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Most film buffs enjoy a good debate, and one topic that never fails to generate discord among classics aficionados is "What is Alfred Hitchcock's best film?" Ask 50 different Hitchcock fans and you might just get 50 different answers; so varied and nuanced is the director's work. Though plenty of Hitch's admirers would surely pick 'Psycho' as the cream of the crop, I believe any serious student of the Master of Suspense would put this grandfather of the modern slasher film in its proper perspective – as a gritty, gimmicky, somewhat exploitive yet engrossing and tense study in terror. Masterpiece? In many ways, yes. Hitchcock directs 'Psycho' with the same care, artistry, and invention that distinguish his entire film canon, and, as a result, it has been copied, ripped off, examined, and dissected more than perhaps any other Hitchcock picture. As far as notoriety goes, none of his other movies can touch it. Mention 'Psycho' and you think Hitchcock; mention Hitchcock and you immediately think 'Psycho.' The two will be forever entwined. No doubt about it, 'Psycho' is a great, immortal, influential movie. But Hitchcock's best? Not to me.
Even calling 'Psycho' the quintessential Hitchcock picture is, in my opinion, misguided. Those with only a passing knowledge of the director might think 'Psycho' typifies the kind of fare Hitch regularly churned out. But in reality, this gruesome, low-budget shocker is a Hitchcock anomaly, far removed from the elegant, romantic mysteries and grand-scale espionage flicks that compose the bulk of his catalogue. Its impact, though, cannot be minimized. With its startling and (for its time) graphic violence, sexual overtones, and hint of misogyny, 'Psycho' changed the face of the modern thriller, ushering in a more explicit era, free of the taboos that previously constrained and asphyxiated the genre. Without 'Psycho,' would we have 'A Nightmare on Elm Street,' 'Friday the 13th' or 'Halloween?' Who knows? But 'Psycho' certainly paved their way. So should we thank Hitchcock for spawning a new genre of thriller, or condemn him for creating a film that inspired generations of inferior and ever more violent and gory copycats? That's another topic for debate.
What 'Psycho' does so well, and so much better than its more lurid descendants, is the way it makes its story initially relatable, allowing us to invest ourselves in the characters and their dilemmas before taking an unexpected detour into the grotesque. What begins as a straightforward, linear story about a troubled woman (Janet Leigh) who steals a large sum of money so she and her illicit lover can embark upon a new existence suddenly veers off in a totally different direction. With a few swift thrusts of a butcher's knife into a woman's naked body as she luxuriates in a warm shower at a rundown roadside inn known as the Bates Motel, it transforms itself into an unsettling tale of murder, cover-up, sexual deviance, and insanity. In a heartbeat, one story ends and another begins. 'Psycho' brutally proves we really don't know what lies around the next corner – or on the other side of the shower curtain – and bloodcurdling horror can confront us at any moment.
Hitchcock, though, is much too substantive a director and too good a storyteller to rely on cheap thrills. 'Psycho' is remembered as a physically violent film, marked by brutal slayings in the shower and on the stairs, and for its climactic chamber of horrors twist. Yet those three scenes comprise less than three minutes of the picture's 109-minute running time and feature surprisingly little gore. (Hitchcock's genius lies in his ability to make us think we see more than we actually do.) Sure, they leave an indelible impression, but they can't quite overshadow the more intriguing and complex psychological studies of both Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and Marion Crane (Leigh), whose paths coincidentally and fatefully cross one dark and stormy night. That's where the true allure of 'Psycho' lies, and Hitchcock expertly develops those characters so we identify and empathize with them. He also sprinkles in some welcome bits of ghoulish humor to take the edge off, and frames it all with his patented visual artistry. A close-up of an eye peering through a hole in the wall, reflections representing duality and duplicity, high and low angle shots altering perspective and enhancing a sense of unease…Hitchcock delicately and seamlessly weaves them into his fabric so we're only marginally aware of his technique.
Though Norman, the mother-obsessed, browbeaten motel proprietor, grabs the bulk of attention, each time I see 'Psycho' the character of Marion becomes more fascinating and dimensional. Would we remember Janet Leigh at all if she hadn't been stabbed to death in the shower? That's yet another topic for debate, but take away her ear-splitting shriek when she first lays eyes on her knife-wielding attacker, and her performance in 'Psycho' remains quietly riveting from her opening scene lolling around with her illicit lover in a seedy hotel to our final look at her lifeless face pressed against the bathroom floor in an even seedier and far more creepy motel. Leigh balances sex appeal with vulnerability and a thoughtful introspection that makes her sequence of the film infinitely more interesting than the by-the-book Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mystery investigation that comprises the picture's second half, as Marion's lover, Sam (John Gavin), and sister, Lila (Vera Miles), try to figure out what happened to her. 'Psycho' never really drags, but the more mundane nature of Sam and Lila and their methodical pursuit of the truth make the film more pedestrian, save for the instances where they share the screen with Norman. (The tacked on psychobabble that comprises the film's final minutes may be necessary, but its clinical presentation is a definite buzz-killer and one of the few elements of the film that seems a bit cheesy.)
Leigh justly earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal, but Perkins was inexplicably passed over for his iconic turn as the troubled Norman. Though Norman Bates may have been (sadly) eclipsed in the modern era by the more flamboyant Freddy and Jason, he remains one of the most recognizable figures in horror movie history, thanks to Perkins' finely etched, complex portrait. Whether he's nervously stuttering when discussing sensitive issues, delicately swinging his hips as he climbs the stairs, or exhibiting a wealth of boyish charm, Perkins embodies the character so completely it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the part (especially Vince Vaughn, who gamely – if misguidedly – took on the role in Gus Van Sant's purposeless remake). Miles brings some chutzpah to the cardboard Lila and Martin Balsam makes a strong impression in his few scenes as the doomed investigator, Arbogast.
Mood is an essential element in any Hitchcock film, and in 'Psycho,' Bernard Herrmann's all-string score creates and sustains a marvelous sense of unease from the opening credits forward. Innovative, discordant, and wonderfully screechy, the brash music of Herrmann enhances suspense, accentuates the violence, and creates a wonderfully eerie feeling of foreboding that sustains itself throughout the film. It's difficult to envision 'Psycho' without its score, and the picture's impact would never be as potent without it.
And potent is exactly what 'Psycho' remains a half century after it scared America away from the shower. Whether it occupies the top slot on your list of Hitchcock favorites is irrelevant. 'Psycho' is unique among Hitchcock films in its tone, execution, and look, and will continue to fascinate – and scare – audiences far into the future. "We all go a little mad sometimes," Norman says to Marion. "Haven't you?" "Yes," she responds. "And sometimes, just one time can be enough." One time, however, will never be enough to drink in the story and style of 'Psycho.' It's a movie to watch, enjoy, study, and scrutinize over and over again.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Psycho' arrives (finally) on Blu-ray on a 50GB dual-layer disc that holds both the film and its substantial array of special features. The disc comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case, and features a 1080p/VC-1 video transfer and newly mastered 5.1 lossless audio, as well as the original mono track. The full motion menu shows an array of clips from the movie in sepia tones, but they are strangely not accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's classic score. Instead, some random, generic creepy music is used that's not nearly as effective as Herrmann's and kind of a slap in the face to the composer.
Improving upon the DVD transfer of 'Psycho' that's included in the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection isn't very difficult. That shoddy effort features an abundance of grain; sporadic fuzziness; nicks, marks, and other print defects galore; and an overall harshness that detracts from Hitchcock's artistry. Thankfully, Universal recognized those weaknesses and made a point of cleaning up 'Psycho' so it looks as spiffy as possible in high definition. I say "as possible," because 'Psycho' was shot on a shoestring budget and purposely made to look a bit dingy and dirty, so don't expect a glossy black-and-white transfer on a par with classics like 'Casablanca.' 'Psycho' possesses great contrast at times, but can often look a bit harsh and monochromatic, and this high-quality 1080p/VC-1 effort beautifully replicates the film's original look while bringing out as much detail and nuance as it can.
The horizontal and vertical lines that comprise much of the opening title sequence are much crisper and the lettering is better defined than on the DVD. And once the skyline of Phoenix comes into view, the boost in clarity and cleanliness of print becomes immediately apparent. Some specks and marks still regularly crop up, but they're far less noticeable. (As far as numbers go, there are still too many surface defects for my taste, but the differences between the Blu-ray and DVD are substantial in that regard.) Grain has been drastically reduced, but enough remains to keep that essential celluloid feel intact. Background detail is much clearer; check out the crisp rear-projection street scene outside Marion's office early in the film when Hitchcock makes his cameo. Contrast seems more pronounced, which heightens gray scale variance and adds a fresh dimensional quality other home video versions of 'Psycho' lack. Many times, the principals are framed against blank, nondescript walls, which makes them jump out a bit to great effect in this high-def treatment.
Blacks are rich and inky, especially during the nocturnal driving scenes, and the white headlights stay well defined. Close-ups are vivid and striking; the extreme tight shots on both Marion's face as she wends her way to California and Arbogast as he enters the hardware store are among the best in the film. The rain is sharply rendered, so individual drops and beads can be distinguished, and the iconic shower drain shot and subsequent dissolve into Marion's fixed eye is rock solid. And despite all the white in the shower sequence, the details – spray, blood, tile, curtain – are all distinct. Various reflections in mirrors and windows are also clearer than ever before, as are the shadows that are such a vital part of the picture. As far as my eye could see, no noise reduction, banding, or edge enhancement muck up the works, and only mild shimmering on complex patterns occasionally rears its ugly head.
No question about it, 'Psycho' has never looked better, and despite the marks that still mar the print, this is a strong effort from Universal that beautifully honors this chilling classic.
This Blu-ray edition boasts a newly mastered 5.1 track in DTS-HD Master Audio. While the sound is definitely clearer and more dimensional than the DVD audio, it doesn't possess much of a surround feel. The sound remains firmly anchored in the front channels – not surprising, considering the original track is mono – but there's some decent stereo separation that widens the listening area somewhat. Dialogue is always easily comprehendible, and any pops, crackles, or hiss have been scrubbed away.
Aurally, 'Psycho' is all about the music and sound effects. Bernard Herrmann's masterful, all-string score flaunts marvelous presence and dynamic range, but never wraps around the listener like we expect. Nuances of tone come through nicely and even the screechiest sections resist distortion, even at high volume. The slicing effects (achieved by stabbing a knife into a melon) and other subtle atmospherics are crisp and clear, adding creepy accents to the action on screen. Bass frequencies are solid but muted, and exist mostly as shadings to the score.
'Psycho' may not produce the sonic fireworks of more recent releases, but this 50-year-old film sounds better than ever.
All of the extras from the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release with the exception of the production notes. Additions include an audio commentary, interviews, and two featurettes. This is a very strong package that gives both 'Psycho' fanatics and those new to this classic a wealth of information regarding production, promotion, and the film's influence on both movies and culture.
While I don't consider 'Psycho' to be Alfred Hitchcock's best film, it's undeniably his most famous, as well as a masterful exercise in horror and suspense. Featuring some of the most recognizable and memorable sequences in film history, this gritty spine-tingler still gets under our skin (and into our heads) and continues to influence movie thrillers today. This long-awaited Blu-ray release does the picture proud, with a high-quality (but not perfect) video transfer, solid (but not reference) lossless audio, and a bountiful array of extras. Another Hitchcock classic in high-def is good news indeed – hopefully more are on the way – and this one comes highly recommended.