10 August 2004 | slokes
Movie At The Crossroads Of Time
What can you say about a film that's been talked about to death? Just this: If you've never seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so, not because it's a way of paying homage to the one true master of modern film, but because it's so fun to watch.
Janet Leigh plays a bored office drone who decides to steal some loot from her boss's obnoxious client and parlay it into a new life with her all-too-distant boyfriend. All is going more or less according to plan until she stops in at the wrong motel, where she befriends a friendly if somewhat nerdy desk clerk only to find it causes problems with that clerk's possessive mother, who as her boy explains, "is not herself today." I'll say she isn't, and so would Leigh's Marion Crane, who maybe should have put up that "Do-Not-Disturb" sign before taking a shower.
You can feel the decade literally shifting out of '50s and into '60s with this one. Even the opening shot, where the camera looks over a Western U.S. city in the middle of the afternoon and zooms in on what looks exactly like the Texas School Book Depository overlooking Dealey Plaza. Norman Rockwell touches abound, like the decor of the motel, but look at what's going on around it. People dress well, they still wear fedoras and jackets, but in their tense conversations and hooded gazes you can feel the culture just ticking away like a time bomb waiting to explode.
Most especially, there's Anthony Perkins, who plays motel clerk Norman Bates in a very oddly naturalistic way, complete with facial tics and half-swallowed words, not the polished image one expected to see then. Just compare him with John Gavin, who plays Marion's boyfriend in the standard-actor-of-the-day way. Perkins manages to be so weirdly magnetizing, even in small moments like the way he stumbles on the word "falsity" or notes how creepy he finds dampness to be.
He shines in bigger scenes, too, like his tense chat with Martin Balsam's boorish but diligent private detective character, Arbogast, who along with Perkins and Leigh delivers a landmark performance. The way both actors play out the awkwardness in their conversation makes you literally sweat. Then again, you're always uneasy around Norman. You definitely feel wary of him right away, but you find yourself liking him, too, even when he's busy covering up "Mother's" misdeeds. Not since Bela Legosi played Dracula did you get a horror movie with such a compelling central figure.
If you are sampling the many other comments here, be sure to look up Merwyn Grote's. He makes an interesting, compelling case for how director Alfred Hitchcock used his television series as a template for "Psycho." Certainly "Psycho" looks more like early 1960s television than any of the more sumptuous fare Hitchcock had been bringing to screen at the time. Not only is it in black-and-white, not color, but the sets; a ramshackle motel, a mothbally old house, a couple of cheap looking bedrooms, a bathroom in a used-car dealership, are deliberately low class.
It's thrilling to see Hitchcock move so effectively outside his normal element, and move things along with such clinical detachment and low-key technical finesse. Thrilling, too, to realize this is one of his most accomplished products; made by a man who was experienced enough to know how the game was played, and daring enough still to break the rules; indeed, start a whole new ballgame.
Is it the best Hitchcock movie? It's definitely one of his best, right up there with "The 39 Steps" and "Strangers On A Train" and "Sabotage" and "Shadow Of A Doubt." He only once again came close to making as good a film, with "The Birds," while Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins never escaped the greatness they helped create here. Poor John Gavin had to quit the biz entirely, and became an ambassador.
Often imitated, parodied, referenced, and analyzed to death, "Psycho" still isn't played out nearly 45 years after it came out. You owe it to yourself to pay a visit to the Bates Motel; Norman has a room ready.