Even if you have never witnessed Psycho, I'd bet my immediate family that you know a large chunk of its surprisingly simple plot. Bird-like woman steals money from her boss and flees to the creepy Bates Motel, which is seemingly placed at the exact point where civilisation ebbs away into the wastelands, swamps and sandy stretches that linger in sinister silence. So, the naïve woman checks into the motel despite the strangeness of its owner Norman Bates and his authoritarian mother. Showers, celebrated montages, murder and memorably quacky dialogue ensues.
Alfred Hitchcock is certainly one director that is unfairly misrepresented. Whilst millions of guffawing and eyebrow-raising folk rush to commend his technical mastery of cinematic technique, compelling everyday-man-in-deep-shit plots, and expertly realised and executed set-pieces, they forget that like Lloyd Kauffman, Joel Schumacher and Edward D. Wood Jr, the large man was far from perfect. The commotion of hyperbolic praise masks a director who I feel is not only limited, but fundamentally flawed in many regions. The superficial feel and construct, enhanced by Hitch's dislike for location shooting, the various contrivances in characters and situations, the complete absence of the dirt and sleaze that is smeared across real murders and other crimes, the simplicity and perfunctory nature of some of his characters, the director's lack of understanding for psychological intrigue and the nature of good and evil. This is no clearer and emphatic than on repeat viewings of his 1960 shocker Psycho, a film which was inspirational, intelligent and curtain-raising, but is now a little meek when it should roar and scream. Whilst others notice little nuances in their investigation of Hitch, I can't help but pull a puzzled and disappointed face as the film strains to entertain and provoke satisfactorily without the shock value of the first experience. Psycho is startling and genuinely scary in parts, but like the spanner-brained detective Arbogast's bad feeling about the Bates Motel, its not recommended you pay it a second visit. And as so many of you know what's going to happen anyway, the effect could be decidedly muted and hollow.
The true virtue of the film will always shine through though, no matter how many combinations of the stop, rewind and play buttons you can muster. Films can often be so invigorating because of a spark between two actors; a distinct sense of hatred imbedded in their double-act, or a natural allegiance that smacks a smile on your face. With Psycho that chemistry is between the oddly mesmeric Anthony Perkins and the expertly constructed plot. This marriage allows the rigidly straightforward storyline seem daring and twisted (when its anything but) with the charismatic Perkins throwing endless spanners in the works, whilst Perkins can get away with his nervous-tick-masking-blackness performance, retaining a sinister and blackly funny mood because of his atypical presence in the story of guilt, deviants and society's utter naiveté towards folk it's so easy to label 'psychotic'. The clash between these two elements creates a very distinctive mood, one that constantly trips up, fools and surprises the viewer. The old-fashioned whodunnit, with nods towards genre stalwarts like faceless cops, oppressive rain and waif-like women all on their own, creates a very unique yet comforting tone, when mixed with the very peculiar figure of Norman Bates, caught in some universe between complexity and wide-eyed innocence, broad smiling and a deadly secret behind that beam, pitiable and plain pathetic often in the same sentence. Watching his feminine demeanour split the generic plot in two is very entertaining, a substantial splinter in the generic happenings. The startling all-string Bernard Herrmann score adds to the slick suspense, alternatively whispering and screaming spooky thoughts into your head as you're sucked further into the figurative plug-hole that is The Bates Motel.
The bad news is, its easy to see through Hitchcock's wicked game the second, or third time round. Look at the title, the word 'Psycho', its a strange little thing. Try repeating it several times or stare at it for an unhealthy length of time. Chances are, the word will appear slightly misshapen and silly looking if you study it close enough. The same thing can be said about the film. Everything in retrospect feels so staged and laboured, almost to the point where you feel unfairly hoodwinked. I understand that much of Hitchcock's work is about the sublime act of manipulation, but usually there's a deeper concept once the film has shed its purely aesthetic values, like 'The Birds' flirtations with the nightmarish scenario of nuclear war. Psycho has nothing to offer second time, save an admiration of his style and the understanding that Hitchcock wasn't treating his ditty as seriously as perhaps his audience is duped into (see Perkins' reaction when he's finally caught, realise the comical redundancy of the explain-all conclusion, look out for a bloated silhouette laughing at his audience as the rug is continually pulled from under their feet and tossed over their head). There really isn't much more to cherish, just some cinematic parlour trick that aggressively ignores convention, without offering anything substantial in its place. A few arresting images, some uninteresting characters and a plot which ceases to be intriguing once the lead character is diced and swamped.
The biggest joke of all though, are the famed set-pieces. It's as if Hitchcock has a large red button on set which he presses whenever something dangerous is about to happen. The finest set pieces in film (see De Palma, Argento, Scorsese, Lynch, Godard etc) are like great songs: The main body of the film are the verses, with the chorus the set-piece, an exclaimed enhancement of all that has previously happened, peaking your excitement and interest whilst remaining true to the previous tone and feel. The apex of the track or films bombastic wail is usually when the singer howls the name of the track, the musical equivalent of the pay-off. In Psycho the chorus simply doesn't belong to the song, and there is no apex of excitement. Hitchcock's compacted ejaculates of stylised killing may as well be embossed on screen and shot in 3D, such is the glaring feeling that suddenly we're watching something fancy and prepared, rather than a horrific, unpredictable and brutal act. By pandering around the impact of murder, Hitchcock actually loses touch with his audience by diverting them with uber-stylistic and effectively revealing his taut vehicle as a very much mortal movie, something fantastical and unrealistic rather than lurid. Unlike various other fine death scenes, the loss of the slaughtered characters doesn't matter; the ghost of this dead character and their last moments alive doesn't haunt the remainder of the film. This celebration of cleverness actually backfires and seems self-conscious, arrogant and plain misplaced. Without the meatiness of murder, what genuine menace is there? Cameras, editing and score are not scary on their own, they need a solid context and build-up to exploit in a full-blooded exhibition. This film ultimately chooses not to explore or sink to the depths of the killing, preferring to sensationalise and trivialise what should be massively troubling sequences. Death is not truly death, merely glorified cinema.
I don't even consider Psycho up there with the best that Hitchcock made. It lacks the emotional richness of Vertigo, the directorial flair of Strangers on a Train, and the nastiness of Frenzy. A good romp but little more, this film is, now what's the phrase, not quite what its cracked up to be.
The DVD extras include above par production notes, a couple of trailers, some newsreel footage and an interesting feature which allows the audience to watch the shower sequence with or without music. This meant I spent a good hour or so trying to find some decent alternative music for this heralded scene, something I'd actually recommend for about a quarter of that time. There is also a fairly long 'Making of Psycho' which offers little genuine insight and tells you nothing new, but features some watchable interviews from notably Janet Leigh, Patricia Hitchcock and Joseph Stefano. The DVD is comprehensive in the sense that it covers pretty much everything in an above average but hardly inspiring manner. You get the feeling this was a bolstered job, rather than a work of fan-based passion. Solid, but not spectacular.