I wasn’t really aware of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” until its first sequel came out in 1983, more than 20 years after the original was released. I didn’t watch “Psycho II” then as I was only 8 years old, but I do remember the trailers for it and the movie title cracking up on the big screen as it played before “Return of the Jedi.” When I rented “Psycho” and watched it on VHS with my older brother, we didn’t initially see what the big deal was as we had long since been spoiled by the “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies with all the blood and gore a hormonal teenager could want (or for that matter take).
Turns out that watching it once was not enough. Whether or not you think “Psycho” is Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie ever, it’s clearly the one he is remembered for most. After more than fifty years, it remains a great study of how a director can maintain suspense throughout the entire running time of a movie and of a master playing the audience all the way to the finish. This becomes even more apparent as you watch it a second and third time. Hitchcock puts you into the mindset of Marion Crane as she drives out of town after embezzling some money, and then he completely changes the dynamic of the story once Norman Bates comes into the picture.
With “Psycho” now more than fifty years old, it represents another chance for us to go behind the scenes to see how this horror classic was made. It also represents another opportunity for Universal Pictures to release a new DVD and Blu-ray edition of the movie so they can fleece a few more dollars from our wallets. Looking back at this particular Hitchcock film proved to be one of the most interesting research projects I have taken on as there is much to be said about what went on behind the scenes.
“Psycho” originated as a novel written by Robert Bloch which itself was based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, a man whose horrific exploits would come to inspire many horror movies beyond this one. Hitchcock acquired the film rights through his agent for $9,000, and he chose to film it after two projects he was working on at Paramount Pictures, “Flamingo Feather” and “No Bail for The Judge,” fell through. But Paramount Pictures didn’t even want to help him out on this one either as they found Bloch’s novel too repulsive. The executives refused to finance the production and even went as far as to tell Hitchcock that their soundstages were unavailable because they were being used for other projects, but that was just a lie as their production schedule was already in a slump at the time.
Undaunted, Hitchcock was still determined to turn “Psycho” into a movie, and at one point he even offered to defer his normal director’s fee of $250,000 in exchange for 60% ownership of the film’s negative. Executives still would not grant him the financing he desired, so he continued to go through several different cost-cutting measures before getting a budget of no more than $1 million to make the movie his way. Hitchcock had planned to make the film fast and cheap anyway, and he employed the crew members of his television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” to ensure this would happen. He also succeeded in casting proven stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins at a quarter of their usual salaries.
Bringing down the budget also meant shooting the film in black & white, but this was fine with Hitchcock as he wanted to film it that way as to make the shower scene come across as less gory, and he was also a big fan of “Les Diabolique” and its use of black & white.
In filming “Psycho,” Hitchcock started off by making this as objective an experience as possible, and we feel what Marion goes through as the voices in her head fill her with guilt and doubt over what she has done. To help emphasize this effect, Hitchcock shot nearly the entire movie with 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras. By doing this, the camera was said to mimic normal human vision, so in the end you’re not just watching the movie, you’re experiencing it. This even goes on after Marion has exited under horrific circumstances and the movie turns its focus to Norman Bates. When he pushes that car into a nearby swamp, you share in his anxiety of when it doesn’t completely sink. Like Norman, you want the car to sink.
Then you have the famous shower scene, and it remains one of the most talked about and heavily dissected scenes in cinematic history. It was shot over six days from 77 different camera angles, and the scene features around 50 cuts in the three minutes it lasts. Not much is shown in that you never see the knife penetrating Marion’s flesh, and there is no gore other than the blood (chocolate syrup was used) going down the drain. It is what you don’t see that makes the scene so violent. Like Spielberg did years later with “Jaws,” Hitchcock dared the audience to use their imagination in regards to what they thought they saw in that sequence. That is one of many reasons this scene has stood the test of time, and it was also the first time a director killed off his leading lady in the middle of a film. You couldn’t help but wonder where things could possibly go from there, and shower curtain sales have never been the same since.
But you certainly can’t go on without mentioning the infamous score by Bernard Herrmann, and it remains one of the scariest pieces of music ever applied to a motion picture. Throughout his career, Hermann proved to be brilliant in composing a film score that captured the psychology of the characters in the story. It was a surprise to learn that this score almost didn’t come about as Herrmann balked at Hitchcock’s request to take the job on a reduced salary. However, Herrmann agreed to the terms and wrote music for a string orchestra as opposed to a full symphony which would have included brass and woodwind instruments.
Although “Psycho” is now recognized today as a classic, it actually received mixed reviews upon its release. Some admired the buildup of tension, but others questioned the psychological elements as being less effective. It even made one critic, C. A. Lejeune, so offended that she walked out of the theater before the movie was even over and soon after permanently resigned her position as film critic. Looks like Norman’s mother didn’t just claim victims onscreen.
When you look at cinematic history, it is important to keep in mind that movies we see today as classic were not necessarily treated that way upon their original release. It is over the passing of time where movies get re-evaluated or seen in a different light, and no film can ever truly be perfect (some come really close though). “Psycho” was a game changer as it came during the erosion of the Motion Picture Production Code which was heavy in its censorship of sex and violence in American films. With this movie, Hitchcock flirted with showing nudity as well as gore and this later opened up the doors for filmmakers to exploit these elements in far more detail. Without “Psycho,” there may never have been a “Halloween” which itself sparked a whole wave of slasher movies.
The cultural impact of “Psycho” lasts on to this very day. Not many films would have a sequel to it decades years later. Another sequel followed as well as a prequel because some just thought it would be a good idea to show how Norman Bates got to be the shy psychotic that he is. There was even a failed television pilot called “Bates Motel” which starred Bud Cort as Alex West, an asylum inmate who befriends Norman and later inherits the motel and the house where mother lived (Anthony Perkins wanted nothing to do with that one). It also inspired a shot-for-shot remake by Gus Van Sant which seemed as odd as Norman himself. The only purpose of it seemed to be proof that remakes will never be able to recapture what made the original so good. But if they make money, the studios probably won’t mind the critical bashing.
There is also the A&E television series “Bates Motel” which has proven to be a critical and commercial success as it shows the relationship between Norman and his mother prior to the events of “Psycho.” This should only go to show how fascinated we remain about the dark side of human nature after all these years.
Even today, you can’t hear screeching violins and not think of “Psycho.” Filmmakers reference it today like Wes Craven did in the “Scream” movies, and there are dozens of others that have done the same. That shower scene has been spoofed many times, my favorite being on “The Simpsons” where Maggie attacks Homer with a mallet after watching the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. Another great one was during one of Billy Crystal’s Oscar montages where he was in the shower and ends up getting accosted by Kevin Spacey as his “American Beauty” character Lester Burnham. Turns out it wasn’t the same shower Janet Leigh got stabbed in.
Leigh never looked at taking showers the same way after doing this movie and it would be ages before she took one ever again (she did take baths for the record). Perkins would forever be typecast in roles similar to Norman Bates, but he said he still would have done the movie even if he knew that would have been the case. Many filmmakers (Brian De Palma especially) have tried to use Hitchcock’s tricks to varying degrees of success. Still, there is no topping what Hitchcock did with the original. It is the one that so many other suspense and horror movies are judged by. It makes sense that we recognize it again on its fiftieth anniversary as it shows how unique Hitchcock’s powers of manipulation were and how hard they are to duplicate. It also illustrates what he meant when he said, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.”
“Entertainment Weekly: The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time,” Entertainment Weekly Books, 1999.
“The Making of Psycho,” 1997 documentary directed by Laurent Bouzereau, Universal Studios Home Video.
Rothenberg, Robert S. (July 2001), “Getting Hitched – Alfred Hitchcock films released on digital video disks.” USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education).
“100 Scariest Movie Moments,” Bravo. Archived from the original on 2007-10-30.
“The 25 Most Shocking Moments in Movie History,” Premiere Magazine.
Smith, Steven C. (1991), “A Heart at Fire’s Center; The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann,” Berkeley, University of California Press.