The Directors’ Chair: Psycho (1960)
Some directors specialize in comedy, others in suspense. Still others delve in horror, romance or westerns. There are directors known for many films and some known only for one. Directors can put their stamp all over their films, while others get the heck out of the way. Let’s face it, we can use a fancy schmancy phrase like “auteur theory” but let’s get down to brass tacks ~ the Director is the Captain of the Ship. She (or he) guides the actor, the action, the tone…and us. They’re responsible for getting us there. In my new little corner of the Classic Movie Hub, I’d like to (metaphorically) sit in The Directors’ Chair and look at the works of some great directors. Before I start, let me first thank Annmarie and Kellee for inviting me to join their roster of writers here at ‘the Hub.’ I’m in such good company.
When I think of classic films, I think of Hawks-Hitchcock-Huston / Wyler- Wilder-Wellman / Lang-Lean-Lewton / Sirk-Stevens-Sturges. I’ll look at this alliterative bunch and many many more and hopefully my series has a healthy mix of personal favorites and directors whose work YOU…MUST… SEE. I’ll start now with my absolute favorite director. He is British. He cut his teeth in Silents. His filmography is unmatched and unequalled in success, popularity and masterpieces. He is the most famous director in Hollywood history. He is a master filmmaker. He IS the Master of Suspense. Of course, I’m speaking of Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock’s visual style lends itself to story telling and he mastered the art of filmmaking in a suspenseful way. He takes hold of a theme: family, courtroom, infidelity, voyeurism, mistaken identity and a bunch of other etceteras, and pretzels these themes until you scream. I can only think professional jealousy due to his popularity with the public prevented Hitchcock from winning a well-deserved Academy Award for direction in any one of several movies. In a career filled with masterpieces, what do you call the masterpiece of masterpieces. I call it…PSYCHO.
PSYCHO ( 1960 ) ~ A BOY’S BEST FRIEND IS…
Hitchcock throws everything including the kitchen sink (…and the bathroom shower) into creating this unsettling, unnerving and unseen before 1960 journey into the macabre. (You can make your own case for “Peeping Tom” released in England the month before.)
Hitchcock twists and turns the plot with a magician’s flair for distraction. In the film, Janet Leigh is having an affair with John Gavin. Though he’s in considerable debt due to alimony payments and paying off his father’s debts, Leigh still wants to marry him. She impulsively steals $40,000 from her employer to go meet her lover. She checks into a motel late one night and after talking to the young proprietor Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, she has a change of heart and decides to go back home and face the music.
She never makes it out of the motel.
Hitchcock does the unthinkable with this film, changing the entire trajectory of the movie in one fell swoop. For all that goes on in Psycho it is a small and quiet film. There’s not a cacophony of sound. There’s not a ‘cast of thousands.’
It’s peopled with great character actors including Martin Balsam, Simon Oakland, John Anderson, John McIntire and my favorite, Lurene Tuttle (“…Periwinkle blue”) all shown to good effect. Characters get more than they bargain for when they run into young Norman Bates. Vera Miles is especially strong as the no-nonsense, determined woman who wants answers about her missing sister. I sometimes think about Anthony Perkins reading this script for the first time. What a hat trick by Hitchcock to simultaneously cement and entomb Perkins’ place in movie history.
The cherry on top of all of Psycho is Bernard Hermann’s absolutely brilliant score. Crisp, sharp, stabbing staccato notes. To quote Hermann from the soundtrack album: The Great Movie Thrillers: Music Composed by Bernard Hermann for Motion Pictures by Alfred Hitchcock where he conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra:
“In using only strings, I felt I was able to complement the black and white photography of the film with a black and white sound. I believe this is the only time in films that a purely string orchestra has been used.”
So effective is Hermann’s music with or without the movie, purely listening to the score alone will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end with melancholy and dread.
“Then who’s that woman buried out in Greenlawn Cemetery?”
You can find the answer in Psycho.
— Theresa Brown for Classic Movie Hub
Theresa Brown is a native New Yorker, a Capricorn and a biker chick (rider as well as passenger). When she’s not on her motorcycle, you can find her on her couch blogging about classic films for CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Classic films are her passion. You can find her on Twitter at @CineMava.