1960, US, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
B&W, Running Time: 109 minutes
Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Universal; Video: 1.85:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS MA
(Note, this review is also published at the new Grim Cellar) There’s almost certainly nobody out there who hasn’t already seen this seminal piece of work from one of the field’s most acknowledged and fascinating directors, but just on the off chance I’ll explain the early stages of plot very briefly and without spoilers: an otherwise reasonable woman spontaneously steals a large sum of money from her estate agent employer and heads out to California to meet up with her boyfriend. Being confronted by a cop on the way who can smell something wrong she exchanges her car to divert attention away from herself. After a couple of days driving the exhausted woman is caught in a storm at night and leaves the highway to stop at a lonely motel. Here she meets the manager Norman Bates, a reserved and possibly deep young man who is ruled over by a psychologically deteriorating mother. He looks after the outlaw but soon there is a brutal murder committed on the premises that Norman feels obliged to clear up after and essentially cover up for. It would seem that the owners of the motel hide a disturbing past that collides with the unfortunate arrival of a young woman who has seen the error of her ways, possibly a little too late.
There is extensive analysis of this film elsewhere on the web and in literature so I’ll cover my own opinion with as much brevity as I can. Psycho is almost the grandfather of the slasher film, preceding Halloween (the official birth of the sub-genre) by around eighteen years. Of course there is not the explicit violence on display that would become a staple of the slasher film (especially up into the contemporary era) and there is significantly more of an emphasis on character examination than in even the best that said genre has to offer, but identification marks are present that would mutate over the next few years to become things like, dare I say it, I Know What You Did Last Summer… Anthony Perkins alerted the world to his presence as Norman Bates, a character who exhibits nervousness and a neurotic tendency to hide things, traits that are carried out by Perkins almost too convincingly. Indeed after many viewings the character is incredibly intriguing to watch during some of the long dialogue sequences between him and several of the other people that come by the hotel during the course of the story. Generally I think the other actors do a really good job too, though the side is let down slightly by the iron-jawed boyfriend hero played by John Gavin, a guy who could have contributed to any fifties sci-fi movie quite nicely. The film is shot appropriately in a noir style that elevates the contrast between dark and light and maintains the moodiness while the distinguishing score by Bernard Herrmann is frequently unnerving, and often seems to ape the sound of a knife being quickly driven the through the air… This man made his debut with Citizen Kane; if ever there was an explosive way to begin one’s career that was probably it, but for me he cemented his talents with the likes of Psycho and Cape Fear a couple of years later. With a daring exploration of psychopathic mental breakdown and the manifestation of Hitchcock’s morbid sense of humour combined with a cinematic brutality that was at that point almost unheard of, Psycho deconstructed boundaries in film and remains a powerful viewing experience to this day.
Universal have released Hitchcock’s film to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and they seem to have knocked the ball out of the park! There is no comparison between this Blu-ray Disc and its former appearance on DVD - the image on BD is sharp and almost always vivid with non-intrusive grain. Blacks are deep with general greyscales maintained at balanced levels. If ever anyone thinks that old films can’t look good enough to warrant a Blu-ray release then they need to see a comparison between this Universal disc and the DVDs before it - it’s glorious to watch, and a testament to the fact that Blu-ray represents what films should look. This is how I imagine it might have looked when originally seen in cinemas and stamps on anything previous formats have had to offer. Sound is thoughtfully provided in two options: the original hiss-free mono track, and a careful recreation of the soundtrack in surround. The latter is actually very good, keeping dialogue to the front centre whilst opening the music up across the whole field (embellishing its impact), and spreading effects where most appropriate (the storm that Janet Leigh finds herself in is a good example of this, with rain surrounding the viewer). Of course there will always be purists who don’t agree with this kind of modernisation of an old movie’s soundtrack, but nobody can complain with the presence of both options. The film is accompanied by a plethora of extras, including commentary, documentaries, analyses, and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents based on a Roald Dahl novel. This is a truly brilliant disc from Universal and an example of how to do it right - film fans should have this in their collection. It also happens to be an example of why Blu-ray is the film lover’s dream - it gives us the movie in a manner that surely can’t be bettered on any medium, imitating its source as closely as can be desired (i.e. any greater resolution is surely only going to give us more grain?). I bought the limited edition tin and this attractive steel box is preferable over the standard case in appearance/feel, and because it contains a booklet with further information/images from the production.