Horror Hall of Fame: Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock’s famed film Psycho (1960), which celebrated its 55th Anniversary in 2015, still garnishes the attention of entertaining audiences and students both amateur and professional of the legendary master of suspense, and was his last black and white movie. This movie, is a classic in the hearts of filmgoers, reviewers, cinema historians, and horror fans in general, while the elegance of thrillers may not be showcase as was with Rear Window; North By Northwest and then panned (now highly acclaimed) Vertigo, the master presented a detailed film with the assistance from screenwriter Joseph Stefano.  Although without the book of the same name, by author Robert Bloch (which Hitchcock purchased the rights for $9,000 under a phony name and then all copies possible), and based around the true crimes of Ed Gein, this film likely never finds itself on the screen. His movies in general are talent in film classes, and dissected numerous times over, through sociology and psychological courses, never relinquishing the grip on the society while the slight elements might find themselves dated, the overall intent strikes through early in the movie and driven with his lasting skills. A trivia note when this film screened in many cities in 2015, thanks to Fathom Events, it included the special introduction from Hitchcock and then a wonderful introduction from Ben Mankiewicz highlighting the talents of the famed director.  The film even earned a place on the National Film Reverse in United States in 1992, and since been included on multiple top five and 10 lists when dealing thrillers and horror film, noting it was Hitchcock’s first horror production, certainly not his last. Therefore, omitting Alfred’s masterpiece of shocking the audience and overlooking the artistry of his lasting storytelling from Horror Hall of Fame becomes a crime, one Mother will never tolerate, and Norman doesn’t enjoy either.

One must reflect why Hitchcock went astray from his classic thrillers and ventured down the risky path of low-budget horrors, he as an insider noticed the changing tides, and the crowds of William Castle productions The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, cheaply made and gimmick filled, he wanted to school them in proper technique of outclassing them. The studios wouldn’t back him, they wanted more spy thrillers, and therefore Hitchcock deferred his normal salary, took 60% ownership, mortgaged his home, and used his‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents ’television crew. He created some space on Universal for a motel and the legendary Victorian home still seen on tours, and was even a few episodes of the Hardy Boys television shows and went onto immortality with a budget of $800,000 (which equals $6.4 million today). In addition, he borrowed the Universal owned 1957 Ford Custom 300 from the Cleaver family of Leave it to Beaver television series, for Marion to use, which audiences later called out as they view that series. Therefore, like many of today’s independent directors Hitchcock, used his own money, crew of his and got the locations from friends, all providing the foundation for excellent thrilling slashing shocker though dated delivers exciting thrills for everyone to enjoy, especially any Mother and son.

The plot is one everyone knows, a story of trying to achieve a better life in one filled of roadblocks and detours, Marion Crane (portrayed by Janet Leigh, in her first horror film) finds herself faced with a dilemma and steals a large sum of dollars from a client at her boss’ real estate office before escaping to paradise. While that is the common plot given from the point of view of some amateur filmmakers, misses the point of the overall depth of the film. Let’s us dive further into the opening sequence, December 11, that occurs for the period of time a tad risqué, an unmarried couple in a hotel room, in various stages of undress, and the key note to Marion’s appearance, even in a black and white film, here undergarments are white and this foreshadows a tip-of-the-hand to the audience. We the viewers learn much about her and love interest Sam, in sheer brief frames of the film. This allows the film to capture the hearts of women, and encourage a romance for everyone to long for in a better life. Once at the real estate office, a really slime-ball of a customer (Frank Albertson) enters with her boss, flashing his cash about $40,000 (and with current inflation $320,156.76) and suggests if she Marion, is for sale too. In addition, he hints the money is undeclared revealing him as a cheat, and those familiar with many films of then those individuals never end in happiness, the suggestion of the money’s evil connections to hide from government and others taken advantage thereof. The trap set before them both, a spider’s web she steals the money for the man she loves, an impulse that soon destroys herself, this theme a regularly used device in Hitchcock’s films, tested and well worth connection with the audience. Immediately one sees more complexities for the audience to embrace than a mere uninteresting one sentence about a masterpiece of filmmaking, complete in then fashion of indie-filming. Herein the next scenes show her undergarments are black in color, conveying two significant points, first her guilt of the crime, regardless of the intention, and also the subtle hint to Hitchcock’s religious Catholic upbringing, reveal the guilty the admission to sin. Everything appears fine, and yet soon enough the music upticks, the thrilling moments evolve, with the discovery of by her boss in chance moment filtered with confusion, who she told she earlier that she felt ill and was going to the bank and then home, two lies catching her further in a trap in the web of life. Hitchcock misdirects to an uninformed audience with the concept of chase film and thereby instilling briefest run-ins with the police and the darkest mirror sunglasses presenting the judgment and providing her inaptness of criminal intent by leaving a wide long path of curious behaviors.  Then a violent thunderstorm raining down upon her, causing another detour from the heavens of righteous to deter her from in lustful desires, and pitting her to The Bates Motel and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). These elements, were to Hitchcock worrisome, the existence of his paranoia to law enforcement the power they wield, and then to nature’s strengths to place society well beneath a pecking order, later reference in The Birds (1963).

The care and concern Hitchcock took with regard to Marion and Norman resemble a proud father, watching over his carefully chosen doves, the detail of their relationship the slow burn of the discussion in the parlor, a lesson for any screenwriter. The parlor appears as a nest in more ways, than one they both nestle in, for a meal with birds of prey watching over them, guarded and yet ready for attack. Herein, the audience learns of Norman, his odd hobby of taxidermy of birds, bird-like qualities and habits and sympathy caring for mature women, Marion and his Mother. This all sets perfect execution of tone and mood for remainder of the film, even though shock and worries soon follow to what audience now accept as the M. Night Shyamalan big twist in the movie, first demonstrated by the master, and M. Night has stated he is a student of Hitchcock’s lessons. Few truly memorable scenes will continue to exude importance in this movie, though none finer than the “Shower Scene” a scene when first on storyboards and then in the moment, to the editing room, contained numerous individual clamors for the attention of who did what to grab the sensationalism of the scene. However, unlike the modern horror films, the killing had surgical strike about itself, very conservative, and mainly implied to the horrors of the blade (14 times) and actions, no penetration, no savagery sexual device. This implied aspect repeated for viewers in numerous movies, from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) infamous meat hook scene to Brian De Palma’s Scarface’s chainsaw scene, both legendary and equally impressive as they suggest the horror not showing. In fact, the shower scenes took place over a course of 6-days ending on December 23rd, and includes numerous angels and over 50 editing cuts, from George Tomasini (who did many Hitchcock films), to initial film creating 45-seconds of tightening the tension and terror. One cannot omit the very important sound effects department (in this case of one of his television crew members filled in), as the director sat with his back to them, closed his eyes, listening intently they stab numerous melons, and chose a casaba melon as the sound for slashing into Marion’s body.

Nevertheless, in Psycho, the reasoning lies in the censor board of then, just one of Hitchcock’s problems, the other toilet showing and flushing it, trivial now, but then infamous issues of morality. In one moment, the trick takes place, the audience pulls for Norman, a dutiful son, honoring his mother, and covering her misdeeds, trap in his own web, the panic and yet well thought our clean up, leaves a few wondering has he done this before, the cover up to shift blame. Herein, again, the psychological implications that Hitchcock strives to place perfectly into his movies, the misconstrued of stilted and dullness, all have precision place triggers for the audience to connect on a deeper level with and linger in their minds. He truly provides not just a visual painting of scenes rather involving the emotional state, to exist inside and out in society.  The manipulation continues through the entire ghastly scene, including the disposal of monies and especially the dramatic pause of the vehicle sinking, as Norman express fear, we do too, and with success we, the audience  accept it and cheer silently, we all become accessories to the crime, but willing to keep the secret. All of this works on our fears, guilt to never wanting to displease or upset ones mother, the old statement, and “Do you talk to your mother with that mouth?” reference cursing or anything expressing private explicit thoughts. Hitchcock knew the fears, the thoughts and the guilt we all held in hearts, he understood the complex characters in the movies and audience and treated each with respect. Hence, noting the skillful dance of pivot and thrust maneuvers when Arbogast (Martin Balsam) confronts and interrogates Norman, the entire scene becomes a study in dialogue building materials for screenwriters. Perkins, a theater trained actor, provides craftiness to his pivotal role, innocent at first and the fear of discovering his mother’s madness and crime, to watching him transform over the course the film, and taking us with him, defending him, until well – you know.

One must note the technical and terrific killing of the private investigator Arbogast in the falling down the stairs, the complexity of it, and brutality taken in first overhead shot, to close up of the final taking of his life. Psycho became the biggest risk for Hitchcock, nevertheless paid huge rewards aided by the music from the talented Bernard Herrmann (who worked with the master often and influence many composers later such as Harry Manfredini); contested for a while not to included music during the killings, which later he changed his mind in the post-production during the editing sequences. However, the technique later became a staple in slasher genre, which started to find an audience slowly, likely emerging with Black Christmas (1974) but solidifying itself with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).

Though one of two (discuss the other in a moment) aspect of this movie, still has heated debate what genre is Psycho, most believed a psychological thriller, and others suggest a murder-mystery (Crime-Drama) a tried and tested field for the master, others argue it is a horror movie. Take for example the film The Silence of the Lambs (1991) a horror film which many fans agree, as it earned Oscars, especially with the lead character called Hannibal the Cannibal, though a psychological thriller holds true, once again, a more respectable footing. Both the influences continued, from Halloween (1978) and a legendary character name Loomis to Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety (1977) the impact lives on and on, for all. The horror and shocking factors tame to today’s high explicit carnage lusts of violence, gore and sex, it stills provides tremendous detail in storytelling and suspense creations. Nevertheless, Psycho assisted in eroding the silly production codes of the moral majority of censors, especially 3-years later with director Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) as many considered the first splatter flick, rather than just slasher, who closely associates itself to Hitchcock, as previously mentioned. Director John Carpenter even rightfully established his movie as the slasher benchmark, but gave much respect to Psycho, and commented often about this influence to the genre, especially using the last name of the character name “Sam Loomis” an having Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh as the lead.
The promotional grandstanding that the Hitchcock undertook in the beginning of the movie, carried a bit from is television series and serve equally well by observing the talents of director and producer William Castle, and his exploitation thrillers and controlling the audience on a far less scale of financial wonderment. The movie Psycho, never shown to critics beforehand, making them purchase tickets, a frowning from many (resulting criticizing the film while presenting it with 5-stars), and then promptness to see the movie from the beginning, with no one admitted after it starts. This though went a tad deeper and actually covered the real reasoning for the movie in the first place, the box office rewards made the trades, showing that little horror films could achieve a wealth of rewards, and the ego of himself wanting to show he could it better than anyone else, likely gave motivation too. A battle with Paramount Studios, ended with them releasing the movie, and Hitchcock serving as the indie filmmaker with a little budget, and tiny crew from his television series going against the Goliaths and Titans of the industry – winner – HITCHCOCK! Also, the killing off Leigh, never done before so early in a film, and yet it threw the audience into shock and terror, and later in horror history, the late great Wes Craven repeated it in Scream (1996) this time the killing of Drew Barrymore.

Large discontent with today’s film students and critics of Psycho and namely Hitchcock is the ending of the movie, and consider the portion of the silly and thoroughly out of place, involving the psychiatrist (Simon Oakland). His explaining of the homosexual and transvestite remarks seem unorthodox and unimportant, is the reasoning most have about the scene. However this charge is vastly incorrect, namely noting that the audience of the 1960s never used these terms in polite company let alone in private, and in fact the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) from American Psychiatric Association, removed homosexuality from their references in 1973. Therefore, the defining to convey to the audiences of then the distinctions of this term and transvestite, not as social deviant behaviors and everyone like this is a villain, rather to plant the seeds of doubt into them without preaching. Recalling once again the audience does not understand the psychological terms, that commonly used in CSI, SVU, and notably often in Criminal Minds episodes.  Hence, the suggestion that the scene becomes absurd finds itself dismissed, as the offensive words in the film, and implied all everyone like this is a homicidal maniac, and rather in most cases far from it. Hitchcock successfully transcends, the error in thinking handed down from religious and cultural standings, not in the era, but future ones, and the movie carries on for all to see the master at work. Once again, the Master of Suspense toyed with taboos of society and pushed envelope of cinema by exploring and exposing the devilish suppressed side, which exists in all people, especially those exhibited an innocent outlook. Those taboos fitted many into Marion’s character shown in a bed with her lover so what you ask, it was 1960 the scene implies premarital sex and a woman shown in her undergarment, strictly forbidden topic, although Peeping Tom from director Michael Powell touch first one these aspects the movie found itself dismiss by all, until recently.

The film’s influence grew to the unthinkable levels and with results mirroring it, a poorly accepted remake of Psycho (1998) and while the movie spawned four sequels (which all starred Perkins), a television movie and then short lived television series. The music used within the film, spawn many others for example, from composer and musician Joachim Horsley with his Psycho Theme on Piano and Knives to countless psychobilly bands, and even a YouTube video involving “Funny Talking Animals” (check at 4.33) .

In the film Halloween H20 (1998) plays wonderful homage to Psycho in the scene when Janet Leigh (as Norma) walks towards a 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 extremely similar to the Hitchcock used, a brief snippet of music of Herrmann’s score at approximately 42.08 minutes into the movie, often missed by many.

Hitchcock’s 1960 classic visceral film, Psycho holds a special place the genre, as landmark, where the audiences grew up and change their viewing habits of innocent to more boldness and mature development. Thank you, Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock for all your lessons that cinematic fans of all genres will continue to watch and thoroughly enjoy, don’t forget to view The Birds (1963) and later he expanded his horror presence with the horrifically follow-up classic film Frenzy (1972), another slasher movie. Sadly, one crime never forgotten, the movie earned 4-top Oscar nominations, but never won, then again horror never does. These films as well Psycho all await for you in the fruit cellar, of beloved Bates home, stop by for a visit.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054215/

The imdb rating: 8.5 Mine is 10, it is an extremely thrilling and suspenseful movie for any horror fans or cinema goers, and the aspiring or established filmmakers.

Footnotes:

Here is the black humor version of Alfred Hitchcock presenting the theatrical trailer:

 

About Baron Craze 32 Articles
Consider by many as a Horror Historian, writing detail reviews on many sites, with the first horror I ever saw was Grizzly (1976), from there I discovered Vincent Price and Christopher Lee movies, and of course Universal Monsters. I never watch the films just once, no rather multiple times, as I got older become both a completeist (the goal to watch all the horror films possible) and started to research many films to new depths of interest. Many of my reviews contain vast amounts of details about each film, in a fair review. In addition, a screenwriter and actor and producer of Blind Documentary, called A World Without Boundaries, and podcast DJ of 4 weekly shows 2 metal and 2 horror theme. Enjoy all things Horror, Gothic, and Macabre. Favorite Quote of Mine: "The Extreme Makes a Lasting Impression!"