Special Review: “Psycho” (1960) – Analysis Through Freewrite
Produced by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Joseph Stefano (screenplay)
Cinematography by: John L. Russell
Music by: Bernard Herrmann
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Janet Leigh
Based on the novel Psycho by Robert Bloch
Here’s something I’m going to have to admit, up front: Psycho is going to be hard for me to review. That I’m even writing this review is kind of intimidating to me, as I’ve always recognized it as a good film, but never really could pin down what it was that made me think this. I don’t find it all that terrifying, and the symbolism that others find laced throughout the film is not all that obvious to me. I’m not even all that impressed with the once-visceral nature of the violence. It’s hard to really analyze a film that I don’t fully comprehend my feelings for, and yet I feel oddly drawn to it, nonetheless. It’s not like the film digs into the inner depths of who I am and touches some emotional nerve with me, and yet I know that I’m relating to something in the film that still seems compelling, all the same. Because of this, please consider this “review” an exercise in exploring my own feelings towards this classic in what is basically a formalized freewrite. (I will avoid retreading over all the same important plot points that so many more qualified people have, as a result.)
Psycho is often cited as one of the first films of its kind, a psychoanalytical thriller that is also cited as a predecessor to the slasher films that followed within the next decade. It is also one of the first films to be so overtly violent and sexual in its content — not to mention the fact that it’s the first film to depict a flushing toilet onscreen (albeit with shredded paper and not, well, human waste). It reportedly took a lecture on the definition of “transvestite” according to Merriam Webster to convince the censors to allow the word to be uttered in the film, and yet, here we are today debating on public airwaves whether gay marriage should be allowed or not. In the last 52 years since Psycho‘s release, it’s hard to say whether first time viewers will ever see the film in the same way that audiences of that time did, and yet the film still carries an R-rating to this day, despite several PG-13 films since depicting far more graphic violence, sex, and subject matter since.
Is this all just reverence for a revered classic blown out of proportion? After all, it may be considered a masterpiece now, sitting in the National Film Registry to be preserved for all time, but it’s easy to forget that it was a critical disappointment upon its release. It made lots of money, but it wasn’t exactly endearing itself to critics with its apparently imprudent content. Why did the critical change over time, I wonder. For me, it’s important to remember films like Psycho for the milestones that they are, while not falling prey to the idea that this automatically makes them great films. (Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a landmark achievement as the first animated feature length film, but it’s hardly as compelling, entertaining, and engaging as the later Sleeping Beauty still is to this day, for example. Why people continue to laud it as one of, if not the greatest animated film of all time is, frankly, baffling to me.)
I find it rather joyless to say that its reputation is based on some meticulous placement of a bunch of symbolism. Motifs involving darkness, blinding lights, and birds are important to recognize, but that’s merely attractive garnish that accentuates the simple but enticing main dish. Call me ignorant, lazy, or dull if you like, but I feel as though over-analyzing can actually diminish the strength of a film for me. Far be it from me to begrudge people their opinions, but, having first seen this when I was very young, I’ve probably always looked upon Psycho as being far more obvious than that, a more relatable and simplistic story about paranoia and victimization, whether by their own hand or at the hand of someone else. Roger Ebert states this much better than I in his “Great Films” entry for Psycho:
What makes “Psycho” immortal, when so many films are already half-forgotten as we leave the theater, is that it connects directly with our fears: Our fears that we might impulsively commit a crime, our fears of the police, our fears of becoming the victim of a madman, and of course our fears of disappointing our mothers.
And so I guess I have finally figured out why this film still resonates with me. We don’t exactly have to go all the way back to Greek mythology and its parallels to the film or analyze every frame in order to relate to the story and symbolism of Psycho. We’ve all done something wrong and regretted it, letting the fear and anxiety build up inside us as we hold inside our dirty secrets. Some are able to atone for their sins and right their wrongs. Others tragically never get a chance to, or they struggle to live with their faults in secret. Psycho speaks to our fears of this unresolved anxiety catching up to us where and when we least expect it — sometimes involving the person y0u’d least suspect. We become a victim to our own faults, to others’ faults, and also mislead others as a result. And as an extension, Psycho also speaks to one of the greatest fears we could ever face: That we may, in fact, be irredeemable.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5