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Monday, February 11, 2008

Psycho - Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece

Psycho (released in 1960) was arguably Alfred Hitchcock's most famous movie, and acknowledged as one of the best movies of all times. The movie set new standards in the field of horror movies, something that slasher movies later have found it difficult to emulate. This was also a movie that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to use to establish his reputation, especially when 'Vertigo' had failed 2 years earlier (neither the critics nor the audience gave it much of a reception); and the story of a murderer (a novel by Peter Bloch) was something that appealed to him. He had not made such a movie in the past, although he had made his name in suspense, and the making of a movie of the genre of a psychotic murderer would be a different movie.

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)
To that extent, the story of Psycho was something that Hitchcock guarded to a very high degree. Even the film rights to the novel were bought under a different name so that viewers would not guess the twists in the story. This quest for secrecy manifested itself in several different ways. Hitchcock forbade most promotion on the usual media - television, radio, and print interviews so that there was no fear of revealing the truth. In addition, critics were not allowed the usual private screenings, but had to see the movie with the general public, so that the plot remained secret (even though preventing the critics from their screenings might cause reviews to be not so positive).
The movie also struggled on a different front. The studio for which Hitchcock was supposed to make another movie, Paramount, was not happy with the script or with the thought of Hitchcock making this movie. They did not believe that the script was suitable for a movie, and in fact, such a movie was essentially a pet peeve for Hitchcock. Accordingly, his usual budget was denied, causing Hitchcock to raise money on his own and cut costs. He hired his regular staff, managed to get the lead star Janet Leigh for much less than her regular fee; the overall budget was less than a million dollars.
The movie was reviewed poorly by critics, but turned out to be a major commercial success, earning some $32 million overall. Since the movie was produced by Hitchcock's company, his share of the profits was much greater than one would have expected otherwise. The success of the movie led critics to change their views, do a re-review, and the movie earned a total of 4 Oscar nominations.
The movie is a gripping psycho drama, with a shower murder scene that is one of the most famous scenes ever; this scene has been copied and parodied many times. There has been countless research done over the decades to evaluate as to why the scene has had such an impact to users; as an aside, it has been popular lore that the scene impacted the actress Janet Leigh so much that she found it difficult to take a shower after that.
The movie is set in a out-of-the-way motel called Bates motel. It is run by the young man called Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who lives with his ailing mother. And who arrives to this motel ? The lady on the run, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). She is in love with Sam Loomis (John Gavin), but both of them do not have much money. They are in dire need of money since Sam is in debt and also has alimony payments to an wx-wife that are ongoing. Marion steals $40,000 from the office in Phoenix, Arizona that she works in (she is asked to deposit the money in the bank, but she runs off with the money), and wants to drive to the town in California where Sam works.
She is suspicious, wondering about whether the police is after her; in this state, she even changes her car to try to throw pursuers off her track. In this state, she finds a motel on the way, and is persuaded to stay there. She finds Norman Bates a bit strange, but nothing prepares her for her end. When she is showering in her motel room, an apparently elderly woman attacks her and is stabbed to death (with a powerful musical score playing in the background).
Norman finds the corpse of Marion, and in order to protect his mother, he dumps Marion and all her belongings (including the car) into a nearby swamp. However, it is not the end; a private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is hired to find Norman. He manages to find the Bates motel, and starts to question Norman who gets all nervous. He meets the same end as Marion, being slashed to death by Norman's mother after being pushed down the stairs. When Milton does not report back, Marion's mother Lila and Sam get concerned and contact the sheriff. When the sheriff is told about Norman's mother, he is surprised since Norman's mother had died 10 years back.
Sam and Lila investigate further, and slip into the motel. They find a slip of paper talking about the money that Marion was carrying ($40,000), and so decide to confront Norman's mother. Lila is tasked with talking to the mother, while Sam would divert Norman. However, Norman soon has a fight with Sam and knocks him out; Lila is shocked when she discovers the preserved body of Norman's mother; and the secret is out - Norman is wearing his mother's clothes when he comes with a knife to kill Lila. Sam arrives just in time and knocks Norman out.
In the end, a psychiatrist explains the truth; Norman and his mother lived together with no one else. So when Norman's mother took a lover, Norman killed them both, and then tried to erase the guilt by preserving her body, and acting as her (in a classic case of split personality). In this reverse state, the split personality is jealous of any woman to whom Norman comes in touch with, and kills such a women. His psychosis prevents him from realizing the enormity of his crimes. Norman lands up in a cell, his mind dominated by his mother. In this alter ego, she believes that she is harmless and Normal is responsible for her current state.

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