Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo recently topped Sight and Sound’s decennial poll that asks its readers to name the greatest film of all time. The announcement came as a bit of a surprise, and many disagreed, but nobody was angry. Having a Hitchcock film at the top of the list was pretty uncontroversial, and many saw it as a testament to his ability to resonate with audiences.
A lot of the directors whose films tend to top lists like Sight and Sound’s (and the AFI’s, for that matter) are Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles types; terrific artists, but they have a vision and a message, and if the audience doesn’t get it, that’s their problem. They’d sooner alienate filmgoers than compromise their vision for the sake of accessibility.
Then there’s Hitchcock, whose genius was precisely in his ability to connect. He didn’t just find a happy medium between art and expectation, he used his skill and knowledge of film theory to make films that would have the greatest impact on viewers because of their expectations. The craftsmanship, the symbolism—it’s all there—but if it doesn’t make the audience feel a certain way, the whole thing is a wash.
Which brings us to this week’s entry, 1960’s Psycho. Vertigo may be a better film from the point of view of the type of people who read Sight and Sound, but Psycho is Holy SHIT what a good goddamn movie.
Psycho is without a doubt the single most important step in the development of the slasher genre. There were horror films, there were mysteries, there were serial killers. But the archetype of a knife-wielding killer with unknowable motives that toys with our sympathies really began with Norman Bates and his mother in the eerie Bates Motel. It’s creepy, it’s funny, it’s entertaining, and it makes you feel the emotions of its characters along with them better than almost any film I can think of.
My personal love for this movie came somewhat obliquely when I was 13. I had just seen the insane Busta Rhymes video for “Gimme Some More,” and was obsessed. I bought the album E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event), and tried (in vain) to learn all the lyrics. When that didn’t work, I took a look at the liner notes and found a reference to Bernard Herrmann’s score from Psycho, so I rented it based on that.
Don’t laugh. Busta Rhymes was a perfect introduction to Alfred Hitchcock, and I’ll tell you why.
1) The awesome sampling of Bernard Herrmann’s classic theme
The main sample of “Gimme Some More” comes from the part of Psycho’s theme that we generally hear when a character makes a decision while simultaneously realizing that they will regret it. It fills the listener with the sort of unbearable tension that something insane is about to happen, but the feeling won’t go away until they know what that resolution is. It may not the most memorable musical cue from Psycho (that would have to be the stabbing violins), but it’s one of the most effective.
This is not the first time Herrmann and Hitchcock collaborated, but it’s probably his most vital contribution to film history. Some people say that the love theme from Vertigo is his best work, and that may be true, but Herrmann’s music itself changed the direction of Psycho.
Hitchcock originally wanted the classic shower scene to play without any music, letting the horror of the event speak for itself. Herrmann fought him on this, and film history was made. You really have to know what you’re doing to convince someone like Alfred Hitchcock to change his mind. Here’s a guy who would send his second unit to film a scene, throw it away, then reshoot the whole thing himself; or torture actors with an insane number of takes because the lens flare wasn’t just right.
Hitchcock later went on to say that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music,” and all because Herrmann won at being a bigger dick.
2) The nonsequiter intro
Busta’s video begins with something about being a shorty, bumping his head, switching it on ’em, Flipmode being the greatest, then turning into a little blue monster. Strange, sure, but just about all plot descriptions of Psycho would entirely exclude the first half hour. It’s something about Janet Leigh having an affair, stealing money from an eccentric millionaire to get out of mob debt, running away from the cops, then pulling into the Bates Motel when she decides to turn herself in and face the consequences.
And just when she decides to wash herself clean of this crime…
This was an enormous shock in 1960. First of all, Janet Leigh was a huge celebrity, had her name and face on the poster, and for the entire first act the audience has been experiencing her trials and tribulations right alongside her. Then Hitchcock kills the biggest star in the movie. Whoa.
Hitchcock gave specific orders to theaters not to admit anyone after the movie began because this isn’t just any old casual day at the theater. You have to discover the secret of this insane man as it unfolds. You weren’t even supposed to know that this movie is about a killer. You were supposed to experience the suspense along with these characters, and part of that was making you care about Leigh before she dies so brutally in the middle of her moment of redemption.
The money began as a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin, a forgettable tool to propel the action, but was then turned on its head to be one of the best bait-and-switches movie history.
3) Busta’s career trajectory into competent though forgettable collaborations could have happened to Hitchcock had he not pursued Psycho.
What was the last thing you heard Busta do? “I Love My Baby Girl/I Love My Chick?” “Arab Money?” That dopey Chris Brown track? What kind of babbling bullshit is this? Where’s the insane, gymnastic delivery you became famous for, Busta? Have you been saying yes to too many manager-approved gigs without considering your legacy?
When Hitchcock decided to do Psycho, the studio refused to support him, even though his last two films had been the enormously successful Vertigo and North by Northwest…actually, make that because those had been his last two movies. They wanted him to keep cranking out the clever, funny, romantic thrillers, and here he’s talking about adapting a novel about a schizophrenic whose inner mother kills women he’s attracted to.
To make the project happen with the limited funding he had, he hired the crew from his television show who would work for scale, cast up-and-coming but not fully famous actors, and filmed in black and white instead of the lush color he had become increasingly fond of.
Had he succumbed to the pressure to continue in the North by Northwest mold, we may have been treated to several more competent, entertaining Cary Grant flicks, albeit with diminishing returns. The potential watering down of Hitchcock’s legacy may have led to him being thought of as a great director, but not the greatest.
But thankfully, he went rogue. Psycho is the way it is because Hitchcock wants you to react, not admire.
Even in Kubrick’s best films, he always made sure the audience knew that it was not easy to make. You, the audience, are lucky to be experiencing it. Hitchcock’s brilliance, and what made him so much more popular and influential, was that he made even more complicated ideas in films look effortless. You, the audience, are the reason this film exists.
Comments: Vertigo and Psycho switched relative spots on the updated AFI list. That’s fine, I understand. But in my book, Psycho crackles with fun and originality, and ultimately ages better than Vertigo.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Yes. Pure originality.
Inspired: Three sequels and the entire slasher genre.
Next Week: #17 The African Queen
Last Week: #19 Chinatown
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