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Hitchcock's "Psycho"

Updated on March 11, 2017
Al Greenbaum profile image

Al is a huge fan of "The Master". His favourite film is "Psycho", closely followed by "Vertigo".

Source

Psycho (1960) Credits

Director
Alfred Hitchcock
 
Screenplay
Joseph Stefano
 
Book
Robert Bloch
 
Cinematography
John L. Russell
 
Music
Bernard Hermann
 
Editor
George Tomasini
 
Set
George Milo
 
Titles
Saul Bass
 
Budget
$806,947
 
Gross
$50,000,000 (2004)
 
Runtime
109 minutes
 

Five Interesting Facts About "Psycho".

1. There were three Mrs. Bates.

Three actresses recorded "mother's" dialogue. Their work was mixed later to produce the famous voice.

2. It was Hitchcock's biggest financial success. $50 million (2004)

Number 2 "Rear Window", $27.5 million in 1954,

Number 3 "Notorious", $24.5 million in 1946.

3.It earned Hitchcock his final Oscar nomination.

Hitchcock never earned a best director Oscar.

4.It earned Hitchcock a lot of money. He had 60% ownership of the film.

5.Hitchcock bought the rights for only $9,000.



Background

After the indifferent response to his last film, “Vertigo”, Alfred Hitchcock was looking for a new project. He knew that he wanted to produce it within his own company Shamley, to maximise the profits and to use the same type of crew that worked on his TV show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”.

Years before, Hitchcock had seen Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Diabolique”. He liked the film a lot - in particular, the surprise ending. Like “Psycho” it was shot in black and white and also had unbearably tense passages in which characters placed themselves in dangerous situations.

Hitchcock picked up a novel at an airport bookstore, “Psycho”, by Robert Bloch. By the end of his flight, he had read the book and was soon ringing his assistant, Joan Harrison, to see if she could obtain the rights to it. He also ordered her to find as many copies of Bloch’s book as she could and buy them immediately.

Bloch’s novel was about the mass murderer, Ed Gein, who committed a series of murders in Wisconsin in the 1950’s.

Never one to avoid challenges, Hitchcock knew that he would have a fight on his hands to get the film made -the subject matter was controversial. America was still a conservative country when it came to censorship. Nevertheless, the great director intended to be bold in making the film and not shy away from breaking new ground in film production.

First, he had to hire a screenwriter. James P. Cavanagh had worked on Hitchcock’s TV show and was asked to submit an adaptation of Bloch’s book. But Hitch didn’t like it because it read like a TV show rather than a movie. Despite having worked on only one movie, Joseph Stefano was hired to write the screenplay. In later interviews, Stefano said he thought the reason he got the job was he was going through psychoanalysis at the time.

The screenplay went through many re-writes and did not stick to the book. Stefano thought that the Ed Gein character was unsympathetic to an audience. He thought that to make the film work the murderer had to be made more appealing. In the book, Marion is beheaded in the shower. Even for a bold movie like “Psycho” that would be a bit too much.

When the screenplay was ready, Hitchcock had to make his casting decisions. The two main roles, Marion and Norman, were given to Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.

Hitchcock had seen Leigh in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” and thought she would be perfect for the role of Marion Crane. Perkins was also known to the director who thought he could play the part of Norman with subtlety so that his performance would not be hysterical or over-the-top.

Never one to do much location work as he never felt in control of the light or sound, Hitchcock decided to shoot most the film in Revue Studios, the same place he made his TV shows. Exteriors were on the Universal backlot.

The Story

Marion Crane, (Janet Leigh), is having an affair with Sam Loomis, (John Gavin). But their relationship is going nowhere. They need to be together permanently. But that would involve a lot of expense and Sam is already struggling with alimony payments. Marion goes back to her office. A rich client asks the manager if he could put $40,000 in the bank for him in the morning as he didn’t have time during the day. The task is given to Marion who decides to go home early anyway as she is feeling ill.

A golden opportunity presents itself. Marion is soon packing her bags ready to start a new life with Sam and the $40,000.

The drive to be with Sam takes place in torrential rain. Tired and barely able to see where she is driving, Marion drives off the main highway to a rundown hotel run by Norman Bates.

Having talked with Bates about the traps we all make for ourselves, Marion decides she has been foolish and vows to return to Phoenix in the morning and sort out her mistake.

But she never drives back. She is killed in the shower.

The client in Phoenix, who had his money stolen by Marion, hires a private detective, Arbogast, (Martin Balsalm) to try and trace her. Meanwhile, Marion’s sister, Lila, (Vera Miles) goes to Sam Loomis to ask him if he has heard anything from Marion. He says he has not heard anything. Soon, Arbogast is on the scene, having tracked Lila to Sam’s hardware store.


Arbogast meets Lila and Sam

Imbalance

Janet Leigh was a big star at the time the film was made. Stars seldom, if at all, died in the first 30 minutes of a film. Norman Bates, as played by Perkins seems a harmless, lonely eccentric. When we see Marion murdered in the shower, we can vaguely make out a woman’s clothing being worn by the murderer as she turns from the hotel bathroom. So, all our suspicions are turned toward Norman’s mother. But she is an invalid how could she possibly get to the hotel room and murder Marion?

When we learn much later in the film that Mrs. Bates has been dead for several years we are even more confused. If she is dead, then who carried out the murder? The only other person at the hotel was Norman.

We are disarmed and mesmerised by the master’s brilliantly structured plot; we are set off balance, things are not the way we expect them to be. We are confused. We become vulnerable, setting up the shocking ending.


The McGuffin

“The McGuffin” is the object of attention that occupies the actors in Hitch’s films. In “North by North West”, it is the microfilm (which we see once and hardly hear about), in “Vertigo” it is Scottie’s vertigo. But really, a “McGuffin” just drives the action, it is not that important to the film.

In “Psycho”, the $40,000 is the “McGuffin”. Once Marion, with her car and the $40,000 hits the bottom of the swamp it is meaningless. Instead, the attention turns to Sam, Lila and, until he is murdered, Arbogast. Will they find Marion? Will they find the truth about the hotel?

Prelude To Murder

Before the legendary shower scene, Marion takes light refreshment with Norman, in his parlour. We are taken into Norman’s eerie world and the parallels to Marion’s. He is trapped in the miserable hotel and she is trapped by what she has done. It is played mainly on one level with no music. At times, it looks as though Marion is far too uncomfortable and is going to leave because what the hotel keeper says has frightening resonances with her life. And it also puts us in a false position. When we hear Marion say that she is returning to Phoenix, we think, “But where can the film go from here?”. “Marion in jail, maybe?” But what we aren't prepared for happens next.

Quick Facts About The Shower Scene In "Psycho".

1/ It took 78 camera set ups to shoot.
2/ It Took 7 Days To Shoot.
3/ A Body Double Was Used For Close Up Scenes.
4/ Anthony Perkins Was Not In The Shower Scene.
5/ The whole scene lasts only 45 seconds.
 

Shower Scene

In one of the most famous scenes in movie history, Hitchcock shocks the audience by killing Marion while she is in the shower.Although the scene is relatively short, about three minutes, it took a week to film and required 78 camera set-ups. A body double, Marli Renfro, was employed for some shots while a moleskin body-covering was made for Leigh to ensure she did not actually appear nude. Towards the end of her life, she said that she did some of the shots nude, as did Renfro.

Bernard Hermann’s famous music for the film makes the screeching violins sound like stabs, as the murderer attacks the helpless Marion. But, on closer inspection, you can see, that there is an impression that the knife strikes Marion but it never does. Yes, there is blood when the killer leaves the bathroom but that supports the impression that the audience has just seen someone murdered in the shower. (Incidentally, depending on which version you believe, the blood is not theatrical blood but either, chocolate sauce or maple syrup; the theatrical blood wasn’t thick enough).

After the shower scene, the audience cannot resist, they are totally under the control of Alfred Hitchcock. They are shocked, emotionally exhausted but they want to know what is happening. What is going on?

Discovering A Murder

The scene is devoid of dialogue and serves as a breather for the audience but whereas the fast cutting in shower scene disturbs the equilibrium of the audience, “the clean-up” still horrifies as we see Norman take out Marion’ in the shower curtain, put it in her car, with her suitcase and the $40,000 – in a newspaper- and deposit everything in the local swamp. So, the pattern of the film is set - frenetic activity followed by unbearable silence.


Mother

Mother

Hitchcock was careful to keep the character “alive” without giving too much away to the press and public. Without Mother, he didn’t have a movie.

When Lila and Sam go to the hotel, not knowing the fate of Arbogast, we feel that we are reaching the end of the film. But what will the two characters reveal? Lila tells Sam to keep Norman talking so she can go up to the house and speak to Mrs. Bates. Lila looks around the rooms of the old house. As we know the fate of Arbogast and Marion it seems an unwise idea. She looks for any evidence of Marion or Mother.

Having found nothing upstairs, she goes to the basement and sees the crouched figure of what seems like an old lady sitting in a chair with her back to her. Turning the chair around she sees the corpse of Mrs. Bates. We are given the answer to part of the puzzle. There is no Mrs. Bates. But if that is so, who could have possibly killed Marion? In a split second, we are given the answer, Norman, dressed like Mother, bursts into the cellar, knife in hand, ready to kill Lila but is stopped by Sam. The answered questions, the flow of information, the shock of who was the murderer leaves us gasping. Hitchcock, at his best, turns up the tension and then brings it down with expert ease but in this brilliant slice of grand guignol, the emotional pitch reaches a crescendo.

Anthony Perkins' Quotes About "Psycho"

1/ "It is the Hamlet of horror roles..."

2/(About Norman), "He's not just a monster. He's tortured".

3/ (About Making "Psycho") "...was one of the happiest filming experiences of my life".

Anthony Perkins

As the lonely, neurotic, mamma’s boy, Norman, Perkins is both pathetic and endearing. His gentle, unassuming nature, hides the darkness within. The stuttering, the candy-chewing and the facial tics all point to somebody who wants to speak but hides behind a mask. But you feel sorry for him, he needs to be more assertive. if somebody could just take an interest in him; but it is too late; the truth about Norman is too much to bear.

For somebody in a such a complex, demanding role, Perkins needed to be on top of his game. He had to be sure that his performance never alerted the audience to the truth about Mother, while at the same time, showing enough creepiness to make him believable and sympathetic.

Perkins’ performance is outstanding. He makes Norman sad and lonely – deserving of a pity. But he never makes him one dimensional. There is something about Norman but we can’t work it out; until it is too late.

Sadly, for Perkins, his performance was too good. Because he portrayed Norman naturalistically and not like some ghoul in a vintage horror film, people always associated him with that role and no other. Consequently, although he did try and break out of the Norman mould, most of the films he made after “Psycho” were variations on the theme of the movie. He even signed for two sequels to “Psycho” and a prequel.


Hitchcock Discusses The Humour In "Psycho"

Humor

Some critics have described “Psycho” as Hitchcock’s little bit of fun. “The Guardian” writer, Ben Child, reported that in newly discovered archival interviews, Hitchcock described the film as “… a big joke”. He went on to say that he meant his film to be like a big-dipper ride at the fairground – going up steep inclines and hurtling down at breakneck speed from the summit. Just like those who get off the big fairground ride and may laugh with the thrill of excitement, he wanted his film to be just like a fairground ride. Indeed, Hitchcock sent his assistant, Joan Harrison, to observe audiences as they came out of the initial viewings of “Psycho” and she remarked that on several occasions audiences were delirious with the laughter of the shocks and thrills the movie provided.


Hitchcock's "Psycho" Trailer

Promoting The Film

Hitchcock understood the publicity needed to promote a film. With the unusual subject matter of “Psycho”, he adapted his methods.

Hitchcock insisted that if theatres were to show his film; entrance had to be controlled. Hitchcock drew up a contract for film distribution and exhibition. Cinema owners had to sign the contract before they were given a print of the film. Hitchcock demanded that “Psycho” was shown on its own without cartoons, trailers or a “B” picture. The public had to book their tickets at pre-arranged times. He also demanded that no one be admitted once the film had begun. This inevitably led to long queues outside cinemas showing the film, which was a kind of publicity of its own, and ensured that no one could see the film from half-way through and avoid the overall effect of the movie becoming nowhere near as intense. (A worried, Chicago, Cinema owner phoned Hitchcock that his patrons were getting drenched in the rain, waiting to get in to see the film. Hitchcock said they were to be provided with umbrellas which in turn led to headline news).

The film poster was misleading. It concentrated on the sexual explicitness of the first scene with a bare- chested John Gavin and Janet Leigh in a bra and slip. Nothing about the murders was indicated.

If You Liked "Psycho", Try..."

Film
Year
Director
Diabolique
1955
Henri-Georges Clouzot
Halloween
1978
John Carpenter
Misery
1990
Rob Reiner

Conclusion

The film took cinema to new territory. A film with a murder that takes place in a shower was unheard of in 1960. A man who had dug up his mother’s corpse and lived with it for years was strictly “True Detective”. A toilet had never been shown in a film before.

But it was the subject matter and the way Hitchcock approached it that made the film ground-breaking. It was structured like a lot of his films, light, dark, light, dark and so on. But it was the degree to which the light and dark moments were played that made it high-level Hitch. He wanted the audience to have a great time by frightening the life out of them. We all like to be frightened and the great director knew that. In “Psycho”, culminating in the basement scene, the shocks are fine tuned. First by putting us off guard with long stretches of “ironic” dialogue and then with “big” moments like the murder of Marion.

Yes, Hitchcock opened the door for more realism in horror films. Aspects of the human condition that were only hinted at before or completely ignored, were now spoken about openly. But did he also open the way for slasher films like “Friday 13th”? I don’t think so, films like that came much later. Although a case could be made for “Frenzy”, another of his films, having influenced the “mad-axeman” kind of films.

What made “Psycho” unique was that no horror film had provided such a stirring roller-coaster ride before. It was emotional draining to watch, requiring your complete attention.

Best Scenes In Psycho

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