Perhaps no other film changed so drastically Hollywood's perception of the horror film as did Psycho. Now, when any psychological thriller featuring a loony with a knife is designated "Hitchcockian" in some quarters, it's easy to forget just what a dramatic change of pace this was for Hitchcock. Though renowned for stories of murder, intrigue, and high adventure, Hitchcock's Hollywood films of the 1950s generally boasted top-drawer production values, big stars, picturesque surroundings, and, more often than not, Technicolor. In comparison to the likes of, say, North by Northwest, Psycho was intentionally sleazy and cheap both in the look and subject matter.
The film opens with voyeuristic panache as the camera sweeps along the skyline of Phoenix, Arizona, focuses on one building, and zeroes in on a hotel window. The great director clouded his intent and motives by reportedly stating that the entire film was nothing more than one huge joke. No one laughed. Instead they cringed in their seats, waiting for the next assault on their senses. The violence and bloodletting of Psycho may look tame to those who have grown up on Jason and Freddy Krueger, but no one had ever seen anything like it in 1960.
Hitchcock opens this landmark film in his traditional manner, involving the viewer immediately with his players and his twisting plot. The camera pans the skyline of Phoenix, Arizona, and then focuses on one building, zeroing in on one hotel window, going through it to show Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), wearing only a bra and slip, reclining sensuously on a bed, her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) standing over her. From the onset of their conversation we realize that they are having an adulterous affair and that Gavin is too poor to get a divorce. (In presenting the opening scene in this manner, like a peep show, Hitchcock transforms the viewer into a voyeur.) The unhappy Marion returns to her real estate office, where her boss George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor) agrees to hold $40,000 for a rich, loud-mouthed client, Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson).
In a moment of weakness, Marion steals the money and decides to make a new life for herself. She pays cash for a new car, but her nervous behavior draws the attention of a state policeman who follows her and, when catching her asleep in the car, warns her not to sleep along the roadside. Marion drives through the night until she is exhausted and begins looking for a place to stay.
Spotting a sign for the Bates Motel, she pulls in, meeting Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a jittery young man who gives her a room next to his office. While they talk, the sensitive young man makes Marion realize that she has made a mistake in stealing the money. After he leaves, she resolves to return the money and set matters straight. Sliding back a picture on the wall when returning to his office, Norman peeps through a hole and watches Marion undress (more voyeurism) and slip on a robe. Nervously covering the peephole, he steps outside, looks furtively up the hill to a bleakly outlined Victorian house, and goes up the long steps to the house. The camera stays outside, and the shrill voice of an elderly woman is heard upbraiding Norman for renting the room to a young woman. It is clear that the woman's voice belongs to Norman's mother and that she is insanely jealous of her son's involvement with anyone else.
Hitchcock's camera next explores the bathroom where Marion is taking a shower. Through the shower curtain inside the tub a shadow is seen approaching. Suddenly the curtain is swept aside, revealing a dark figure in a granny dress holding high a bread knife. Marion screams as the knife descends again and again, slashing her flesh so that her blood gushes. The killer vanishes, and Marion collapses over the tub, clutching the shower curtain. The camera closes in on the drain, down which Marion's blood swirls; then the image on the screen dissolves into one of Marion's staring dead eyes. Marion's death is shortly discovered by a horrified Norman, who screams out in agony against what his mother has done. He methodically wraps the body in the shower curtain, drags it to the trunk of Marion's car, then mops up the bathroom. Next, Norman drives the car to a nearby swamp and sends it gurgling to the quicksand bottom.
When Marion does not show up, her sister Lila (Vera Miles) goes to Sam and begs him to look for her. He agrees, but before he can begin his search, a private detective, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), appears and explains that he, too, has been looking for Marion, that he has been hired by George to recover the missing $40,000. Milton follows Marion's trail to the Bates Motel, where his inquiries upset Norman, who disappears into the mansion at the top of the hill. Milton checks the register in his absence, even though Norman has told him that Marion never stopped there. Finding evidence to the contrary, Milton goes up the hill to the old house. Once inside, he calls out and, getting no response, begins to climb the stairway. Just as he reaches the top, a lean, old woman races from the bedroom with a bread knife, stabbing Milton repeatedly until he falls backward down the stairs, the camera seeming to fall with him in a fast zoom. Milton is dead when he hits the floor below, and Norman screams out in terror at what his mother has done. We now realize that it was the old lady who killed Marion.
When they don't hear from Milton, Lila and Sam drive to the area of the Bates Motel and meet with the local sheriff Chambers (John McIntire), who tells them that Mrs. Bates, Norman's strange mother, has been dead for eight years and has long since been buried.
Sam and Lila go to the motel, and while Sam occupies Norman, Lila sneaks up to the mansion, enters it, and begins to investigate, going from room to room. She finds Mrs. Bates's bedroom, noting the hollowed out spot on the bed where the old woman apparently sleeps and the ornate fixtures and dresser top items, including a strange looking powder jar. Downstairs again, Lila hears footsteps approaching the house and runs to the basement. It's Norman. Becoming suspicious of Sam, he has clubbed the stranger and raced to the house. In the basement, Lila finds a figure in a chair, seemingly Mrs. Bates, facing away from the intruder.Lila calls out, but the old lady doesn't respond. Under a low hanging, glaring light bulb, Lila swivels the chair, which turns around slowly to reveal not a live woman but a sunken-faced, rotting cadaver. Lila reels back in horror, knocking the light bulb so that it swings wildly, casting changing shafts of light upon the seemingly grinning corpse. Suddenly another woman appears, bread knife drawn, quickly approaching Lila for the kill. However, Sam also appears and leaps upon the attacker, pulling away the knife and a wig to reveal Norman, dressed like his mother.
Later, a psychiatrist, Dr. Richmond (Simon Oakland), tries to explain it all, saying that Norman had never been the same after his mother and her lover were murdered in front of his eyes. Traumatized by that horrific event, Norman became a schizophrenic, assuming his mother's personality and killing in revenge for her fate. Dr. Richmond also explains that Norman dug up the old corpse and kept it near him to maintain the illusion that his mother was still alive so that he could transfer his own guilt for his many murders on to her. The homicidal lunatic is then shown sitting in a padded cell, wearing a straitjacket, and this final scene tends to undermine the therapist's rather glid Freudian explanation. As Hitchcock closes the camera slowly in on him, Norman, in voice over, says that he will do nothing to betray himself, that he will not even harm the fly buzzing around to prove to his guards that he can be trusted. A closeup of Norman's face dissolves quickly into the skull of his mother and then into a shot showing Marion's car being pulled from the swamp by chains as the credits roll and the mystery of Norman's crazed behavior remains unsolved.
Background Inspired by the life of the demented, cannibalistic Wisconsin killer Ed Gein (whose heinous acts would also inspire The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974), Psycho is probably Hitchcock's most gruesome and dark film. Its importance to its genre cannot be overestimated. Psycho's enduring influence comes not only from the Norman Bates character (who has since been reincarnated in a staggering variety of forms), but also from the psychological themes Hitchcock develops. Enhancing the sustained fright of this film are an excellent cast, from which the director coaxes extraordinary performances, and Bernard Herrmann's chilling score. Especially effective is the composer's so-called "murder music," high-pitched screeching sounds that flash across the viewer's consciousness as quickly as the killer's deadly knife. Herrmann achieved this effect by having a group of violinists frantically saw the same notes over and over again.
Hitchcock really shocked Paramount when he demanded that he be allowed to film the sleazy, sensational novel that Robert Bloch based on the Gein killings. Bloch's subject matter and characters were a great departure from the sophisticated homicide and refined characters usually found in Hitchcock's films, but the filmmaker kept after the studio's front office until the executives relented. He was told, however, that he would have to shoot the film on an extremely limited budget—no more than $800,000. Surprisingly, Hitchcock accepted the budget restrictions and went ahead with the film, utilizing television technical people, who were less expensive than standard Hollywood crews. Moreover, the director, realizing that Paramount expected this to be his first box-office failure, proposed that he finance the film with his own money in return for 60 percent of the profits. Relieved that its own coffers were secure, Paramount agreed to act as the film's distributor. But even Hitchcock's close associates refused to believe that he was making a wise decision. His longtime associate producer, Joan Harrison, refused to take points in this film, opting for a direct salary, telling him "You're on your own on this one, Hitch."
After rejecting writer James Cavanaugh's adaptation of the Bloch novel, Hitchcock, at the urging of MCA, met briefly with writer Joseph Stefano, who had only one screenplay credit, The Black Orchid (1959), a less-than-inspiring film starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn. Although he had expressed doubts about Stefano (who would later go on to produce The Outer Limits for television), Hitchcock changed his mind after meeting the writer and gave him the green light. When Stefano told Hitchcock that he could not work up much sympathy for a peeping Tom killer in his forties (the age of the murderer in Bloch's novel), the director proposed using a much younger character and even suggested to the writer that Perkins get the lead role.
When Hitchcock began production on Psycho, he was told that he would have to use the facilities at Revue Studios, the television division of Universal Studios, which Paramount had rented for the making of the film. Although he was unable to use his erstwhile cinematographer, Robert Burks, Hitchcock managed to convince Paramount that his special editor, George Tomasini, should be included in the production. The director's penchant for detail was in full force here. He insisted that Stefano and others scout motels along Route 99 to learn how they operated, who stopped at them, and who ran them. The Bates Motel was then put together on the Universal back lot and was definitely on the seedy side, with a scaled-down Victorian mansion built on a little hill behind it. The mansion cost only $15,000 to construct and technicians cannibalized several other stock buildings on the lot to keep the costs down.
Perkins, then only twenty-seven, was hired without the actor even reading the script. The rising young performer owed Paramount one film under his contract and was taken aboard both because Hitchcock thought him right for the role of Norman Bates and because he would cost little. The female lead The role of the female lead was a problem. Hitchcock was reputedly interested in using Shirley Jones, but her salary would have been too high. Instead, he selected Leigh, who was more of a starlet than a star at the time, although this part would change that. The name of the first victim in the novel is Mary Crane, but when Hitchcock's researchers found that a real Mary Crane lived in Phoenix—where the film begins—Leigh's character's name was changed to Marion to avoid lawsuits. Leigh received a copy of the Bloch novel before shooting began, but the director wrote a note to her pointing out that the female victim, who is almost incidental in the novel, would have much more importance in the film. Actually Leigh is on screen for only forty-five minutes before she is slashed to pieces.
Leigh's relatively rapid departure forces viewers to switch the focus of their attention to Perkins. Hitchcock is able to achieve this transference of audience sympathy by showing Perkins's Norman to be sensitive and oddly compelling, leading viewers to believe that his unseen mother is the culprit. To protect the murderous mother's real identity, Hitchcock announced to the press that he was "considering" Helen Hayes or Judith Anderson to play the role. This attempt to set up viewers for the surprise ending (an atypical finish for a film by a director who always avoided surprise endings) backfired somewhat when Hitchcock was deluged with wires and letters from actresses asking to be considered for the role of the mother.
Originally, the concept for the horrific cadaver was nothing more than a large plastic doll with glass eyes; however, Hitchcock was quick to alter this approach, substituting a sunken-faced, ossified corpse of his own design. He used that cadaver for one of the many offbeat pranks he pulled on Leigh, which the actress took so well that she quickly became one of Hitchcock's favorite performers. Once the corpse was created, Hitchcock had it placed in Leigh's dressing room so that when she entered and turned on the light the corpse sat grinning at her, causing the actress to let out piercing screams louder and more frightening than her shrieks in the shower scene.
The film's male lead, Gavin (who would later become the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico), makes considerably less of an impression on viewers than the shower scene. Never Hitchcock's top choice for the impoverished lover turned amateur detective, Gavin, a contract player at Universal (the studio that was renting its facilities to the production), was practically forced on Paramount. Indeed, Hitchcock wanted anybody but Gavin for the role and considered Stuart Whitman, Tom Tryon, Brian Keith, Cliff Robertson, Tom Laughlin, Jack Lord, Robert Loggia, and Rod Taylor (who would star in Hitchcock's The Birds, 1963.) In the end, Hitchcock gave in to pressure from Universal and gave Gavin the less than pivotal role, saying lamely, "I guess he'll be all right."
When it came to that famous shower scene, Hitchcock not only approved of every little detail in the scene—from toilet to shower nozzle—but he demonstrated every move the killer and victim were to make. The director even showed Perkins exactly how he was to wrap the body in the shower curtain. Ironically, Perkins was not present for the filming of Leigh's murder. He later commented: "Not many people know this, but I was in New York rehearsing for a play when the shower scene was filmed in Hollywood. It is rather strange to go through life being identified with this sequence knowing that it was my double. Actually the first time I saw Psycho and that shower scene was at the studio. I found it really scary. I was just as frightened as anybody else. Working on the picture, though, was one of the happiest filming experiences of my life. We had fun making it—never realizing the impact it would have."
It was Hitchcock who specifically ordered this murder shown as a brutal thing, scribbling in his own hand for shot 116: "The slashing. An impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film." This filmic slaying is long, terrifying, and gory. Through lightning cuts between Leigh and closeups of the knife striking her body (she is stabbed at least a dozen times) and seemingly piercing her flesh, Hitchcock depicts—for the first time in film history—the bloody realities of violent murder. Reportedly, a fast motion reverse shot was used to give the impression that the knife actually enters Leigh's abdomen. Another of the inventive techniques Hitchcock employs in this legendary scene is the way in which he shows the spray coming directly out of the shower nozzle. Jets of water encompass the camera without ever hitting the lens, as if Leigh is looking directly into the nozzle. To achieve this effect, Hitchcock ordered a huge shower nozzle made, then moved his camera in for a closeup. Even though the film was shot on a frenzied schedule of a little over a month, Hitchcock took a full week to shoot the shower scene, directing it from a tower above the set, employing a single cameraman.
He had abandoned the use of Technicolor, so as not to make the film more gory than it already was, and washed chocolate sauce down the drain as if it were Leigh's blood. A makeup man walked onto the set and looked about and then asked Hitchcock: "Isn't this color?" Replied Hitchcock: "My dear boy, it will have so much more impact in black and white." Although a stand-in was used for the shots of Leigh's corpse wrapped in the plastic curtain on the bathroom floor, Leigh performed the rest of the shower scene herself, though she was concerned about displaying her bosom, even before a few technicians in a closed set. She and aides researched various transparent garments worn by strippers but did not come up with anything that would work. A technician finally came up with an answer, flesh-colored moleskin. But during shooting hot water from the shower undermined this solution. "I felt something strange happening around my breasts," Leigh later said. "The steam from the hot water had melted the adhesive on the moleskin and I sensed the napped cotton fabric peeling away from my skin. What to do?—To spoil the so far successful shot and be modest? Or get it over with and be immodest. I opted for immodesty—that was the printed take, and no one noticed my bareness before I could cover it up. I think!"
Because he owned so much of the film, Hitchcock turned promotion minded with Psycho, devising the entire publicity campaign for his gruesome masterpiece. He insisted that no moviegoer be seated during the showing of the film. He also demanded that even the critics see the film with the audiences from the beginning, which alienated many a reviewer (leading some critics to label the director's work as "cruel," "sadistic," and even "pornographic"). The director's response was to say that he had fun with the film. In an interview with French director François Truffaut, Hitchcock revealed that "it was rather exciting to use the camera to deceive the audiences—The game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them like an organ— I didn't start off to make an important movie. I thought I could have fun with this subject and this situation— My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audience— I feel it's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this. It wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film. That's why I take pride in the fact that Psycho, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that belongs to filmmakers."
This was no news to Hitchcock's fans. In a 1947 press conference the great director laid out his philosophy of the mystery-horror genre: "I am to provide the public with beneficial shocks. Civilization has become so protective that we're no longer able to get our goose bumps instinctively. The only way to remove the numbness and revive our moral equilibrium is to use artificial means to bring about the shock. The best way to achieve that, it seems to me, is through a movie." Psycho provided shocks heard around the world and became an instant smash, breaking all box-office records in its initial release. Hitchcock had a horselaugh on the Paramount executives who wanted no part of Psycho from the beginning. The film became one of Paramount's largest grossing pictures, and it made Hitchcock not only a master of the modern horror film but also fabulously wealthy. He had outwitted everyone—the industry, the audience, and the critics. Awards The film earned Hitchcock his last Oscar nomination for Best Director, but the award went to Billy Wilder.
Anthony Perkins, Norman Bates
Janet Leigh, Marion Crane
Vera Miles, Lila Crane
John Gavin, Sam Loomis
Martin Balsam, Milton Arbogast
John McIntire, Sheriff Chambers
Lurene Tuttle, Mrs. Chambers
Simon Oakland, Dr. Richmond
Frank Albertson, Tom Cassidy
Patricia Hitchcock, Caroline Vaughn
Producer, Alfred Hitchcock
Director, Alfred Hitchcock
Screenwriter, Joseph Stefano (based on the novel by Robert Bloch)
Editor, George Tomasini
Cinematographer, John L. Russell Jr.
Composer Bernard Herrmann
Special effects, Clarence Champagne