Here lies… a film no other man could have made – Psycho.
Matt here! Alfred Hitchcock directed Psycho just after he made Vertigo and North by Northwest, two gigantic Technicolor productions for Paramount. Imagine the pitch he made – Shoestring budget, black & white, killing off Janet Leigh after 40 minutes, main character’s a schizophrenic taxidermist motel-owner. He shot it in a few months on the Paramount lot using a television crew, paying for everything himself.
The rest is history. After spending roughly $800,000, it has grossed over $50 million and had enormous cultural impact. Recently, it placed 34th in Sight & Sound’s “Greatest Films of All-Time” critics poll. In 1960, it was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Director. One single bathroom sequence revolutionized expectations for audiences, filmmakers, and censors. What business does a true-blue, low-budget horror flick have in the pantheon of cinematic art?
While Psycho may not be Hitchcock’s greatest film, it is the apex of his directorial control, his auteurist posture. More...
By bankrolling the project and keeping the stakes relatively low, Hitchcock had control over every corner of every frame. Decisions were his – from content to casting to lenses to editing. Psycho gives us our most powerful scope into Hitch’s mind, his methods, his fetishes.
Rear Window outwardly touts voyeurism as its subject, even using that exact word in the film. But Hitch delivered a more relentless variation on the theme with Psycho. The film begins with those slow, eerie pans across Phoenix, eventually dipping in the window of a cheap hotel. Sam and Marion have just enjoyed a good lunchtime screw and we become privy to their post-coital anxieties. We’re made to feel like L.B. Jeffries, stumbling into a story. Later, Norman Bates peeps into Marion’s room as she undresses. Is this excitement what moves him to kill her?
Hitchcock’s obsession with sexual voyeurism manifests itself in Bates’ method. Sexual arousal shakes him into “becoming” his mother and satisfying himself through violence. The famous shower sequence concludes with a shot that spins out of Marion’s eye. She stares blankly into the camera, face flat against the floor.
Psycho has a deep fascination with the human eye – what it sees and what it can’t. Norman’s genial, youthful presentation is what separates him from other serial killers. His sickness hates the gaze. The plot’s motion stems from his secrecy. Psycho’s thrill is manufactured from Norman’s duality, not cheap scares. His dutiful cleaning of the bathroom is meant to generate a sort of curious sympathy. From that point, a mostly expository conclusion exploits our relationship with Norman. The climactic scene, when Norman’s secret is uncovered, is a daring display of human obsessions. His gender confusion reaches a summit as he screams “I am Norma Bates!” and is subdued by Sam’s masculine form, a man we already know is potent. This discovery seems to complete Norman’s shifting of identities.
Through all of this, Hitchcock exhibits impeccable craft. He worked with Saul Bass on the two murders. They remain two of the most influential scenes in horror history. I might go as far to suggest that the shower sequence did as much to shape contemporary cinema as any other. Excitement through disorientation may have had precedent, but Psycho popularized the now-ubiquitous technique. The machine-gun editing in the bathroom is set against mostly measured, deliberate pacing. If there is a cheap thrill in Psycho, it’s the shower scene. But Hitch knew that the visceral shock of shifting gears would be the only appropriate way to kill off a heroine 40 minutes into the film. It’s a genius segment – one that uses a handicap (censorship, budget) to craft a gamechanging solution.
In addition, Psycho might display Hitchcock’s best work with acting talent beside The Birds. His attraction to Janet Leigh inspired a series of brilliant performances – from her hands in the car to the silent scene as she packs. Her industry posture as a light-comedy/musical star was exploited by Hitch to magnificent effect. He was right all along – she is probably best remembered for two dramatic performances, Psycho and Touch of Evil. And Anthony Perkins – another actor who gave excellent dramatic turns to both Hitchcock and Welles. Hitch saw the stirring eccentricities beneath Perkins’ handsome persona. The scene where Marion eats dinner in Norman’s office is one of the most impressively acted scenes in all of Hitchcock’s work and deserves to be better remembered.
Hitch lost the Best Director Oscar that year. But so did Bernard Herrmann’s score, if you need any further reason to shake your head.