Psycho was the movie that made Alfred Hitchcock incredibly rich. He basically owned this movie – it was his idea and he produced it with his own money. He also ended up owning a good share of Universal because he sold the rights to Psycho to Universal for shares of the company. After this movie he had reached the enviable position of being able to likely make any film he wanted to. Part of the reason that Psycho is in black and white is because Hitchcock couldn’t get the money that would have allowed him to do the expensive color editing. In addition, to do it on the cheap, he filmed this with the Alfred Hitchcock Presents crew, the crew that did his TV show. His budget was $800,000, and in the United States alone the movie grossed $32 million. Yet with this tight budget Psycho was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography.1 This film clearly demonstrated the talent – both artistically and practically – of the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.
Psycho was the first of a number of movies that created a character based on the serial killer Ed Gain, “a notorious killer and grave robber… (who also) inspired the creation of … Jame Gumb ('The Silence of the Lambs') and Leatherface ('Texas Chainsaw Massacre').” 2 Gain also had an obsessive relationship with his mother. The movie Psycho was based on the 1959 Robert Bloch suspense novel of the same name, highlighting Ed Gain.
The plot in the movie Psycho is another one of the dual plots that Hitchcock really loves, where it starts as one plot and then switches half-way through to another plot. Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, is set up to be a justified criminal. The cowboy, the person Marion stole a large sum of money from, is set up as a jerk. She is in love with the cowboy, but he cannot afford to marry her because he still has to pay off the money he owes from his divorce, and that is why she steals it. As luck would have it, the hotel in the California town that she escapes to from Phoenix is run by Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, who for most of the movie appears to just be trying to help his mother. What seems like a friendly family-run hotel turns out to be the scene for Marion’s murder in the famous shower scene, and as the investigation progresses a twisted tale emerges.
The filming of Psycho took place between November 11, 1959 and February 1, 1960, and was released on June 16, 1960. The end of the 1950’s in America was a time of prosperity and family building, but it was “also an era of great conflict. For example, the nascent civil rights movement and the crusade against communism at home and abroad exposed the underlying divisions in American society.”3 A good suspense thriller would have played well into this mind set – there were things to worry about, but ultimately everything is resolved and people can go back to living the good life, just as in the movie the murder plot keeps the audience at the edge of their seats, but in the end all is solved and the town is again safe.
Critical acclaim was a mixed bag for the movie. In a review in The New York Times on the day after it was released, the reception seemed to be lukewarm, giving the opinion that “it may be a matter of question whether Mr. Hitchcock's points of psychology, the sort highly favored by Krafft-Ebing, are as reliable as his melodramatic stunts”4 The Academy, however, seemed to be impressed enough to give it four Oscar nominations, including Best Director, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography. Financially, the film was a resounding success, grossing $32 million dollars on a $800,000 budget film. To recognize its phenomenal financial success, we can compare its numbers to the numbers of the year’s Best Picture, The Apartment, which had a budget of $3 million and grossed $18.6 million.
The greatest appeal in the movie for me was the clever casting that Hitchcock accomplished. Norman in the book Psycho is a fat, grubby, older man. Hitchcock didn’t think that that would work, so he picked Perkins specifically because he was a younger, better looking man who people would have more sympathy with. It seems disappointing that Anthony Perkins did not get a nomination for his role as Norman Bates, as his acting was superb. What is particularly good about Perkin’s acting is that he sounds very realistic in his diction. Comparing Perkins to John Gavin who plays Sam Loomis, Gavin sounds like other ‘30’s actors who say everything straight, whereas Perkin’s acting feels modern. He deliberately pauses and he gets caught up on words more than once. Perkins is part of the first generation of actors that have grown up with films, actors that were movie actors to start with rather than theater actors. He was part of a new breed of actors that wanted to try new things.
The sexual aspect to the film is pulled off in a manner to make it aesthetically pleasing, and there were as well a number of firsts in the movie that opened new ground. The opening scene was brazenly sexual for this time in history. Hitchcock felt though that he could have even gone further. In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock says that he regrets that he didn’t have Leigh go topless for the shower scene. It would not have been really sexual, but he feels that the scene would have worked better. 5 On breaking new ground, this is one of the few Hitchcock movies that mentioned divorce. Also, this is the first time a toilet has been flushed on screen in American main stream cinema history. 6 That was a big shock for Americans. It subtly gives the sense that something is radically going to change. This happens just before Marion steps into the shower. She has just written a note confessing to her theft, but then decides she will not mail it, flushes it down the toilet, and steps into the shower.
Does the shower scene fit Hitler’s rule of suspense? Hitchcock said that one thing with suspense is that you need knowledge to build suspense. An example is two people sitting at a table and a bomb explodes. This is not suspense; this is surprise. Suspense is if you see a man placing a bomb under a table, then two people come and sit down and the bomb explodes. Knowledge creates suspense.7 So here right before the shower scene we actually see Norman – we see a figure come up right before the stabbing happens. It seems that it was not Perkins in the dress – they particularly did not have Perkins in the dress so as not to ruin the surprise. The stabbing, in addition to an ultimate suspense moment, is also a famous example of the Kuleshov Effect. We just see the stabbing and we hear her screaming, and we get the impression that she is being stabbed, but the audience actually never sees her being stabbed. The camera work for the stabbing is excellent. We follow the drain with the water and blood swirling around it, and we cut to her eye swirling around. Metaphorically her life has gone down the drain. Suddenly the world is being twisted. That is a really great match shot – matching the action of the one scene with the camera movement of the next.
Furthermore, Hitchcock’s apparent obsession with nature-related motifs and his gothic themes seem to work together to make his films aesthetically enticing. As in a number of his other movies, birds in this movie are a recurring motif. It is interesting that the main woman actor has the sir name Crane, and also Norman later compares her to a bird. Also, Norman’s hobby is doing taxidermy on birds. The exact quote he gives is that “ I think only birds look well stuffed because -- well, because they're kind of passive to begin with.” 8 That whole scene is fantastic and has a gothic feel to it.
Hitchcock may be the last real Gothic filmmaker. All his first big hits were gothic films – English gothics and Southern gothics. Why is the house so successful? The Psycho house has a gothic look to it and is just plain creepy. It appears to be a disheveled mansion - Norman vaguely mentions at one point that his father had money. There is a style of house called California Gothic, and Hitchcock says that it was just by accident that he found this house. He believes that the reason this works so well for the film is because the house is a vertical block and the motel is a horizontal block. They are the two contrasting structures.9 Each detail in the film seems to have a purpose. There is really no fat in Psycho.
Aesthetically, the film builds up a great deal of atmosphere. There are many silent scenes that contribute to the atmosphere, and the shadow work is fantastic. The scene at 1:18:46 where Loomis comes to investigate is particularly good. Black and white help with shadows. Shadows are not that difficult to do, but they look great when done right. The close-up at 1:08:53 is also excellent, and as well when he is talking to the private detective, I like the foreshadowing of Norman saying, “I live alone.” If you don’t know the twist, everyone is thinking that he is telling a lie. The other aspect of the film that builds up atmosphere was the music. Director Alfred Hitchcock was so pleased with the score written by Bernard Herrmann that he doubled the composer's salary to $34,501. Hitchcock later said, "33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music."10 One question that people always seem to want to explore in regards to Psycho is whether Hitchcock was referencing his own mother. Patrick McGilligan in his book Alfred Hitchcock addresses the issue and says, “It certainly is true that Hitchcock later created a number of monstrous mothers. Perhaps Emma Hitchcock’s death liberated this side ofhim; perhaps, as a loving son, he’d avoided any chance of offending her with such characters when she was alive.”11
The best way to look at Psycho is through Hitchcock’s eyes. In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock says that what he was particularly interested in the film was how he could manipulate the audience into thinking what he wanted them to think. What he always had in mind was what the audience was assuming he was setting up. The entire movie was set up to have the audience experience emotion. Truffaut points out that every angle in the movie is set up to have the audience suspect something else. This entire movie is designed to have the audience play with their idea of things. Every decision it makes is to mess with their supposed superiority over a filmmaker. Audiences love that; they are always trying to guess the movie, to think ahead in the movie, and this entire movie is designed to play into that, and then show them how wrong they really were. Hitchcock says that he is proud of this movie because it is a filmmaker’s movie, and to really appreciate it you have to be a filmmaker. 12 It has proved to be more than that. For almost 60 years Psycho has been thrilling audiences and filmmakers alike.