Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960)

Like many of his admirers, I spend a fair amount of time listening to interviews of Alfred Hitchcock talking about his movies. His motivations, filmmaking decisions and views on audiences are as fascinating to me as are his works of art. Of his conversations the ones I find most entertaining are his comments on Psycho, the director’s first horror film, which enjoyed its New York City premiere on June 16, 1960.

Psycho Premiere at the DeMille Theater, New York, June 16, 1960

When you listen to Alfred Hitchcock discuss Psycho you can’t help but smile as the director clearly enjoyed the ride of making and promoting the movie with both efforts proving historic. I just re-watched Psycho for the umpteenth time and can attest to how it still elicits chills 57 years after audiences were scared out of their wits. Director Peter Bogdanovich was in the audience watching Psycho during its initial run and commented on how he’d never seen or heard similar reactions to a movie. Of the experience Bogdanovich said, “People didn’t scream here and there. It was a long, sustained shriek.”

Despite the time and energy spent on discussing the deep-rooted issues in Psycho by directors, critics and fans through the years, Alfred Hitchcock knew it was all a show. I’ve mentioned this man’s power to manipulate in previous posts I’ve dedicated to his work and perhaps there is no better example of that than Psycho. Hitchcock banked – and succeeded – on audiences buying into every knife stab as if they themselves were the victims. He guaranteed it with inspired music, a simple, straight-forward story – albeit replete with complex psychological issues – and his subjective camera, which brings the audience into the story. Hitchcock was so good at this, in fact, that he made sure we’d root for psychos.

“Audiences are very strange. When I made Psycho, I had a scene in which Tony Perkins tried to dispose of a body by pushing a car into a swamp. When the car did not sink under the water, the audience was pulling for it to do so, even though Perkins was the murderer.” (1966)

According to Hitchcock, who used to fib to the press so as not to divulge the movie’s plot before its release, Psycho is about a young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who runs a small motel. Behind the motel is Norman’s home, which he shares with his homicidal mother. The old woman should be put away of course, but what can Norman do? He loves her. It’s a sinister, sad situation really as you can imagine what happens to the motel’s guests as they settle in for a night’s rest. One guest in particular leaves nothing to the imagination.

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) works in a real estate office. She’s a young, lovely woman who makes off with $40,000. Escaping with the loot and plans to meet up with her main squeeze, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), Marion happens into the Bates Motel. It’s a rainy night and, lucky for Marion, 12 out of the 12 cabins are available. Norman Bates is there to greet her with conversation and sandwiches a plenty. Norman is charming, if a little shy. He tells lovely stories even if they cross over the weird line where mother is concerned. And he seems to be a hard worker. Norman not only manages the Bates Motel and maintains its 12 cabins, but he also runs errands for his incapacitated mother. Norman, one might say, is a momma’s boy. No harm, no foul. Except we soon learn Norman has secrets. Deep secrets. And a killer methodology.

Perkins as Norman Bates

Each time I watch Psycho I am more impressed with Anthony Perkins’ performance. He’s so darn good in this thing. During the initial conversation with Marion when she’s having sandwiches in the motel parlor Perkins switches on a dime between charming young innocent and full-blown weirdo and back again. It’s so unsettling that I invariably pause, rewind and watch him again gaining chills at the knowledge of what this soft-spoken young man is capable of. As for Ms. Leigh, she is the perfect victim. In 1960 Janet Leigh was a Hollywood elite, a great and beautiful actress who added to Hitchcock’s intended shock when – as the most popular star in the production – she is stabbed to death in the shower less than half-way through the movie. We need to remember the way she dies for Psycho to linger and Hitchcock ensures we can’t forget it. Ms. Leigh received an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the movie, one of Psycho‘s four Oscar nods. The other three were for Hitchcock’s direction (his fifth and last), Best Cinematography – Black and White (John L. Russell) and Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy and George Milo). All supremely executed.

I should mention the supporting players in Psycho because everyone’s worth the price of admission. Martin Balsam is memorable as Detective Milton Arbogast who goes looking for the missing Marion Crane. Vera Miles plays Lila Crane who gets a few scares of her own as she too ends up in the Bates house hoping to find her missing sister. John McIntire plays an amusing sheriff and the great Lurene Tuttle is his wife. There are several other actors of note in the cast including Patricia Hitchcock, the director’s daughter, as Marion’s office mate, Caroline. Check out the entire Psycho cast list here.

The screenplay for Psycho was written by Joseph Stefano based on the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch who based his 1959 story on real-life, Plainfield, Wisconsin psychotic serial killer Edward Gein. Hitchcock hired the great Saul Bass to design the title sequence and the result is one of cinema’s great movie openings. And of course there’s Bernard Herrmann’s string-only music, which is among the all-time great film scores.

Miraculously, Psycho does not lose most of its elements of surprise despite repeated viewings. If anything knowing what’s coming prolongs the agony. The creepiness of the murderer I described. The unease we feel when we see Bates spying on his soon-to-be-victim is just as prevalent. That unease is multiplied when we think Bates couldn’t bring himself to even say the word “bathroom” just a little while before. It’s just astounding. The story of Psycho is so simple, but it’s loaded with complex issues and stupendous images all with one intended goal in mind – to have the horror linger when you turn off your lights at night. (Hitchcock)

There’s been plenty said and written about the iconic shower scene in Psycho and I’ve really nothing new to add to the conversation except to say that it’s a wonder in moviemaking. In fact, Psycho is perfectly constructed from beginning to end. But – in the shower scene – the shot I marvel at is the one where we see the blurry vision of someone entering the bathroom as Marion showers. The camera (we) are where the shower wall should be and we get both Marion and the intruder in a shot that seems to last forever. Slowly the figure enters getting closer until the curtain is drawn open violently and the attack begins. The severe music. The severe edits. The severe if slight sound of the knife puncturing the body. Although today’s audiences are more used to extreme gore it’s easy to see how Alfred Hitchcock scared the living daylight out of audiences with Psycho almost six decades ago. Yes, it still makes my heart pound. I am still affected by watching the last of Marion’s life go down that drain and her dead eye against the bathroom floor staring…staring…LOOK WHAT JUST HAPPENED TO ME?!

My favorite shot – right before the actual attack

“People remember the first time they experienced Janet Leigh, and no remake or sequel can top that moment when the curtain is pulled back and the knife starts to do its work.” – Stephen King

Hitchcock repeats the brutality with Marion later against Arbogast when the Detective enters the Bates house and ascends those stairs. Arbogast’s ending is as shocking and startling as one can expect. Sir Alfred went for torturous slow motion again as Arbogast ascends. We know something’s coming. The music plays a long, steady note and we see the upstairs door crack open. What is waiting for Arbogast is not a hug and hot mug of soup. THEN there’s the shock to all of your senses when the camera pans way up suddenly. We hear the screech in that unforgettable score rise once again and see the figure with the knife above its head. Before we can blink the knife is plunging into the detective’s face until he stumbles back down the stairs. Martin Scorsese has stated that there is a religious element to Hitchcock’s signature shots from way up high, but my mind doesn’t go to religion. It doesn’t go to a higher power. To me the angle separates and confuses the witnesses (us) so that through the heart pounding we’re not quite sure what the hell just happened.

That’s Psycho. And all because she changed her white bra for a black one.

 

Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed the success of Psycho with tongue in cheek. He  seemingly loved the control his work had over people’s emotions. In addition, Hitch had passed on his regular salary for the picture and went for a percentage of the movie’s intake, which made him a pretty penny. Hitchcock defied convention with Psycho in all manner of ways and it paid off big time. Psycho was the highest-grossing film of his career.

“Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is heading for a “smash” opening week’s gross of more than $60,000 in its dual New York premiere engagement at Walter Reade’s DeMille and Baronet Theatres. The Paramount release earned a mighty $45,597 for the opening four-day period ending Sunday with the DeMille contributing $32,944 and the 434-seat Baronet $12,653. The drama set new opening day house records at both theatres and registered a new gross mark Saturday at the Baronet.” – Motion Picture Daily, June 21, 1960

Psycho was also Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie at Paramount, which gave him a small budget to work with because the studio despised the source material. Of course what he did with the limited resources is now legend. Psycho continues to fascinate. It was ranked #1 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills series. It was voted the #7 scariest movie of all time by Entertainment Weekly. AFI voted it the #14 Greatest Movie of All Time. Watchmojo.com voted Psycho the #1 horror film of all time. In addition Psycho is noted on numerous all-time-best lists, on movies-you-must-see-before-you-die lists and, more importantly it has influenced almost every director of repute to follow Hitchcock. My favorite influence, in you will, of the Psycho shower scene in particular is in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). In one of the Hitchcock documentaries I watched a while back Scorsese describes how he designed and filmed the third Jake La Motta-Sugar Ray Robinson fight scene shot-for-shot in relation to the Psycho shower scene. Scorsese matched every stab of the knife with a thrown punch and edited his sequence in the same, severe fashion using familiar Hitchcock pov shots to boot. It’s pretty cool to watch.

Despite its short and long-term success the initial reviews of Psycho were mixed at best. The film’s theme and horrific violence shocked members of all facets of society. And they were not quiet about it. Sir Alfred would invariably reply to such remarks with signature biting wit. In fact he thought that the people who criticized Psycho did so because they didn’t get his sense of humor. My favorite reaction of Hitchcock’s was in response to the various real-life murders that people attributed to the movie, which mildly annoyed the legendary director. I’ll end with what he said when one interviewer asked him how he felt about the real-life psychopaths blaming Psycho for their crimes…

“A man was arrested in Los Angeles for murder. He confessed to killing three women the last of which he claimed to have committed because he’d seen Psycho. Naturally the newspapers called me and asked for my comment. What I said was, ‘well, what movie had he seen before the second murder?'”

 

More on Hitchcock:

The Hitchcock Signature

Self-Plagiarism is Style: Hitchcock, Grant and North by Northwest

Hitchcock on a Train

Madeleine Carroll Set the Standard in Hitchcock’s SECRET AGENT (1936)

Hitchcock Returns to London in a FRENZY (1972)

Just Another Hitchcock Spy Story…THE 39 STEPS 

Hitchcock’s Masterpiece, REAR WINDOW

Cary Grant: The Road to Suspicion

 

15 thoughts

  1. Then they destroyed his legacy by remaking it with Vince Vaughan as Norman and Anne Heche as Marion. It was godawful and should never have been released. Nobody compares to “Hitch” they are not even worthy of tying his shoes. May he rest in peace

  2. God post!

    Yet, despite the shocking shower scene, what really upset audiences the most in 1960 was the fact that Hitch showed a flushing toilet – the first time it had ever been shown on screen before! 😛

  3. Very enlightening article on this classic film. One thing not normally mentioned is how frightening the unseen mother is. It’s not Norman, it’s the old lady who gives me the creeps, since until the very end of the movie, SHE’S the murderer. Maybe it’s a gender thing, an Oedipal variation, but I think boys have an innate horror of old, evil women. Jo Van Fleet in “East of Eden” and Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” are also terrifying characters. But the fact that we never see Mrs. Bates’ face allows our imaginations to run wild, and definitely adds to the chill factor in “Psycho.”

  4. His humour is my favourite thing about Hitch. A few years ago (my, how they fly) it had been a few years since I had seen Psycho. Rented a video (!), had the house to myself and settled in. I can still feel those goosebumps. At the conclusion of the film I smacked myself on the head. I often referred to Hitch as a “genius”, but I truly appreciated that fact anew on that viewing. And today I have just done it all over again with reading your article. Thanks.

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