“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
From the staccato violins of the opening score, to the glorious seediness of the black and white photography, this film immediately engages from the opening post-credit sequence of a purring Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) lying on a bed in her underwear, clearly in the post-coital bliss of an extramarital affair. Hitch’s camera is voyeuristic as the couple kiss, cuddle, and break off their sexual intimacy.
Marion made a big mistake when she gave into temptation and ran away, and this is underscored by the scene where she pauses when packing, makes her fateful decision to take what isn’t hers, and leaves the room which is framed by images of safety (parents, a baby, those who can protect her?).
Things escalate with voiceovers, Leigh’s close-ups, the music, the driving rain, and the heightening tension of the situation – frankly, when she arrives at a friendly sign, we are relieved that she has found a refuge … at Bates Motel.
This might well have been Janet Leigh’s best role, and certainly her best remembered, and yet, it is still shocking when, at the 45 minute mark in the film, she is dispatched in a scene which is chilling and horrific, yet simple in its execution – you see everything, and nothing.
It is all suggestion, and suggestive – it is possibly the most erotic murder sequence committed to film, and that final shot is stunning – compare this with the final shot of Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s dating agency owner in ‘Frenzy’ to make an interesting comparison between Hitch’s ways of showing violent death.
Then there’s cinema’s silkiest villain, the literally two-faced Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Perkins was never better, and was forever associated with this role which has even given its name to a particular ‘type’.
The preppy, polite young man who just wants to please, with the overbearing, loud-mouthed mother … and the stuffed birds … he’s oddly unnerving, but you can’t put your finger on why. You certainly wouldn’t want to spend a night in his establishment unless you were desperate.
Populated by smaller, character parts, which are brief, but memorable (including Martin Balsam’s detective, who is interesting to compare with Alec McCowen’s policeman in ‘Frenzy’), this film showcases the gift for blending the scares and the comedy for which this director was rightly renowned.
It starts as an ordinary, almost mundane, crime film, but builds into something far more, starting from the scene with the policeman in dark glasses, and building to the climax of that famous shower sequence.
I know many of you have rated this the full five stars, and it is certainly one of Hitch’s most memorable and accomplished films – it also represents a watershed in cinema and the birth of sophisticated hype around cinema releases.
For me it isn’t quite perfect, but this time round I am awarding it half a star more, to put it into the ‘almost perfect’ bracket.