Even if you’ve not seen the scene as part of the film, it’s near impossible some 50 years on to not know what happens: The woman is taking a shower, a shadow forms on the other side of the curtain, she screams, a knife is raised, then STAB! CUT! SLICE! Blood is trickling down the drain, an arm falls lifeless, and an unblinking eye stares at the camera.
I had seen clips of this most famous of murder scenes for years before finally seeing the film. What’s most amazing to first time viewers of the entire film isn’t the shock of that attack, but how we get there. The film, like the character that the title refers to, is split in two – we’re introduced to a woman who makes a fateful mistake, and finds herself out of her element, on the run. The second half of the film is more traditional to our expectations, but with a coda that feels at once dated and yet strangely compelling all these years later. And the final image is simply masterful, as chilling a closeup as ever filmed.
While some argue that M gave birth to the analysis of the compulsions of the serial killer in cinema, others point to PSYCHO for having wrought the modern horror movie. At least two types of genre pics can point back to this film for their birth: The more straight ahead, guttural, gore-filled type like TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (also based on the same real life set of murders done by Ed Gein), and more cerebral fair like SE7EN or SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. PSYCHO itself uses such stylized horror that it’s better described as a “suspense thriller”. Yet all the “jumps” or shocks, softened with age, are still so masterfully constructed that what they lack in novelty they still remarkably hold up effectively.
The biggest special effect in the film, besides the glorious camera work, is of course Anthony Perkins himself. Soon to play over and over a sad imitation of his defining role in subsequent films (even in BLACK HOLE there’s a bit of Bates, weirdly), in PSYCHO Perkins is pitch perfect. It’s an astonishing role all these years later, one of the touchstones of cinema, and even the most egregious sequel can’t take away the mastery demonstrated under Hitchcock’s direction.
Some may find the already mentioned extended ending a bit forced, and others may chide what to modern audiences is certainly a more-than-telegraphed surprise. Yet all the spoilers in the world can do little to diminish the presence of this work of an astute master. Hitch’s impeccable framing and structure, the clever use of the entire first act as misdirection, and the thread of dark, quirky humour that plays through in even the most shocking scenes, makes for a wonderful night of cinema. With a score that defined film music for generations, a title sequence of gorgeous, graphical simplicity, and a slew of fabulous performances, there’s much to admire. Yet in the end, PSYCHO must be seen as one of Hitch’s best, a giant work of cinema, and one of the ultimate examples of when a simple slasher genre pic in the hands of a brilliant technician like Hitchcock can truly create art.
Presented as part of the 100 Essential Films at TIFF’s Lightbox, the digital “print” of PSYCHO was an absolute revelation. Never before have I seen the film look as good, the restoration and digital project impeccably faithful to the work as shot on celluloid. Grain swam on the screen in a pleasing way, showing that care was made to keep the origin of the work intact and free from excessive digital scrubbing. All the lovely details show up, the stark photography, the glints in the eyes, the feathers of the stuffed birds, the wallpaper so detailed and intricate you could almost lick it, the projection at Lightbox was an absolute wonder to behold.
The film, recently released on Blu-Ray sourced from the same anniversary digital master, does wonders for seeing the film at home, and includes a great number of fabulous additional content. The disc is certainly a must for any serious collector, but I nonetheless encourage anyone who can to see this film projected on a large screen, with the wonderful sound facility at the Lightbox theatre.
Whether it’s your first or fiftieth time, PSYCHO is truly deserves a place on any serious list of essential works. This presentation, free from blemishes but with the film-look intact, is perhaps the best this film has ever looked, given the challenges 50 years ago with projection and print technology. A remarkable presentation of a remarkable film, this screening of PSYCHO is not to be missed.
Breathless plays the Lightbox starting Thursday, October 28, 2010. For information or tickets for the Essential Cinema series you can visit TIFF.net/essential