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Inspired by the critical and commercial success of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s arthouse shocker, Les Diabolique, Alfred Hitchcock took a break from his big budget Technicolor thrillers to make a little horror film called Psycho. Like the French film, he would shoot on a shoestring budget and in black & white. After the massive success of his previous film, North By Northwest, most of the suits at the studio thought their cash cow was off his rocker. Forgoing most of his big money crew he had worked with for years, he used the team from his anthology TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, knowing they could work fast and cheap and would be more open to some of the new radical tricks Hitchcock was hoping to try out. With no one understanding what the master had up his sleeve, in the end, Psycho has proved to be one his biggest hits and one of the most influential films of all time.
Perfectly taut and compact, every line of Pyscho's dialog, every camera movement, and even the casting is all carefully constructed for the scare and suspense payoffs to come. Based on a then little read novel with the same title by Robert Bloch (Strait-Jacket), Hitchcock burned through a couple of screenwriters before Joseph Stefano got the vibe he was looking for. Bloch was inspired by the horrific true-life serial killer Ed Gein (whose ghastly crimes would inspire a number of films from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Motel Hell).
The first half of Psycho follows Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, fresh from Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil), stuck in a dead-end job at a Phoenix bank. Seeing her chance to finally settle down with her boy-toy, Sam (the stiff John Gavin), she steals money from her bank. Hitting the open road, on the run, she ends up going to a little motel to spend the night. She meets the proprietor, Norman Bates, a sensitive guy who is stuck under the foot of his overbearing mother. The second half of the film is about Norman, as he is forced to cover up the crimes his mother seems to be committing. As a detective (Martin Balsam) comes to investigate Marion’s disappearance and her sister, Lila (Vera Miles), teams up with Sam to look for her, Norman, like Marion, gets deeper and deeper into his trouble.
Every aspect of Psycho was masterly. The impact on film, especially in the horror/ thriller genre, has been massive. From Saul Bass’s eerie title design to Bernard Herrmann’s totally original, all string, score, all the elements have been influential. (Besides Herrmann’s other famous Hitchcock scores, his legendary soundtracks ranged from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver.) Most of all maybe, George Tomasini's manipulative editing has been copied. Janet Leigh’s famous shower scene is still studied and scrutinized by editing classes and filmmakers (along with the editing innovations of the much earlier but still oh so important Birth Of A Nation and The Battleship Potemkin). Carefully cut with dozens of fast clips, audiences (and censors) would swear they saw nudity and the knife penetrating the flesh, when they actually saw neither. The scene is brilliantly constructed so that your mind fills in the gaps for what you don’t see. Hell, the fact that water from the spraying shower head never got on the camera lens, alone, was groundbreaking.
The casting was also carefully done to play with audience expectations. After his sensitive turns in films like Friendly Persuasion, Anthony Perkins was a teenybopper pin-up boy (the non-beefcake kind). Norman Bates would make Perkins an icon, unfortunately for an ambitious and talented actor it stuck with him like glue. Though he has always continued to work (in mostly forgettable films) he was never able to shake the role from audiences’ consciousness. His sweet on screen nature and naÃ¯ve stutter helped audiences feel sorry for Norman even after they grasped his true nature. Eventually Perkins gave into audience demands and played the role again, as well as knockoffs of it (Crimes of Passion).
Janet Leigh, the “big star” who surprised audiences with her early exit from the film, was actually only a “B star,” more famous for her marriage to Tony Curtis than for her generic performances. Though Leigh proves to be perfect in the role, Marion’s exit may have been even more shocking had the role been played by say, Grace Kelly, a true megastar. Speaking of Kelly, Hitchcock was grooming Vera Miles to be his next Grace Kelly; pregnancy forced her to drop out of Vertigo, angering Hitchcock (the role went to Kim Novak instead). As a sort of revenge he gave her the less exciting role of the sister, dressing her in dowdy outfits and downplaying her obvious glamourpuss beauty, but she would shine in the role regardless.
Even at home, as Vera Miles approaches the house looking for Mother Bates, you can hear audiences from 1960 scream out, “Don’t go there!” She shrieks as she spots herself in a double mirror (another small piece of brilliant editing). It’s not so much the horror and violence in Psycho that’s been ripped off; only two people are killed on camera. It’s the twisted sexual perversion and identity crisis of the killer, the madman who kills with a kitchen knife (usually young women), at first for pleasure and then to protect a secret. You can still hear the original guitar sound of Chuck Berry in most Rock N’ Roll today, and you can definitely feel Psycho in every mad-slasher film that still arrives in theaters. Generations of directors spent years imitating Hitchcock from France (Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut) to America (Brian De Palma, Tobe Hooper, William Castle). Both good films (Jaws, Halloween, Mute Witness, the original Cape Fear) and bad films (the Friday The 13th series, etc.) owe a huge debt to Psycho. The bad and mediocre rip-offs may get the shock, but they always miss the abstract subtlety and humor that Psycho had.
In its day Psycho was probably the scariest film ever made, and it still holds up today (though the long psychologist explanation at the end is a yawner and feels dated, it helps set up the final shocking Bates moment). Hitchcock followed up Psycho with another classic “horror” flick, The Birds. He was able to push the limits of violence and gore a little more. Finally by ’72, with censors no longer having any influence on content, Hitchcock was able to go all out with the sex, nudity, and violence with his underrated masterpiece Frenzy, it feels like the film Hitchcock always wanted to secretly make. Long after Hitchcock’s death Psycho continued to put people to work (including Perkins). There’s now been a pointless remake, a prequel, sequels, and a television series. Who knew Hitchcock’s little low budget experiment would be so massive and continue to live on so hugely? Deep down Hitchcock probably knew.
Psycho was nominated for four Oscars: Best Supporting Actress (Janet Leigh), Best Director, Best Black & White Cinematography, and Best Black & White Art Direction.