Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960) by Alfred Hitchcock is a noir-fuelled summation of thirty years of graphic and exploitative cinema, not just signalling the end of the classic film noir era, but bringing on many new types of film — the psycho-serial-killer horror film — the slasher —  the film that you see from beginning to end — the sight of a brassiere — jump scares shocks and a surprise ending. And a flushing toilet Code-lovers.

There is much to signal the changing of the era in Psycho, beginning with Hitchcock's inspired choice to make the film in black and white. For one Hollywood Golden Age fan at least, Psycho is the end of the line.

Psycho is not just the end of The Golden Age of Hollywood but for all its genius and for the sheer of its enjoyment and our never tiring of its technique and merits —  for all these things and more Psycho also heralds the opening of the age of disgust.

The murder of Janet Leigh's character in the shower is the film's pivotal scene and one of the best-known in all of cinema. 

Paving the way for the end and final erosion of the Production Code Psycho had not even many precedents in film noir in its presentment of sexuality, sexual behaviour and violence, even from the opening moments in which Sam and Marion are shown as unmarried lovers sharing the same bed, a barely acknowledged concept, with Marion in a bra, a further no-no. Two bras of course, the white one first and then the black one.

For anyone needing to know how to feel again how good Psycho is consider these beds and brassieres. As the film opens Marion Crane in white brassiere is on a bed with her boyfriend in the middle of the working day.

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane with the money on the bed in Psycho (1960)

Then the money is on the bed after the deed. See how Marion cheats on her boyfriend and on her boss, while the money is now her dark lover on the bed.

Alfred Hitchcock was maybe  the only person who might have been able to achieve this and was not just at the height of his powers but also his popularity. North by Northwest (1959) had been a huge box-office hit, and his TV Show Alfred Hitchcock Presents was also making him most popular. It was Hitchcock who became interested in the Robert Block novel Psycho as well as the real story of Ed Gein, who was arrested for the murders of two women with the purpose of making a 'woman suit' so that he could pretend to be his dead mother. 

Psycho does not just draw from classic film noir but it simultaneously rejects it. As well as rejecting classic film noir Psycho also nods to the techniques and production values of noir. Psycho is deliberately presented as a B Movie and not only did Hitchcock shoot the film in black and white, for aesthetics and also for budgetary reasons Hitchcock limited his budget for Psycho to $800,000, and do bear in mind that his previous film had cost $4.3 million, and his following film would cost $4 million. 

With very good reason, Hitchcock had been impressed with the ideas behind many B movies but felt they were let down with technique, which he would then demonstrate. Hitchcock wanted to make a great B movie.

To meet the authenticity of the killer B Alfred Hitchcock chose to use the crew involved in the production of his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, rather than the usual major motion picture crews. This is both budgetary, but it also meant he was working with people accustomed to cheaper films and faster working.

Psycho is best known for its highly choreographed shower scene, which is about 3 minutes long and which has generated articles, myths, disputes, legends, university courses, imitations, discussions and all kinds of movie, televisual and fun madness. There is even a documentary about the shower scene called 78/52 (relating to the alleged 78 shots and 52 cuts). It was a first for many reasons, and marks the moment when murder became a bona fide form of entertainment.

You are now leaving classic film noir. The use of suggested nudity, infidelity and lingerie was all new and was a like a depth charge going on underneath everything that classic film noir stood for. There was never going to be innocence again — and horror came of age with Psycho being the first fully suggestively terrifying and deliberately frightening cinematic film production.

The death of the leading actress in the first third of the film also remains a certain  shocker with an intentional jump scare being at the heart of the fright. It was also one of the first films to take a medial and as honest as possible approach to the psychological evaluation of the so-called insane. This evaluation is the strangest post-script that film noir could ever have. But film noir is the strangest of all film styles, and talks more deeply and poetically about strangeness than could any other style and maybe even medium.

Unlike the majority of the solid strain of psychopathy in classic film noir Psycho was able to spend a great amount of time not just painting the villain as a sympathetic character. The same is said of his victim, Marion Crane, who also committed a crime. In a further fun twisting we never see Marion Crane particularly as a bad person, even though she is a thief on the run.

Novel features about Psycho abound, and as a film production it is one of the greatest dividing line moments in the evolution of the popular form.  It was the first time ever shown in a mainstream movie. Without doubt it marks the end of the film noir tradition of stylish crime-drama with overtones, undertones, and postures aplenty when it came to messaging of all sorts, and introduces into a cynical milieu, enough cynicism to drown the entire future of the industry, submerge morality forever as it were.

As film noir expires, the slasher film is born! The adverts for Psycho yelled:

“Do not reveal the surprises!” 

and announced that cinemas would not let you in once the film had started. More interesting yet is the fact that the theft of $40,000 by Marion Crane has nothing to do with the story of the film and remains a once in a lifetime special effect of story-telling, and the greatest red herring of all time.

Some of Hitchcock’s personal phobias are represented in Psycho including his dislike of policemen artfully rendered in the figure of the highway patrolman who wakes up Marion from her roadside nap. 

This cop on wheels nearly sees the envelope with the stolen money and when she trades in her car at town further down the line, the same cop is standing at his patrol car and staring at her from over the street. 

“It’s not that I don’t trust you but … it’s the only time when a customer tried to high pressure the salesman."

The grandest oddity of Psycho concerns the finale sequence in which a cod long-winded psychiatric lecture is delivered to assembled locals on the logic and causes behind Norman Bate’s psychopathic behaviour. 

Anti-climactic to the extent of parody, this segment of the film seems to have been created to satisfy the censors even though Psycho comments directly on extreme social fears and the possibility that we or someone else might impulsively commit a crime, be questioned by the police, become the victim of a madman or disappoint our mother. No film has ever achieved so much or shed so much light on our inner selves.

Vera Miles in Psycho (1960)

Gender nonconformity is another issue which can be side-stepped into any film noir.. Perkins, who was allegedly a homosexual, and Hitchcock, who previously made Rope (1948), were up to speed with the the film's transgressive subject matter. The viewer remained unaware of Bates' crossdressing until, at the end of the film, it is revealed during the attempted murder of Lila. 

It's interesting to think what burn that cross-dressing appearance left on the American mind.

At the station, Sam asks why Bates was dressed that way. The police officer, ignorant of Bates' split personality, announces his conclusion that Bates is a transvestite. The psychiatrist corrects him and explains that Bates believes that he is his own mother when he dresses in her clothes.

According to Stephen Rebello's 1990 book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the censors in charge of enforcing the Production Code wrangled with Hitchcock because some of them insisted they could see one of Leigh's breasts. 

Hitchcock held onto the print for several days, left it untouched, and resubmitted it for approval. Each of the censors reversed their positions: those who had previously seen the breast now did not, and those who had not, now did. They passed the film after the director removed one shot that showed the buttocks of Leigh's stand-in. The board was also upset by the racy opening, so Hitchcock said that if they let him keep the shower scene he would re-shoot the opening with them on the set. Because board members did not show up for the re-shoot, the opening stayed.

Another cause of concern for the censors was that Marion was shown flushing a toilet, with its contents (torn-up note paper) fully visible. No flushing toilet had appeared in mainstream film and television in the United States at that time

Herrmann used the lowered music budget to his advantage by writing for a string orchestra rather than a full symphonic ensemble and both contrary to Hitchcock's request for a jazz score. Herrmann thought of the single tone colour of the all-string soundtrack as a way of reflecting the black-and-white aspect of the photography. The strings play muted for all the music other than the shower scene, creating a darker and more intense effect. 

The main title music is a tense and hurtling piece of music which sets the tone of impending violence, and returns three times on the soundtrack. Though nothing shocking occurs during the first 15–20 minutes of the film, the title music remains in the audience's mind, lending tension to these early scenes.

John McIntire in Psycho (1960)

There were rumours that Herrmann had used electronic means, including amplified bird screeches to achieve the shocking effect of the music in the shower scene. The effect was achieved, however, only with violins and the only electronic amplification employed was in the placing of the microphones close to the instruments, to get a harsher sound. 

Besides the emotional impact, the shower scene cue ties the soundtrack to birds. The association of the shower scene music with birds also telegraphs to the audience that it is Norman, the stuffed-bird collector, who is the murderer rather than his mother.

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