Alfred Hitchcock Invents the Modern Horror Film with “Psycho”

5 02 2011

“I think that the thing that appealed to me and made me decide to do the picture was the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue. That was about all. ‘Psycho’ has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ. I don’t care whether it looked like a small or a large picture. I didn’t start off to make an important movie. I thought I could have fun with this subject and this situation. The picture cost eight hundred thousand dollars. It was an experiment in this sense: Could I make a feature film under the same conditions as a television show?” – Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s comments about “Psycho” hits several pertinent points about this movie, which paved the way for a new type of horror movie set in the modern day, in the real world, a world where danger – real danger, not just dread – lurks around every corner and no one is safe.

Released in 1960, during the run of “Alfred Hitchock Presents,” “Psycho” was a huge hit for Hitchcock. It was based the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which in turn was inspired by the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles and Martin Balsam, it’s a thrilling roller coaster of a movie with two of the biggest bait-and-switches ever.

Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a young woman having a hopeless affair with a man, Sam, who’s in debt following a divorce. When her boss asks her to deposit $40,000 cash in the bank on her way home from work, Crane takes off with the money, hoping that she can use it to fix her relationship. On her way out of Phoenix, Arizona, to meet Sam in California, Crane spends a night sleeping on the side of the road in her car, and is awakened the next morning by a police officer who notices how nervous she seems. He follows her into town, where she trades in her car for a new one. The cop is not seen again as Crane continues her drive, clutching the wheel with tension as she imagines the accusations against her from her boss and the used car salesman.

Rain sets in and Crane decides to stop at The Bates Motel, a little roadside place with a Gothic style mansion looming over it. It’s here, of course, that the film takes its major turn. Up till now, the story has been entirely about Crane, her misstep with the money and her dilemma. She talks to the motel’s manager, Norman Bates, who, though socially awkward, chats with her, offering her dinner. Crane overhears Bates arguing with his mother back in the mansion, but doesn’t think much of it. Over dinner, Bates provides some incidental advice when he talks about how “we all go crazy sometimes.” Crane realizes that she has to make amends, and, back in her room, calculates how she’ll pay back her debt, then flushes her calculations down the toilet.

Stepping into the shower, Crane looks relaxed at last when she is attacked by a knife-wielding figure in a dress. The figure leaves as Crane’s blood washes down the drain. And now, the movie has a hole at its center, one that fits Norman Bates perfectly. He wraps the body in a shower curtain, places it in the trunk of Crane’s car, and sinks the car in a swamp. Hitchcock does a fantastic job manipulating the audience’s sympathies; the car stops sinking when it’s halfway into the swamp, forcing us to ask, “Will he get away with it?” Now we’re on Norman’s side, hoping he’ll be able to cover up his the crime.

Soon, Crane’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles) and the detective she hired, Arbogast (Martin Balsam), find Sam, whom they assume is hiding Marion. He hasn’t heard from her, though, so Arbogast decides to look for her. He finds his way to the Bates Motel and questions Norman, who stammers his way through some not very convincing answers. After asking some questions about Norman’s mother, Arbogast asks if he can talk to the old woman. Bates tries to dissuade Arbogast, but the detective insists, entering the old house and creeping up the stairs to find Mrs. Bates. As he reaches the landing, the same figure that killed Marion Crane leaps out at him with a knife. With blood on his face, Arbogast falls down the stairs dead. Knowing that trouble is brewing, we hear Bates ask his mother to hide in the fruit cellar, but the old woman refuses. She protests as Bates carries her to the cellar. (Of course, we don’t actually see them arguing!)

Lila and Sam soon begin to wonder why they haven’t heard from Arbogast, and they, too, find their way to the motel. While Sam keeps Bates busy at the motel, Lila sneaks into the house and finds one of the film’s greatest shocks: In the cellar, seated in a rocking chair, is the dessicated corpse of Mrs. Bates. Just then, Norman enters the room, dressed in his mother’s clothes and a wig, brandishing a knife and cackling like a maniac. Sam grabs him from behind, knocking off the wig and pulling the dress open, and saving Lila from becoming Norman’s latest victim. The moment when Lila discovers mother’s body was one of the trickiest in the film, as it involved split-second timing in which the chair had to turn, Vera Miles had to scream, step back and hit a bare lightbulb with her hand.

Click on this image to see the skull overlayed on Perkins' face.

We cut to a local police station, where a psychiatrist explains Bates’ split personality and psychosis. The camera follows a police officer to a cell where Bates sits, alone and silent, his mother’s voice ringing in his head, explaining that “they’ll see I couldn’t have killed anyone.” As the scene fades, there’s a split second in which a skull overlays Bates’ face before we cut to Marion Crane’s car being dragged out of the swamp.

For the first thirty minutes or so, the movie is about Marion Crane: Her affair, her crime and her flight. There’s about fifteen minutes in which Crane and Bates are together before she is killed. It’s this murder that necessitated two of the film’s ingenious publicity gimmicks: First, theater owners were asked not to seat anyone after the film begins. Only by seeing the movie from the start would a viewer completely identify with Marion Crane, maximizing the shock when she is killed.

The second gimmick was the campaign to keep people from giving away the movie’s surprises. These were very unusual requests at the time, and they contributed greatly to the buzz behind the movie.

Besides killing off Janet Leigh, the film’s other great bait and switch is thematic in nature. Marion Crane’s story is a gripping melodrama, the kind Hitchcock had dealt with many times before in movies like “Suspicion” and “Shadow of a Doubt.” After her death, the movie becomes something completely different and new. Although Hitchcock does not abandon suspense, he uses surprise as never before, making audiences scream with each new shock. Horror movies like the “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” series follow the same pattern, though without Hitchcock’s finesse.

“Psycho” was Hitchcock’s final film in black and white, and he chose to work this way for two reasons. First, as Hitch explained, he wanted to avoid making the shower scene too gory. (The blood is actually chocolate syrup.) Second, the personal challenge Hitchcock set for himself was to shoot the movie as efficiently as possible, using the crew from his TV series. The resulting movie cost only $800,000 to film, making it extremely profitable for Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions, as well as Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures. It was such a big hit that it was eventually followed by several sequels, a remake and even a TV series. Hitchcock’s reason for holding the budget to this figure had to do with the studios’ reluctance to take on the project. Also, Hitchcock was aware of some cheaply made thrillers of the period, and wanted to see if he could make a movie on the same scale, bringing his own sensibilities and expertise to the table.

Although “Psycho” was very successful on release, critics were not kind to it. Assistant Director Hilton Green speculated that this may have been partly due to the fact that they had to watch the movie with full audiences rather than in previews. Both Time magazine and The New York Times later reversed their initially negative reviews.

A few of Hitchcock’s regular movie collaborators contributed to “Psycho,” including editor George Tomasini, Saul Bass, who designed the titles and storyboarded the shower sequence and Bernard Herrmann, who created the film’s unforgettable soundtrack. Reflecting the stark, black and white look of the film, Herrmann limited himself to strings. Hitchcock originally conceived the shower sequence as silent, but Herrmann had the strings play a slashing composition that emphasizes the shock of the moment. (On the DVD you can see the scene without music. It’s more effective in the film not only because the music adds to the drama but because it covers some feeble cries for help from Leigh, which start to sound kind of ridiculous, as well as the repeated stabbing sounds, which were made by plunging a knife into a melon.) Herrmann’s themes for Crane’s drive away from Phoenix is every bit as memorable, as it captures her anxiety.

Screenwriter Joseph Stefano made significant changes to the original Robert Bloch novel in transferring “Psycho” to the screen, including making Norman Bates younger and more affable, expanding Crane’s story considerably, introducing the psychiatrist who talks about Bates at the end and omitting a budding romance between Sam and Lila Crane. Bloch’s association with Alfred Hitchcock continued on television, with three episodes of Hitch’s TV series based on Bloch stories made before the release of “Psycho” and another thirteen after, including six episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” Stefano’s script is particularly sensitive to Bates’ psyche and motivations; Stefano himself was in analysis at the time, and he put that experience to good use here.

The shot Hitch swore wasn't there in the shower scene.

“Psycho” employs several tricks from Hitchcock’s earlier films; the scene in which Martin Balsam’s detective falls to his death used the same techniques seen in “Saboteur,” as well as echoing the death on the stairs/blood on the face scene from “Foreign Correspondent,” which itself was a reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s “Potemkin.” The lightning-fast edits in the shower scene harkened back to Eisenstein’s editing techniques; here, it allowed Hitchcock to pull off this violent scene without ever showing the knife stabbing Marion Crane, all the

One of several scenes of Janet Leigh semi-nude.

while avoiding any real nudity, although audiences were convinced they had seen both. And while there had been plenty of screaming women in Hitchcock’s movies by this time, Marion Crane’s screams as she is stabbed to death recalls the screaming girl from the opening of “The Lodger.” (There actually is a split second shot that shows the tip of the knife piercing a woman’s stomach.)

Besides the shower scene, “Psycho” had other controversies stemming from Crane’s frankly sexual relationship with Sam, as well as her appearances in her bra and slip. “Psycho” was also the first movie to show a toilet.

“Psycho” had some unexpected impact on its cast. Although Anthony Perkins creates a sensitive, sympathetic performance in “Psycho,” and he looks like he’s having the time of his life as he attacks Vera Miles in the cellar, he had a hard time breaking away from Norman Bates. Janet Leigh was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Marion Crane, but said she never showered again, and even received threatening phone calls and letters about Marion Crane. This was Vera Miles last film with Hitchcock; although she had been signed to an exclusive contract with Hitch, she did not enjoy working with him. Following “Psycho” she appeared in two episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and an episode of the TV series “Startime” directed by Hitchcock.

The original trailer for “Psycho” took advantage of Hitchcock’s role as master of ceremonies on his TV series. Hitch hints at awful things, but does so in a funny, voyeuristic way. He takes us on a tour of the Bates Motel, talking about where people were killed going into much detail, which only makes the viewer want to know more. At the end, the quick cut to a woman screaming (it’s actually Vera Miles, not Janet Leigh) jolts you from the humor of Hitchcock, the TV host, back to the cold “reality” of the film itself. He’s demonstrating how easy it is to see even a ghastly subject in a humorous light – as long as it’s at a distance. Get too close, and it’s shocking. (Hitchcock makes his cameo early in the film, appearing outside Crane’s real estate office in a cowboy hat while his daughter, Patricia Hitchcock, chats away with Janet Leigh inside.) Here is the trailer:

The old house and the motel are also characters in the film, in a way. The house represents an old-fashioned sort of horror and looks like it’s haunted – which it is – while the motel represents a more modern horror, with its sleazy innuendo, brought to life when Bates peers through a hole in his office wall at Crane as she undresses.

“Psycho” remains one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, with themes and characters that continue to resonate today.

Next, Hitchcock adapts one last work by Daphne du Maurier, in the film that introduced Tippi Hedren: “The Birds.”




One response

5 02 2011
Ron Hobbs

Was there ever a more influential movie in film history? Even non-horror movies owe a debt. The fact it came out at the beginning of the sixties, a decade known for breaking taboos, seems fitting.

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