Sunday, October 14, 2012

Revisiting the Classics: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates
"We all go a little mad sometimes." 

On Thursday night my friend suggested we check out a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror classic, Psycho, which was playing at a local theatre.

It had been awhile since I'd last visited the Bates Motel and its man-with-severe-mother-issues owner, Norman.

I actually can't recall the last time I'd seen Psycho which makes me think it has been at least five years, if not longer. So, watching it in glorious black and white on the big screen made it feel as though I were watching it for the first time. I'd forgotten about a couple of little twists and the fact that the script (based on the novel by Robert Bloch) was chock-full of great dialogue and slow, engaging character revelations. It truly is a masterpiece of suspense and thrills. And, regardless of how many times you've seen the film, its final twist and closing shot (see photo above) is still as mesmerizing and shocking as it undoubtedly was back in 1960.

A complex psychological thriller, Psycho is celebrated in film circles as one of Hitchcock's finest -- if not his greatest -- achievements (and whether or not you think that Vertigo is technically the better film is a debate worthy of a whole separate blog post). At the age of 61, Hitchcock cobbled together his now-classic shocker on a tiny budget in a matter of weeks. With Hitchcock's knack for building tension and influential stylistic flare, Psycho is as unsettling in its premise as it is a technical marvel -- what with all those unique camera angles, intimate close-ups of his cast and that famous image of Mama Bates' skull superimposed over the crazed face of Norman as the film closes.

But one of the true revelations in Psycho is Anthony Perkins in the lead role. I'd never fully appreciated his performance until this recent viewing. He commanded the screen with a charismatically awkward performance that, on the surface, made him appear as likeable as a young boy eager to please his friends or parents. "I think I must have one of those faces you can't help believing," he tells Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) early on in the film. And you, as the audience, totally fall for it too, just like Marion. Even though you know Norman has the capability to kill, he lulls you into feeling sympathy for him -- you may even catch yourself wishing he'll get the help he so obviously needs.

The role of Norman Bates could have easily been nothing more than a stock horror character. A villain without personality. Someone lurking in the shadows who ultimately leaves no lasting impression once the credits roll. But where Perkins excels is in his ability to make you realize that Norman Bates could be anyone. Literally. He could be the man sitting next to you on the subway, or the woman walking her dog down the street. He's not some Freddy Krueger-type fantasy-villain who would stick out like a sore thumb if you saw him in a crowd of people from across the street. Perkins, with his average-joe features and shy nature, totally inhabits the character of Norman Bates.

It's an all-around fantastic performance in an already perfect psychological thriller.