LoveFilm Chronicles: Psycho

Welcome to LoveFilm Chronicles, a series in which I write about the Blu Rays that LoveFilm deign to send me every week. Like most unemployed people, I can’t afford to actually buy Blu Rays, which means we’re going to be digging deep into LoveFilm’s catalogue over the next few months. I’ve stacked up my Rental List as high as it will go with pretty much everything and anything I might be interested in, and left the rest up to the algorithm. Nothing left to do now but to watch what shows up.

Last week, we took a trip into Guy Ritchie's directorial debut and came away majorly disappointed. This week we move away from moderately popular cult films into one of the best films ever made from one of the best directors ever made, at least according to popular culture. I've not seen a Hitchcock, so I've got a lot of catching up to do, and I'm ready to fill myself in!

That said, it is definitely filling myself in. I know the deal with Psycho, everybody and their mother knows the deal with Psycho, which is going to greatly effect my experience with something that deals primarily with mystery, tension and shock. So join me, won't you, into a look at what it's like to watch Psycho for the first time in the year of our lord, twenty fifteen.

Psycho (1960)

I can't think of a single film for which the reputation and discussion of a film works against its original intent more than Psycho. And I don't mean that necessarily in a bad way, I just mean that Psycho is a movie playing to a very specific audience; an audience that doesn't know what happens in Psycho.

Which is where it gets interesting for me, because the surprise, the delight and the joy of Psycho came not from discovering the ending, but from discovering the beginning. Because the first 20 minutes of Psycho are not only a completely different film, they're also a far, far better one. The goofy noir that is this woman stealing money from her workplace in order to try to run away is a delight, the tension that the movie is known for displayed in a far less oppressive manner, turning it into more of a genre comedy than anything else.

These first twenty minutes display a playfulness that the film lacks with its increased focus on Norman and the mystery of Bates Motel. Marion is pursued by what can only be described as the worlds worst cop, who spends ten minutes leaning on his car watching her purchase a new getaway vehicle, before slowly walking over to the car dealership himself. It's a ludicrous sequence, one that relies entirely on the knowledge that a film can so brazenly disregard the reality of its situation if it still invests in it as true. Hitchcock's direction in this opening section is both comedically absurd and played completely straight, and we both laugh at and fear for Marion in the situation she's found herself in.

But that, obviously, isn't the whole movie. Eventually Marion pulls in at a motel to sleep for a night, and after a short conversation with Norman, is quickly offed and the aura of familiarity the movie has brought up disappears, or at least it is intended to. Unfortunately we can't go back to the 1960s - nor should we want to - but it does mean that far from the rug being pulled out from under us, it is in fact the film sinking into something expected and rote.

There's a sense of fun to the story of a woman on the run from a world that wants her to stay that just isn't present in the mediation of what's going on inside a serial killer's mind. It doesn't help that the answer to that question is straight up embarrassing, but the fact that the film dissolves into awful psychological guesswork at the end isn't the problem so much as this has become generically such well worn ground. And not just well worn, but given import above its station. In Psycho, a good woman is sacrificed at the alter of a more interesting evil man, which is basically the tragedy of all crime fiction writ small.

Which is why, surprisingly, my reaction to Psycho was that I should dig deeper into slasher films. Psycho plays its obsession with and sympathy for its villain so earnestly straight that it mostly highlights how much better the opening was. But it's unfair to lay my reaction to a 55 year old movie entirely at that movie's feet when my reaction's been informed by 55 more years of this same story. And so, I want to get over my fear of horror and see what work's been done in the genre, because I hear from my horror fan friends that slasher films can be an incredibly vibrant and subversive place; something I'd like to know more about.

Aside from that, my reaction to Psycho was inevitably a kind of shrug. My gap is filled in, I now understand an important part of cinema history, and I don't regret doing it for a second. Sometimes that experience is delightful and you discover what was a cultural icon is also this very real work of art and it's this fantastic moment of connection. Sometimes though, it's just filling in a gap.