In 1959 Alfred Hitchcock signed a deal with Universal Studios allowing him to make any picture he liked as long as the budget was under $3 million.
He still owed Paramount Pictures a movie under contract so, inspired by the box office success of maverick B-Movie producer/director Roger Corman, he decided to make a very low-budget feature in black and white using the TV crew who worked on his popular Alfred Hitchcock Presents series.
Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray is very impressive both in terms of picture and sound quality and also a banquet of bonus material. The video is presented in a 1080p/VC-1 transfer with lossless DTS-HD 5.1 master audio soundtrack both radically improving on the previous DVD release. Equally improved is the quality of the print, the blacks are exceedingly deep and all the defects that marred the DVD release are gone leaving a spotless, pristine image as good as any modern day release which is pretty remarkable for a film that’s half a century old.
It’s hard to imagine now how much impact Psycho must have had on its first audiences, the marketing campaign which refused admittance to the cinema after the programme had started and the personalised appeal from Hitch not to reveal the surprise ending really paid dividends. These days the name of Norman Bates is synonymous with serial murder, matricide and schizophrenia but in 1960 audiences were completely taken in by Anthony Perkins hen-pecked, stammering but disarmingly charming Motel proprietor.
Thought by many to be the archetypal Hitchcock thriller in actual fact Psycho bears little resemblance to any of the Director’s previous suspense features which had in common big budgets, lavish Technicolor photography of tourist spots and grand interiors, glamorous leading men and women in designer garments who, whilst they courted danger, the audience knew they would live to tell the tale; Marion Crane’s fate would be entirely different altogether.
In casting Janet Leigh as Marion Crane Hitchcock played a very clever trick on his audience, he knew they would totally sympathise with Marion’s doomed romantic interludes with a married man who couldn’t afford to leave his wife and entirely support her dubious decision to make off with $40,000 of her firm’s funds rather than deposit them at the bank. Even though I have seen the film countless times I am still taken in by the setup and totally believe that this is going to be Marion’s story and it’s a testament to the playing of both Leigh and Perkins that it’s still a shock when you realise it’s not about her, it’s actually about him.
This pivotal turning point is driven home by the unforgettable shower scene, a montage of 50 individual shots, intricately cut together to the startling sounds of Bernard Herrmann’s string motif creating one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. From here on the audience who has vested all their emotional support in Marion now transfer these feelings to Norman, believing him to be an innocent, browbeaten Mother’s boy who’s simply trying to cover up her jealous crimes of passion.
It is fair to say that Psycho is somewhat uneven and I do not enjoy the scenes with Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) and her boyfriend (John Gavin), although the moment where Miles discovers Mrs. Bates mummified skeleton in the cellar is visually striking; yet for the most part their scenes feel prescribed and a little wooden. Equally the tacked on scene at the end with the psychoanalyst might have felt necessary in 1960 but by today’s standard it seems a trite and prosaic explanation of Norman’s condition. These minor criticisms do not detract from the overall power the film still has to enthral and shock modern audiences.
I was glad to find amongst the numerous extras the ‘Making Of’ documentary from the US Collector’s Edition DVD; this feature length, comprehensive account written and directed by Laurent Bouzereau is packed with interviews with the cast, including Janet Leigh and Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia along with contributions from screenwriter Joseph Stefano. I hope this series will appear in subsequent Universal releases as I have yet to see them bettered and a lot of the key technical and creative personnel who regularly worked with Hitchcock are no longer alive to comment. I cannot conceive of Psycho looking any better than it does in this hidef presentation and I hope that Rear Window, Vertigo, The Birds and Marnie follow it without an unnecessary hiatus.