Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho'

Updated on March 30, 2018
Al Greenbaum profile image

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

Introduction

“Psycho” was Hitchcock's little joke. Black comedy concealed by mystery and suspense. The film was daring for its day. Filming someone in the shower was unheard of. Shots of a toilet were not done. The subject of transvestism never came up. But Hitchcock pushed all these aside with his masterpiece of misdirection, horror and ironic humour.

For a film that was cheaply made ($800,000), there is a wealth of cinematic expertise. The brilliant score of Bernard Herrmann, the unforgettable performance of Perkins as Norman, the creepy loner, the iconic shower scene and the shock ending all serve to keep the entertainment level high.

PSYCHO MAIN CREDITS
 
Director
Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay
Joseph Stefano
Cinematography
John L. Russell
Editing
George Tomasisni
Norman Bates
Anthony Perkins
Marion Crane
Janet Leigh
Vera Miles
Lila Crane
John Gavin
Sam Loomis
Martin Balsam
Milton Arbogast

Background.

When “Psycho” began filming, America was coming out of the 50's. A time of values like the family and patriotism. There were some tremors along the way, with the advent of rock and roll music but generally, times were smooth and easy going. Hitchcock sensed that audiences were ready for a change. He deliberately made the opening scene of the film more sexy because he thought that cinemagoers would laugh at just romantic kissing. There needed to be something new in his film if he was going to get the viewing public to want to see the movie. His film explored new avenues in horror, suspense and cinema technique. “Psycho” was to become a ground breaking event and influences film makers to this day.

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. He wanted a text on which to base his new film which needed to shock the viewing public. While waiting to board a plane he noticed a paperback in an airport store he bought it and began reading. Robert Bloch's “Psycho”, seemed to be the novel he was after. Even though he had to change a lot of the story, for example, Norman Bates is made to be much more sympathetic than the main character in Bloch's work, it was something he could work with.

Hitchcock knew that it was going to be a challenge to make a film with such an audacious storyline. Censorship was still strong in the USA, undeterred, the great man sought a screenwriter.

First, he hired. James P. Cavanagh who had worked on Hitchcock’s TV show But Hitch didn’t like his associate's work because it read like a TV episode rather than a movie. Despite having worked on only one film, Joseph Stefano was hired to write the screenplay. It appears that what attracted Hitchcock to Stefano was that he was undergoing psychoanalysis, and one of the things he was receiving therapy for was his relationship with his mother.

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.

Les Diaboliques

The Plot

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 after a steamy lunch hour spent in a hotel room with Sam. 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 goes off the main highway to a rundown hotel run by Norman Bates.

She shares a tense supper with Bates where they discuss 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.

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.

The rest of the film is spent trying to find out what happened to Marion and reveals the truth about the old hotel.

Driving To Doom

The Structure of the Film

Hitchcock's Philosophy

The basis of Hitchcock's cinema technique was to take the audience by the hand and lead it through a roller coaster ride of suspense, thrills and wonder. The character of Mrs. Bates is central to the film's plot. In order to bring people over to his plan for them, the great man leaked publicity about seeking actresses for the mother role and being able to find the right one. It was worked into the script that mothers are an important part of our lives. In Marion's office, Caroline, (Patricia Hitchcock) comments on the obsessive mother who gave her tranquillisers for her wedding night. In the opening scene, Marion indicates that her mother would not approve of her behaviour with Sam. There are many allusions to his mother by Norman which suggest something is not quite right, although we never really see the importance of these comments till right at the end.

Norman Bates refers to his mother on many occasions.

“A boy's best friend is his mother”.

“She might have fooled me, but she didn't fool my mother”.

The effect of the script making these references is to embed the mother theme into our consciousness. We accept the importance of mothers unquestionably. Nobody would ever think a mother could commit the unthinkable.

Cinematography

The lenses used for the film were all 50mm. Hitchcock insisted on this because they were closest to the way human beings see things, creating a voyeuristic feeling in the cinema audience. The guilt of being a party to something wrong, illicit, is strong. From the first shot in which we are quietly ushered into the hotel room where an extra-marital affair is playing out, and we become complicit in the behaviour of Norman as he watches Marion undress through a hole in his office wall, and then, we watch Marion's sad demise as she showers. The effect is to bring the viewer into the scene, make them watch things they feel they should not be watching and at the same time compelled by the shocking nature of the images but, at the same time powerless to do anything. Once that has been achieved, Hitchcock's work is done. We submit, at first reluctantly, then willingly, to the magic he is to perform for us.

Imbalance

“Psycho” is a film that puts you in a state of imbalance. Janet Leigh was a 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. Cinema audiences want to stay one step ahead of the action. But in this film they can't. Nothing seems to be the way it really is.

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.

Voyeurism in Psycho

Key Scenes

Marion and Norman Take Refreshment

This scene takes us into Norman’s eerie world and the parallels with Marion’s. It is played mainly in one key 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. It seems the flight from Phoenix is over. The audience relax, there is to be some resolution to the matter of the $40,000. So when Janet Leigh's character leaves to return to her cabin, nobody is expecting what happens next.


The Parlour Scene

The Shower Scene

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. In fact, the knife never touches Marion's body.

The shower scene works because of Bernard Herrmann's brilliant score, but also by the adept use of editing. The camera takes us all round the shower in the opening cuts, and then, crucially, it shoots through the shower curtain to show a figure coming into the bathroom to murder Marion.

After the shower scene, the audience cannot resist, the control of Alfred Hitchcock. They are shocked, emotionally exhausted. They cannot imagine what is going to happen next because they are staggered by what they have just seen.

What follows the scene is devoid of dialogue and serves as a breather for the audience but whereas the fast cutting inthe shower scene disturbs the equilibrium , “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.

The Iconic Shower Scene

Hitchcock on Psycho

Hitchcock admits that the film was an exercise in manipulation and in trying to keep the audience's expectations frustrated. For example, the theft of the $40,000 is used to misdirecting them into thinking the film will be just about that. In fact, the money ends up in the swamp along with Marion's car. But in playing that facet of the film for maximum effect, it makes the impact of the murder even greater because it comes out of the blue.

What was most satisfying for the director was the use of cinematic art to arouse high emotion in audiences all around the world. Yes, there was a brilliant performance from Anthony Perkins as Norman but then again, John Gavin was one-dimensional; Vera Miles was over the top at times. But the way the film was made strikes a chord every time. The pacing of the drive from Phoenix, the moody conversation between Marion and Norman over a light dinner and of course the shocking shower scene are all examples of how the film belongs to Hitchcock and his crew rather than the actors.

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 lurking just below the surface.

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 cinemagoers know something was wrong. In addition, he had to hit exactly the right chord. Any exaggerated movements or over-emphasised dialogue would sound ridiculous. Perkins’ performance is outstanding. He makes Norman sad and lonely – deserving of a pity. Although a little odd, he is "harmless".

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 mold, working with Orson Welles for example, most of the films he made after “Psycho” were variations on the themes of the movie. He even signed for two sequels to “Psycho”.

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, entry had to be controlled, he 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.

Hitchcock made a famous trailer for the film in the jaunty style of his introductions to his TV show.

Archival News Item About Promoting Psycho

The Film's Influence

No one sets out to make a film that will shatter the accepted codes of film making. As time passes, some directors' works make achieve the status of being revolutionary but none will have set out to be come instant successes. But, in the case of “Psycho”, right from the day of its release, the movie got people talking. Never had there been such a nerve-wracking experience as to see the film at the cinema. Of course, that was the appeal. People love to be frightened. Hitchcock brought that desire to a different level. From beginning to end, you could not take your eyes off "Psycho".

Among all Directors, Hitchcock has been the most influential. Fellow movie makers like Brian de Palma, John Carpenter and Martin Scorsese, to name a few, admit they owe a lot to the work of Hitchcock to inspire their own productions.

Subjective camera work is a key element of John Carpenter's 1978 “Halloween”. Scorsese said he used the cutting rhythm of “Psycho” for his fight scenes in “Raging Bull”. Angie Dickinson's death in “Dressed To Kill” relies heavily on the shower scene in “Psycho”.

In the 60's deaths become more “realistic”. Death in slow motion is used extensively in “The Wild Bunch” (1969), Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway die in a hail of slow motion bullets in “Bonnie and Clyde”, (1967).

In the 70's Steven Spielberg's “Jaws” (1975) relied on the music of John Williams to intensify the emotional shock of a shark attacking humans. Of course, the human's are not attacked and the actual “shark” was just a model that appeared on screen for just a few seconds because it was so unconvincing. It is hard to imagine “Jaws” being so successful without the use of the iconic theme music.

The lasting effect of the “Psycho” is the triumph of style over substance. An outstanding score, expert editing, moody cinematography and exact pacing made for a cinematic experience that will outlive any notions of realism for at least the next 100 years.

Brian De Palma borrows from Psycho

Sources

78/52 Director Alexander O. Philippe 2017

Hitchcock /Truffaut (Simon and Schuster) 1985

Psycho Blu Ray 2012

Alfred Hitchcock Stephen Rebello 2012

and the Making of Psycho

Questions & Answers

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