The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
Short Takes
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Psycho (1960)
50th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (High Definition 1080p)
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 & 2.0
Universal Home Entertainment, $26.98

On a warm December afternoon in Phoenix, unhappy secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her visiting lover, Sam (John Gavin), reluctantly dress after their lunchtime tryst while looking out over the city and pondering their future. Broke and living several hundred miles away, in Fairvale, Calif., Sam wishes to be debt free so he and Marion can wed. He worries she will find someone else, and although she chides him about this, it is clear she is willing to wait.

Back at work, after a boorish client waves around $40,000 in cash, Marion is asked to deposit the money at the bank. In a moment of confusion and desperation, she goes home instead. She packs a suitcase and takes the $40,000 with her, speeding out of town toward California to surprise Sam and make a fresh start.

As she becomes plagued by increasing paranoia, Marion’s trip becomes a tense nightmare. It culminates in a torrential rainstorm that clouds her visibility, gets her lost and finally forces her off the road to seek shelter. She pulls into the dark, deserted parking lot of a roadside motel overseen from the hill above by an aging Victorian house. The polite clerk, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), books Marion into a room. He asks her to join him for supper, and she agrees. The unlikely pair sit in the motel office eating sandwiches as the rain subsides and Marion learns about Norman’s life and his invalid mother. While talking, Marion admits she has created a bad situation for herself and resolves that in the morning, she will drive back to Phoenix to correct it.   

Later, in her room, Marion makes plans to return the money and prepares for her trip. She undresses and steps into a hot shower, vigorously washing away the guilt she feels, but her plans are permanently altered when Norman’s furious mother surprises her and stabs her to death through the running water.
Looking for a thriller to top the many he had already helmed, Alfred Hitchcock chose an unlikely pulp novel that reeked of taboos, including incest, matricide, grave-robbing, transvestism, and assorted other sights never before seen onscreen. Psycho is now considered one of the most significant American films, but it immediately met with disapproval at Paramount, where Hitchcock had a long-standing relationship. When Paramount refused to produce Psycho, Hitchcock made an unprecedented choice to finance the film himself, and he hired the Universal crew from his successful weekly television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents

The TV crew was fast and reliable and understood how to get the most out of black-and-white; Hitchcock knew Psycho’s bloodletting would make color photography impossible. Chief among these teammates was John L. Russell, ASC, who, Hitchcock knew, could economically tackle some of the complicated camerawork and lighting schemes he envisioned. Because of their close working relationship from the series, Russell and Hitchcock had a quick shorthand. The moody, dense and layered look of Psycho, perhaps the most influential thriller of all time, earned Russell an Academy Award nomination.

Universal Home Entertainment recently released Psycho in a 50th Anniversary Blu-ray that surpasses any previous home-screen experience. At last, the black levels in Psycho have returned to their inky density. Russell’s elaborate gray scale is sharply defined here, with excellent shadings and shadows. Although some occasional digital noise reduction has obviously been applied, it generally does not interfere with the remarkably good 1080p presentation, which boasts a vivid, filmic sheen and a sharpness that is absent from standard-definition transfers. Details in backgrounds as well as props and costumes seem much more vibrant, giving the presentation a fresh, new feel. The original monaural audio track is cleanly presented, but more interesting is the new 5.1 DTS mix. While many audio purists rightfully decry newly produced surround mixes of mono films, this mix has been carefully created to add subtle directional effects, and it is particularly effective during the driving scenes, with cars passing left and right, real-sounding rain pounding on the windshield, and Bernard Herrmann’s legendary score creeping up from behind and in the center.

The disc includes all of the many supplements originally produced for the 1998 laserdisc, including an excellent feature-length documentary. Also included are segments produced for the 2008 DVD and its solid feature audio commentary by film historian Stephen Rebello. The only new supplement, and the only one in high-definition, is the segment on the 5.1 mix.

Rising out of the dark cellar 50 years after it first tore through screens, Psycho has at long last come home in HD. This legendary horror film continues to personify Hitchcock’s genius, and this crisp digital presentation is an excellent way to rediscover this American classic.

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