Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my general thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. Throughout the month of October, I’ll be covering the remaining four horror films on the list. This week is #14: Psycho (1960).
Note: This column contains spoilers for Psycho.
Psycho begins with a scene of Marion (Janet Leigh) and her boyfriend, Sam, in a Phoenix hotel after a secretive afternoon tryst. Marion wants to get married, but he insists on waiting a couple years until his financial obligations and debts are squared. Back at work, she’s tasked with taking a large deposit to the bank, and, though internally conflicted, she seizes this opportunity to take the money and gets on the road toward Sam’s house in California. From here, Hitchcock sets up an intriguing, tense thriller. At a stop light, her boss seems to spot her, but continues walking. Will he notify the authorities? Even more pressing is the officer who won’t stop following her everywhere she goes. Could he be the titular psychotic entity?
This description covers roughly the first quarter of the film, but as we all know—even those who have only experienced the film through its iconic images and sequences—this early plotting is essentially superfluous. In fact, unless you’ve seen or revisited the film recently, you might not even recall the tense sequence of her trading in her vehicle for a new one, with the menacing officer staring, looming from across the street. Of course, the memorable pieces of Psycho don’t arrive until Marion arrives at the Bates Motel and the film makes its boldest move in eliminating its lead character not even halfway through the runtime.
But what’s remarkable is that even with the knowledge of where the film eventually leads, the first 30 minutes are no less engaging and compelling. Films with a twist/turn of this magnitude typically lose their potency over time, but even as we’re eager for Marion to arrive at the destination of her fate, there’s never a dull moment. Hitchcock is a master manipulator and weaponizes audience expectations like no other filmmaker could. Does it matter that the opening scene takes place on Friday, December 11th, at exactly 2:43 PM? Of course not, but by including that information before the film even begins, he’s leading his audience to subconsciously note that it may be important. He does the same later on with the red herring of the officer, who consistently lurks in the back of the frame.
Psycho has been deconstructed to death—there’s an entire documentary, 78/52, on the infamous shower scene alone—and its influence on modern horror is incalculable. Every element is astounding: Bernard Herrmann‘s score, which any cinephile could hum at a moment’s notice; the fractured Saul Bass opening title sequence; the unique and unprecedented structure, which led Hitchcock to require audiences arrive on time, making Psycho a progenitor of timed ticketing. Owing much to Hitchcock’s unparalleled filmmaking, Psycho is one of the best horror films ever made, and remains terrifying and fascinating, even when you know what’s coming.
Does It Belong on the List?
Without a doubt. This is the second Hitchcock film to make the list, and (spoiler alert) it will not be the last.