Psycho (1960) Review

Face it: Unless you saw Psycho prior to 1980, you guessed the ending, right? You had to. It’s not because it’s obvious, and it’s certainly not because or poor direction or writing. Even using those terms regardless of their purpose in relation to this 1960 icon seems wrong.

It’s because every single film to follow, anything trying for a substantial twist, borrows from Psycho. Every diversionary tactic in film began here, a monumental achievement not just in cinema, but storytelling. All of those little tricks that seem so obvious today wouldn’t even exist without a master’s touch.

As much as it’s Hitchcock, it’s also Anthony Perkins. No wonder the AFI graciously afforded the character one of the top spots on their “Greatest Villains” list. He’s maniacal yet calm. Scared yet controlled. Completely insane yet perfectly stable. The combination is terrifying, the slow breakdown of his mental status conveyed through twitching, or frantic chewing of the gum in his mouth. It’s aided by the camera, the increased pressure sending Bate’s mouth into a frenzy as it tries to keep up with Det. Arbogast (Martin Balsam) and his questions.

Pyscho is deliciously slow. What modern film would ever think about showing every single ounce of clean-up after a murder? Bates carefully controls everything, smoothing out the shower curtain in preparation of Marion’s (Janet Leigh) body, fresh out of the water and the most famous on-screen murder. He packs her clothes, mops the floor, and drains the tub. It’s the perfect crime when you’re Norman Bates, and that’s why it works.

So many of Psycho’s set-ups are ingenious, the multitude of views that comprise the shower scene just the beginning. From the cop eerily watching each of Marion’s movements at the car dealership to Lila (Vera Miles) gripping the posts leading downstairs as Bates begins his chaotic sweep of the house, it’s all perfection. It’s that rare film where “perfect” can be stated with absolute certainty, every shot, every word, every piece of music, and every plot twist so carefully constructed, it created a new standard, one that few filmmakers to this day would be unable to give credit to.

Movie ★★★★★ 

Universal’s transfer for Pyscho, the first time on Blu-ray, is salvageable at the very least. There is a lot of work yet to be done, none of which Universal seems to want to fix. Firstly, the source material needs at least one more pass to correct some rather significant damage at times, worse in the beginning. Specks and scratches dot the piece, the minor stuff a more careful, respectful restoration would have nabbed. Other studios don’t seem to have any issue tackling these same problems.

Secondly, there is a layer of visible edge enhancement applied, causing dark halos around countless edges, people, and objects in the frame. It’s not glaring; in fact, it’s all very subtle. The end result are not just those outlines, but other artifacts of the process. From the opening frames, the zoom-in on the window, flicker is abound on the bottom portion of the blind. Tom Cassidy’s (Frank Albertson) striped suit is just as appalling, wildly flickering whenever he moves creating quite the distraction.

Sporadically, there are those scenes, even single shots, that appear too digital and unrefined. It mostly happens at a distance, one of the first inside the office at 7:54 where definition goes out the window, replaced by smooth surfaces and flat faces. There is a grain structure at work spiking in spots (no glaring use of DNR), the exact times this VC-1 encode fails to keep up. It’s just not sufficient enough to handle those brief pieces of heavier stock, or possibly multi-generational material.

Nothing is wrong with the gray scale, blacks pure and deep, whites much the same. Everything in between is well represented too. At it’s peak, this transfer does produce some striking results, the close-up of the cop at 14:46 the best the movie can offer, but there are plenty of moments elsewhere. Leigh’s coat is clearly made of a thick material, probably wool, the texture clearly visible in many scenes. The hat worn by Cassidy at 1:06:49 carries a similar texture, even if a halo surrounds the outer half. Establishing views of the motel or the house are well defined, the glaring application of edge enhancement doing little to take away from their otherwise natural film-like qualities.

The film is certainly crisp, clear too, but the game is ever-changing, and Universal has completely failed to keep up. There are numerous films, significantly older too, that look far better than what has been provided here. It’s not a source issue, as the base for a grand-scaled restoration and scan are in place, and visible within. Whether or not we get it remains to be seen.

Video ★★★☆☆ 

The DTS-HD mix included here in 5.1 is rather unnecessary. It’s positive aspects all relate to Bernard Herrmann’s score, now lushly presented with a notable wrap-around effect and striking clarity. While the score may sit inside a mid-range barrier, the fidelity is superlative. Every screech is natural, and the lowest points carry some weight.

The rest of the effects are entirely superficial. As Leigh first pulls up to the house in the rain, the effect sweeps through the soundfield. Inside the car, the droplets pound on the roof in each channel. What it lacks is any sense of being natural, being almost too clean and crisp considering how the rest of the material sounds. It’s out of place in every way. The same thing happens post-shower assault, the camera moving about the room with Bates, the running water making its way around the speakers. It doesn’t add anything other than a, “that came from behind me!” moment, which at the same time pulls the viewer from the scene.

A stereo mix is one thing (included here too, but compressed sadly), but this is taking things too far. Dialogue is fine, at times fluctuating in its precision. Bate’s words around 38:55 suddenly take on a coarser quality before settling down into a more natural state. It happens sporadically, but remains inoffensive, definitely less so than the video issues.

Audio ★★★★☆ 

This is a loaded disc, beginning with a commentary from author Stephen Rebello. A 26-part making-of runs over 90-minutes, tackling any pressing issue with regards to pre-production, shooting, and post. It’s fantastic. Psycho Sound takes viewers into the mixing booth, where you can learn how they added the rain effects that detract rather than add to the movie. In the Master’s Shadow is all Hitchcock, discussing his influence from those who came after him. Some newsreel footage focuses on the premiere.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is a snippet of an audio interview conducted by filmmaker Francios Truffaut. The shower scene is presented with and without music, followed by storyboards of the sequence. Archives contains various photos, other contained in sections focused on publicity, lobby cards, behind-the-scenes, and production photos. Trailers and BD-Live access remain.

Extras ★★★★★