‘Psycho’ Remains Alfred Hitchcock’s Most Radical Film 60 Years On
Six decades after the release of “Psycho,” it remains Alfred Hitchcock’s most adventurous film and the blueprint for extreme horror to come.
Hitchcock’s Psycho on the 60 Year Anniversary
It’s surprisingly easy to miss just how important Psycho is among Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography 60 years after its first release. It remains one of Hitchcock’s most popular films, and for most viewers, it’s the first of his films that they’ll sample. But much of what drives people to seek out Psycho is driven by the reputation and lore the shower scene has attained over the decades. It’s possibly the greatest sequence in any of Hitchcock’s films, but the inordinate focus on it treats the first half of the film as a mere warm-up. With Psycho, Hitchcock made his most experimental film, and its reduced budget and economical production make it a punk-like anomaly among his films. The evolution of the horror genre toward endless gore may have blunted some of its impact over the years, but Hitchcock’s unsentimental brutality still has the power to shock.
Despite Hitchcock being regarded as one of the textbook examples of an auteur, a director whose personal sensibilities are apparent throughout their work, Psycho establishes Bernard Herrmann as an indispensable collaborator from the film’s opening titles. He eschews the bombast of most horror film music from the period and instead creates a galloping suspense theme that mirrors Marion Crane’s drive from Phoenix toward a fantasy future in Los Angeles. The film’s reduced budget forced Herrmann to downgrade his usual full orchestra to a string section, but the ensemble’s modest forces allow him to hint at Marion’s fate without wallowing in it.
After establishing its tone with the titles, Psycho opens on Marion (Janet Leigh) and her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) as they take their time dressing after a lunch-break tryst. Herrmann’s music has already established the suspenseful tone, but Hitchcock and his screenwriter Joseph Stefano signal how transgressive the film will be by having the two kiss on the bed, which was still a screen taboo even in 1960, especially considering that they’re only partially dressed. Other filmmakers might have opened on the couple fully dressed and whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears as if they just spent the afternoon cuddling, but Hitchcock isn’t trying to obscure the fact that they just had sex. He’s offering a franker view of sexuality than was usually seen at the time, even if it seems quaint by modern standards.
Psycho also gives a surprisingly unvarnished look into the everyday sexism that someone like Marion Crane would experience, which makes the film seem particularly modern for the period. Hitchcock’s filmography is filled with leading men coming on to leading ladies in ways we might find creepy now, even abusive, though its usually treated as romantic, or comical at worst. Yet when an unctuous man starts to flirt with Marion at the office she works in, it’s treated as a disgusting annoyance. The way Leigh keeps a polite smile on her face as Cassidy (Frank Albertson) shoves of a wad of bills in her face totaling $40,000 suggests she’s had to deal with plenty of other men just like him, to the point that she barely bats an eye.
Though she’s possibly the most recognizable of Hitchcock’s female leads, we learn little about Marion Crane or her home life or the forces that have shaped her. She’s an enigma, which makes her decision to steal the $40,000 even more intriguing — was she always capable of stealing that much (almost $350,000 in today’s dollars), or did she experience a moment of temporary insanity? Stefano’s screenplay doesn’t say, though Hitchcock seems to favor a more sinister interpretation. The day after the theft, as she drives through the desert wasteland of Southern California, Marion begins to imagine the frantic conversations her boss and coworker and Cassidy might have as they realize she has run away with the money. Her anxious look softens, and the corners of her mouth turn up ever so slightly into a sinister smile.
Hitchcock films Marion’s final drive with cheap process shots, partially a consequence of the decision to use his television crew from his series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The decision was necessitated by Paramount’s disinterest in making Psycho because of what the studio perceived as its lewd content. To finish out his contract, which required one more film, Hitchcock offered to use the cheaper crew and deferred his usual $250,000 fee in favor of 60 percent of the film’s backend (which resulted in his biggest payday ever after the film became a hit). By using a crew of journeymen, Hitchcock stripped the usual sheen of his big-budget thrillers down to a raw finish. Psycho lacks the romanticism and grandeur of his other masterpieces, but it gains a sense of documentary reality that makes its frights far more chilling.
The low-budget process shots of Marion’s final drive in the rain, with their static focus on her face, make it all the more chilling when the rain finally slows and the camera reverses to reveal the Bates Motel sign. The camera suddenly shifts and shakes as it focuses on the sign, and the slow approach seethes with dread. We’ve gotten so used to the artificial driving shots before that that when the camera finally moves it adds a dose of reality, underscoring the danger Marion is approaching, even if she doesn’t know it. Just beyond the sign and the motel looms the Bates house, which spies on Marion with its illuminated window eyes. The house, which was constructed on the Universal backlot, was inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1925 painting House by the Railroad, and it remains the greatest instance of set design ever put on film. Anyone who has taken the Universal Studios backlot tour in California knows that the house isn’t quite as sinister in real life, but the black and white photography makes it darker and more imposing. Hitchcock chose to shoot in black and white to keep his costs down, but in hindsight, it seems like the only possibility. So many scenes in Psycho would lose their emotional punch if they were filmed in color, as demonstrated by Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake, a fascinating misfire. Color circa 1960 would have been especially inappropriate, as the oddly saturated colors would have only emphasized the film’s artificiality.
Just as Hitchcock didn’t attempt to obscure Marion’s post-coitus look at the beginning of the film, he doesn’t shy away from documenting the sadism of her murder in the shower. Through rapid-fire expressionist edits, he and editor George Tomasini convey the brutality of the stabbing, even if the Production Code prevented them from showing the knife piercing her flesh. We don’t see the gore, but the editing, combined with Herrmann’s high-pitched violin squeals, gives us a sense of Marion’s terror in her final seconds. The film serves as a rarely followed blueprint for how to evoke horror without explicitly depicting it. One of the few films to follow Psycho’s example is the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which was also inspired by the murderer and grave robber Ed Gein. Despite its reputation for brutality, most of the violence is merely suggested. Like Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s frights become more immediate thanks to the film’s overwhelming sense of dread.
The documentary aspect of Psycho is again apparent in the lengthy scene where Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) cleans up his mother’s mess and disposes of Marion’s body. Another filmmaker might have immediately moved on to set up the next murder, but Hitchcock and Stefano invite the audience to consider just how much effort goes into cleaning and covering up a murder. Norman must find every tendril of blood (or chocolate syrup) and scrub the evidence away, before disposing of her belongings (and her body). Though Perkins vacillates between being a charming loaner and a sinister loon in his parlor supper with Marion, the fear that animates his eyes helps disguise his culpability for first-time viewers. Who would have thought that having a lead actor clean up for a murder was one of the most effective ways to make him seem innocent?
Psycho’s subsequent frights can’t quite compare to the shower scene, but they benefit from a sense of dread supplied by Herrmann’s music. Hitchcock wisely cuts out the music after her supper to make it more powerful in the shower scene, but once we know the full extent of the violence inflicted on anyone who gets too close to Norman, it’s appropriate to bring back Herrmann’s chilling tones. His shower scene cue is so iconic that it’s easy to forget how great the score is in its more low-key moments. The shower scene cue makes it a masterpiece of film music, but Herrmann’s score would have been great even without it.
Psycho will never be Hitchcock’s most enjoyable film (that’s Notorious), nor his most moving (Vertigo), but it’s still his best. Among all his films, it’s the one where he achieved the greatest artistic returns on his investment, and it’s also the most influential. It’s tempting to draw a line between Psycho and today’s crop of “elevated horror films,” which seem to be inspired by Hitchcock’s craft and style. But it’s the dirtier, rowdier horror films and their directors that are the true children of Psycho. They may not have Hitchcock’s style, but they understand as well as he did the importance of occasionally transgressing beyond good taste. It’s easier to digest Psycho’s scares at a distance of 60 years, but it’s easy to forget how shocked its initial audiences would have been. They got a glimpse into a mind fueled by violent madness, something most of them had never seen before in such detail. But it’s still there, and committed viewers can still gaze into that abyss, even today.