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Thursday 25 February 2010

Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin and Janet Leigh

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Psycho is the other undeniable Alfred Hitchcock classic that I'd seen before starting my IMDb project in 2004. However even if I hadn't already seen it, I'd still have known exactly what happens, due to the twists being possibly the most well known twists in cinematic history. Everyone and his dog knows that Norman Bates is the murderer, not his mother, and that knowledge does spoil the film a little now. It means that while it still carries a massive punch to this day, it's not quite the killer punch that it must have been back on theatrical release in 1960 with Hitchcock buying up as many copies of Robert Bloch's source novel as he could to pretty successfully protect the surprise.

This is why it's impossible to accurately review Psycho as a movie in 2004 when I began this review or in 2010 when I finished and posted it. Now fifty years old, it has become bigger than just a film, changing popular culture and influencing a huge amount of what came after, not least one modern remake, three sequels to the film and two sequels to the book. Almost everyone who has grown up on low budget horror movies should have a healthy respect for Psycho, which was Hitch's truest horror film. It directly led to almost everything that followed over the next decade, and even though newer films became subsequent direct influences for what came later, such as Mario Bava's Bay of Blood which defined the template for the slasher movie, it can all be sourced back to Hitchcock's achievement in making Psycho.

And it really was an achievement. Hitch was up against it from moment one and there were so many good reasons why Psycho was never going to be shot, never be released, never be successful. Nobody believed in the project except Hitch himself and even his studio was against him. Paramount distributed the movie but refused to let it be filmed on their lot, so it was made at Universal Studios instead. They hated the concept so much that they also refused to finance it or let him use any of their stars. So Hitch financed it himself, driven to do so because of a 1955 French horror thriller called Les Diaboliques. Its director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, was suddenly winning major awards and being described in print as better than Hitchcock, even though he was working in black and white with a tiny budget. Hitch raged at this and determined to outdo the Frenchman by avoiding another of what he starting calling his 'glossy Technicolor baubles' and instead making his own Les Diaboliques.

Hitchcock's previous film, North By Northwest, had been made at MGM for $3.3m, the biggest budget of any MGM film that year except the epic Ben Hur. By contrast he made the black and white Psycho for a whisker over $800,000, with a crew substantially comprised of the people who were used to making his hit TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for a mere $129,000 per episode. It wasn't just the crew that worked for less money than was usual. Lead actor Anthony Perkins took home $40,000, less than a tenth of the $450,000 that Cary Grant had been paid for North By Northwest, and Grant had a percentage of the take on top of his salary too. Janet Leigh received only $25,000. Hitch himself traded his usual $250,000 director's fee for a 60% ownership of the negative in what must be one of the greatest business decisions there ever was, given that this was by far the biggest moneymaker of Hitchcock's entire career. It left him the third largest shareholder in Universal.

I'd seen Psycho a few times but this time round I made an honest but inevitably flawed attempt to pretend that I didn't know any of what was to come, and this way I realised the true mastery of the script. Nothing at all was telegraphed and all the way down the line everything pointed towards Norman's mother being the psycho of the title. It's a cinematic cliché to say it but Psycho really did have people fainting in their seats in shock and even Janet Leigh became famously scared to take a shower for most of the rest of her life, though she did increasingly return to the horror genre later for Night of the Lepus, The Fog and Halloween H20, though the latter pair have far more to do with the fact that her daughter is Jamie Lee Curtis than in any attempt to get scared all over again.

Leigh plays Marion Crane, who absconds with $40,000 of money from the Phoenix real estate firm she works at and heads west to California with the aim of marrying her boyfriend Sam Loomis. This sparks the inevitable manhunt, but she's clever enough to disguise her trail by trading in her car. She's a three dimensional character, one that we disagree with but sympathise with, who feels guilt and regret and who in the end resolves to head back to Phoenix to return the money she stole and turn herself in. Unfortunately by then she's already at the Bates Motel and we all know what happens there. Yes, it's where you'll find the shower scene, that legendary shower scene that everyone knows about even if they've never seen the film.

Looking back, nothing in the film up to that point suggested in the slightest what would happen in the shower, which appears to be there to symbolise her shedding of deceit and return to a life of moral cleanliness. It's one of these rare shockers that catch us totally by surprise. And it's crafted so well! There's not one shot of a wound though plenty of the knife. We see that knife come down again and again, accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's shrieking staccato strings, then many different viewpoints of Janet Leigh, taken over seven days of shooting. Then, dying, she grips the shower curtain and pops all those rings and we follow the chocolate sauce they used for blood ebbing down into the plughole which morphs into Marion Crane's dead eye. It's one of the most famous scenes that the cinema has ever given us and it's still an absolute masterpiece of technique.

It's not the only masterpiece in the film. All three of these performances go beyond excellent to truly classic: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Bernard Herrmann, the composer of the score. It's truly amazing to me that the only major award that the film received was a Golden Globe for Leigh as Best Supporting Actress. Neither Leigh or Perkins ever achieved these heights again. Perkins was memorable in supporting roles in a number of films late in life but eventually realised that he would be forever associated with the part of Norman Bates and so returned to play him again in two sequels in the '80s, the latter of which he also directed. Leigh's superb portrayal of guilt is unjustly forgotten and she remains famous mostly for that one death scene, as well as for marrying Tony Curtis and giving birth to Jamie Lee.

Only Herrmann, who of course is not seen in the film, could keep detached enough to be as distinctive elsewhere. He is regarded as one of the greatest composers for film there ever was, certainly one of the most frequently referenced, beginning with the very first notes of the very first film he provided a soundtrack for, Citizen Kane. He quickly went on to win an Oscar, amazingly the only one he'd ever receive, for a movie I hadn't previously heard of called All That Money Can Buy in 1941 (it's far better known under its reissue title of The Devil and Daniel Webster). Over time, he memorably scored many films for Hitchcock and Welles and other directors. His last film, Taxi Driver, is dedicated to him. This is one of his most memorable scores and no less a critic than Hitchcock himself suggested that '33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.'

Outside of these stars, the names involved are more obscure. Vera Miles plays Marion Crane's sister Lila, who teams up with Sam Loomis to track her down to the Bates Motel. While she does a good job, I kept wondering about her being Hitchcock's original choice for the dual role in Vertigo that Kim Novak played so well. Apparently Hitch was still upset about her letting him down for that film (through becoming pregnant) that he hired her for Psycho purely to revel in making her play a dowdy supporting role for little money. Loomis is played by John Gavin, a politician as well as an actor, who Ronald Reagan appointed Ambassador to Mexico. He served as the lead in a couple of Douglas Sirk/Ross Hunter soaps in the fifties and played Julius Caesar in Kubrick's Spartacus, but he could have been remembered as James Bond. In fact he was paid his full expected salary for succeeding George Lazenby as 007 but when the studio finally persuaded Sean Connery back instead, he lost out on the part.

There's also Martin Balsam, who started out his career in On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men and notched up his third Top 250 movie three years later with Psycho; prolific film and TV actor John McIntire; and recognisable face Frank Albertson, here close to the end of his career; but it's Patricia Hitchcock and Simon Oakland who ring bells for me. Pat Hitchcock was the director's daughter, here playing one of Marion Crane's co-workers in Phoenix. She only appeared in six films but three were for her father, who makes his traditional cameo here outside her workplace. Oakland is a renowned character actor who has long brought me joy as Darren McGavin's beleaguered boss Tony Vincenzo in the highly underrated TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Here he's the county psychologist who explains everything at the end.

There's another name that deserves mention: Saul Bass. Much of the credit for the famous shower scene is due to him, a graphic designer who had previously worked with Hitchcock on the credits for Vertigo and North By Northwest. He was young and relatively inexperienced but was still gaining renown for his work to the degree that there had already become a cliché among critics: 'The best thing about the movie is the Saul Bass credits.' Once you see them, you'll recognise them again and again and there seems to be a trend nowadays for young graphic artists to redesign classic movie posters in the style of Saul Bass. Hitch gave him much more to do here, including the storyboarding of the shower scene and a couple of other crucial scenes too. As screen nudity was absolutely out of the question, it was Bass who came up with the idea of a montage sequence that would look intensely violent yet contain no actual violence. It's impossible to ignore the impact of his contribution.

It's even more impossible to ignore Hitchcock's. One of the reasons that Paramount hated his ideas for Psycho was because he really pushed the envelope. We never get to see Janet Leigh nude in the shower, though the scene is so suggestive that three of the seven censors who had to decide whether to pass the film thought they did. Hitch was required to cut the nudity, but he merely repacked the film and sent it back unaltered. The three censors who saw nudity before didn't see it now and the scene was safe. The advertising for the film was far from safe though: it saw Janet Leigh shockingly half dressed in just a slip and bra. This sort of thing simply wasn't done.

There was plenty more that simply wasn't done too. Leigh, who appears to be and was advertised as being the heroine of the movie, is amazingly killed off in the first half, confusing audiences no end. The plot that surrounds her turns out to not be the plot of the film, merely a setup. Another taboo broken may not sound like much today but Psycho contains the first instance of a toilet being flushed on film. More subversively, Hitchcock deliberately involved the audience directly in the voyeurism of Norman Bates, by using 50mm lenses for closeups instead of the usual 35mm, thus giving a closer approximation of human vision. When Bates peeks through the wall at his soon to be victim, we are right there with him becoming part of his act.

The shocks also continued after the film had been completed. Knowing that he had no major stars and that he couldn't say much about the plot, Hitch mounted a publicity campaign that sounds like something legendary low budget exploitation filmmakers like William Castle would do. He sent out two twenty page manuals on 'The Care and Handling of Psycho' to exhibitors, instructing them, among other things, on how to hire Pinkerton detectives to enforce the admission policies. He also made three legendary trailers, none of which included a single shot from the film. The third and most famous was a guided tour of the Bates Motel with narration by Hitchcock that cleverly reinforced our misconceptions without ever lying to us. Most shockingly, he gave a stipulation to theatres across the country that absolutely nobody could be let in after the film had started, something he borrowed from Les Diaboliques.

And while nobody believed it ahead of time, Psycho changed the world of cinema forever. While many critics panned the film on initial release, they were forced to reevaluate their thinking given the huge reception it received from the public. From the first showings it was a hit, a massive hit. Hitchcock's low budget experiment was making more money and more impact than any of those 'glossy Technicolor baubles' he had previously been scoring hits with. People were laughing, screaming, fainting, turning Psycho into a phenomenon. While foreknowledge of the twists does diminish the movie a little, it still shocks us and scares us and carries a serious punch today. That's a big achievement in itself, but probably the biggest is that after Hitchcock had entreated the audience in the trailers not to give away the ending, to a large degree they didn't. That, above even the shower scene, stuns me.


  1. jervaise brooke hamsterThursday, 25 February, 2010

    I still think that young people especially in 2010 find 98% of all the films that were made between 1930 and 1970 completely unwatchable although "Psycho" is admittedly a film that probably falls into that other 2%.

  2. I'd phrase it a little differently. From experience I've found that most young people wouldn't choose to watch anything this old, but if they actually do they'd surprise themselves.

    That's especially the case if they stumble onto a precode. While they were obviously products of a completely different time, they still feel fresh, in fact often more so than many films made today.

  3. jervaise brooke hamsterFriday, 26 February, 2010

    Its true that the Hayes office "so-called code of conduct" that was imposed in 1934 all but destroyed the American film industry for 34 years until it was finally abandonded in 1968, those rules were absolutely ludicrous and absurd. I`m not saying no good films were produced at all during that period but i know for a fact that if no "so-called code of conduct" had ever been imposed then that same 34 year period (34` to 68`) would have yielded 1000 times (literally) as many truly great movies as it actually did. Thats why i still enjoy watching some of the pre-code (27` to 34`, i cant watch silent movies anymore) movies myself from time to time because they make me think of what might have been if not for the abomination of censorship.

  4. hey man, love the blog and just started following. with regards to psycho, there is a lot of good background information and i don't doubt that it isn't bullshit. however, the assholes at my film studies department don't consider blogger "informed academics" and i'm wondering if you could give me some sources on the background info regarding the 50mm lenses on the 35mm cameras. cheers.

  5. Thanks. Is that Jeff Bowie or David Lebowski?

    I pulled from a lot of sources for my Psycho review. I'd have to reread the book to be sure but I believe that the 50mm lenses info came from a great book called Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, who also provided the commentary track on the 50th anniversary release.