Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Psycho's presentation is worthy of a Criterion release

Psycho (horror, mystery, thriller)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and Martin Balsam
109 minutes
Black and white

VC-1 | 1080p | 1.85:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English: DTS-HD 2.0
French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0

English SDH, Cantonese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin (traditional), Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish

Single 50GB Blu-ray disc

The Film 4.5/5

Alfred Hitchcock directed 67 titles, including more than 50 movies, but most people would rank Psycho among his five best works. It's certainly one of his most influential.

The marketing for the movie was clever and audiences were refused admission after the show had started. Hitchcock wanted them to experience the story from start to finish. He also urged people that had seen it to avoid spoiling it for others. I mention that because I don't want to spoil the experience for you. It's 50 years old, so the following comments contain spoilers and assume that you have seen the movie. If you haven't, please stop reading now and remedy the situation as soon as possible.

Psycho might seem a bit tame by today's standards. It was shot in black and white to lessen the impact of seeing the blood. The murders appeared brutal through the clever cuts and camera angles rather than explicitly showing flesh being cut. As with all of Hitchcock's work, what you imagine in your own mind is more frightening than what you see on the screen. To truly appreciate the impact of the movie, imagine what had gone before when this was originally released.

Without Psycho, we may never have seen franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Saw. But unlike some of those mentioned, Psycho isn't remotely humorous. The reason is that Norman Bates, or someone like him, could exist. That's the most frightening thing about the movie. Compare it to Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker for instance. The Dark Knight is elevated above every other superhero movie because it could happen.

Hitchcock uses misdirection effectively by opening the movie as if it is a romance. Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, meets her lover and the audience assumes that she is the focus of the story. We see her steal the money and flee the city. The camera hints at her thought processes without the use of narration or dialogue, and we see her nervous reaction to harmless encounters. It's a fascinating look at how people change under stress.

Crane eventually needs to stop for the night and we are introduced to Norman Bates and the Bates motel. The story still focuses on Crane's character, but changes dramatically after Bates attacks her in the infamous shower scene. This is usually the first scene that comes to mind when thinking about Psycho, and it's a shame in a way. The movie is so much more than a simple murder.

The plot switches as people start to wonder what happened to Crane, leading to a second murder. We then realize that Norman Bates is the true focus of the story. He's brilliantly portrayed by Anthony Perkins. He's shy around women and outwardly calm, but clearly nervous when under pressure.

Until the revelations near the end, Hitchcock cleverly lets us think that the mother exists. In a way I suppose she does. This is a sad story and Bates becomes a character we can pity. If you think things through from his point of view, his actions make sense. Wouldn't you cover up a crime committed by someone you love? There are many layers to the story and several different ways to appreciate it.

The initial setup uses well-established Hitchcock techniques and themes. He misdirects us and uses suspense. The initial focus of the story, Marion Crane, is a woman on the run. Because she's in that situation, she becomes more interesting to us. The $40,000 she steals is a MacGuffin that serves no purpose other than to give Crane's character a reason for her actions.

Everything flows smoothly and the pacing is effective. It's hard to be bored even for a second. The term masterpiece is overused, but Psycho qualifies.

Video Quality 4.5/5

The universal VC-1 transfer is region free and very pleasing. Detail is excellent and instances of dirt on the image are infrequent. Even though the presentation is in black and white, the upgrade is definitely warranted. Detail is incredible throughout. Take for instance the shot of Marion Crane's eye as she lies dead in the shower.

Audio Quality 4.5/5

One of the special features goes into a detailed explanation of how the audio track was converted to 5.1 and the results are satisfying. Ambient sounds, such as rain, greatly enhance the feeling that you are immersed in the story. Dialogue is clear and Bernard Herrmann's score has never sounded better. For the purists, the original audio track is included. Check the beginning of this review for full details of languages and subtitles included on the disc.

Special Features 5/5

Remastering Psycho HD
The making of Psycho
In the master's shadow: Hitchcock's legacy
Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews
Newsreel footage: the release of Psycho
The shower scene: with and without music
The shower sequence: storyboards by Saul Bass
The Psycho archives
Posters and Psycho ads
Lobby cards
Behind the scenes photographs
Publicity shots
Psycho theatrical trailer
Psycho re-release trailers
My scenes
Feature commentary with Stephen Rebello, author of 'Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho'

The 'making of' feature is fascinating and you'll love it if you are an admirer of the movie. With interviews from many of the original cast, the 95 minutes passes quickly and leaves you with a better understanding of how the movie was made.

The extensive features cover just about everything and it's nice to hear Hitchcock talk about some of the issues that he faced at the time.

This Blu-ray looks exceptional and the package is worthy of a Criterion release. I only hope that all of Hitchcock's important movies are given similar treatment.

Overall 5/5 

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