Film discussion

Psycho (1960) – Throwback 60

78 camera setups. 52 cuts. Three minutes in total of film which have been the subject of more analysis, as well as homage and parody, in the last six decades than perhaps almost anything else in the history of cinema. This is the lingering memory of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterwork from 1960, but not its only legacy.

Psycho is far more than just the infamous shower scene, yet that segment – which actually comprises a little over 2% of its overall running time – has become such a major part of both cinematic and pop culture iconography today that it’s simply not possible to divorce it from any look at the movie, nor to overstate its significance and importance. It has taken on a life of its own, which is rather ironic for a depiction of a murder.

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Things could have all been quite different. In the original source material – Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name – the brutal killing takes place as early as page 28, whereas in the cinema adaptation it doesn’t happen until around halfway through the movie. The book depicts the deadly act as being far less involved than what we saw in the big screen version, as the victim – Mary Crane – is in fact decapitated, rather than just stabbed.

With the Motion Picture Production Code (better known by most as the Hays Code, after its instigator, Will H. Hays) as the industry’s moral arbiters between 1934 and 1968, such a graphic act would never be permitted to be shown on the silver screen; it was enough of a struggle for Hitchcock to get away with the very first sight of a toilet being flushed in American cinema, let alone the level of nudity required in a scene of somebody taking a shower.

What’s become a piece of our common cultural landscape is a fusion of the work of three individuals – Alfred Hitchcock, Saul Bass, and Bernard Herrmann. Bass worked as a graphic designer who’d collaborated with Hitchcock by devising the title sequences for both Vertigo and North By Northwest, before teaming up again in the same capacity for Psycho; it also had Bass being credited as ‘Pictorial Consultant’, due to his involvement in crafting the shower scene.

Hitchcock requested that Bass put together a storyboard to outline how the scene could potentially be shot; what Bass delivered provided the template for what was to end up on screen, with the edit closely following had been laid out by Bass, even though Hitchcock typically never used that type of quick cutting (his 1948 movie Rope was edited so as to seem as if a single shot, by combining long takes). It also led to an urban myth – long since debunked – that it was Bass who directed the scene, not Hitchcock.

Composer Bernard Herrmann had begun scoring Hitchcock’s films with 1955’s The Trouble With Harry, followed by The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong ManVertigo, and North By Northwest. Hitchcock employed his services once more for his latest movie, and he once said of Herrmann’s score that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music”. In 1975, Herrmann stated in an interview Hitchcock “only finishes a picture 60 percent. I have to finish it for him”, giving a good indication of the role he felt his music played.

Hitchcock had originally intended to play the scene without having any music at all (this version was later included as a DVD extra); Herrmann persuaded Hitchcock to try adding in a track which he’d composed called ‘The Murder’. The now-famous piece – comprising three main movements, with a screeching, discordant sting – actually worked so well, with it heightening the tension and fear factor of the scene, that Hitchcock reportedly doubled Herrmann’s salary.

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That staccato composition has become so familiar that it’s now in common currency as shorthand for being murdered by stabbing, or for someone becoming psychotic. It happens to have influenced subsequent movie scores, with John Williams’ famous theme from Jaws being a very prominent example (both pieces were mashed up by the Beastie Boys at the climax of their 1989 track ‘Egg Man’, with samples of Herrmann’s ‘The Murder’ also being interspersed during the rest of the tune).

The slaying of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane (renamed from the book, due to there being a real Mary Crane) has been a source of so many references, take-offs and tributes in all kinds of different media since the moment was screened in cinemas for the first time 60 years ago. From Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety to That ‘70s ShowNational Lampoon’s Vacation to Looney Tunes: Back In Action, and so many other TV shows and films (as well as comic books and adverts), it’s been ever-present as a touchstone that’s never faded, nor far from our imagination.

One of the most interesting tips of the hat came in a 2015 episode of TV programme Scream Queens, in which Jamie Lee Curtis – Janet Leigh’s daughter – recreated the scene, albeit with a twist. The continuing fascination with what is now an iconic cinematic moment has even led to it getting its very own documentary made – 78/52 – which studies and scrutinises the making of the scene in great detail; the 2012 biopic Hitchcock also takes place around the filming of Psycho, including the committal of Marion’s murder to celluloid.

To focus solely on this one portion of the movie, however, is to risk overlooking what Hitchcock managed to achieve with Psycho as a whole. His previous production had been North By Northwest, a big Technicolor romantic comedy adventure romp, starring leading man Cary Grant; to the studios, it must have seemed like a massively retrograde step for Hitchcock not only to want to make his very next film in black & white, but to also choose what seemed like potential box office poison as its subject matter.

It’s been said the basis for Robert Bloch’s original book was the real-life serial killer Ed Gein; however, Bloch had begun writing before Gein’s arrest, so the similarities were for the most part coincidental. Gein did actually inspire some other fictional mass murderers, such as Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs. It’s said that Psycho also opened the doors to the ‘slasher’ sub-genre of horror films, with its groundbreaking depiction of violence and killing.

Hitchcock knew the censors would never permit the film to be passed for release if it were filmed in colour, due to the sheer amount of blood which would be shown on screen; as a result, he chose to shoot it in monochrome, for less than $1 million, using the crew from his own company, Shamley Productions, who made his anthology programme, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was a remarkable turnaround from the novel’s publication in April 1959 to getting the rights to adapt the work, then getting it made and released in just about 14 months.

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In the novel, Norman Bates is described as a middle-aged, overweight drunkard, with an interest in pornographic and occult material; this detail was all dropped, with Hitchcock casting the handsome 27 year old Anthony Perkins in the role, to make Norman seem innocent and sympathetic. As the character of Norman appeared from the beginning of the novel, Hitchcock had decided not to introduce him on screen until around 30 minutes into the action, in a clever piece of misdirection.

Janet Leigh was billed as being the star of the movie, and the script had been structured to make it seem like it was telling the story of her character, Marion. In fact, her role here was only to bring us into the world of Norman Bates and his mother, shocking the audiences by killing off the leading lady part way through the feature in what was an unprecedented move. Hitchcock naturally wanted to keep this a huge surprise, so as a marketing ploy, he instructed the cinemas not to admit anyone into a screening once it had started; he also asked the audience not to reveal the ending to others.

Hitchcock knew how to build anticipation for his movies, and in the case of Psycho, he appeared as himself for a specially-shot teaser, in which he led the audience on a guided tour around the film’s sets and locations. With his somewhat avuncular style combined with his taste for the ‘Grand Guignol’, he was able to hint at macabre events in the forthcoming release, and tantalise the viewers. In his typical Hitchcock style, any horror was offset by the teaser trailer being backed by some rather jaunty music from the score of The Trouble With Harry.

Purely by coincidence, there was another film with similar overtones which came out the same year: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which also featured a serial killer, as well as a starring actress whose character met her demise. While the shower scene in Psycho was more explicit than any of the murders in Peeping Tom, Powell’s film had received a backlash at the time which killed his career; in the case of Hitchcock’s movie, however, which came out two months later, it was a critical and box office success.

Hollywood is renowned for eating itself, and churning out remakes, reboots and reversionings of its greatest hits. As Psycho was seen as being an untouchable classic, it was a shock to many that Gus Van Sant announced that he was not only making a brand new version, but that it would use the same script, musical score and – for the most part – same shots and camera movements as in the original. The script would be tweaked slightly to make it contemporary for 1998, and it would also be shot in colour.

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This new Psycho was a very curious affair, not so much a remake as a Xerox, yet with odd changes here and there to try and make it fit Van Sant’s style. While Hitchcock’s film was nominated for four Oscars, Van Sant’s take ended up garnering two ‘Razzies’, with Anne Heche as Marion Crane missing out on getting a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress, which went to the Spice Girls for Spice World: The Movie. The film was also subject to scathing reviews, and it barely broke even at the box office.

In addition to the remake, a series of sequels of variable quality, as well as a follow-up television film and unrelated prequel series both called Bates Motel, have all run the risk of blunting the impact of the original feature. With 60 years having passed and Psycho still being with us as strongly as ever, perhaps now is a good a time as any to put aside all of your preconceptions about the movie and watch it again, with a fresh set of eyes. As well as making sure the bathroom door’s securely locked the next time you have a shower.

Psycho was first released in the UK on 15th September 1960.

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