Archive for October, 2010

Happy 50th Anniversary Psycho!

The 50th anniversary edition Bluray for Psycho (1960) is being released tomorrow (10/19) and I for one, will be picking it up.

I’m almost scared to write about this one – so much has already been said and I’m also afraid I may not do it justice. You see, I once didn’t get it. For me, and probably most people I’d guess, when you see a movie, either you like it or you don’t and that’s really all there is to it. For some reason, Psycho didn’t make that much of an impact on me at first and I really can’t remember why I gave it another chance….and then another and another. But I’m glad I did. The first time I saw Psycho, I was 14 or 15. I passed it by many times at my local video store sort of afraid to see it. All I really knew was that it was terrifying – so terrifying that even though so many years had passed, people still felt haunted by it. I’m a big wimp about scary movies and the only appeal to me was its status as a classic and that it was directed by Hitchcock.  So finally one evening I decided it was time. So I sat down with my mom to watch it…one of my rules about scary movies is never watch them alone. If you watch scary movies alone that’s the exact time weird noises start emerging from the basement and you start wondering if you remembered to lock your front door….at least for me.

I get why I didn’t get it and I think I understand why others don’t always get it. At a glance and perhaps after a first viewing, Psycho appears to be a B horror movie. Seeing it 50 years after its release and so many movies later, at first, it might not seem so special. It’s hard to see what’s special after years of seeing hundreds of movies that incorporated its techniques and ideas. Its originality fades away because we’ve seen all the copies. A brutal murder, a man dressed as a woman, all the psychology – none of that is surprising to an audience today. Turn on the TV between the hours of 8 and 10pm and you’re likely to see all of the above. So, for modern viewers, Psycho can seem tame (a horrific stabbing is still shocking to us – but now we’d expect to see it in color and in more vivid detail).

So if you want to watch Psycho to understand what the big deal is, I recommend two initial viewings. First, if you’ve never seen it before: just watch it like you’d watch any movie. It’s meant to be enjoyed that way. Analyzing and dissecting a film can give it deeper meaning but first, you’ve got to watch it at face value. First and foremost, as Hitchcock himself would say: “It’s only a movie.” Next, watch it again – but this time, every time you see something you’d consider cliché, remember that odds are, Psycho came out years before whatever it is that you’ve “seen before.” It is considered the grandfather of the horror film and with good reason. While others continue to take the elements of Psycho to other levels – for better or worse – it’s good to appreciate where it came from. Furthermore, while critic’s lists aren’t the be-all, end-all of film value, there’s a reason why Psycho is always lumped in with the movies considered to be the best ever made. It was a rule-breaker – it was a huge experiment and a big risk and it succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest expectations.

By 1960, Hitchcock was at the top of his game – the pinnacle of his fame and career. I mention this to explain just how different and risky Psycho was. Hitchcock was an “A” director much like Steven Spielberg today. When Steven Spielberg makes a movie, before you even go see it, you have an idea of what it’ll be like – a big budget, big stars and usually bound to be successful. That’s kind of how it was for audiences going to see a Hitchcock movie. His movies were suspenseful, thrilling and were backed by talent and money. Throughout the 1950s, many B films made very cheaply were also very profitable. This gave Hitchcock an idea. What if a major director like himself made a B movie? It was a creative challenge. With a limited budget and less time, how good of a movie could he make? No one, not even Hitchcock himself had any idea just how successful his experiment would be. In fact, he had a hard time getting the kind of support he usually got on his projects. His home studio Paramount even refused to finance it. Only after Hitchcock agreed to pay for it himself and film it at Universal (where his TV show was filmed), did Paramount agree to distribute it. This wound up being a great blessing for Hitchcock because when he put up the money, he also was given 60% ownership of the film in his contract and he made more money off of Psycho than any other film he ever made.

Psycho didn’t just break one or two conventions – Psycho was a game-changer. The studio system was already beginning to crack and little by little, allowance by allowance – the censors were also beginning to lose their tight grip on what the public should and should not see. Psycho, for these reasons, was a product of perfect timing. America’s moral views were beginning to shift – audiences might not have been prepared but apparently, they were ready to see what Psycho had in store for them. Hitchcock knew he was dealing in some controversial images and ideas, so rather than try to play them down – he played them up. He got the public very curious about Psycho.

His marketing campaign was like no other before. It was all about secrecy – the only way you’d find anything out about his film was to see it. Even the preview showed no footage of the film. Instead, Hitchcock took the audience on a tour through the Bates Motel and he barely reveals anything. The cast and crew were sworn to secrecy. Even the stars were kept from doing the typical interviews to hype the film. Normally, critics get to see films before they’re released to the public so they can help advertise the films in their columns. Hitchcock would not allow a single soul to see the film ahead of time. The critics who gave bad reviews were believed to be punishing Hitchcock for this. Then, once the film was released, Pinkerton guards were hired to enforce the rule that no one be admitted to see the film once the film began. Today this seems kind of strange but the movie going experience was different at this time. It was very common for people to show up after a film started, watch the remaining portion and then just wait for it to begin again and leave once they caught up to the part they walked in on. Hitchcock had enough popularity with theater-goers that the theater owners actually agreed. This could have backfired – essentially, Hitchcock was telling them to turn away business if the customers showed up too late. Luckily, the gamble paid off. When Psycho was released, there were literally lines stretched around whole city blocks. People waited in line for hours to get into the next show. While audiences waited, they got to see the promotional posters politely requesting that no one discuss the “secret” of Psycho with their friends until they’ve seen it. The public played along – who doesn’t like knowing a secret? It worked.

Then that long line of people got to see the film…

There are many reports of audience members running screaming from the theater. This only excited the lines of people outside…what could possibly be going on in there to cause that!? Well, Hitchcock was very smart when it came to getting his way with the censors. He was known to put in a few things he knew they’d tell him to take out just so he could keep the stuff he really wanted. He gave them bargaining chips he didn’t care about. One of my favorite stories about Psycho is how one of the censors swore he saw an exposed breast at the end of the shower scene. Hitchcock promised to edit it. At the next screening (where literally nothing had changed), the censor who saw it was now pleased that it was gone. However, another censor now claimed to see the same thing. Hitchcock accused him of having a filthy mind and imagining things…and so it stayed in.

Psycho is a personal movie to watch – it’s meant to evoke an emotional response. When you consider that audiences had never seen something quite like it before, it’s no wonder it was a little too much for some of them. It makes us watch things that make us uncomfortable – like the proverbial train-wreck, we may want to look away but we just can’t. Even more unsettling, it takes us beyond the role of passive observer. With Marion out of the picture, we have no choice but to follow Norman. We’ve just been shocked and we have to cling to whatever makes sense. Norman is troubled but he makes sense. When he tries to cover up his mother’s crime, we don’t just watch – we’re engaged in it. When he almost forgets the newspaper in Marion’s room we think, “No, wait – look at the nightstand.” When the car stops sinking in the swamp and Norman looks worried, we worry with him. We’re not condoning murder but right now, to us – Norman is a victim too. We can easily understand him wanting to hide his mother’s crime and protect her. We know from what we’ve been told and what we’ve just seen – his mother is mentally ill. Of course, now we know it’s a little more serious than going “a little mad sometimes.” But she’s his mother and he loves her (even if he also hates her).

One of the things I love most about Hitchcock films is that every single detail is worth paying attention to – the art on the walls, the colors, room numbers, license plates, names, dates, the camera angles, the music, the costumes, the moments of silence as well as the dialog – everything was on purpose – no details were ever overlooked. As a result, his films can be watched over and over again with the possibility of noticing something new every time.

He was famous for pre-planning his films so meticulously that he liked to say actually shooting them was the boring part – he was also famous for how adeptly he kept control of his projects. He “edited in the can.” Meaning he would only shoot exactly what he wanted and not leave any extra footage to be used by studio executives to alter his films. Not only did this help him get his way, it saved money. Knowing all these little tricks to save money served him well on Psycho.

Psycho was done for a very small amount of money (by film-making standards). It cost roughly $800,000 to make. Times have changed so to put that into some perspective, the film North By Northwest, which Hitchcock directed one year earlier had a budget of $4,000,000. Psycho didn’t even cost one quarter of that. Hitchcock spent that $800,000 where it counted most. He made sure to get the right actors and essential crew members. They were worth their high prices. He tended to work with the same people over and over again. So he kept the ones he couldn’t do without but he also used his TV crew from his show to fill in the gaps, for less money. He spent wisely.

Even people who have never seen Psycho, know exactly what its music sounds like. Psycho’s musical score was experimental too. It was composed using only string instruments. It’s haunting and scary and intense. Bernard Herrmann was worth every penny as the composer. Next, Saul Bass’s title sequence is also quite remarkable. So many movies (even today) don’t take advantage of the title sequence. They just sort of tell you the name of the movie, who made it and who’s in it. Psycho’s sequence does all that but it does it in a way that keeps jarring the words and splitting them in two with black and white bars coming in and out of the screen. It gets the viewer on edge before the film even starts and fits with the film’s motif of split personalities. Lastly, Anthony Perkins did such an incredible job as Norman that from that film on – he was Norman to the public. Quite like Sean Connery is James Bond – Perkins forever will be remembered as Norman. He even played him several more times in the follow-up sequels.


Here is the great title sequence accompanied by Bernard Hermann’s unsettling score. It’s just the title sequence but it sets up the movie perfectly. (No detail was overlooked.)

It’s likely that whoever reads this already knows Psycho’s secrets but rather than getting into the plot too much, I’ll just mention a few motifs to look out for.

Split images are prevalent throughout the whole movie. Many scenes contain mirrors in them and we often see a character and a reflection of that character. Also, sometimes shots are somehow cut in two. For example, when Norman backs Marion’s car up to her room, he parks in front of one of the hotel’s support beams. This beam is in the background but it draws a line down the center of the screen. Norman’s not the only one with split personality issues. Marion “goes a little mad” when she steals the money and takes on an assumed name when she registers at the motel. She’s not used to a life of crime and isn’t any good at it. As we continue to see her reflection, we’re seeing that she’s conflicted.

Birds are continuously referenced in this film as well. The story begins in Phoenix, AZ. We follow the story of Marion Crane. Norman’s hobby is taxidermy – specifically with birds and his parlor is full of his birds. When Norman discovers what his mother has done, he accidentally knocks a picture of a bird off the wall. Norman tells Marion that she eats like a bird. At the end, Mother tells us that she’s as harmless as her son’s stuffed birds. There have been a few interpretations of why…including the thought that it was some sort of precursor to Hitchcock’s next film, The Birds. Another way to interpret the birds in the film is the predator versus prey angle. In the photo on the right, Norman is shown surrounded by predatory (scary!) birds. Norman wasn’t able to handle the women around him, until they became as passive as his stuffed birds. Since Marion eats like a bird and his mother is as passive as one of his birds – I think it can be inferred that birds can be symbols of women in this film. I’ve also read that “bird” was a slang term for girl in England around this time.

A note on the 1998 Remake –
Recently, I finally got around to seeing the Gus Van Sant (GVS) 1998 remake. After reading, the Alfred Hitchcock Geek’s defense of it, I decided to get off my high horse, keep and open mind and give it a try. I had no idea what to think when it was all over. I literally had no opinion right away and it took a day for me to figure it out. GVS attempted a shot-for-shot remake. He kept the same screenplay with as few tweaks as possible, the score was the same, the opening credits were faithful to the original. The most obvious differences were the unavoidable ones – the passage of 38 years, it was filmed in color, the crew was different and the actors were different. I knew all this going in and was prepared for it.

First, I’m not offended by it as some Hitchcock purists are. In no way does it insult the Master nor was it intended to be “better.” I even recommend seeing it – only after you’ve seen the original first. It’s extremely interesting to see such a copy. I’ve seen many remakes but I’ve never seen a remake that actually imitated exact camera placement, the exact score, the exact screenplay. It was almost surreal. In the end, to me, it has served an unintended purpose. There are new things I appreciate about the original, after seeing the remake. First, I now have a new admiration for Janet Leigh’s performance. Don’t get me wrong, I never thought she was bad or wrong for the role. I think I was always so impressed with Anthony Perkins performance that I wasn’t appropriately impressed with hers. I have nothing against Anne Heche – but when it comes to Marion Crane, Janet Leigh’s version is far superior. I know that now in a way I didn’t before. Next, I don’t know quite how to describe this because I don’t know enough about editing. Something just seemed off. I know editing can give a film a certain pace. I’d be interested to know what others think because maybe I’m wrong – I just felt like GVS’s Psycho was a beat off. Like it was a little more sluggish in comparison.

Whatever it is that’s different, and I’d say with any remake – give the original a try. Remakes by their very nature imply that there was something special about the original. I don’t hate the remake. It actually made me appreciate the original in new ways, so for that alone, it was worth seeing.

I’m glad I gave Psycho another chance. Maybe at 14 or 15, all I really paid attention to was the shower scene because that’s what everyone always talked about. I don’t know. For some reason, I liked it well enough but it didn’t stick with me. Now it does. I always enjoy watching it because even if it’s some tiny little detail, I always feel like I see something new each time. I also began reading books about Psycho which gave me an even deeper appreciation for the film and of course for Alfred Hitchcock. I agree with those who call him a genius and think he was ahead of his time.

Here are two books I read recently that I’d recommend if you’re interested in learning more about Psycho.

Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello gives a ton of great details about the making of Psycho – far more than what I’ve just given here. If this post has increased your interest in the back story of Psycho, this is the book you should read.

A Long Hard Look at Psycho by Ramond Durgnat.  This book is incredibly dense – and I mean that in a nice way. It gives an extremely thorough analysis of Psycho. It can be a little hard to get through in some spots because it’s written more for a scholarly audience but it’s still incredibly interesting. You’ll find yourself wanting to go back and re-watch scenes because you learn about something new you never noticed before.

There are several other books out there too. If anyone has a book recommendation, I’d be happy to hear it. These are just the ones I’ve read recently and know they’re both crammed with great stuff for anyone interested in Psycho. I know there are many things I did not cover, or did not dig deeply into. This movie is just so rich, and I don’t want to pretend to compete with the books I listed above. I just wanted to throw my two cents worth out there in celebration of one of my favorite movies.

Thank you for reading!! :)


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