50 years of Psycho

October 29, 2010

It’s likely I first saw Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho on television — snipped up to provide mortar for the late-night exhortations of used car salesmen.

I don’t imagine it had any particular impact on me then; I’m sure that if I thought of it at all I simply thought of it as an “old movie,” the kind they showed on television late at night.

By the time I saw Psycho on the big screen — 32 years ago, at an art cinema in Rio de Janeiro — I was so awed by its reputation I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to see it.

I knew it was a touchstone of suspense, one of the movies that people studied in film school. I was prepared for the “greatness” of Psycho; the odd angles and staccato jump cuts, Bernard Herrmann‘s cannily eerie music. I was prepared to appreciate Psycho.

I wasn’t exactly prepared to enjoy it — in an essential sense I still thought of it as an “old movie,” as an artifact from the days before Vietnam, before the political assassinations of the ’60s. A gulf greater than 18 years separated the release of Hitchcock’s Psycho and my seeing it on a big screen. In some very real ways 1960 was more remote from 1978 than 1978 is from today.

But I did enjoy the movie — in fact, I loved it. It was one of those seminal movie-watching experiences when I realized that movies could be more than slick entertainments or advertisements for themselves. Before Norman Bates, Hollywood’s killers were either monsters or highly motivated bad people. Norman was the nice-looking boy next door, the sensitive, shy type. He was a template for a new kind of terror, the charming invisible murderer who was capable of victimizing innocent people. Bates was a much more naturalistic character than Hollywood had previously presented — motivated by a twisted psychology, he was much closer to actual murderers than any movie antecedent (novelist Robert Bloch, who created the Bates character, drew on the real life story of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein).

Psycho was a great movie — a classic that retains its power to shatter nerves almost 40 years after it was made.

It’s also a movie people cannot leave alone. How do we explain Gus Van Sant’s almost shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s masterpiece?

When I saw Van Sant’s Psycho, soon after it was released in 1998, I didn’t think Van Sant had made a bad movie, just a superfluous one. He added little flourishes — Vince Vaughn made graphic what Anthony Perkins only suggested — and was generally a tad more explicit than Hitchcock, but for fans of the original, the fact of Van Sant’s exercise was more interesting than the execution.

In retrospect, it’s also more interesting than any of the sequels the film spawned.

A 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition of Psycho was released earlier this year, and earlier this month The Psycho Legacy, a light, bright documentary by Robert V. Galluzzo interviewed cast and crew members of all four Psycho films about the movie’s enduring influence.

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