A few weeks ago Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, Psycho, had its fiftieth anniversary, and in that time it was become one of the most iconic films in cinema history, containing perhaps the most famous, most discussed, and most analyzed scene of all time. I picked up a copy of the Universal Legacy DVD, and what better way to celebrate the Fourth of July weekend than with some good old-fashioned American mayhem?What I can not discuss is how it is to see Psycho for the first time without any preconceived notions. I don’t remember when I saw it for the first time, most likely on TV, maybe in the 1970s, but certainly I would have been aware of what was coming. In watching the film over this weekend I tried to imagine what it was like to see it without any inkling of what was to come. Hitchcock, in something of a marketing gimmick, but also with a heap of common sense, did his best to prevent anyone from spilling the beans on the film’s many surprises. It was a closed set, the trailer contained no scenes from the film (it consisted of Hitchcock, well familiar to TV audiences, leading a droll tour of the set), there were no previews for critics, and theater managers were encouraged to allow no one to enter the film after it had started (in those days it was common for patrons to show up in the middle of a film, and then stay for the next show to see what they’d missed).
This was necessary, because Psycho takes the viewer on twists and turns that were little anticipated for 1960. The film begins focused on Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. She and her lover, John Gavin, have just had a nooner, and she is lounging in a bra and slip (incredibly racy for 1960). When she returns to her job as a secretary for a real estate office, she is handed $40,000 in cash by a client, with instructions to bank it immediately. Impulsively, she skips town, headed toward Gavin, who will hopefully marry her. Along the way she imagines the shock her crime will cause. She has an encounter with a menacing policeman (reflecting Hitchcock’s life-long fear of police) and a tense exchange at a used-car lot. Then, in a rainstorm, she is forced to pull over and take a room at the Bates Motel.
The film is about a third of the way done when Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is introduced into the film. Surely audiences were wondering where this was all was going–Perkins, an attractive young man, displays charm and seems attracted to Leigh. Was there going to be a love triangle? The house above the motel, seeming to be designed by Charles Addams or Edward Hopper, looms mysteriously, and there’s something about a crazy old mother. And then Perkins spies on Leigh through a peephole in the wall–he’s not so charming, after all.
And then–well, the scene. In just about a minute the entire film takes a different course, as does film history. Audiences screamed during Psycho’s shower scene. The way the door opens as Leigh, washing away her sins, is oblivious. The pulling aside of the curtain, and then, in about forty-five seconds, fifty different cuts, requiring more than seventy different camera set-ups. It is the greatest use of montage since Potemkin, and typifies how psychology enters the film-going experience. Yes, there is a nude woman involved (a Playboy model stood in for Leigh in any shot that required views below her shoulders) and yes there was knife, but there is no shot of the knife penetrating skin. The horror of the scene is manufactured right inside our minds.
The film has suddenly killed off its star at minute fifty of a 108-minute film. The audience is reeling, and now has fixed on Perkins as the protagonist. He is horrified by what his mother has done, and cleans up after her (one woman in audience, during this scene, commented aloud, “What a good boy.”) When he disposes of Leigh’s car in the swamp and it momentarily stops, still in plain view, we are worried right along with him.
Soon the film has a new surrogate for the viewer, Leigh’s sister, played by Vera Miles, and a private detective, Martin Balsam. His death, viewed from above and as swift and sudden as Leigh’s, is in some ways more shocking than hers, and many I’ve talked to cite this moment as the one that made them jump. And then, when Miles heads toward the house, with a homicidal maniac awaiting, we see the forerunner of the slasher film, as people in audiences actually yelled aloud, “Don’t go in the house!”
I’ve seen this film many times, but found new things to enjoy upon this viewing. I spent more time appreciating those scenes in between the shocks. The scenes while Leigh is driving and then with the cop and the used-car dealer are like waking nightmares, edgy and brittle. The scene between Leigh and Perkins, when he discusses his taxidermy hobby and his mother, is expertly written and acted (the writer was Joseph Stefano, who was quite young at the time), the same for the scene between Balsam and Perkins, when the slick private eye peels back Perkins’ obfuscation.
The film was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, which in turn was inspired by the true horror of killer Ed Gein (who also inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs). Stefano changed it quite a bit, most notably the character of Norman, who in the book was pudgy, middle-aged, and bald. Making Norman into something of a leading man (one commenter called him the “Hamlet of serial killers”) was a brilliant idea. Stefano, who was in Freudian analysis (which fascinated Hitchcock, who was not much for self-examination) infused the script with several themes, most notably duality, whether it be guilt and innocence, good and evil, or mother and son. This was then represented by Hitchcock primarily with the use of mirrors, and even in color, though it was a black and white movie–Leigh’s underwear before her crime was white, after, black.
Hitchcock made the film for under a million dollars, a fifth of his budget for North by Northwest. Cheap horror films were all the rage then, but they were all terrible, and it was his notion to see if a good one could be made given the right talent. He used his television series crew. The studio (the film was a Paramount production, though shot on the Universal lot) wasn’t keen on it, and had several concerns about it all along the way. One of the biggest fights was over the use of the word “transvestite.” When it was released, critics were lukewarm, perhaps peeved that they had to see the film right along with the great unwashed. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther panned it, but the film was a sensation, prompting long lines and packed houses. It was to become Hitchcock’s greatest financial success, and prompted almost immediate critical reappraisals. Crowther ended up putting it on his ten-best list.
The film has its rough edges. I’ve never been crazy about the opening scene, which seems unnecessarily tawdry and awkwardly paced, and the very ending, with Simon Oakland as the psychiatrist explaining Norman’s psychosis is overly didactic. It was, however, necessary for the time period, as having a villain’s urges with psychosexual underpinnings was new. Just having Norman be evil wasn’t enough, and audiences were not sophisticated enough to know what is now common knowledge. Besides, this leads to the great finish, with Norman’s mother’s voice in his head, and him staring at the camera, saying he wouldn’t hurt a fly, and then the almost subliminal shot of Norman’s face dissolving into the skull of his mother. Great stuff. (The next time you watch, look for Ted Knight, later to star on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as Norman’s guard).
The film has also bequeathed us with many lines that are permanent parts of the lexicon, most of them coming from that dinner scene between Leigh and Perkins: “Mother..she just isn’t herself these days,” “We all go a little mad sometimes,” and “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” The score, by Bernard Herrmann, was one of the greatest scores of all time, using only strings. It’s hard to imagine the film would have half of its power without it. Hitchcock initially wanted to have the shower scene with no music, but Herrmann pressed and Hitchcock agreed, and then doubled Herrmann’s salary. The house itself still sits on the Universal lot, and is a big part of the tour.
Psycho, like Breathless of the same year, was a turning point in cinema. It was unlike any horror film that had come before, and has had countless imitators, most of them far more graphic. But Psycho is still better than all of those. Hitchcock had restraints in what he could show, but used those restraints to create more terror than a gallon of fake blood and guts could today.