Be sure to check out the companion review of the 1998 remake!

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is one of the handful of most important films ever made. That is hyperbole, but the film invites hyperbole. And just because it's hyperbole, doesn't mean it's not also accurate: we need to divide classic from modern cinema somewhere, and the astounding structural gamesmanship of this 1960 thriller makes it as good a candidate as anything else (the only other film I'd seriously consider for the honor is also from 1960: Antonioni's L'avventura, which is certainly as revolutionary in its style and structure, if not even moreso, but has almost certainly influenced a smaller pool of subsequent filmmakers).

And it's probably not very becoming to start out by talking about structure, because it's so far and away the most obvious thing there is to talk about - by the way, if you have somehow managed the Olympian feat of getting to this point in your life without learning what happens in Psycho, then quit reading NOW and don't risk talk to any human being until you've had a chance to see it - and there's so much else that one could talk about, from the film's two most extraordinary performances, or Hitchcock's beyond-revolutionary staging of the murder scenes, or Bernard Herrmann's score, revolutionary itself and key to the film working a swell as it does (frankly, I think that Herrmann arguably contributed more to the film's success than Hitchcock himself: even the best-directed moments of the film are vastly improved by the composer's twitchy, strings-only music). But structure, among all the film's taboo-busting gestures, is the one that seems most vital and important, easiest to spot and thus easiest to be blindsided by. No, Psycho was not the first movie to trick us with a false protagonist, but nothing before it and nothing after it did so to such damnably unsettling effect.

Besides, it's not too much to say that the fake-out involving Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh) is the most important element of the whole plot: it is the only thing that Joseph Stefano's screenplay changes from the 1959 Robert Bloch novel, really (along with, randomly, Marion's name - she starts out as Mary). The structure of scenes, considerable stretches of dialogue, damn near every story beat, and in ord after Marion's watery demise; even the unpleasantly exposition-y chat with the psychiatrist that pretty much everybody agrees is the worst part of the whole movie (it's even worse in the book, where it gets reported secondhand); all of this is imported without change from the novel. The only significant alteration is that, in Bloch's book, we are introduced to Norman Bates in the very first chapter, and to Marion in the second; she is dead at the end of the third. In the movie, of course, we don't meet Anthony Perkins's Norman until Marion herself does, and all of the things that make Psycho the movie such an unnerving, disorienting horror movie, instead of just a dirty, effectively little shocker like the book, come from that one change. For the movie, unlike the book, thus starts out with a clear, certain protagonist in Marion, and the unspoiled viewer has no reason to doubt that she is the main character in a tautly-made little crime thriller right up until that sequence in the bathroom. The book never has a protagonist; four different characters get limited third-person narration throughout, but since we can tell even from the beginning that Norman is rather too weird and delicate to be our hero, it never seems like any of those four are the main character. But the movie doesn't act that way - it promises that it will be a film about Marion and then sucker punches the viewer, and never permits us to recover our footing.

The reverberations of this one trick play throughout the entire movie: and again, a comparison to the book is instructive. After Marion's death, as the action switches to her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) and sister Lila (Vera Miles), in the book it just reads like another shift in perspective, like we've already seen happen twice. This is not what happens in the movie at all. In the movie, we have effectively three "movements", as far as our POV is concerned.

-Marion-as-protagonist: we see and hear things exactly as she does.
-Norman cleaning up "mother's" crime scene: we stand apart from him, but not in a position of authority or judgment; we are, in effect, voyeurs to his actions, just as we were voyeurs when Marion was stabbed to death - it is as harsh an implication of the audience's desire to watch evil things as Rear Window, though less systematic.
-Lila and Sam investigating the crime and finding out what Norman and his mother have been up to.

Of course, in this third sequence, a bit less than half of the movie, we're not really able to identify with Lila and Sam's POV, because we know a great deal more than they do: Marion is dead, Norman sank her in a swamp to hide the evidence, he never even knew that she had $40,000 wrapped in a newspaper currently mouldering in the back seat of her also-swamped car. It's shot and edited and performed like we don't know this about them, though, and that leads to an extreme disconnect between the movie that we are being shown (the mystery of what happened to Marion) and the movie we know ourselves to be watching (the psycho at the Bates Motel). We are never able to grab onto another protagonist after Marion dies, in fact, and this dislocation ends up making the rest of Psycho a much more unnerving experience: it's certainly not as focused, its momentum is all gone to hell, and it's honestly not as much fun as it was in the beginning. But this is all because it has made the turn from being a Hitchcockian thriller, to one of Hitchcock's very few outright horror movies (indeed other than The Birds and arguably Frenzy, did he make another?), and the essence of good horror is a constant sense of unease; the brilliance of Psycho's second half is to use the rules of cinema against the viewer, making something seem tremendously unsettling about the narrative development, just as in the shower scene, the film uses the rules of cinema against the viewer to score one of the all-time great shock moments.

Now, that's a lot of chattering on and on about just the narrative structure of a movie that is, as we all know, a titanic masterpiece of visual storytelling: there might not be a more fully dissected and discussed sequence in all of motion pictures than the shower scene that cuts the movie in half. But it's not like the rest of the movie fails (the only point where the directions sags, I'd say, is in the murder of Arbogast: an awkward overhead shot that cuts right into one of the worst process shots in a directorial career full of clumsy rear-projection), or is even less than brilliant: the shower scene itself comes only right after a sequence of the most precise filmmaking, in which this quick-moving crime thriller suddenly jams to a halt in a series of moments - undressing, flushing paper down a toilet, hiding the money - that include a measure of prurient voyeurism but also play as being curiously uncinematic in their presentation, and in addition to flattening the momentum simply don't make sense as anything we'd expect to watch in a movie; and thus we head into the shower having already been knocked a bit off-kilter. There are dozens of other moments that are brilliant, and I could happily turn this into just a list of wonderful technique, and wonderful moments of performance, but really, is there any point? This is Psycho, a film we've all seen and most of us, I assume, love: it's not hardly Hitchcock at his most flawless, but not a single film he ever made, and very few movies every made by anyone, is so absolutely flattening as a total experience. It is great filmmaking as done by one of cinema's top masters in full command of his art.