It's crazy to imagine now but that famous Bates Motel shower scene might ever have happened... this could have been a murder mystery with Audrey Hepburn instead. After she dropped out another direction was chosen, however studio stomachs turned at the idea of this adaptation of what they considered to be repulsive novel, and refused to produce the story. Costs were cut, black and white photography was in, and of course movie magic was set in motion. The look of the film as a purely economical measure seems strange to imagine, after all the fractured Saul Bass credits and many shots of silhouetted knives and creepy houses are so iconic in monochrome. But like many production stories there's often art through adversity.
As a suspense picture this is one of Hitchcock's most tightly wound, with just about every scene providing new elements of tension that drive the plot along. There are all kinds of tricks in place with extreme close ups of cops and private investigators, as well as some great low angles of faces. It also includes plenty of gliding camera work to highlight key props, providing visual information but also adding to the sense of growing unease. Everything is constructed with a certain level of perfectionist storyboarding and attention to detail, and of course the sense of discomfort only grows stronger after the first death - any sense of predictability is thrown out. It helps that there are so many moments were people start to feel paranoid, or are actually being watched. Often there's a guilty conscience at work portrayed through both dialogue and inner monologues; there are many great moments before we even get to meet Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.
The character was altered in the writing from the occult obsessed pervert in the source material to a more sympathetic character. A lot of it is to do with casting, and Perkins gives such a likeable performance, chewing candy and making meet and greet small talk. He stutters under pressure and goes out of his way to defend his abusive mother; he's got a certain wide eyed youthfulness that creates a perfect veneer of innocence. There's something sinister under the surface, much like the swamp at the back of his property. The sitting room full of taxidermy animals alludes to someone surrounded by death, as well as hinting at his less than savoury use of hobby skills. Janet Leigh as Marion and Martin Balsam as Arbogast are also engaging screen presences. It adds to the growing sense of eerie gloom by the end when we're left with the least likeable characters heading the investigation.
As a pure murder mystery the ingredients remain fresh today. The piercing violin sounds from Bernard Hermann and the tricked out camera work during the staircase set piece keep things interesting on repeat viewings. Considering the relative low budget they added a lot of technical elements to increase both atmosphere and sudden jolts of adrenaline. The iris close ups and swinging light bulbs are striking too. Everybody knows how the story ends by now after years of cultural osmosis but it's never any less effective. There's still the problem of that dry exposition after the climax, but any sense of the pacing hitting a brick wall is washed away by the sudden fade out from Norman to Marion's car, complete with the classic blink and you'll miss it skull transition.
Over the years there have been bloodier slashers and more demented family situations portrayed on screen, whether it's from Hooper, Argento or De Palma. But there's something interesting about this story being done in the years where the strict guidelines of the Hays Code were slowly in decline. It's far from the levels of grit which would be found in releases from the 1970s but they pushed against the rule book just the same. It's focused on telling an engaging story of course, but adds layers of sex and violence that were considered indecent by some censors of the period. It's probably not shocking to anyone today, particularly the once scandalous scenes of unmarried couples having an affair. We can enjoy it for what it is; a carefully made thriller and a twisted murder story about stolen corpses and broken mental states. What else can you ask for?