Alfred Hitchcock directed many great films throughout his 54-year career, but for sheer visceral impact, as well as influence on subsequent generations of filmmakers, it is safe to say he never topped Psycho. A moderately budgeted project with a short shooting schedule, the project began as a slightly disreputable quickie but ultimately changed the face of cinema — particularly horror movies — forever.
In adapting Robert Bloch’s novel about a troubled hotel proprietor and his very complicated relationship with his mother, Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano paid close attention to the details of modern working life — the film is unusually specific about its characters’ jobs — and located horror in audiences’ own backyards. Much of the movie’s power in 1960 had to do with its shocking plot twists, but it remains surprisingly effective nearly 50 years after its release. Psycho is one of the most manipulative films of all time, with every composition, cut and camera move designed to shift the audience’s identification back and forth among victims and their killer in a most unsettling manner.
Hitchcock’s partner behind the camera was not his usual collaborator, Robert Burks, ASC, but television veteran John L. Russell, ASC. Hitchcock borrowed Russell (and many other crew members) from his TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Russell brought a grittier, less glossy style to the material. He and Hitchcock decided to shoot all of Psycho with lenses that would replicate the natural perspective of the human eye, and a sense of documentary reality pervades many scenes. Russell was nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts.
There has never been a better way to appreciate Russell’s work than this new DVD from Universal’s Legacy Series. It includes all the supplements featured on previous special editions and some terrific new ones. Among the carryovers are theatrical trailers, newsreel footage, storyboard designs, stills and various marketing materials, as well as the superb 90-minute documentary “The Making of Psycho.” The best supplement in this two-disc set, however, is a new commentary track by critic Stephen Rebello, author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Rebello provides a thoroughly entertaining and informative guide to the film’s production history, visual and thematic motifs and significance.
The second disc contains a new 26-minute featurette, “In the Master’s Shadow: Hitchcock’s Legacy,” which begins by juxtaposing clips from contemporary films such as Casino, The Strangers and The Exorcist with shots from the Hitchcock movies that influenced them. The documentary includes interviews with William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter and many others, along with various editors, sound designers and other craftsmen, and critics. The interviewees’ comments are well integrated with clips from the master’s work, but unfortunately, some of those clips are inexplicably presented in the wrong aspect ratio. (Older films shot at 1.33:1 are cropped for widescreen televisions.)
The second disc also features “Lamb to the Slaughter,” an amusing half-hour episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by Hitchcock and shot by Russell. This tale of a meek housewife who kills her philandering husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then cooks and feeds the lamb to the police shares a macabre sense of humor with Psycho and many other Hitchcock classics. An audio excerpt from François Truffaut’s series of interviews with Hitchcock rounds out the supplements.
Moving the bulk of the supplements to a second disc has helped to improve the transfer of the film itself, which looks sharper and has a greater tonal range and increased contrast compared to the transfer on Universal’s single-disc Collector’s Edition. The more luminous and detailed image is matched by a terrific monaural soundtrack that showcases the intricacies of Bernard Herrmann’s score and Hitchcock’s sound design with astonishing clarity; even viewers who have seen Psycho dozens of times are likely to pick up on new visual and aural subtleties while watching this disc.
Universal has also released two-disc Legacy Editions of Vertigo and Rear Window, both of which contain new commentary tracks (Friedkin on Vertigo and critic John Fawell on Rear Window), documentaries, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes along with extras from previous editions. Both transfers are top-notch, though Rear Window represents the most notable improvement over prior DVD releases.