It is time to revisit Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock is quite possibly the most highly recognizable director of all time. His name alone has become a widely used adjective… Hitchcockian. Even those who are only mildly interested in film can rattle off at least a few of Hitchcock’s works. But what makes Psycho so enjoyable, so remarkable and so memorable after all these years?
Hitchock was at the height of both his powers and popularity. Hot on the heels of the box office smash North by Northwest and his TV Show Alfred Hitchcock Presents he became interested in the Robert Block novel Psycho as well as the real story of Ed Gein, who was arrested for the murders of two women with the purpose of making a “woman suit” so that he could pretend to be his dead mother. While Hitchcock did not think highly of the novel itself, he was fascinated by the story of the lonely cross-dressing man and therefore quickly snapped up the rights to the book and commissioned newcomer Joseph Stefano to write the screenplay.
The plot revolves around Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who uncharacteristically decides to steal the $40,000 cash her employer entrusted her to take to the bank. We can only assume that the act is spurred by her boyfriend’s debts and the unlikelihood of their marriage. She packs lightly and quickly, then hits the road. The people she crosses paths with on the road, (a policeman man and car salesman) all believe something is odd with her. She nervously continues her journey, gets lost in a storm, and ends up and the incredibly creepy-looking Bates Motel, run by the childlike Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
Quite early on, Marion is brutally murdered at the Bates Motel in the infamous shower scene. Enter Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles), private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), and Marion’s boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) who together try to find out what has happened to Marion.
It’s important to stress that this film is deliberately presented as a B-Grade Movie. Hitchcock shot the film in black and white, not just for aesthetics, but also for budgetary reasons. Like an artist working with limited canvas space, Hitchcock limited his budget for Psycho to $800,000. To put things into perspective his previous film cost $4.3 million, and his following film cost $4 million. He had been impressed with the concepts of many B-Grade movies but felt they were let down with the execution. Hitchcock wanted to make a great B-Grade movie. To further the authenticity of a B-Grade movie Hitchcock, he opted to use the crew involved in the filming of his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, rather than using the crew that he had been working with on all his major motion pictures. Again, this was a multi-purpose decision, one was budgetary, the other was to use people who were more accustomed to making cheaper films and working quickly.
The film today is most well-known for the highly choreographed “shower scene”. This 3-minute scene has spawned countless articles, myths, legends, and disputes. It even has its own documentary 78/52 (relating to the alleged 78 shots and 52 cuts). But Psycho is a trailblazer for many more reasons than the “shower scene”. The use of suggested nudity, infidelity, lingerie was all new. The death of the leading actress in the first third of the film was a legitimate shocker and as such was cinema’s first intentional jump scare. It was also the first film to take an honest approach to the psychological assessment of the so-called insane. It was also one of the first films to spend a great amount of time painting the villain as a sympathetic character. Likewise, the “good guy” and the victim, Marion Crane, committed a crime – she IS a thief on the run, yet we never see her as a bad person.
These are all cinematic firsts. BUT the first that astounds me the most in Psycho is that we see a toilet flushing for the very first time in a film!
Another aspect of the film that is incredibly memorable is the score. Even people that have never seen the film know the strings only score. The music from the shower scene alone is known by most. It has its own life. It was at one time one of the 40 best ringtones! But there is more to be said about the arrangement. Bernard Herrmann was one of the few big-budget movie people that Hitchcock had worked on the film.
Herrmann initially refused to work for the reduced fee but eventually succumbed. It’s hard to believe that Hitchcock originally wanted the scene to be void of a score, but Herrmann persuaded him to view the scene with what he had composed. Legend has it that Hitchcock agreed that it intensified the scene, and subsequently doubled Herrmann’s salary. While the choice to use only strings for the score was a budgetary decision, it ended up being a visionary one, that draws a connection to the B-Grade films of the ’40s and ’50s.
Thematically, Psycho offers so much more depth than a “slasher” film. There is an enormous amount of depth in the characters. All are suffering from the mistakes of their, or their partner’s pasts. These mistakes are hindering them in the present and are crushing their hopes for the future. Marion’s passion for Sam leads her to actions that deny her the love, the marriage, and family home which she desires. Likewise, Norman is surrounded by his childhood toys and taxidermied animals (which are “frozen in time”). He is hanging on to a past that may have never existed hoping that it will happen in the future.
The performances are outstanding. Despite initially mixed reviews, award nominations started accumulating, particularly for Janet Leigh. Her portrayal of the disillusioned innocent criminal and victim is brilliant. Anthony Perkins, who had a hit and miss career since 1954 as a low-level “pop star” (he had released several albums and singles as Tony Perkins), and as an actor in theatre, television, and film, delivers his best performance. What makes Norman Bates so good is his childlike likeability. His innocence, integral to the story, is genuinely delivered. His emergence as Mother is truly spectacular. Second act leads, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, and John Gavin all deliver fine performances as well.
The cinematographer John L Russell uses all his tricks in this film. Psycho may be his successful segue into film from TV, but under the direction, watchful eye, and detailed storyboards of Hitchcock, the visual impact of Psycho is incredible. Leaving the “shower scene” out for a moment, Psycho is simply marvelous photography. From the twisting surreal shots on the staircase of the Bates home to Milton Arbogast falling backward down the stairs. Many techniques were not necessarily new at the time but were executed in ways that have never been done before.
BIRTH OF SLASHER
Alfred Hitchcock’s low-budget horror may have given birth to the slasher film but is so much more than its offspring. It is an intelligently and tightly scripted movie, magnificently shot. It is an intense and entertaining psychological thriller. It is filled with shocks and thrills, incredibly nuanced performances with commonly identifiable characters that will stay with you for years. If it has been a while since your saw the original film, or your memory of the film has begun to fade, then it is time to revisit Psycho.