Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary “Psycho” (1960) is a cinematic masterpiece.The film’s macabre and perverse storyline, accompanied by its graphic depiction of sexuality and violence, provided a cultural breakthrough in the world of mainstream cinema at the start of the 1960’s.It represented a new mood in Hollywood; the studio system had finally collapsed, and censorship laws were weakening. “Psycho” brought previously taboo subjects to the forefront of peoples attention. Aimed at a new, younger generation of moviegoers, it heralded the introduction of the “formula thriller”, and provided a new benchmark for standards of censorship. Although a burgeoning youth market welcomed the filmwith open arms, older audiences rejected its radical new style, and it was initially met with anger and criticism from many quarters. In “Psycho”, Hitchcock re-examined the familiar themes which characterise his work -including guilt, voyeurism, Oedipal complexes, and misogyny, but in such a brilliant and innovative manner, that he reinvented himself in the process.
“Psycho” is based on the pulp novel by Robert Bloch. It revolves around the characters Of Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) and her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin). The movie begins in Phoenix, Arizona, with the two enjoying a Friday afternoon tryst in a seedy hotel room. Marion is unhappy; whilst she wants to be with Sam, she feels cheapened by the manner of their affair, and wants him to marry her. He explains that it is financially impossible for him to do so, as he is currently living in the back of a store in Fairvale, California, and trying to clear his father’s unpaid debts, whilst also making alimony payments to his wife.He has been flying down to Phoenix for his romantic interludes with Marion, and makes it clear to her that until his finances improve, marriage is not an option. Marion returns to the real estate office where she works to find a rich client Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) leaving $40,000 in cash with her boss George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor) as payment for a house which is part of his daughter’s wedding dowry. A gloating Cassidy flirts with Marion, (who at that moment feels painfully deprived) whilst dangling the notes before her in a tantalising, yet vulgar, manner.
Lowery is uncomfortable with such a vast amount of money being left in the office, so he asks Marion to deposit it in the bank for the weekend. Acting on impulse, Marion feigns a headache, and asks him if she may go home after depositing the money. Instead, she packs and leaves town with the cash bundle in her purse. She sees it as the solution to hers and Sam’s problems, and their passport to marital bliss. As Marion leaves Phoenix in her car, she is spotted by Lowery and Tom Cassidy, as they cross the street in front of her. Instinctively she smiles in recognition, whilst Lowery casts her a puzzled and concerned look. Marion’s face drops as she realises she has been caught out. Hitchcock begins to build his trademark tension from this point on, aided by Bernard Hermann’s jarring, slashing, music. With a guilty conscience she drives on, and her thoughts become irrational. Suspecting that she is being followed, and that everybody knows that she has just committed a crime, she repeatedly checks her rear-view mirror. As dusk turns to night, the glaring headlights of the oncoming cars seem to seek and search her out, spotlighting her wrongdoing.
For this reason she decides to trade her car in for another, once she has crossed the state line into California; but not before she is stopped and questioned by a suspicious police officer, who finds her asleep in her car on the roadside. He follows her to a garage, where she uses some of the stolen money and her car for a trade-in on a new model. Miraculously, the policeman doesn’t detain her, and she drives off. As night falls, she finds herself driving in pouring rain, and, missing a turnoff, ends up on a nearly deserted road. Just as tiredness is getting the better of her and she feels she can go no further, she suddenly notices a sign for the Bates Motel. As she pulls in, she spies a figure in the upstairs window of the house at the back of the motel. After honking her car horn, she is met by the motel’s owner, an obliging (if odd) young man by the name of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
Norman explains to Marion that his motel receives few visitors due to a new freeway, which unfortunately has bypassed the road it is on. He says that he keeps the motel open to give him a break from caring for his invalid mother. He offers to share supper with Marion and she agrees, but as she settles into her room, she is shocked to hear a verbal fight occur between Norman and his mother up at the house, through her open window.In a shrieking voice and disturbing fashion, Norman’s mother rages that she will not entertain Marion at the house.She tells Norman that he disgusts her, whilst accusing him of having a “cheap, erotic mind”. He returns to the motel with some sandwiches and milk, and sheepishly suggests that Marion and he dine in the office parlour, which is decorated with examples of his hobby of taxidermy. Birds are his favourite subject; they adorn the walls in a gaudily menacing display. From their conversation, Marion concludes that Norman is overly controlled by his mother, and gently suggests that he try to build a life of his own, and seek outside help for her. This is met with an aggressive outburst, much to her shock and discomfort. As the conversation draws to an end, she realises that she must return to Phoenix, and make amends for her crime.
Marion retires for the night, and is unaware as she strips to take a shower that Norman is watching her from a peephole in the parlour wall. It is evident from his actions that he is a seasoned voyeur. What follows is the “infamous” shower scene, and one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. Marion is stabbed to death in a violent frenzy by a female figure who is only seen in silhouette. Minutes later there are dramatic cries from Norman at the house, who screams: “MOTHER! OH GOD, MOTHER! BLOOD!”. Racing to the motel, he is horrified and sickened to find Marion’s corpse in the bathroom; moments later he is eerily calm, and methodically sets about cleaning up the scene of the murder; disposing of Marion’s body, her car, her belongings, and the money, in the swamp behind the Bates property. Thus the stage is set for the rest of the film. Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) travels to Fairvale to confront Sam. She believes that Marion may be hiding out there with him, and demands an explanation.
As they talk, a private detective named Milton Aborgast (Martin Balsam) arrives, and interrupts their conversation. He has been hired by Tom Cassidy to retrieve the stolen money, and has followed Lila in the hope that she will lead him to Marion. However, Sam explains to both of them that he doesn’t know where Marion is, and that he knows nothing about the theft. Aborgast comes up with a lead that traces Marion to the Bates motel, and calls Sam and Lila to tell them that he will be following it up.Subse- quently he meets with Norman, and quickly suspects that he is hiding something. After checking the motel’s register, he finds Marion signed in under an alias – (he matches her handwriting to a sample he has been given).Norman becomes jumpy when Aborgast asks if he is hiding Marion in the house.He explains that he saw a figure at the window of the house when he pulled in to the motel. Norman replies that it is his sick mother, who is unable to receive visitors. When Aborgast pushes the point, Norman asks him to leave.
Aborgast’s suspicions proves fatal when he returns later, to the motel. Entering the Bates house, he climbs the stairs to locate Norman’s mother. As he reaches the top, a female figure dashes from an adjacent doorway, and stabs the stunned private eye to death, in a violent knife attack.When Aborgast fails to return, Lila and Sam assume that he must have discovered some important information, and decide that it is time to go to the law. The local sheriff is not convinced that Norman knows anything about Marion’s disappearance. He also explains that Norman’s mother died ten years previously, in a gruesome murder. The couple are left with no other option than to return to the Bates motel themselves.Masquerading as a married couple, they sign in at the motel; whilst Sam distracts Norman in the office, Lila makes her way up to the house to talk with his mother. Sam confronts Norman with Marion’s disappearance, and at the same time tries to force him into admitting that he has stolen Marion’s money. As the argument escalates, Norman suddenly realises that Lila is conspicuously absent; he grapples with Sam, and knocks him unconscious. Lila spies Norman running up to the house, and rushes to hide in the cellar, only to find the semi preserved corpse of Mrs. Bates positioned in a rocking chair. At that moment, the killer is revealed.Norman Bates, cross-dressed in his mother’s clothing, complete with wig, darts forward brandishing a butcher’s knife. As Lila screams, Sam appears and disarms him.
The film concludes in the local police station. There, a forensic psychiatrist named Fred Richmond (Simon Oakland) explains to Lila, Sam, and the police, Norman Bates’ psychosis.As he tells it: although dead, Norman’s mother lives on in his troubled psyche.Whilst she was alive, he was dominated and ruled by her; then when another man came into her life and she looked set to remarry, a jealous Norman killed them both. Guilt-ridden by his crimes, he mentally blocked out the murders by trying to bring his mother back to life. He accomplished this by exhuming her corpse, and using his taxidermy skills to preserve what was left of it. In addition, he took on his mother’s persona by allocating half his mind to her. That meant talking, acting, and dressing as she did, in order to make her presence appear real, and thus erasing her absence. Norman was pathologically jealous of his mother, and assumed that she felt the same way about him. This is the explanation for Marion’s murder. The Norman persona believes that his mother is very much alive, and he has no knowledge of the murders “she” has committed. In the final scene of the film, he sits silently in his cell, whilst the persona of his mother has finally taken over his mind completely.
Filmed on a low budget of $800,000, and utilising members of Hitchcock’s television series crew, “Psycho” was originally intended as a cheap “B” movie feature; instead, it turned out to be a brilliantly edited, powerful and complex psychological thriller that remains unsurpassed to this day. It has been suggested that it formed the archetypal basis for all horror movies that followed its 1960 release; especially those of the “slasher” genre. Movies such as “Homicidal” (1961), “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974), “Halloween” (1978), “Motel Hell” (1980), and “Dressed To Kill” (1980) all tried to emulate Hitchcock’s style, yet with inferior results. “Psycho” was Hitchcock’s first horror movie, and unfortunately for ever after he was labelled as a “horror film” director, which is simply not the case.In fact, at the time of its release, it was the most un-Hitchcockian movie of all. There are several reasons for the success and longevity of “Psycho”, not least its universality. In “Psycho”, Hitchcock involves the audience directly; he allows them to become a subjective character within the storyline in order to enhance the film’s psychological effects and impact. The audience are forced to recognise their own neurosis and psychological flaws as they identify with the contrasting personalities of the film’s main characters; their motivations and actions, and the consequences thereof.Via his characters, and with the active participation of his audience, Hitchcock is able to graphically convey the unending subconscious battle between good and evil that exists in everyone. He skilfully manipulates the audience’s emotions; first by encouraging them to identify with the main character – luckless and lovelorn victim Marion Crane, and then the murderer – crazed and troubled taxidermist Norman Bates. At the same time, his masterful technique voyeuristically implicates the audience with the dark side of human nature and vulnerability, as they witness at first hand the nightmare of corruption, confused identities, victimisation, and Oedipal murder that unfolds before them.
The movie screenplay for “Psycho” was written by Joseph Stefano, and adapted from Robert Bloch’s novel.In turn, Bloch’s story was based on the real life Plainsville psychotic serial killer Edward Gein. In 1957, Bloch was living in Weyauwega, Wisconsin – close to Gein’s stalking grounds. At the time, Bloch became fascinated with the idea that a seemingly normal law abiding citizen (but posessed of dangerous psychotic tendencies) could live undetected, within the microcosm of a small-town, gossip mongering community.Bloch commented that it was not until many years later that he realised how closely the character he had created in Norman Bates resembled Gein, “both in overt act and apparent motivation”. Gein’s crimes were so bizarre and grisly that many news outlets of the day refused to give a full report of the atrocities he committed. Interestingly, Bloch’s vision of Norman Bates is a fat, balding, middle-aged voyeur, modelled on writer and magazine publisher Calvin Thomas Beck. Stefano reworked him into a handsome, young man, to make the character more sympathetic. Anthony Perkins turned in a superlative performance as Norman, which is as chilling as it is memorable. His rakish frame, childlike voice, jittery, nervous mannerisms, and cowardly manner belie the true nature of his tortured, psychotic mind; making the inevitable revelation of his true character especially shocking. Unfortunatley, for the rest of his acting life Perkins would be typecast as Norman Bates, and the whole trajectory of his career changed as a result. After a decade or so of refusing to talk about the part, he finally came to terms with the situation, and returned to play the role of Norman in three “Psycho” sequels, none of which held a candle to the original.
The stark black and white photography in “Psycho” brilliantly conveyed the mood of the story. It was the work of John L. Russell, a regular from Hitchcock’s television series. His stunning cinematography expertly captured the brooding shadows and eerie menace that gave the film its unique look. One of his most memorable scenes occurs when Marion reaches her final destination on a dark, rainy, night. As the wipers clear the rain from her car windscreen, the infamous neon sign “Bates Motel – Vacancy” appears, and a masterful celluloid moment enters the realm of movie legend. Russell also handles the murder scenes in the most striking fashion, aided by Bernard Herrmann’s score. His use of violins in the notorious shower sequence is sheer genius; the masterful composition conveying the sense of a knife eagerly ripping apart human flesh. This theme is also present in the film’s opening moments, when the titles (superbly designed by Saul Bass) are slashed away. Marion Crane being hacked to death in the shower is probably the single most powerful moment from “Psycho”, and certainly the one that people most recall; including those who have never seen the film. Herrmann’s striking and discordant music vividly denotes the presence of a psychopath. Although blood (chocolate sauce) and a knife is shown, the full horror of the murder is only hinted at on-screen, leaving the rest to the viewer’s (by now) fertile imagination. In Bloch’s novel, Marion is actually decapitated; this however does not detract from the power of the movie version. Indeed, it induced a wide spread shower phobia for a long while after amongst impressionable people, who preferred to take a bath instead. One such person was Janet Leigh herself – she never took a shower again after making the film!
The true genius of “Psycho” can be found not in its story, but in its construction.Hitchcock and Stefano developed the script in such a way that it consistently flouted expectations, thereby keeping the audience guessing, and on the edge of their seats – sometimes quite literally. There is no foreshadowing in the film; the audience, like the characters themselves, have no idea of where the danger is coming from. The two major surprises occur with the shower murder and the final revelation about Norman’s mother.The uninitiated viewer who is seeing the film for the first time with no knowledge of the plot, will experience the maximum impact that these two elements provide.At the start of “Psycho”, the screenplay leads people to assume that Janet Leigh’s character Marion is the main focus; her death early on in the story is therefore quite a shock; then when the plot changes to Norman’s perspective, the audience are left baffled – and intrigued. This is exactly the affect that Hitchcock and Stefano intended. In fact, when the film was first released in June 1960, Hitchcock was so concerned that these crucial aspects were kept secret before viewing, that he ordered there should be no advance screenings – enlisting special security guards to ensure that no one was admitted after the feature had started. “Psycho” was the first major Hollywood movie to feature a woman dressed only in her underwear, the first to feature toilet bowls and flushing water, the first to use the word “transvestite”, and, most original of all, the first to kill its lead character off a third of the way through the film. These points may seem of little consequence in today’s jaded, seen-it-all-before society, but one has to view them in the context of the era in which the film was originally released. The fact that Marion Crane was killed at all made “Psycho” the scariest movie ever, at that point in time. Audiences were simply not used to seeing an attractive young woman being violated in such a gruesome fashion.
Some film historians have claimed that Hitchcock had originally intended on shooting “Psycho” in colour, or, more interestingly, film everything in black and white, apart from the shower scene; then shock the audience with a technicolour bloodbath. Fortunately, the right decision was taken. The black and white medium lent a surreal and stylish quality that completely fitted the tone of the film. Even more controversial is the proposition that Saul Bass (the gifted artist who designed the opening credits and frequently contributed to Hitchcock’s films) directed the much lauded shower sequence himself.Although Bass meticulously storyboarded the 90 second shower scene, it is accepted by most people that it WAS Hitchcock who directed it.He composed each scene with painstaking care and attention to detail. When “Psycho” was released in June 1960, it was a huge hit where it counted; with the young. There were reports at the time of three mile long tailbacks at drive-in entrances. For over forty years, its influence has not waned. In 1998, Gus Van Sant committed sacrilege; he did a rather pointless frame by frame remake, which only served to promote interest in the original. John Carpenter’s “Halloween” is justifiably considered to be the father Of the modern “slasher” movie, but it is worth pointing out that he did not Invent this brand of terror; he reinvented the genre by paying homage to Hitchcock and “Psycho”. Robert Bloch benefited hugely from the success of “Psycho”. He became a major horror screenwriter throughout the 1960’s and beyond, scripting such horror films and chillers as “The Cabinet of Caligari” (1962), “Strait Jacket” (1964), “The Night Walker” (1964), “The Skull” (1965), “The Psychopath” (1966), “The Deadly Bees” (1967), “The Torture Garden” (1967), “The House That Dripped Blood” (1971), “Asylum” (1972), the short feature “Mannikin” (1977), and “The Amazing Captain Nemo”.
One of the major questions that “Psycho” poses is the importance of fate. Are we responsible for the directions our lives take? Is it inevitable that certain actions will provoke a reaction? Hitchcock certainly believed so, and used “Psycho” to make the point. The message seems to be that one can go through life as an upstanding member of the community, yet one wrong move, one indiscretion or moment of weakness, and you will come to a horrific end. Marion’s spur of the moment impulse, and loss of reason and propriety when she absconded with the cash not only sealed her fate, (in the most ghastly manner) but others , too.It is easy to forget this after the graphic depiction and sensational aspect of her murder. “Psycho” is also about movement, agitation, and anxiety. Marion on the run, driving her car, Sam Loomis and Lila Crane, Milton Aborgast. Even Norman Bates seems to continuously pace the motel and large mansion on the hilltop.When Marion is finally murdered, her immobility is as much a shock as the manner of her murder.For a neo second, everything freeezes; the lifeless close up of Marion’s face on the bathroom floor whilst the shower continues to rain down on her from overhead, is one of the movie’s most haunting and affecting images.
Although “Psycho” may not be Hitchcock’s greatest film (that subjective distinction belongs perhaps to “Vertigo” or “Rear Window”), it is the one for which he is universally remembered.Clearly the film is horrific, but it also contains all the elements of a very dark, black comedy; something the critics did not pick up on at the time of its release.One person who DID was Mel Brooks; he parodied several scenes from Hitchcock’s films (including “Psycho”) in his 1978 comedy “High Anxiety”. “Psycho” represented a shift from the “Classical” style of film making to the “Post-Classical”. Its unconventional storyline, stylised photography, and editing, show the influences on Hitchcock of the French “New Wave” movement and the European “Art Films” , both of which he greatly admired. The shower scene sequence, with its startling editing techniques, was borrowed from the Soviet “Montage” filmmakers. Interestingly, the film was not given a rating until 1968, when an early version of the MPAA rated it “M”, for mature audiences only. When it was re-released in 1984, it was given an “R” rating. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: Janet Leigh (Best supporting actress), Alfred Hitchcock (Best Director), Best black and white cinematography, and Best black and white art direction/Set direction. Unfortunately, all of the contenders lost out. With the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps not surprising; the Academy wasn’t ready in 1960 for a movie which not only featured the murder of a young female, but touched on incest and necrophilia, too. It is astonishing that Hitchcock never picked up an Academy award during his career; “Psycho” was the last of his five nominations. Academy Award or not, “Psycho” has been acclaimed as one of the most effective horror films ever made, and the legacy it has left is priceless.So priceless in fact, that it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, and deemed “Culturally significant” by the United States Library Of Congress. Moreover, it has had the most far reaching affect of any movie to come out of Hollywood; PERIOD. Hitchcock would have felt deeply honoured, had he known this. He created a stunning piece of cinema (in every sense) which still retains the ability to shock and entertain, be controversial, and stimulate discussion; it will live on in people’s minds forever.
Psycho was the first film to kill off a main character halfway through the story.This unprecedented move added to its uniqueness, and kept the audience guessing.
Norman Bates is thought to have been modelled on magazine publisher Calvin Thomas Beck – a world away in physical looks from Anthony Perkins’ Norman.
“Psycho” was the first film to show a toilet being flushed onscreen.
The notorious shower scene is considered to be one of the most frightening in the history of cinema, even though there is little visible gore. A large part of the impact came from Bernard Herrmann’s excellent soundtrack.His piece for this sequence was called, rather appropriately, “The Murder”.
A frame by frame analysis of the shower scene shows that the knife visibly penetrates the skin by a fraction of an inch, albeit briefly (about three frames of film, or an eighth of a second.)
Bosco chocolate sauce was used for the stage blood on film. The sound effect of the knife entering flesh was provided by Hitchcock himself, as he repeatedly thrust a knife into a casaba melon.
Hitchcock makes his customary movie appearance in “Psycho”, (as in his other films) standing outside the office window when Janet Leigh enters. Anthony Perkins did not appear in the shower scene.He was in New York, preparing for a stage play.
The voice of Norman Bates’ mother was provided by radio actress Virginia Gregg.
Hitchcock financed the making of “Psycho” himself, whilst Paramount agreed to distribute it.When the film became a huge hit, Hitchcock took home the lion’s share of the profits.
To test the scare factor of the mother’s corpse prop, Hitchcock installed it in Janet Leigh’s dressing room, then waited to hear how loud she screamed.
Plain looking Patricia Hitchcock, (Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter) played Marion’s co worker at the office.A reference is made to her dowdiness in the sript: when Ted Cassidy fails to flirt with her, she comments that he must have seen her wedding ring.
“Psycho” was #1 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Thrills list, and is continuously in the top 25 of the IMDB chart.
In “Psycho” Hitchcock’s gimmicky device termed a “MacGuffin” was the stolen $40,000 from the realtor’s office.(A MacGuffin refers to the thing or device that motivates the characters or propels the plot and action).Marion Crane herself becomes a secondary Macguffin.
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