We begin our survey our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.
1. Psycho, 1960
At first glance Psycho looks like a cheap exploitation film. Hitchcock shot it with a television crew, not his standard, and very costly, feature crew. He filmed in black and white, and the $800,000, budget was low even by the standards of 1960. The Bates Motel and gothic style mansion were built on the back lot at Universal.
Hitch had just finished the hugely entertaining and successful North by Northwest, a glittering, all-star production. Psycho, on the other hand, looks like a sleazy production with B-list actors. Even the ad campaign—“Do not give away the ending”—feels like something cooked up by William Castle or some other schlockmeister.
But of course, Psycho has become the essential Hitchcock movie. It’s the film whose impact has been felt in almost every subsequent mainstream Hollywood movie.
From the very first shot, as Hitchcock’s elegantly restless camera pans the Phoenix skyline, and then, peeping-tom fashion, slides into a shabby hotel room where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) meet for an afternoon tryst, Hitchcock makes us voyeurs—a constant theme in Hitchcock films—to a sad and desperate love affair shamefully hidden from the blinding Arizona sun.
A major theme Hitchcock developed again and again during his long career was the plight of the innocent man accused of a terrible crime. Of course, in Psycho, Marion Crane is guilty of stealing $40,000. But from the first moment we see Marion in a white bra, we sympathize with her situation when we learn—the screenplay is superb, as is each and every performance—that she cannot marry Sam because he’s buried in alimony payments.
We view Marion as an innocent, a victim of love and unfortunate circumstances. And when she steals a thick brick of cash from a sleazy real estate tycoon who flirts with her and waves his money around like a phallus, the audience identifies with Marion’s crime, her desperate bid to buy a respectable life with her lover.
Hitchcock deepens audience identification with Marion Crane still further when he immerses us in her consciousness during a long and almost dialogue-free sequences as she drives from Phoenix to Sam’s hometown of Fairvale, California. We hear Marion imagining the conversations of other characters as her shocking theft is discovered. We squint through the sheets of pouring rain as Marion drives blindly through the night. And we become as startled and frightened as Marion when the highway patrolman (Mort Mills) stares at us through disorienting, mirrored sunglasses.
Hitchcock understood point of view better than any director in the history of film. We completely identify with Marion when she pulls into the Bates Motel, takes another shabby room, and has a long conversation with Norman Bates, the lonely boy devoted to his domineering mother. We feel her growing regret for the theft, and experience her essential humanity and kindness towards Norman, trapped in a dead-end life, in a dead-end motel. We identify with Marion, who identifies with Norman, who identifies with the dead birds mounted on the walls of his office, birds that seem poised to swoop down on Marion Crane—as they will, with stunning ferocity, three years later, on the unfortunate Tippi Hedrin, in Hitchcock’s The Birds.
And then Norman the voyeur spies on Marion as she prepares to take a shower; this time she’s in a black bra, an ominous foreshadowing. Once again, Hitchcock masterfully manipulates the audience’s point of view. We are suddenly seeing the story through Norman’s eyes. The shift in perspective is seamless and invisible. And when Marion takes her last shower, and Bernard Herrmann’s violin score slashes away like the knife wielded by the dimly-seen figure, the audience is abruptly yanked back into Marion’s screaming, horrified consciousness. Her wet body is so vulnerable, so defenseless, so sadly naked.
How can this be happening? How can the protagonist be eliminated just 45 minutes into the movie?
This was the most audacious and ground-breaking narrative experiment Hitchcock ever attempted. But of course, we the audience unknowingly slide into identifying with Norman, the good son who cleans up his mother’s crime. We secretly root for and admire the efficient manner in which he mops up Marion’s blood. We almost sigh with relief when he delicately wraps Marion’s naked body in the crinkly shower curtain and places her in the trunk of her car. And oh, how we cringe when he unknowingly dumps the stolen money—hidden in a carefully folded newspaper—with Marion’s body. But, of course, Marion’s murder is not about money; this a a crime of passion. With gritted teeth, we watch as Norman steers the car into a swamp, and in breathless anticipation, stare as the car (the coffin she purchased with stolen money) sinks—and hesitates for a terrible, breathless moment—into the primordial ooze.
We identify with Norman not because Marion deserved to be murdered, but because Norman is a loyal son who loves his mother. Norman, like Marion, is an innocent victim of unleashed passions. And let’s face it: when watching a movie, we have to identify with somebody, and Hitchcock has brilliantly left us no choice but to shift our sympathies from Marion to Norman.
I saw Psycho on a a bright Sunday afternoon, when I was 10 years old, at the Kingsway Theatre—Kings Highway and Coney Island Avenue—in Brooklyn, with my best friends Mitchell Siegel and David Pollock. During the justly famous shower sequence we gasped, we screamed, we squirmed in our seats. And after the movie was over we assured each other, with nervous laughter, that we weren’t that scared. But we were that scared. In fact, we were frightened out of our little yeshiva minds. And that night, when I took my shower before going to bed, I firmly locked the bathroom door, and took the fastest shower of my life. Because the world had changed. A little black-and-white movie had forever altered my consciousness about the power of stories—and the dark corners of human nature.
Best line of dialogue:
Norman Bates: “Uh-uh, Mother-m-mother, uh, what is the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today.”