In my review for Rope, I quipped that Hitchcock films were “spoiler-proof”. I believe Psycho is an exception – and, I think that affected my reaction.
I mean, I knew what happens in Psycho. I knew the twist at the end, about the nature of the relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother. I knew what befalls Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), the secretary whose actions we follow for the first act of the film. I almost didn’t watch this film this past weekend for that very reason – I was trying to choose between this film and one other, and polled friends to see if I should watch “the film that’s so famous I know what happens already” and “the film where it’s a total unknown”. People made their choices, but always asked what films I’d been talking about – and invariably when I told them, I would get a shocked “You’ve never seen Psycho?” and they would immediately insist that I watch it, even if it changed their earlier vote.
So, I watched Psycho. And….I can’t help but feel that knowing what happens really lessened its impact. It’s a fine film, mind you – I immediately spotted much to admire in how the shots were set up, especially the moody grounds of the Bates Motel or Norman’s eerie “Parlor” where he invites Marion to a simple supper surrounded by a whole aviary of stuffed birds. That scene is also a masterwork for its two leads – both Marion and Norman have their own secrets, and are each desperately trying to keep them concealed, each one watching him or herself like a hawk to make sure they don’t each give anything away. Perkins is especially good as Norman – affable enough at first, and only gradually giving away hints that there’s something going on with him that isn’t quite right and perhaps you should be getting away from him. But all the shocks and surprises fell flat for me – either because I’d known they were coming, or I knew some of the film’s special effects secrets (i.e., chocolate sauce as a stand-in for blood in the shower scene).
Roommate Russ and I discussed that after I watched. He said that prior to this film, movie theaters were a lot more cavalier about letting latecomers in to see a screening, even letting them stay to watch the beginning of the next screening so they could see what they’d missed. Hitchcock changed that with this film, he said, asking theaters to insist on punctual audiences. Hitchcock also begged people to please not spoil the film for others. That kind of thing can smack of being a hype-building trick – but I definitely feel like my knowing about the film did spoil it for me, and I really feel like I missed out on something.