Movies – Psycho Review (or ‘A Triumph For Direction and Shock Value, But Not The Best Of Stories’)

Anyone who follows me on twitter (@sgmilne) may remember that I actually watched Psycho a few weeks ago now, so this review will be a broader study of the movie rather than focusing on the minutia that’s fresh in my memory.

But then I don’t think a review of Psycho needs to be too deep in its examination because there’s so much you can say about it generally.

There’s no doubt that the film is of huge cultural significance to the world of motion pictures, both in terms of the relaxing of certain censorships (can you believe that before this, a flushing toilet couldn’t be seen on-screen?) and how patrons approach the cinema-going experience (this was one of the first films where the public were urged to get to the cinema for the start of the film and the cinema management were told to turn away late-comers. This was done because it was advertised as starring Janet Leigh and she’s only in the first part of it).

And then there’s the famous shower scene which has become one of the most iconic scenes in entertainment history. Everyone knows it, everyone recognises the wonderfully emotive incidental music that plays over it and probably everyone has psychoseen it parodied many times over.

But for all that Psycho is remembered for those reasons, and for all that it is not only one of Hitchcock’s most famous films but one of the world’s most famous films, is it actually any good?

What’s It About?

Psycho is perhaps the definitive example of the bait-and-switch movie.

What starts as a film about a young woman stealing money from her work and making a break for it turns into a suspenseful horror film about murder in an off-track motel and the investigation into her disappearance.

How Highly Is It Rated?

Psycho comes with an approval rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and is rated on at 8.6/10 by 237,376 people, giving it an overall ranking of #30 in the IMDB Top #250.

High praise indeed


Being blunt, the first section of the film – the part about Janet Leigh stealing money – is not up to much. But let’s be honest here; most people will just forget about that when the shower scene happens.

There’s absolutely no doubt that it is an iconic scene and does deserve praise, but if I’m being honest I actually prefer the second murder scene from later on in the film. The high camera angle, increased urgency and the look of terror on Arbogast’s face are brilliant.

Or is it that the average viewer simply isn’t expecting that second murder to happen?

I mean, sure, the shower scene is great, but anyone watching it for the first time now will know exactly what’s about to happen the moment Leigh steps into the bathroom. And because of that, it probably loses most of its impact.

The same goes for the revelation that it’s not Norman’s mother who is killing people, but Norman himself. The words ‘Norman Bates’ are ingrained in the psyche of our society to mean…er…a psycho and yet in this film, that’s not revealed until the very end.

Up until that reveal, we’re led to believe that Norman is a nice ‘Good Ol’ Boy’ type who has to clear up is insane mother’s mess.

Watching it with foreknowledge perhaps ruins it a bit.

And though the film shouldn’t be marked down for that too much – because it was made with the intention of being seen in the cinema rather than with the foreknowledge of VCRs, DVD players and multiple repeats on TV – a film as highly rated as Psycho is should be able to sustain its impact when the shock value diminishes.

Now don’t get me wrong; I think it’s a good film that is well acted on the whole (although Anthony Perkins is the only stand-out  and the direction (which is superb in terms of the range and choice of camera angles, the building of suspense and the way it moves the plot along), the music, and the use of black & white in an era that had mostly shifted to colour are brilliant, but it could be argued that Psycho is rated so highly because of what it represents rather than how good it is as an overall package.

Remember too that before the film was edited to make the shock factor more pronounced, it was heading for not so much the bin but to be made into a two-part television special, such was the lack of enthusiasm from the studio bigwigs about how exciting this was as a story.

After all, if you take a step back and look at the actual plot for what it is, it could be summed up as

  • Woman goes to motel – gets killed
  • Private Detective goes to motel – gets killed
  • Woman’s sister and boyfriend go to motel – survive.

When you look at it like that, it’s not the most exciting tale?

Take out the two murders, or if you prefer keep them in and get a less capable director to shoot them, and I think this film would be remembered and rated for less than it currently is.S

Surely there has to be more to a movie than that?

Final Thoughts

For what it is, Psycho deserves a huge amount of credit. It has shock value and it was directed extremely well for the time. For that reason, it’s remembered so fondly to this day.

But a truly great film has to be about more than just shocks and direction for me. There has to be a great story – which this doesn’t have – and there has to be top quality acting in it too. There’s nothing wrong with the acting in Psycho – it’s of a perfectly acceptable standard – but there’s nothing wonderful about it either.

So it deserves to be remembered and rated highly for what it represents, but the 30th best movie of all time? No, I’m not having that.



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