully to subject the audience to an unexpected, psychologically powerful event. A young woman in an extremely vulnerable yet mundane position of being naked in a shower was completely startling. The now famous screeching violins composed by Bernard Herrmann, is still used to demonstrate the importance of blending audio and video in order to completely immerse the audience. In black and white, the blood mixing with the shower water and spinning down into the drain is an ideal visual representation of this young woman’s life literally flowing out of her.

Marion sister, Lila (Vera Miles), concerned about her sister’s sudden disappearance comes looking for. A detective, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), investigates but is murdered by the same mysterious woman. All during this time, people such as Marion’s boss are concerned about the missing $40,000, a considerable sum in 1960s currency. It was gathered up along with all of Marion’s belongings when Norman stopped her into the trunk of a car sinking it in a nearby lake. This is a classic representation of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous memes; the McGuffin. This is a plot device whereby something in the film is vitally important to the characters within the context of the story, yet it is completely inconsequential to the audience. Many have attempted to use this technique such as the briefcase in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’, but no filmmaker and about how talented has ever come close to using it as effectively as Alfred Hitchcock.

This is a film of such incredible nuance and texture data certainly timeless. In 1992 it was inducted into the national film Registry and has been included in the American film Institute’s list of top pictures ever as well as for specific genre. Their academics that have devoted a significant portion of their careers to dissecting the minutia that when combined creates the synergy that makes this movie so great. Hitchcock’s decision to film in black and white was largely economic. He was tied of the big blockbuster star laden movies that he had been making for the studios and desire to get back to basics. I had a good friend who was really into movies that held the disdain for black-and-white films. After having to watch this movie she began to understand that black-and-white film is just another media can then use as effectively as it was here provides a powerful and lasting impact. Naturally, Hitchcock began his film career before the advent of color photography. This film demonstrates that his appreciation for the use of shadows and the stark contrast between black and white as well as the use of the shades of gray results in startling images. Little touches such as Marion’s bra and purse are examples of this. Before stealing the money they are white, signifying her innocence. After the theft she is corrupted and those items are now black. Hitchcock was also known for his innovative camera angles and cinematic techniques. This included the creation of a special shower head so he can insert the camera lens directly in the shower depicting a close-up of Marion’s face as she is being learned while not having the lens subjected to water.

The fly on the wall camera angle used on the scene when the detective is murdered is in some ways a variation in reversal of the Dutch angle. By positioning the camera oblique above him, you have a vantage point that is disconcerting because it is impossible for human observing the scene to obtain. It has come to be known as the fly on the wall shot and continues to help keep audiences emotionally and psychologically off-balance. Apparently, Hitchcock bought up as many copies of the novels used as a source for the film as possible. This was to prevent people from knowing the ending. His natural back to showmanship came through interaction with the audience was expertly use in the commercials for the film as well as the gimmick of using cardboard cutouts of the filmmaker warning the audience members that they will not be allowed in after the film begins. From the moment the film was conceived, throughout its production and even into its marketing, Alfred Hitchcock imbued his masterpiece which such subtle elements each designed specifically to project horror deep within the recesses of the audience’s mind. Even if you have a copy of this film already in your library, as many most likely do, it is worth reinvesting to obtain a high definition Blu-ray copy. The pristine 1080p video enables you to model at details you undoubtedly missed the previous editions.

Posted 10/31/2014

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