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Old Ass Movies: 50 Years of ‘Psycho’

By  · Published on June 13th, 2010

Every Sunday Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies celebrates the 50th anniversary of:

Psycho (1960)

In 1999, I was suffering from the early waves of insomnia. Almost every night, I would try to count sheep or hum softly, but on most nights I succumbed to turning on my television to see what might lull me into sleep. It was usually golf. Fortunately, my insomnia lasted well into the Fall when I ended up turning on the television one particular night and catching a black and white film that would change my life.

I had missed the titles, and it was around 4am, but even with as quiet as the film seemed to be, it captured my interest and kept me wide-eyed. It wasn’t until a young woman was stabbed to death in the shower that I knew what I was watching.

With any film with a twist, especially a classic, it seems impossible to watch it in the intended way. Of the many people celebrating the 50th anniversary of Psycho’s June 16th release back in 1960, several have already launched the question of what it might be like to sit there in the theater with the lights dimming, not knowing what you’re in for.

I can’t attest personally for being in the theater, but that night, with the grainy black and whites dancing on my bedroom walls, I was lucky enough to see the film for the first time how most people would have seen it back then. Of course I’d heard about the famous shower scene (and maybe even seen a picture or two), but I’d heard nothing else about the movie, about its turns, or about its ultimate plot twist. I got to see it with fresh eyes.

I’ve always been thankful for that – a situation created by my lack of movie knowledge during an age where I could appreciate something like Psycho – and thankful that the film introduced me to who would become my favorite director.

Forty years before I would be scared out of my mind just before dawn, a novel by Robert Bloch based on the Ed Gein killings would emerge, an assistant named Peggy Robinson would take it to Alfred Hitchcock, and the director would fixate on it as his next project.

Unfortunately, Paramount wouldn’t. They refused to film it. Hitch cut the budget considerably, and they still refused. He then waived his upfront fee (choosing to take a backend percentage of the negative), told the studio he planned to shoot it quick and dirty with his television crew, decided to finance it himself (making it one of the most successful indie films of all time) and offered to use up one of Universal’s lots if Paramount would simply distribute. They agreed. But they didn’t have much faith in it.

Of course we know now that they should have. The film is an absolutely masterpiece, and a go-to study in thrillers, slasher flicks, dramas, and mysteries.

The look of the film (in black and white partly because of cost, partly to curb the gore, and partly because it looks great) is one meant to disturb. The opening is full of sunlight and casual conversations that juxtapose our knowledge that Marion Crane is running with a large amount of stolen cash. This was a trademark of Hitchcock’s, who loved using the everyday or joyful to make impending trouble more suspenseful. As a result, we feel uneasy long before Crane makes it to the Bates Motel. In fact, when she arrives there and speaks for the first time with Norman Bates, there’s nothing to feel uneasy about except for whether or not she’ll end up getting caught with the money. That is, of course, until we watch Bates move aside a painting in his office.

Speaking of Leigh and Perkins, it’s impossible to imagine any other actors in the roles (I say that realizing there was a remake, and I stand by the statement). Janet Leigh was brave to take on the part not only because of the subject matter and the character, but because of the short amount of screen time she gets. She, in just a few moments, creates an iconic figure that’s a mixture of malice and sweetness. Fortunately for audiences, all of that complexity is quickly washed down the shower drain.

Likewise, Anthony Perkins was typecast after his performance here solely because of how completely he sunk into the part. There’s zero over-the-top about what he does on screen – a crucial element in making the audience sympathetic to him even in the light of what he’s doing.

All of those factors come together in one scene where the conflict of our own feelings comes to a head. Bates attempts to drive Marion Crane’s car into a nearby swamp, and as it sinks with slow consistency, it stops with everything from the windows still guilt-provingly above the water. The terror on Bates’s face not only belies a sense that he knows he can be punished for what’s happened (or that his poor mother will be punished and he’ll be left making trips to death row on weekends), it belies our own uncomfortable fear that, gasp, they’ll get caught for murdering a young woman.

Hitchcock forces us to worry that a pair of killers will get caught.

It makes absolutely no sense, and there’s no reason that we should find ourselves crossing our fingers in defense of the Bateses, but that’s the magic of Anthony Perkins and the genius of Alfred Hitchcock.

There are dozens of iconic moments, and of course a twist that has become one of the best of all time, but the true legacy of the film is that it made people afraid to get in the shower. Even knowing that particular scene, I found myself peeling back my shower curtain slowly (and ready to either fight or fly) for weeks after seeing the film. Still to this day, I can sometimes feel that cold shiver of possibility creep up whenever I’m ready to step into the shower.

Hitchcock made us fearful of something we do every single day.

A film, a piece of art, a conceit on celluloid featuring people playing parts has changed my behavior. That says something strong about the effectiveness of what is most likely going to continue being one of the scariest, most psychologically disturbing films of all time. Hitchcock was a master, and here he was at his intimate best. We’re all fortunate to have it and fortunate to celebrate it turning 50 this week.

Of course, that’s the age that senility can start to set in, but we all go a little mad sometimes, right?

Step into your time machine and read more Old Ass Movies.

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