Tuesday, October 19, 2010

PSYCHO: Blu-Ray (Paramount 1960) Universal Home Video

By 1960, Alfred Hitchcock was an international celebrity – instantly recognizable around the world. Only part of this notoriety was due to his films. Hitchcock’s more palpable form of celebrity came from his weekly appearances, introducing segments of his own television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents on NBC. Budgetary restrictions and the fast pace of shooting television would come to serve as a template for Hitchcock’s most popular cinematic endeavour.

Often cited as the film that matured American cinema into its present state of sublime cynicism, Psycho (1960) is based on a novel by Robert Bloch rooted in the real life serial killings by a deranged New England farmer who quietly butchered his neighbours. In the book, Norman Bates is a rather pudgy middle aged recluse – easily identifiable as someone with a darker side. In transplanting the attributes of a serial killer into the seemingly normal and youthfully handsome Anthony Perkins, Hitchcock plays upon an erroneous - yet almost universal misperception; that evil is immediately and quite easily identifiable or, as Shakespeare more astutely observed, “he that smiles may smile and be a villain.”

Budgeted at a remarkably modest $800,000, Psycho went on to earn forty million in its initial release – a telling sign of the cost-cutting that would come to exemplify film making more and more throughout the 1960s. Joseph Stephano’s screenplay carries an immersive underlay of psychoanalysis, perhaps because the writer himself was also in therapy at the time the script was written.

The story begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh); a hot and bothered secretary whose lover, Sam Loomis’ (John Gavin) is unable to commit to marriage because he is struggling to pay for his ex-wife’s alimony. To expedite her way to the altar with Sam, Marion decides to steal fifty thousand dollars from her employer as a runaway down payment on that fantasy life she misperceives can be hers.

Unfortunately, en route from Phoenix to Fairfax the weather turns ugly, forcing Marion to take a night’s refuge at the Bates Motel from which she will never return. The motel’s proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is a congenial mama’s boy on the surface, but quickly develops a paralytic sexual frustration that manifests itself as murderous psychosis. After stabbing Marion to death inside one of the motel showers, Norman disposes of her body in a nearby swamp.

Enter private investigator, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Assigned by Marion’s employer to track her down, Arbogast eventually traces Marion’s route to the Bates Motel and shortly thereafter suffers the same fate as our heroine. Forced to take matters into their own hands, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Sam journey to the motel and that now infamous old gothic house on the hill just beyond – actually a free standing set built on Universal’s back lot.

After Sam diverts Norman's attentions, Lila hurries up to the house to explore. Having earlier been told by Arbogast that Norman's mother is an invalid, Lila is determined to question Mrs. Bates as per her sister's whereabouts. But Norman becomes unsettled by Sam's probing questions. After temporarily knocking Sam unconscious in the motel's office, Norman hurries home to confront Lila who has hidden herself in the cellar, the last place she thinks anyone will look for her.

Unfortunately, the basement is home to the real truth behind Norman Bates; that his mother, who earlier figured prominently as a possible suspect in Marion’s disappearance, is actually a mummified corpse, dressed in her favourite shawl and wig, but rotted through nonetheless. Hitchcock frames Lila’s terrifying moment of realization in extreme close up, with mother’s back to the camera. He then slowly spins her chair around to reveal a shrivelled corpse, its cavernous and blank eye sockets staring to some unfixed point beyond the camera.

Lila's shrieks draw Norman to the cellar, dressed in his mother's drag and toting a butcher knife for the next slaughter. But Sam arrives in the nick of time to thwart Lila's murder and apprehend filmdom's most celebrated serial killer.

The final act of Hitchcock's most compelling psychological thriller is dedicated to a somewhat laborious explanation by Dr. Fred Richmond (Simon Oakland) about Norman's 'condition' - explained as an inability to reconcile his own previous act of murdering his mother and thereafter transforming half of his life into a schizophrenic counterpart that becomes jealous when Norman is sexually aroused by other women.

For its time, Psycho was a disturbing revelation. It exemplified the weakening of the Production Code of Censorship that would never have allowed such grotesqueness on the screen before then. The shower sequence that claims Marion's life remains one of the most effective and masterful bit of editing ever put on film. Involving ninety cuts, a partially nude stand in for Janet Leigh, and a melon being slashed to simulate the sound of steel cutting into flesh – the sequence unravels as an assault on the audience’s collective expectations of what murder is – providing quick horizontal and vertical edits that collectively reassemble in our minds as a brutal homicide that, in reality, is never entirely visualized on the screen.

When the film debuted it was readily denounced by the Catholic League of Decency as well as by a select few film critics who condemned it and Hitchcock as going too far. The backlash, coupled with Paramount’s clever marketing only served to further fuel the public’s rabid fascination to see it. In hindsight, Psycho proved to be Hitchcock’s most successful movie of all time.

Years of neglect, and ownership of the film slipping from Paramount to Universal did much to dampen the impact of Psycho on home video. Over the years, the film has looked dated, worn and remarkably un-film like. But now, there is a definite reason to rejoice. Psycho on Blu-Ray is at long last a fitting tribute to Hitchcock's masterful classic. The B&W image reveals so much new fine detail that there really is NO point in directly comparing this Blu-Ray to Universal's utterly unsatisfactory DVD from 2002. The gray scale now retains its middle grain and tonality - something lost on previous editions.

We can see imperfections in flesh, crisp detailing in fabrics and minute subtleties like the glint of sunlight off of the hood of Marion's car. Occasionally, digitial noise and minute trackes of edge enhancement crop up but nothing that will severely distract from your viewing enjoyment.

Psycho's audio has also been given a crisp revitalization and, in stereo, though film purists would probably not approve. For their consideration, the original mono track has also been included, but the stereo remaster reveals some startling cues in effects and scoring that, at least for this reviewer, only seems to add to the mystique and melodrama of this 50 year old classic.

Extras are all direct imports from Universal's DVD, including an audio commentary and featurettes on the making of the film, all given a modest sprucing up on this outing with less compression artefacts evident. Bottom line: Psycho is a no brainer repurchase. On Blu-Ray it is a must have.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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