Late in 1959, the world was treated to a weird spectacle. A portly, well-known Englishman appeared on movie screens, showing the audience round a seedy motel. The motel seemed to be in middle America and the Englishman seemed, to some, to be off his trolley. He clearly believed the place’s appeal was enhanced by a murder recently committed there. “You should have seen the blood,” he said, trademark drawl spiced with prurience, “the whole place was, well, it’s too horrible to describe ... ”
And yet the motel Alfred Hitchcock was advertising in his trailer for Psycho has never closed in half a century. Even though its last known client was killed in the shower by its last known proprietor, it still draws customers. Quite literally so, at the Universal studio tours in Los Angeles and Orlando, where people queue to see the motel room, the bathroom and the gothic mansion on the hill. You can even dress up to wield the knife or be the victim.
What a story. Not just the one about the blonde (Janet Leigh), the motelier (Anthony Perkins) and the en-suite slaying. Nor just the transformation of a horror film into a tourist icon. But the story of the ageing Anglo-American director who, at 60, after the glamorous high achievement of a long career including The 39 Steps (1935), Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), couldn’t possibly – could he? – have another trick up his sleeve.
The odds were against Hitchcock in 1959. The studios were collapsing. His favourite male actors were growing old (Cary Grant, James Stewart); his favourite actress had gone off to become a European princess (Grace Kelly). And TV was starting to kill the cinema-going habit.
The greatest surprise-master in film history sprung a surprise. He would make a virtue, even a trump card, of adversity. Studios? The hell with them. He would do a cheap-feature deal with Paramount which gave him 60 per cent ownership of his movie instead of his usual upfront $250,000. (The film’s budget was a loose-change $800,000). Stars? There wouldn’t be any. Only the second-magnitude Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, and she would be killed after 45 minutes. TV, the picture industry’s party pooper? He would exploit it, not defy it. He would shoot in black and white, using the crew from his small-screen series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and he would personally perform the trailer.
In the intervening years Psycho, the throwaway movie, has become a milestone, a masterpiece, a cultural artefact for eternity. Its fascination is worldwide and inexhaustible. The avalanche of published Hitchophilia began with French acclaim – books from directors François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1968) and Eric Rohmer (Hitchcock – the First Forty-Four Films, 1979) – and continues today. Psycho itself has spawned imitations, sequels (the first was Psycho II, in 1983, starring and initiated by Anthony Perkins) parodies (spoof shower sequence in Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety, 1977) and even one virtual replica (Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho remake, 1998).
Like any great work of art, Psycho never stops asking questions or provoking us to hazard answers. It is classic horror, since it makes us jump out of our skins half a dozen times. Yet it starts by seeming classic in another sense: a linear, logical, near-Aristotelian tale of a woman in love who steals money to build a future and then, at the last possible moment, repents. But she finds it isn’t the last possible moment after all. It is too late. In the act of literally and metaphorically cleansing herself – in the shower – she is nuked.
Though it might be excessive, or tasteless, to suggest there is something Hiroshima-like about the effect this scene has, or has had, on audiences, Hitchcock was out to be excessive. He was out to be tasteless, or to challenge taste. Much of 1950s cinema was obsessed with the Bomb, from sci-fi tales of mutation to Stanley Kramer’s end-of-the-world film On the Beach (1959) to Hammer’s Dracula turning to ashes. Hitchcock merely found the ultimate way to make that phobia intimate, quotidian, crypto-domestic. The banality of evil. He was the experienced midwife delivering a new horror age.
Could Psycho have been made before the Bomb? Isn’t the horror of that shower murder and the detective’s stairway stabbing their complete and sudden arbitrariness? Asked by Truffaut what drew him to Robert Bloch’s original novel, published in 1959, Hitchcock replied: “The thing that ... made me decide to do the picture was the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue.” Out of the blue. Like a falling bomb. The very sequence of the shower murder is an atomisation of film grammar: 75 cuts in 45 seconds. The nuclear disintegration of form.
After this scene his Aristotelian tale collapses like his heroine on the bathroom floor. The structure dawdles, zigzags, takes unexpected turns. A hardboiled, self-possessed detective (Martin Balsam) has barely started sleuthing before he is slaughtered. “Mother” doesn’t, after all, exist. As a last rebuke to sense and shapeliness, a psychiatrist’s closing explanation turns to nonsense before the infinity of mystery suggested by the last close-up of killer Norman, who “wouldn’t hurt a fly” and whose mother’s skull is briefly, spectrally superimposed on his.
How avant-garde can a sexagenarian director get?
Psycho is apocalyptic in so many ways. It blows apart the concept of the nuclear family. Look at the isolated remnant that is Norman. Mother Bates creates Master Bates and the second of those two names – invoking the solipsistic raptures of the repressed – suits the hotelkeeper who spies on showering women through a wall-chink.
A stifled eroticism is detectable. Psycho-analysts have long scratched their heads over the disc of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony on a turntable, speculating about Napoleon and imperial monomania. They surely miss the point. Eroica is “erotica” with one letter missing, a sly symbol for the pornography we don’t see in Norman’s room but know from hints, and explicitly from Bloch’s novel, is there.
This was a new kind of horror, spring-cleaned with the squalor of the everyday. Movies no longer needed Vincent Price, storm-swept castles or sacrificial virgins. Everyone, even the victim, had grown up. You could look into Psycho as you looked into your newspaper. Terror was right here, on your breakfast table.
Hitchcock, very Britishly, would pretend it was all a naughty, mordant joke. After the teasing preview trailer, he embellished the film’s release campaign with gimmicky signs in theatre lobbies, prohibiting filmgoers from entering once the film had started. Psycho commentators have claimed this was a new idea. But it wasn’t. In fact, only three years earlier, many movie theatres had prevented audiences entering during the opening nativity scene in William Wyler’s Ben-Hur.
Hitchcock’s film was a succès de scandale waiting to happen. Sex, violence and sex-and-violence were already in the zeitgeist, if mostly across the Atlantic. In Hitchcock’s old stamping ground, the British film Room at the Top (1959) had shocked audiences by peering into the adulterous love-nest of a young man and older woman (Laurence Harvey, Simone Signoret). For the first time there were actual bed scenes.
Hammer’s horror films were becoming both grislier and more titillating, throwing nubile starlets in the path of seducing vampires (Dracula, 1958; Brides of Dracula, 1960), or giving them flight-or-fright exercise with monsters dressed in the latest bondage and bandage fashions (The Revenge of Frankenstein, 1958; The Mummy 1959). Above all, there was Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a violent and graphic serial-killer film that caused uproar in the same year as Psycho, 1960.
If not alone as an end-of-decade shock machine, Psycho was sovereign and unrivalled for its craft, power and ingenuity. Once critics had registered the film’s scabrous originality, once audiences had flocked to it (paying $15m in the first year, Hitchcock’s highest-ever gross), Psycho became like a block-press stamping out imitations.
Some films mimicked the original’s psychobabble title: Maniac (1962), Paranoiac (1962), neither of which has Psycho’s feel for the Freudian truth to go with the shrieks and stabbings. Others hired ageing female stars in order to bump them off early. Violent, arbitrary death became as predictable as reel-breaks. One or two more talented directors used Psycho as an inspirational text – Roman Polanski with Repulsion (1965), Brian DePalma with Carrie (1976) and Dressed to Kill (1980) – to spin new riffs on what had become, by the mid-1960s and later, a classic template.
The shower murder in particular established a new territory for terror. Something about the vulnerability and self-deception of that cleansing gave an echo of the decade gone by. The 1950s had so diligently promoted hygiene and prosperity, portraying itself as a new postwar beginning, just like Janet Leigh’s act of ritualised soap-and-water contrition.
Hitchcock wanted the scene plain and ruthless. Umpteen cuts, yes. But the soundtrack would be nothing but the water, the stabs, the screams. No music. Then one day Hitchcock’s composer Bernard Herrmann, who crafted the score for the two films most often voted the greatest in history, Citizen Kane (1941) and Hitchcock’s own Vertigo, proposed a stabbing string accompaniment as part of his planned all-string Psycho score. The shower scene is unimaginable now without those inhuman musical shrieks, drowning the human ones. The near-infinity of staccato notes replicates the near-infinity of shot cuts which replicates the near-infinity of stabs.
As if to re-emphasise that Psycho was building a new horror era amid the ruins of the old, the other great murder sequence, the detective’s staircase stabbing, was filmed on the Universal Studios soundstage where The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the classic Lon Chaney version, had been shot. The giant chandelier had fallen on the spot where, now, actor Martin Balsam stumbled backwards under the onslaught of a madwoman’s knife.
The “woman”, of course, was Norman Bates. “Mother ... how shall I put it? ... isn’t quite herself today,” says Perkins’s Norman in one scene, fending off a nosy visitor. Mother is, we finally learn, in the fruit cellar: a literal mummy. This is the film’s last knife in the solar plexus of the 1950s, the decade of family values, of America’s social and domestic rebuilding. Norman loves his mother so much he becomes her, wearing her clothes, taking her identity, putting her husk in the basement.
Antagonistic contemporary critics were right. Psycho is a shocking, unwholesome film. Similar adjectives were applied, in their time, to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881) and Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Minor art soothes and reassures us. Major art disturbs, provokes, challenges and perhaps changes us. If we resent being disturbed and provoked, we try to dismiss a work as meretricious and sensationalist. So Psycho, like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) later and The Godfather (1971) later still, was denounced by some critics as violent and morally or spiritually bankrupt. “A blot on an honourable career,” said the New York Times. “A reflection of a most unpleasant mind, a mean, sly, sadistic little mind,” Esquire reported.
Hitchcock’s mind, though, wouldn’t be the one to change. Many detractors later retracted. As so often in history, in cinema as in literature, the potboiler proved the work with staying power; the pulp fiction quickie outlasted many a magnum opus with built-in (self-)importance. Who now esteems Theodore Dreiser higher than Dashiell Hammett? Who doesn’t rate Casablanca (1942) above the complete works of a social-conscience labourer like Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, 1958; Judgment at Nuremberg, 1962)?
Today cinema history is unimaginable without Psycho – partly because it helped to change that history. It slew the squeaky-clean 1950s. It brought us the lean, volatile, questioning movie directors of the 1960s, from John Cassavetes to Dennis Hopper. It tore down the shower curtain protecting audiences from what they thought was indecency. But no great artist ever gave us decency. Not Sophocles, not Shakespeare, not Beethoven, not Picasso.
Hitchcock once said: “My movies go from failures to masterpieces, without ever being successes.” He was wrong in this case. What some critics could never forgive Psycho was its success with cinema-goers. What they could never forgive was that the public, not for the first time in art’s history, had got there ahead of them.
Nigel Andrews is the FT’s film critic.
More columns and reviews at www.ft.com/nigelandrews
When Nigel Andrews met Janet Leigh
Twenty years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the making of Psycho, Nigel Andrews met the actress Janet Leigh in Los Angeles. Here was how she recalled her role in the film.
“Mr Hitchcock wanted an established personality to play Marion Crane, because no one would ever have thought that a ‘star’ would leave the picture after a third of the picture! That was his intent, his magician intent. Because he was saying: ‘Everybody, you see what I’m doing with my right hand? You see this? See this card?’ And he’s saying, ‘You see Marion? Now you like Marion, don’t you? She’s a nice lady, isn’t she? She did a little bad thing, but she didn’t mean to do a little bad thing, she was just so much in love. How are they going to work it out? Well, they’re going to work it out, she’s going to meet another man. Now do you think the other man is going to take the place of the other man, or do you think there’s going to be a triangle? What’s going to happen to this lady, how is she going to work out her problem? Will she go back with the money, will she not go back with money?’
“All of a sudden, the right hand is doing all this, then, pow, up comes the left hand with the next trick which is – Marion is no longer there! He has drawn the audience into this woman, a very real woman, someone the audience can certainly identify with, a passionate woman, a meek woman really, and yet a good woman. Yet because of her passion and her inability to solve her problem, she does something that’s totally alien to her nature and has to deal with this.
“Then meeting this strange young man who obviously has a domineering mother, and the empathy, seeing his frailty and his not dealing with his problem, makes her deal with hers. Because that shower is not only cleansing her body from the trip, she has made up her mind that she’s going to return the money. And in a strange paradoxical way Norman helps her make up her mind, because she sees you can’t go through life not facing your demons, and the consequences of your deeds. So she subtracts the money to see what she will owe when she goes back. And she has cleaned herself – the shower is a cleansing of herself, of her soul, from the evil she had done. And that’s the tragedy.”