Classic Hitchcock: Psycho

Universal Studios, 1959. The production crew of a TV show are gathering at the back of the Universal lot to make a film. They have only a small budget, and only thirty days scheduled to get filming finished. You’d think the water would be over their heads, but the director has pointed out that the film will be very cheap and cheerful. He’s only just come off a massive hit the year before, so for the executives at Universal this is a bit of a surprise. But they have gone along with the directors vision. A director who just happens to be on of the most famous in the world. And during that November of 1959, at the back of Universal Studios, a crew is building the Bates motel.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had all the characteristics of a cheap exploitation movie. It had a budget of $800,000 which even in the 1960s was considered low budget. Instead of seeing the minimalism as a weakness, Hitchcock decided to embrace it. He decided to film it in on cheaper black & white film. He used the same cost effective crew that made his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series, as appose to the more extravagant team that had made North by Northwest the year before. It’s almost like Hitchcock was feeling a little tired with all the big budget work and wanted to do something smaller and more intimate.

Psycho marked the first time Hitchcock moved away from his traditional taut thrillers and shifted into full on horror. He crafted a tale that plays on the audience’s fears with great effect. The fear of being forced into a corner where murder is the only way out. The fear of law enforcement watching your every move. The fear of a madman deciding you will be his next victim just because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And of course, the fear of disappointing your mother. The main reason why this is so effective though is that Hitchcock successfully convinces us that the film is about Marion (Janet Leigh), and then leads us up the garden path.

It certainly broke more than it’s fair share of taboos in its time. Even the opening scene when Marion walks around her divorced lover Sam Loomis’ (John Gavin) bedroom in her bra was considered controversial. Even Marian flushing a torn-up note down the toilet was considered risky; at this point a toilet had never been heard flushing in mainstream cinema let alone seen. It was one of the most shocking films the audience had ever seen, but not because of its content. It was the way the director manipulated it and the viewer. The shock that occurs around a third of the way into the film is one of the most memorable moments in cinema history, because Hitchcock convinced us that Marion is our heroine. Then he delivers a shower-based shock.

The screenplay was originally supposed to be written by James Cavanaugh, who had previously written a few episodes of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Upon reading Cavanaugh’s screenplay, Hitchcock rejected it saying that it was too dull. With no writer left to take over, Hitchcock reluctantly turned to Joseph Stefano, who had only made his movie début a couple of years previous with The Black Orchid starring Sophia Loren. However, Hitchcock liked Stefano’s approach to the story and hired him. It’s during the scene when Marion sits down to talk to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) that Stefano reaches his peak. We see how the two connect, and how Marion feels sorry for the innocent and wounded-looking Norman.

Psycho is probably the most audacious film Alfred Hitchcock ever made. Regardless of the taboo-breaking scenes or the shock twists, Hitchcock was on his own admission playing a game with the audience. It was a risk that could have so easily backfired. Hitchcock wouldn’t allow Janet Leigh or Anthony Perkins to attend any press events for the film, and it wasn’t even screened in advance for the press. The posters in the cinema lobbies showed Hitchcock himself, pointing to his watch like an angry boarding school teacher. “No one… BUT NO ONE… Will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho” it read alongside the director. This was quite a bold move, but still a necessary one. Hitchcock didn’t want word to get out, nor people to miss what would happen a third of the way into the film.

The shower sequence took seven of the thirty filming days to complete, and yet it only takes up around three minutes of the film. It’s still held up to this day as an example of artistry defeating graphic violence. One of the main reasons Hitchcock chose to film in black and white was because he didn’t the audience would be able to deal with all the blood that is spilt when Marion is attacked in the shower. If only he knew the slasher films of the future would consider bloodshed a quality. The sequence was filmed from seventy seven different angles, and with fifty cuts. Only one split second shot actually shows a knife penetrating Janet Leigh’s skin. So if you think we weren’t going to include the clip below then you’re out of your mind.

There are many myths about the shower scene. That Hitchcock used freezing cold water to make Janet Leigh scream louder. That she didn’t even know her character would be killed off to make her reaction when the shower curtain flies open more authentic. That for the majority of the time Leigh’s body double was used. That if you slow the film down enough, you’ll see a shot of Leigh’s nipple. All except the latter are false (if you’re curious, it’s when Marion pulls the curtain down). Just like the chest-burster scene in Alien, the scene had such an effect that people believed something more must have been going on in order to make it so memorable. It’s hard for us to believe that it was just another week at the office for these people.

Janet Leigh’s Marion occupies a role that we see regularly in Hitchcock’s work. She’s an innocent person caught up in a criminal’s world. Although she’s not strictly innocent, as an audience we think of her that way. She’s in love with a divorced man and steals $40,000 in order to be with him. But she ends up crippled with guilt, and whilst staying at the Bates Motel because of a rain storm, she decides to take the money back, and takes a shower to wash away the guilt.

Because of Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation, he was able to cast his first choice to play Marion, Janet Leigh, for just a quarter of her usual salary. Leigh had apparently read the novel by Robert Bloch on which the movie is based, and instantly signed up before even reading the script. Leigh initially didn’t even ask what her salary would be when she agreed to the role. Anthony Perkins proved an interesting casting choice, considering that in the novel Norman Bates is middle-aged, overweight and enjoys pornography. The scriptwriter Stefano liked the idea of changing the dynamic of the character to match Perkins’ style.

At the time of the release of Psycho, Hitchcock was at the height of his career. He was thought of as the most famous director in the world, and people were going to see his films just because his name was on the marquee. It’s very unlikely that an audience will gravitate to a director like that today. Perhaps it is because the audience was following him religiously that Hitchcock thought he could get away with emotionally manipulating them throughout the film. The death of Arbogast (Martin Balsam) and the revelation about Norman’s mother provide shocks later in the film.

Hitchcock opted to film Psycho with 50mm lenses, which gave the effect of human vision. This made the darker scenes in the film all the more unnerving. Especially during the sequence when Norman is watching Marion undress through a tiny peephole. Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates certainly has to be classed as a landmark performance. He makes Norman a likeable character – an innocent person who is having to cover-up his mother’s mistakes. Even when he’s removing Marion’s body and pushing her car into the swamp we’re on his side. In a strange way we want him to succeed, which is by far the most audacious aspect of the film.

Psycho is considered to be the first ever slasher film, and when you think about it nothing has ever really compared. Modern-day slasher films tend to drive towards gore and exploitation, rather than trying find something new and invigorating. The same can be said of blockbuster movies. Perhaps the big earners will never be as good as Jaws, the first film ever to break the $100 million mark. One thing is for sure, a legacy of horror movies exist today because of Hitchcock’s flare and creativity. Psycho is about an artist tackling movie convention and cliche – and winning.

Perhaps we will hear more stories about what happened on the set of Psycho yet. February 2013 will see the release of Hitchcock, a film based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. It stars Anthony Hopkins in what certainly will be an Oscar nominated role as Alfred Hitchcock, with Helen Mirren playing the director’s wife Alma, and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. The trailer for the film shows us a Hitchcock willing to do anything to make his film the best one yet, and that is something that we have no difficulty believing. Yes, he was an arrogant control freak, but he also made some of the most influential movies of all time, and out of all of them, Psycho will probably remain the most memorable.

Psycho is part of the Alfred Hitchcock Collection, available to buy on Blu-Ray now.

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About Eric Wood

Eric Wood is 21 years old, from Bury in Greater Manchester, and a graduate of Salford University where he studied Journalism and English Literature. His first novel comes out later in the year, and he begins work directing his first feature length movie in the summer. Eric absolutely adores all forms of writing and loves movies so he’s the ideal film critic. His greatest inspiration for many years has been Michael Crichton, as Crichton has written novels, non-fiction, screenplays, and directed movies. Eric would love to be able to achieve all of those things in my lifetime.
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