Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho still slaps, 60 years later

Alfred Hitchcock’s always-relevant 1960 thriller Psycho still has the power to shock, amuse, and provoke.

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Janet Leigh in Psycho

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What is left to be said about one of the most talked-about movies ever made? But rewatching Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho again for the first time in years, with a live audience at Rooftop Reds at Brooklyn Navy Yards, upended a few of my old opinions.

Reams have been written about its still-unusual structure, which violates every tenet of screenwriting — and considering the early exit of its top-billed actor, even the Hollywood star system itself. My memory was that the movie came to a crashing halt after Marion (Janet Leigh) met her fate, and never recovered its early dread, suspense, and wit — almost to the point of becoming a different movie. But on this rewatch, I was surprised to find that it flowed more soothly that I recalled.

Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Psycho
Note the mirrors and reflections in Psycho.

It’s much funnier than I remembered, rife with intentional dark comedy, not “oh how quaint in retrospect” tittering. Some of the scenes that once felt out-of-place to me, such as when Sam (John Gavin) and Lila (Vera Miles) voice their dark suspicions to the comically folksy Sheriff Chambers and his wife, now play as willful satire. The Chambers’ inability to perceive the perversion and rot in their own community, in the form of harmless quiet boy Norman (Anthony Perkins), is an unfortunately timeless social issue.

The early office scenes hold up well, considering six decades of increasing cultural awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s very clear why Marion would be tempted to drop everything and flee: her subservient position to gross men, coupled with her hopeless financial insecurity.

Her lover Sam, a divorcée bunking in the back room of a hardware store, is suffering through a similar economic situation. But not subject to such harassment and humiliation, he never fully wraps his head around the extreme lengths that Marion took to escape. The very square Sam stands out as a 1950s-style relic that doesn’t belong in a dark thriller from 1960. But I’ve come to realize that that’s exactly the point: Sam is a basic normcore man’s man, which is intensely threatening to a resentful, twisted incel like Norman.

Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in Psycho
Still more mirrors and reflections.

Psycho is a clear ancestor to David Lynch‘s preoccupations in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Lynch and Hitchcock both repeatedly examined the violent and sexual obsessions barely repressed below the surface of polite society. But the problem with Hitchcock is, as soon as he could depict more violence and sex on screen, he did, and all the artful subtext of masterworks like Vertigo (1958) turned into the overt nastiness of Frenzy (1972).

But Psycho (1960) sits at an interesting pivot point between his two extremes; racier than you may remember (with a few firsts or near-firsts, like depicting a secret tryst in a seedy hotel room, its star in a brassiere on the poster, and even an open toilet seat onscreen), but still using cinematic artifice in place of explicitness (the infamous shower scene technically features less nudity than you’d see during a shampoo commercial today, but still feels shocking, due to the effective montage and scoring).

In short, Psycho still slaps, 60 years later.






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