31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.
In Phoenix, Arizona, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) gets dressed after a lunch hour tryst with Sam Loomis (John Gavin) in a hotel. Marion is a woman of conflicted morals who is tired of meeting her lover in secret. She wants to get married. Sam is a hardware store owner being bled dry by alimony to his ex-wife. Returning to her job at a real estate company, Marion is handed $40,000 to deposit. Instead, she packs her bags and flees town with the cash.
After falling asleep by the road, Marion is spooked when a highway patrolman wakes her. He follows her to a used car lot as Marion hurriedly pays for a new vehicle in cash. Heading to her boyfriend in Los Angeles, Marion’s conscience nags her, and she pulls out of the rain to spend the night at the isolated Bates Motel. The manager is Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a socially awkward young man who lives with his ill mother in a mansion overlooking the motel.
Norman invites Marion to dinner, but his possessive mother so objects to this that Marion can hear her yelling at him from the house. Instead, he brings dinner to his guest. By talking to him, Marion realizes that she’s placed herself in a trap just like Norman is trapped with his mother. She decides to return the stolen money, but while taking a shower, Norman’s mother appears on the other side of the shower curtain and stabs Marion to death.
Norman cleans up the murder scene and disposes of Marion’s body and car in a swamp. In Los Angeles, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) confronts Sam about the disappearance. A private investigator named Arbogast (Martin Balsam) also shows up, hired by Marion’s employer to find her and return the money. Arbogast pays a visit to the Bates Motel. Norman’s stories don’t add up, and the sleuth is rebuked when he asks if he can speak to Norman’s mother.
Arbogast phones Lila with his information, then sneaks into the mansion to talk to Norman’s mother. He gets a butcher knife for his curiosity and Norman once again covers up the crime. Lila and Sam go to the sheriff, who notifies them that Arbogast couldn’t have gone to talk to Norman’s mother. “Norman Bates’ mother has been dead and buried in Greenlawn Cemetery for the past ten years.” To solve the mystery, the couple checks into the Bates Motel as guests.
In February 1959, galleys of a novel by Robert Bloch called Psycho made the rounds at Paramount. Its title character was based loosely on Ed Gein, the Wisconsin farmer who had skinned his female neighbors and decorated his home with the body parts. Gein was later found to have had a difficult relationship with his mother. The studio found all of this too grisly, but the novel was praised in the crime fiction column of the New York Times. That got the attention of director Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock’s agents at MCA quietly paid $9,000 to obtain the novel’s film rights for the director. Hitchcock saw Psycho as a simple low budget “shocker”, a big screen episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which would be a break from his big budget, star studded studio vehicles. He even planned on using his TV crew and shooting in black and white to shave costs.
With its violence, nudity and ghoulish subject matter, Psycho was shaping up to be the most blatant challenge to the Production Code anyone at Paramount had ever seen. Hitchcock offered to defer his salary in exchange for 60% ownership of the film. MCA chairman Lew Wasserman had just bought Universal, and eager to retain Hitchcock’s future services, suggested he could shoot the film on the Universal lot.
Emmy winning writer James Cavanaugh was hired to adapt the novel in May 1959. Before there was even a script, Hitchcock wanted to cast Anthony Perkins in the title role. Cavanaugh turned in a draft that was so dull, Hitchcock didn’t bother reading all of it. A young songwriter turned screenwriter named Joseph Stefano was suggested by MCA as a replacement. Stefano followed Bloch’s novel closely, while fleshing out the characters.
For the role of Marion Crane, Hitchcock told Stefano they were writing for Janet Leigh. Vera Miles, John Gavin and Martin Balsam rounded out the cast. For his crew, Hitchcock chose his cameraman from TV – John Russell – while George Tomasini, Bernard Herrmann and Saul Bass would once again provide the editing, musical score and titles, respectively. Shooting commenced in November 1959, wrapping two months later.
Once Production Code officials saw the film, they went “berserk” over the infamous shower murder. They demanded that Hitchcock remove all the nudity. The director notified them that there was none. The scene was screened again, and the censors who hadn’t caught any nudity the first time swore they had seen some now. The director kept submitting the film to the board and eventually, their shock wore off. Today, the 1960 film carries an “R” rating.
Hitchcock had begun promoting Psycho before even shooting a frame. He trumpeted his lurid “shocker” to the press, then closed his set to reporters. Critics were banned from advance screenings – forced to see the film on opening day with a paying audience – while advertisements warned, “No one … but NO ONE … will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance.” This prompted moviegoers to form lines around the block.
The release of Psycho on June 16, 1960 was a media event. It became the highest grossing movie of the year, with $9 million in the U.S. and another $6 million overseas. Critical reaction swung like a pendulum between adulation and scorn. Today, the film is regarded as a cinema masterpiece, #14 on the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time, considered by many to be the most influential horror film ever made.
While Jaws may be more influential – and more terrifying – Psycho absolutely belongs in any debate of the scariest films of all time. Its construction has been part of college curriculum for some time now, but the genius of this film is how Hitchcock took everything that had made his TV series a success – stripped down aesthetic, little known actors, shocking twists – and adapted that format to film. This resulted in a movie that doesn’t just break convention. It shatters it.
Anthony Perkins gives perhaps the strongest performance of any actor in a Hitchcock film, while Janet Leigh performed her career best work as the tragic heroine. As with Jaws, the film soars to another level whenever the musical score – which Bernard Herrmann insisted would be composed only of strings – cuts in. The bottom line is the movie is scary. Perkins and Miles returned for the surprisingly good Psycho II in 1983, while Gus Van Sant directed an oddly conceived, much maligned remake in 1998.
Lisa at Crazy For Cinema writes, “It’s a toss up between Psycho and the original Halloween over which has caused me more sleepless nights. Jaws may have kept me out of the ocean, but Psycho has affected my adult habits more than I’d like to admit.”
“Psycho is the first film that involved me so much that I became completely hooked on the magic of movies. I have seen this film over 40 times, and it continues to hold my interest,” writes John Nesbit at Old School Reviews.
John Puccio at DVDTown writes, “Whether he intended the film to be so pioneering a work is still up for grabs, but it is. It’s a landmark film in the use of realistic violence, shock, humor, and surprise. Today, virtually every horror film and thriller owes its allegiance to Psycho.”
“Here we have a quiet little motel, tucked away off the main highway and as you see, perfectly harmless looking. When in fact, it has now become known as the scene of a crime.” View the 1960 theatrical trailer, with Alfred Hitchcock giving us a tour of his new motion picture Psycho.