Psycho (1960)


You’ll hopefully notice the patterns.  We’re on our third Hitchcock-Coppola-Silent Film cycle.  We also just did a ten-thousand word analysis (complete with pictures) on montage theory.  Now, we will do a review on the “mother” of all Hitchcock films, one that includes the “mother” of all film montages.   Why is Psycho the “mother” of all Hitchcock films?  For those who have seen the film, the use of that word as qualifier is perfect.  This is most famous Hitchcock, containing some of the most iconic images and characters and featuring the most recognizable music.  Is it the best?  No.  Vertigo is.  But this film is certainly among his best.  While most movie critics decry its popularity because, while it is definitely a five-star film, Hitchcock has other five-star films that deserve more credit—like Notorious, Rebecca, or Rear Window.  However, I think it deserves its place.  My mood often changes, and it is most appropriate to say these films are all tied for first; but if you made me pick, Psycho would have to follow Vertigo if only for its cultural clout and haunting storyline.  It sticks with you, perhaps more than any other Hitchcock film (except Vertigo, but that holds far too many trump cards, and if I keep bringing it up, it will succeed in boxing out Psycho from its own review).  The whole nature of the film is haphazard, like a good haunted house, full of eery sounds, precipitous pictures, and a whole bunch of mentally-troubled characters.  Its very origin cries out its rawness.

Many have said that Psycho was intended to be a “B-movie.”  Unfortunately, this creates strain on the understanding of the typical film-viewer.  I know that I, for one, until reading a little about it later on, thought the term “B-movie” referred to a non-“A” movie, like school grades.  In reality, the term comes from the 1940s and 50s, when movies were often shown in double features at drive-ins and theaters around the world.  Much like the opening act in a concert, or the B-side of a record single, the “B-movie” was the accompaniment to the main picture.  Often, these were either Westerns, science-fiction films, or horror movies, and staples of the B-movie were Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi, and Pam Grier.  John Wayne’s earliest pictures (including the Three Mesquiteers series, wherein he was the star of 8) were B-movies, and that is how he became famous.  Later on, when the double-feature element of movie premiers was abandoned, the term came to be applied to films, mostly of the three aforementioned genres, that were filmed on low-budgets.  That, however, doesn’t mean they were bad.  As a matter of fact, most indie films today are B-movies by definition, and they are often the best movies of the year.  So, it is more appropriate to say “Psycho was a B-movie,” than to say “Psycho was originally supposed to be a B-movie.”

And it certainly was a B-movie.  The story behind the making of the film has been made more famous with last year’s Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, a story documenting the production and release of Psycho in 1960.  In essence, Hitchcock had a contract with Paramount that had to be upheld, and was in line for a new film.  Following the big-budget success of North by Northwest in 1959, Paramount expected something good.  Hitchcock had abandoned the auteur-like narcissism and socio-psychological commentary that had come to define his last fifteen years’ worth of work with North by Northwest, returning to his spy-novel roots.  The plan at the time was for him to further abandon recent trends and cast a non-blonde lead in his upcoming feature film.  Paramount, in ’59, was already touting the upcoming film, called No Bail for the Judge, as one of their many “Success(es) of the Sixties!” and especially took advantage of their having cast Audrey Hepburn in the lead role.  $200,000 dollars later, however, the film was called off because Hepburn got pregnant.  Her previous pregnancy had ended in miscarriage while filming The Unforgiven, and therefore, caution’s sake led her, understandably, to quit No Bail as soon as she could.  Hitchcock was introduced to Robert Bloch’s graphically violent murder mystery, Psycho, by a friend in 1959.  The book so entranced Hitchcock that he immediately desired a film be made of it.

He took the storyline, and the novel itself, to Paramount executives, who promptly scrapped the idea.  Not only was it disturbing, but it was grotesquely violent and the plot was weak.  Killing the female lead halfway through the movie was foolish, particularly considering the relative slump the industry was in.  From here, comes the origin of Psycho as a B-movie.  Hitchcock took almost complete control of production, paying for the entire film (except for distribution costs) on his own budget and using his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television crew at Shamley productions to film the movie. Even people at Shamley had their concerns with the project, but they were disregarded.  Hitchcock was adamant.  And therein lay the groundwork for a movie made by TV guys that came to be known as the greatest horror film ever made.

The reasons for its success can be summarized in the examples of the two major names associated with the production: Janet Leigh (the blonde female lead) and Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock himself.  Both became so adamantly convinced of the novel’s clout as a potential film that they made unheard-of gestures towards its creation.  In the case of Leigh, she agreed to play the role after having only read the novel once, never even hearing her salary offer.  Usually earning $100,000 per film, Leigh ended up signing on for only $25,000.  In the case of the director, he and his cohorts authorized a mass purchase of Bloch’s original novel so as to keep the general public from getting their hands on the book before seeing the movie, therefore ruining the surprise.  This wasn’t all he did to preserve the sanctity of his film’s secrets.  Critics weren’t allowed to private premiers, they had to watch the movie with the general public.  Late-entrance was banned, meaning that if you showed up late to the film, you weren’t allowed to see it until the next showing.  Leigh and co-stars Vera Miles and Anthony Perkins weren’t allowed excess time in promotional interviews to ensure they didn’t spoil anything.  If anything, these procedures contributed to the mass positive reception of the film, as long lines developed outside movie theaters so as to not fall victim to the late-entrance curse.

The movie, despite mixed reviews at first, eventually became Hitchcock’s most popular and lucrative film by a long shot.  Grossing 15 million dollars in the first year, he would never make half that much in any other film.  What made this movie so successful?

In essence, it was much unlike anything anyone had ever seen.  Certainly Hitchcock had dabbled in psychoanalysis in films like Spellbound, but never had the Freudian notions of sexual Oedipus and Electra been so overt and violent.  Some have gone so far as to find symbolism in the film for superego, ego, and id, as well as other Freudian concepts.  Where he had once worked around the censors in Notorious by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss over and over and over again—never to exceed three seconds at a single time—in order to film what was, in essence, a three-minute love scene, in Psycho, Hitchcock completely bypassed censors altogether.  Janet Leigh in a bra, sharing a single hotel room bed with her lover Sam (played by John Gavin), was certainly a sight never seen on the silver screen.  Leigh later flushes a letter down a toilet.  Toilets (let alone flushing toilets) were also never shown due to censorship.  Other examples include the nudity in the shower scene, the massive amounts of blood, and even shots of a corpse. The raw brunt of these scenes coalesced with the most intriguing plot twists (the murder of the main character near the beginning being a rather significant one) and the relative mystery of the entire production to make the concept of the entire film titillating.

What Hitchcock did in Psycho was reintroduce an old genre that he himself had come to destroy.  Where horror films had once been a staple of cinematographic art, including such examples as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Fritz Lang’s M, Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Tod Browning’s Dracula, James Whale’s Frankenstein, and many others, they had come to be demoted to the realm of B-movies due to the likes of Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise.  Remember, this doesn’t mean they were bad (non-“A”s), but rather that they were low-budget and taken less seriously.  While some, including The Body Snatcher, starring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, were still lauded and respected, the true “suspense” film was to be found elsewhere: in the thrillers of Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot.  These two men are the ultimate kings of suspense.  Hitchcock had succeeded in taking horror and replacing it with suspense, but was about to turn the tables back to where they once were.  He was resurrecting a genre that had been, in the words of Miracle Max, “mostly dead.”

The imagery of Psycho also played a probable role in its marketable success.  Filmed in black and white, the theme and feel of the film was inspired by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s work in Diabolique, a film with a twist of its own that greatly spurred on Hitchcock’s enthusiasm for his picture.  Some have also asserted that the movie was made in black and white so as to not show as much of the graphic nature of the murder scenes, one scene of which includes a bathtub and bathroom floor flooded in blood.  This may have played a role, but the more poignant factors included the influence of Clouzot’s earlier works and the fact that Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions studio (that had only ever worked in black and white) was doing the work on a low budget.  The use of lighting was haunting, and its utilization as a motif sparked literary interest.  Using black and white automatically gives sway to lighting tricks; Hitchcock had already done that quite a bit (check out my review of Notorious).  Check out the early Phoenix scenes, filmed in broad daylight.  Yet, Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) and Sam’s hotel room is shrouded in darkness.  Light emanates from their characters, a sort of surface deception: notice how no matter what the angle is, Marion’s entrance into a room is always preceded by her shadow (like in the scene where she steals the money.)

More of these images included Hitchcock’s use of birds in the context of his true character of interest, Norman Bates, the owner and operator of the Bates’ Motel.  The whole character of Norman is centered around his fascination with taxidermy, particularly birds.  Comments have been made about his infatuation with birds: in Britain, “bird” is idiomatic for “beautiful girl.”  The perversion of his obsession goes deep, and contributes to creepiness of the entire picture.

If Hitchcock’s mastery is the foundation of the film itself, then Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates is the cornerstone of the film’s success.  He was nominated for a German “Bambi” for Best International Performance, but sadly, that was the only critical award he garnered after production.  While he at times came to bemoan that his performance resulted being perennially typecast, I—as I submitted in my chapters on character acting—would say that that phenomenon stands as a testament to the quality of his Psycho performance, establishing him as the ultimate example of the perturbed sociopath…in the case of this film, a perturbed sociopath with an even more perturbed mother.

“A boy’s best friend is his mother…” this stand-out line is considered one of the most well-known in Hollywood history, reaching number 56 on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest movie quotes.   The relationship between Norman and his murderous mother is the key aspect to the film as an Oedipal disturbia…frightening even Marion Crane when she first comes to meet young Mr. Bates.

That initial encounter is one of the two best scenes in the movie.  After absconding a large sum of money, ditching her old, traceable car with a new one, and racing out of Phoenix, Arizona before someone could catch her, Marion takes a wrong turn onto a deserted highway in a rainstorm.  She see the neon lights (notice the use of bright lights in darkness, this is a common thing, as was stated earlier) of the “Bates Motel” and decides to stay the night there.  The business is slow—she’s the only one there—because the new freeway had caused traffic to go elsewhere.  Norman Bates and Marion Crane (assuming an alias), after all the check-in measures are made, sit down in his office, surrounded by birds to talk.  This is where the movie, if you watch closely takes a turn for something unexpected: it is funny.  Throughout all the disturbing paraphernalia, twisted perversions, and Oedipal lusts, the statements about smelly linen sheets, nursing homes, and pretty girls, all the funny voices, and all the pretense is meant to be funny.  This scene, the scene where Bates and Crane meet each other, features the best of both characters: the awkward boy meets the pretty girl, she thinks he’s “sweet,” but there’s chance, and he then entertains peevish and perverted erotic fantasies that she remains dreadfully ignorant of.  High School in a ten-minute scene, basically.  The whole thing is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

Hitchcock’s morbid and often macabre sense of humor reaches new heights in Psycho.  This “dark comedy”—think of the scenes of the Joker in The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan—brought the audience in like no other thing he could have done.  I remember the second time I saw Nolan’s Dark Knight in theaters, and I was getting really frustrated at this group of kids in the back who would laugh at everything the Joker said.  I, for one, was upset.  You shouldn’t laugh at such things, they’re evil, after all.  This is what gets the audience going.  They get uncomfortable.  “Should I laugh?”  “No one else is….”

In a recently unearthed interview, Alfred Hitchcock said of Psycho: “I’m possibly in some respects the man who says in constructing [a roller coaster], ‘how steep can we make the first dip?” If you make the dip too deep, the screams will continue as the car goes over the edge and destroys everyone.  Therefore, you mustn’t go too far, because you do want them to get off the switchback railway, giggling with pleasure.”  But, no one was willing to giggle.  They, instead, let themselves get thrown off the edge.  They all died alongside Marion in that shower.  To this day, 53 years later, they are still screaming.  And anything that may at first glance sound funny gets overlooked.

This is an important facet of Hitchcock’s films.  In his interviews with François Truffaut, he explained that telling these sorts of serious stories with tongue in cheek was important.  If not, they stopped being slices of cake and ended up just being “clinical cases,” examinations of psychology with no audience participation.  But, as we are torn between laughs and screams, we come to find ourselves precariously out of balance….we are now involved the picture in ways we’ve never been before.  You see, Hitchcock is playing you.  The stolen money, the race out of Phoenix, its all a big MacGuffin.  His first act is the deception: the slight of hand, to keep you from seeing what is really going on.

The second of the two best scenes in the film takes place shortly after the first.  Norman has just been scolded by his mother for talking to the pretty girl—who, in paraphrasing the mother, is just a promiscuous drifter—and has left on a rather awkward note.  (This should be funny, a man being treated like a boy, but the serious nature of the plot makes it, instead, creepy.)  Marion hops into the shower.  And, the rest is history.

What ensued is forty-five seconds of non-stop violence.  And yet, you never really see the violence.  Just like how you never really see the sex in Notorious, you never get to see the cut of the knife in Psycho.  One blogger online made the point that in this case, “celluloid cuts replace flesh cuts.” ( That is exactly the case.  Hitchcock creates an appeal to pure film (remember that? Check out my chapters on montage theory) by creating the most recognized and famous montage sequence in history.  In these forty-five seconds, Hitchcock utilized 78 different shots.  While this montage was used to create suspense by bringing the audience up close and personal, they also followed the various premises of Eisenstein’s montage theory.  The frames are metric: they didn’t pause time as they interceded between shots of Marion’s wrenching body.  The montage is also rhythmic: they are paced by the tempo of the stabbing knife.  They are also tonal: spawning emotions of terror and fright, and even wincing pain.  Even more impressive, the montage is intellectual and overtonal: the abrupt fragmentation contributes to the idea of a body breaking in pieces, and the various images, including the pouring water, represents the sanguine liquidity of the emissions from those fragments.  The final take of the montage shows Marion’s blood whirlpooling into the bathtub drain.  The drain dissolves into a shot of her eye.  The circles of both images match.  Of this, Lesley Brill wrote, “Like the eye of the amorphous sea creature at the end of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, it marks the birth of death, an emblem of final hopelessness and corruption” (The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films, 224).

The “hopelessness and corruption” of Leigh’s Marion Crane is further exemplified in thinking about Hitchcock “girls.”  She is different than most of Hitchcock’s female characters: like Kim Novak in Vertigo, she fails to realize the reconciliation with innocence that she seeks.  This blonde is not set up for triumph.  Consider, again, the use of black and white.  These colors deal in extremes, or duality.  Both of the main characters in the film (Crane and Bates) are subject to this duality.  Multiplicity of color, therefore, just wouldn’t work.  Instead, the black and white are utilized to precision, through manipulation of light.  In the opening sequence, famous for its edginess at the time, Marion Crane is seen in a white bra.  She is undefiled, as it were; she is sinless.  Later, we see her in a black one.  She has become defiled as she has stolen the money and ran off.  The shower represents, in essence, her attempt to wash off those sins, but to no avail.  They end up destroying her.  This duality of being, good and bad, are exemplified in the starkness of Hitchcock’s black and white.  Look back at the montage sequence again: the staunch whiteness of the bathroom tiles exude bright light, yet nothing lights up the Mrs. Bates, the murderer.  She is dark as night.

Perhaps what is most significant about this scene as it relates to Hitchcock’s mastery of film comes from those moments when he chooses not to use montage.  While, yes, I just spent 10,000 words explaining all the virtues of montage, it is important to note, as André Bazin would assert, there are some limitations.  (He has a famous article called the “Virtues and Limitations of Montage.”)  Take Bazin’s favorite example: Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon. In this film, we see a red balloon that follows an imaginary young boy throughout Paris.  The instance at hand is not one of manipulation of film, but rather one of legitimate illusion.  Therefore, to show the balloon in jump-cuts and cross-cuts, bouncing back and forth between the balloon and the boy would defeat the magic of the image, which is, in essence, the goings-on in front of the camera itself.  Montage could not produce that effect.  Now, think of the murder sequence in Psycho.  The lead-up to the scene introduces the various images that will contribute to the later montage, and this is done through montage.  However, the montage stops, and instead, we have a still camera, slightly zooming in—ever so slowly—showing Crane in the foreground with the transparent shower curtain behind her.  Through the blurry curtain, you see the bathroom door open suddenly.  (Notice how we usually associate a ray of light piercing darkness when a door opens…in this context we see, instead, a shadowy orifice amid bright, white, shiny tile).  The murderer steps through the door, moving a step at at time closer to Marion.  We also move closer to her, as the camera zooms in.  How damaged would this scene have become if, instead, Hitchcock had shown the door open in a separate take, and then showed the shower, then back to the approaching attacker, and back to Crane, and so forth?  Instead, he creates suspense by avoiding montage, and instead filming the image in its purity.  Here we can see Hitchcock’s proficiency and competence in dealing with film theory.  Where montage is to be used in order to overcome the necessities of space and time, Hitchcock knew that where space and time were really important, montage had to be cast aside.

Mentioning Psycho as a masterpiece would be incomplete without mentioning Bernard Herrmann.  There is something inherently spooky about a string orchestra, and that is taken utter advantage of in this film.  The movie opens with bars of black and white, demonstrating that duality I talked about earlier, as well as to the terrifying staccato of violent violins.  Herrmann’s score reaches new heights of horror in the murder sequence, bows are pressed against strings, and sharp, quick glissandos up and down the fingerboards synchronize with stabs of the murderer’s knife, providing even more pacing to Hitchcock’s rhythmic montage.  The use of strings as opposed to other forms of instrumental accompaniment, even back then, played to a well-established cliché: early horror films were satiated in strings.  Again, this played to the tongue-in-cheek nature of the film as a whole.  Alongside the score, the menacing Bates mansion, the rainstorm outside the creepy motel…how seriously were you supposed to take it?  Any effort, however, to take this film for a comedy was lost in the performances and in the pacing.  What Hitchcock accomplished was to force cliché down your throat so you proverbially choked on it, and became so uncomfortable in your own preconceptions that you didn’t know how to behave.

That was the point.  Because neither did anyone in the movie know how to behave.  Everyone was confused.  And everyone goes “a little mad sometimes.”

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