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Hitchcock’s iconic ‘Psycho’ screening at DPAC

Brian Doxtader | Thursday, August 24, 2006

Without doubt the most famous film of director Alfred Hitchcock’s storied career, 1960’s “Psycho” remains one of the finest thrillers of all time. Shocking and controversial when released, the movie’s ability to shock and scare has dimmed slightly over the years, mostly due to its ubiquitousness – yet that very familiarity is itself a testament to the film’s greatness.

Initially, “Psycho” seems to follow a fairly traditional path. A frustrated young woman named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) impulsively steals $40,000 from her job at a real estate office and takes off with the money. A day later, she decides to stop at the Bates Motel, run by boyish Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). He regales her with odd stories about his unseen mother before Crane decides to take a shower and go to bed.

Then the film unexpectedly twists in on itself and becomes something else entirely.

The plot twist is almost universally known, thanks in no small part to the classic shower scene. Despite the fact that it has been parodied, remade, quoted, referenced and paid homage to, Hitchcock’s brave and bold vision shines through some forty-six years later – a testament to the director’s nearly unparalleled narrative power. That power is on display here perhaps more than any other Hitchcock film – the director clearly knew he had something great, and that gives “Psycho” a more focused energy that drives it through a very fast 120 minutes.

The film is easily the most shocking in Hitchcock’s oeuvre – the so-called “master of suspense” really outdoes himself, stretching the boundaries of acceptable narrative convention nearly to its breaking point. The protagonist is killed halfway through the film, the violence (both shown and implied) is actually scary and the villain as creepy as they come, serving as the template for everyone from Hannibal Lector (1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs”) to John Doe ( 1995’s “Se7en”).

Hitchcock pushed the envelope of the time in ways both large and small, expanding the limits of what was considered appropriate in films. A shot rejected because it supposedly showed Janet Leigh’s nipple was sent back unchanged and then accepted, a shot that contained a toilet in it was considered racy and vulgar.

Nearly everything about “Psycho” is famous. Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of the Oedipal Bates is iconic while Janet Leigh makes the most of her screen time, giving one of the most memorable screams in cinema history.

The justifiably famous music by the legendary Bernard Hermann, complete with those screeching strings, remains among the composer’s most recognizable.

The film’s stark black-and-white cinematography is appropriately creepy (especially in the scenes featuring Perkins), demonstrating Hitchcock’s mastery of shadow and darkness.

The only scene that really doesn’t work is an overly expository conclusion that features a psychiatrist whose only purpose is to explain exactly what happened. It’s difficult to believe that Hitchcock wanted this scene as he was never known for insulting his audience’s intelligence. Thankfully, its presence doesn’t fully detract from the greatness of the film.

“Psycho” is in many ways the pinnacle of Hitchcock’s career, checking in at No. 18 on the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest Films of All Time. When it was released back in 1960, it concluded a fruitful and productive decade for the director, a period which included masterpieces such as “Strangers on a Train,” (1951) “Rear Window” (1954), “North by Northwest” (1959) and “Vertigo” (1958).

Hitchcock had several inarguable masterpieces over the course of his several decade career (including those mentioned above), but few have had the staying power and long-reaching influence of “Psycho,” which remains his most iconic film and a cinematic watershed

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” will be screened in the Browning Cinema of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on Saturday at 3 p.m. as part of the PAC Classic 100.