Happy 50th, Psycho. You're Not the Best Hitchcock Film. Love, Movieline
Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock's final black-and-white film and his most hailed overall, turns 50 today. God love the spooky thing! It's stark, slick, and full of chilling nuances that came to define highbrow horror cinema, but the abject popularity of Psycho always had more to do with its explosive release in 1960 than its place in the Hitchcock canon. Filmgoers were famously shocked by the the early death of the marquee star, not to mention the revelation of Norman Bates's true character at the movie's climax, but while those qualities are fun, they don't make for Hitchcock's greatest film. In fact, when you break down most of Psycho's best assets, you realize that other Hitch movies did them better, smarter, and cooler. Join us as we hack at Psycho and defend the Master of Suspense's other works for all eternity.
From Psycho: Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)
Bested By: Shadow of a Doubt's Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten)
Oedipal, cross-dressing murderers don't come up in the movies every day, to be sure -- our dimpled motel clerk will always own that cachet. Still, Norman Bates is just too creepy the minute we meet him, too obviously a cloistered weirdo with antisocial tendencies. Hitchcock's best villain will always be Shadow of a Doubt's Uncle Charlie, the beloved uncle of Teresa Wright's young Charlie. His jovial demeanor and winsome facade mask his villainy in a way that feels truer to life. Even at the end of his career, Hitchcock considered Shadow of a Doubt his favorite movie -- with police-evading Uncle Charlie cementing the preference.
Nervy Hitchcock Blonde
From Psycho: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)
Bested by: Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) from Rear Window
In the half hour or so that Psycho's viewership enjoys Marion Crane, she's an unflinching secretary making off with stolen money. She's bad, she knows it, and she's being set up for fatal comeuppance in a scandalously vulnerable state. We find more surprising (and less moralized) brass in Rear Window's Lisa Fremont, thanks to Grace Kelly's finest performance. While Marion Crane's trickster ways are used to offset Norman's innocence, Lisa Fremont is a society girl who discovers her scheming instincts in one inspired scene. As she searches in the garden outside the apartment of L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) for clues to a neighbor's disappearance, Lisa hastily decides to climb into the suspected murderer's home, making her an active part of Jeff's voyeuristic fixation. Lisa's choice to be watched, captivating, and brazen is so self-motivated and cool, not to mention sexual; in that moment, she proved how commanding her subversive smarts could be. She invented Madonna.
Gripping Death Scene
From Psycho: Shower scene
Bested by: Frenzy's first strangulation
I could've thrown in Dial M for Murder's 3D scissor bonanza too, but Frenzy's Boston Strangler death scenes are so fraught with tension that you don't breathe for the minutes they go on. Psycho's infamous shower spectacle is aided by a great score and dozens of camera angles, but it hasn't aged as well -- the slow-moving knife looks downright campy. Frenzy introduces a murderer in the form of a character we already know, and he's a freakishly verbal rapist to boot. Most chilling of all? There's no music during this scene. This is far more sophisticated than the untimely visit from the taxidermist's mother.
From Psycho: The Bates Motel
Bested by: Manderley from Rebecca
Speaking of camp, Rebecca is practically begging for midnight showings at arthouses. (Maxim de Winter's sneer? Mrs. Danvers's predatory homosexuality? Joan Fontaine's constant bleats?) The grandeur and caricatures of Rebecca's key residence, an overgrown manse called Manderley, comprise an eerie tableau of unrest and secrecy, and while the Bates Motel makes an attractive theme park spectacle, is it anything more than the creepy house on the hill? Even though one of its tenants is mother's petrified corpse, I'd say no. Manderley is the real estate manifestation of Shadow of a Doubt's Uncle Charlie -- we don't truly understand its terror until we're already in its thrall. Look out for the ship's tackle, Joan!
From Psycho: Bernard Herrmann's staccato violin masterpiece
Bested by: N/A
Fine, I won't argue for The Man Who Knew Too Much's Oscar-winning "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)" to be contrarian. You win this time, Bernie.
Psycho: Wonderful! A stunning classic!
Bested by: Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest
In order: Notorious is one of the first films ever to perfect intrigue; Rear Window takes a simple voyeuristic conceit and elevates it to high art (while still giving us the funniest one-liners in Hitch history), Vertigo is a Mobius strip of confusion and desire, and North by Northwest is the best caper of the 1950s. Psycho is... a really good time and worth two big scares. And the final scene with Anthony Perkins in the asylum is exceptional. You win too, Tony.