If you are involved or passionate about the creative, you will undoubtedly remember the time you have your creative epiphany, the one thing that turned your hobby into an active pursuit. For musicians, it may have been seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show or Queen at Live Aid. For artists, it could be a trip to The Louvre or The National Gallery. But for filmmakers, it is seeing that film that goes on to define what they want to be. For me, that film was Alfred Hitchcock’s, 1960 masterpiece Psycho.
Psycho follows Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who wants to marry her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) but his debts are stopping them from doing so. At her work, she is asked to deposit $40,000 cash in the bank but instead decides to steal it for herself and now she is on the run. Whilst on the run a heavy rainstorm forces her to stop for the night at The Bates Motel run by the polite owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who lives with his mentally ill mother.
This film is based on the 1959 novel by Robert Bloch but can be traced back to being inspired by the real-life murders committed by Ed Gein (the source for many horror films). This is a book that is now a very sought after amongst collectors, I managed to hold a copy when I was on holiday in Paris. There is also another reason why this book is synonymous amongst collectors when developing the film Hitchcock didn’t want people to know about the ending so when he knew he wanted to make this film, he reportedly bought every copy of the book in the US as well as having the cast and crew raising their hand on the first day of shooting to promise not to reveal anything about the story. He even withheld the ending parts of the script from the cast until they needed to shoot it. There are so many wonderful stories about the production of this film I could do an entire post covering each one.
Although Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom came out first and is the supposedly true originator of the horror/slasher subgenre, people often point toward Psycho as the film got the ball rolling. This is one of the most influential horror films of all time, it’s famous shower sequence (which we will get to) is one of the most parodied scenes ever, there’s are essays and an entire documentary on just that scene alone. It’s also one of Hollywood’s greatest examples of “a diamond in the rough” films because there was very little faith in this film, studios believe that Hitchcock had lost it when he wanted to make this film and was offered very little to make it, only $800,000, which is why the film was shot in black and white.
Moving on more to the film itself, I never wanted to admit for a while that one person’s performance stole the show because I got caught up in my own belief of Psycho being the greatest film made and everyone pulled their weight to make this film remarkable. However, upon re-watching it time after time, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, absolute perfection. This is one of the greatest performances ever given in my mind, on par with Marlon Brando in The Godfather and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Anthony Perkins is absolutely the right pick for his character, and it was also something different. In the novel, Norman is in his late 40’s, overweight, short and an introvert but in the film, he is handsome, tall and slender. Hitchcock wanted the audience to sympathize with Norman to make him more likable, hiding the troubles with his mother behind a boyish smile.
Any fan of Psycho can go on for hours on end about how influential the film is for filmmakers, but one unlikely sector this film has also changed is marketing. Psycho had a legendary marketing campaign upon release. If you watch the original trailer for Psycho, it is unlike anything seen today. It is just over 6 minutes long with no clips of the film, instead, Alfred Hitchcock takes you on a tour of The Bates Motel and just talking about the events that take place in each area. Even to see Psycho in cinema was staggeringly unique, cinema managers had to adhere to a set of rules by Hitchcock with the purpose of the audience having “maximum enjoyment” when watching Psycho. Cinemas had to let no one else in the screening once the doors closed, there was often a separate queue with displayed times and the cinemas even employed police outside their cinemas to emphasize the terrifying nature of Psycho (It would be so terrifying there would be disorder).
Now we have to move on to the scene I’m sure you’ve been waiting to hear about, it’s the most famous scene in the film, the shower scene. This scene is the finest example of film craftsmanship because when you discover the effort that went into this one scene, you start to think and look at films differently. The quick editing of George Tomasini is even more appreciated when you see the number of quick succession shots that went into getting the intended effect, it’s similar to how most action films are cut. In the ’60s, editing was a more exhausting part of filmmaking, you couldn’t pause and rewind the shot, you had to observe it frame by frame and where it takes seconds to cut a scene, it took minutes to do it at the time Psycho was made and there in this scene alone, there were 78 different camera setups to choose from.
At its release, there were reports of people running out of the cinema screaming after being exposed to what this scene offered which is the closest cinema had ever gotten to real-life isolated violence. There are people out there who will refuse to shower ever again because of that scene, for a film to still have that effect after 60 years is a test of time that will probably never be replicated. People talk about how some events are so memorable that “there will never be anything like it”, I think there will never again be a scene like the shower scene.
But of course, many agree that this scene, as well as the entire film, would not be what it was if it wasn’t for Bernard Herrmann’s chilling score. Even Hitchcock himself credits 33% of the film’s effect on his long-time collaborator. Originally, Hitchcock never wanted music over the shower scene, now it is the one element that people often remember about the scene. To see for yourself how music can change a scene completely, I implore you to watch the shower scene without the music, it will amaze you how different it is. The theme for Psycho is just a chilling, it can be seen to full effect in the scene where Marion is driving on the highway before she arrives at The Bates Motel. The music along with the pieces of voiceover tell you how exactly she is feeling mentally and how she is processing the consequences of her own actions. This film almost certainly qualifies as a psychological horror because we very rarely go outside of the mind of the characters, the pacing of the events is akin to the speed at which the characters process them.
There are many words that I would use to describe how Hitchcock’s masterpiece has shaped my love of film, my love of filmmaking and my love for creativity. To time travel back to just one day on the set of this film and shake the hand of everyone involved personally with the film would be the ultimate filmmaking fantasy for me. Whenever I talk about Psycho to people, my brain becomes overloaded with so many descriptive words that I generally can’t get my love for this film as true as I can. I hope this little piece has given you all some kind of inclination to how inspired I feel every time I watch this film, and how grateful I am for its cementation in cinema history.