Psycho Collector's Edition

Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Patricia Hitchcock. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (letterbox). Dolby Digital monaural, monaural (French). 109 minutes. 1960. Universal Home Video 20251. Rated PG. $34.98.

Psycho is based on Robert Bloch's novel of the same name, a book inspired by accounts of real-life psychopath Ed Gein, who liked to keep bits of his murder victims as trophies. The film begins as a standard suspense movie: a tale of a woman who commits a crime and is wracked by guilt. Janet Leigh portrays Marion Crane, a woman who steals $40,000, hoping to get her boyfriend out of debt.

For approximately 45 minutes, the audience is completely wrapped up in the plight of Marion, wondering if she'll get away with the crime or if her conscience will make her return the money before anyone realizes it's gone. Then, from out of nowhere, Marion is brutally, shockingly murdered in the famous shower scene. Never in the history of Hollywood had a major star, the central focus of a film, been killed in the middle of an unresolved story.

From this point on, Psycho is a very different, almost entirely separate film. Vera Miles takes over the lead as Marion's sister Lila, who goes in search of Marion. John Gavin is Sam Loomis, Marion's concerned boyfriend, who aids Lila in the search. Martin Balsam portrays Milton Arbogast, a private detective hired to recover the missing money---which leads him to the Bates Motel. Anthony Perkins would forever be identified with the character of Norman Bates, the motel's proprietor, who cares for his sick "mother." Perkins gives such an amazing performance, filled with tiny bits of genius, that one can truly appreciate it only by viewing the film several times.

I've seen the shower scene about 100 times, and it remains the single greatest 45 seconds of cinema. With over 70 camera setups and precision editing, there is no better film construct than this short sequence. (I'll say this for the DVD edition of Psycho: the Still feature let me pause the shower sequence at a point where I could detect some wildly out-of-focus nudity. Perhaps the master's greatest trick was getting that little bit past the censors back in 1960.)

Psycho has been given the royal treatment by Universal Home Video. The most important feature of the Collector's Edition DVD is making the movie available in the letterbox format. Despite the fact that Hitchcock shot Psycho with the same crew he used for his television show, this film was intended for theatrical distribution in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it's great to see it finally presented that way.

The black-and-white transfer is fantastic; blacks are rendered incredibly black, adding to the film's foreboding atmosphere. Contrast is also very good, the many shades of gray giving way to stark, bright whites. Digital-compression artifacts on the DVD couldn't be detected without taking time to look for them.

The soundtrack is very clean and precise-sounding Dolby Digital monaural that reproduces Bernard Herrmann's most famous score with respectable fidelity. His brilliant use of a strings-only orchestra makes this score one of the most imitated (but never duplicated) pieces of film music. Can you imagine the shower scene without Herrmann's music? Psycho is probably the cinema's greatest marriage of image and music.

The Collector's Edition DVD offers plenty of supplements. The featurette "The Making of Psycho" runs nearly as long as the film itself, and includes just about everything one could want to know about the movie. Other extras include trailers, newsreel footage, storyboards, production notes, and cast biographies.