A CUT ABOVE: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

I can just imagine the Hollywood studios in 1959 watching North by Northwest and heaving a great big sigh of relief! At last – they thought – the Master of Suspense has finally gotten the message!! NO more art films, NO more experiments. Just good old fashioned exciting-but-wholesome entertainment. Certainly they had cause for hope: Alfred Hitchcock had come this close to making The Wreck of the Mary Deare with Gary Cooper, and he had been in discussions with Audrey Hepburn and Laurence Harvey to film No Flowers for the Judge

Poor studios! They had not accounted for Hitchcock’s booming success in television, a medium whose production costs were a fraction of those in motion pictures, or of the publication in 1959 of a little novel by horrormeister Robert Bloch called Psycho. A layman picking up this book would find a based-on-fact, stupendously gore-laden thriller that wallowed in deviancy. A certain director, however, saw yet another piece of writing that was ripe for the Hitchcock treatment, like Rear Window and Vertigo before it. 

In the end, the man who had directed one A-list film after another, including one that years later would be called by some the best film of all time, achieved his most profound legacy with a cheaply made, black and white horror movie that nobody wanted him to make. 

A visit from Mother

Psycho is so iconic that the folks in our film class who had never seen it before (surprisingly, a few still exist!) felt as it unfolded before their eyes as if they had somehow seen it! That might be because it is widely considered the first ever slasher film, and its imagery has been inspiring horror and suspense filmmakers worldwide for sixty-two years. 

The studios thought they could stop the film by withholding funding, but Hitchcock got the last laugh: he financed it himself, made it on the cheap, and netted a fortune, both in money and in fame. A few years after Hitchcock’s death, the sequels started coming: three films (all featuring Anthony Perkins and all ranging from pretty lousy to terrible), a ghastly color frame-by-frame remake in 1998 by Gus Van Sant that justifiably bombed, and a “prequel” series on Fox about young Norman Bates and his mother (Bates Motel) that I hear was pretty good. 

Giving the credit/blame to Psycho for the slasher genre is complicated by the release of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Yes, the British film’s premiere predates that of Psycho by two months. Yet Powell and Hitchcock were good friends, and it is clear that the former was influenced by the latter as Peeping Tom contains elements of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Yet while Powell created a piece of cinema that more closely conforms to later slasher films than Psycho – more gruesome, a higher death count, even a “final girl” – Tom’s failure at the box office most likely influenced Hitchcock. He refused to give a press screening and developed a brilliant marketing plan, including a lengthy film trailer that prepared audiences to expect in advance something that skirted the boundaries of cinematic decency.

“Mother hasn’t been herself lately . . . “

Our teacher Elliot reminded us that, in addition to Psycho, 1960 saw the premiere of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. The influence these two films had on what would be deemed acceptable to watch on the legitimate screen in terms of sex and/or violence was profound. The new cinema of the 1960’s is proof of that, although the focus was on sex, and it took horror a little longer to brew. George Romero reinvented the zombie in 1968. The giallo films of Italy, born out of that country’s mystery literature but clearly influenced by Psycho, took off in 1970 with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. John Carpenter, Brian de Palma, Sean S. Cunningham and a host of others made the 1970’s – 80’s the Golden Age of gory psychological and/or supernatural suspense, and the mantle has been picked up today by the likes of Eli Roth and Ari Aster. More than one of these filmmakers has given credit to the Master. 

Even Hitchcock himself was influenced by Psycho and the movement it spawned. Many have noted the influence of the giallo movement on his 1972 film Frenzy. What’s interesting watching Frenzy is what a “typical” Hitchcock film it is, full of his trademark humor, the conventional theme of the wrong man accused of a series of murders while his double, a villainous mama’s boy who is clearly a cross between Bruno Anthony and Norman Bates (and who happens to be, like Hitchcock’s father, a greengrocer), and a few brilliant shots, like the reverse tracking shot that signifies the murder of the film’s only sympathetic character. 

Yes, Frenzy is hard to watch

I’ll be honest – this time around I just couldn’t handle watching Frenzy in its entirety. It is a sadistic piece of work, and its treatment of women is truly horrifying. You may say that this is the killer’s modus operandi, but it is Hitchcock who is upping the violence, perhaps to compete with the Argentos and Carpenters competing for audiences. Despite all this sensationalism, it is little ol’ Psycho that is the true classic, both utterly Hitchcockian and totally subversive. He does things here he has never done before, leading Psycho to become, for better or worse, a trailblazer. It is also a brilliant work of art. 

*     *     *     *     *

I can just imagine the typical audience of 1960, standing in a long line to see Psycho because of Hitchcock’s demand that theatres not allow people to enter the movie after it had started. There’s a nurse on call in the lobby in case people faint (and, evidently, some people did.) By the time the lights go down, the crowd’s nerves have been ratcheted up by an expert – and then come the piercing strings of Bernard Herrmann’s overture, shredding the darkness and making folks jump in their seats. 

But then . . . . it’s as if we’ve made our way into the wrong movie. For what we get is a romantic drama – a very adult romantic drama – but one with nary a sign of any psycho for a long, long time. And here is the first way that Psycho differs from other Hitchcock films: this time the director is trying to shock and surprise his audience over and over again, with the biggest shocker saved for the ending. In that way, the film resembles a more traditional whodunnit, except for the positioning of the detective figure, who is minor, and the identification of the hero, who changes several times. 

Marion (Janet Leigh) and Sam (John Gavin), post-afternoon delight

After the grandeur of North by Northwest, here we find perhaps Hitchcock’s most intimate film, not just because it covers less ground and less glamorous people, but because the audience is physically placed right in the middle of things. The traditional long panning shot of the Phoenix cityscape ends up sucking us through the window of a grubby hotel on a Friday afternoon where two people have clearly just been making love. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) lies on the bed in her white brassiere and slip while her lover Sam (John Gavin) stands over her, shirtless and still lustful. It’s clear that Marion wouldn’t mind sticking around for a while longer either, but she’s got to get back to work. More importantly, she has to make Sam understand that furtive affair isn’t going to satisfy her much longer. Sam runs a hardware store in California, and all his money goes to making the business run and providing his ex-wife with alimony. He refuses to wed Marion until he is financially on his feet. Lots of exposition that is softened by the obvious attractiveness and arousal of the couple!

Back at the real estate firm where Marion works, we find 1) the requisite directorial cameo; 2) Patricia Hitchcock in a small, very funny role as Marion’s chatty co-worker (wonderfully chatty: she manages to spill the fiasco that was her wedding night during the conversation); and 3) a drunken client who hits on Marion before entrusting her with a $40,000 down payment on a bridal house for his daughter. In one short scene, then, Marion is bombarded with reminders of weddings, blissful and otherwise, and when she agrees to her boss’ wish that she take the money to the bank, it’s understandable that she never makes it there. 

Cut to Marion in her house, packing her bags and preparing to run for it. Interestingly, she has now changed to black undergarments: the first swirls of guilt have already started to hit her brain cells. The next 10-15 minutes of film are almost procedural, as we see Marion drive from Phoenix up north toward Fairfield, California where Sam lives, have a run-in with a cop (filmed in typically menacing fashion), exchange her car, and think, think, think as she drives. Finally, a rain shower (get it?!?) forces Marion off the highway just 14 miles from her destination and, fatefully, into the parking lot of the Bates Motel. 

In 1960, Janet Leigh was a big star and a sympathetic one. Orson Welles had really banged her around in his 1958 noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil and she had just played the lead in a popular romantic comedy with Tony Curtis and Dean Martin. Anthony Perkins had already been nominated for an Academy Award (for Friendly Persuasion) and had shown himself to be highly versatile in comedy and drama. Those who had perhaps forgotten the name of this picture might have imagined the plot might go something like this: Marion meets Norman and is drawn to his lonely plight. She helps him rid himself of his mother’s influence, and he helps her see the error of her ways. Maybe the fall in love. Maybe Sam gets a little psycho when he hears about that. 

Getaway to a private island

It’s clear in those early scenes at the motel that Marion and Norman Bates for a sympathetic bond for each other. He is clearly attracted to her but disarmingly shy about it. Except . . . these scenes are filmed more like a horror movie than a romance. The creepy old Bates residence looms over the drab modernity of the motel. The whole sequence plays out against a stormy nightscape. Herrmann’s music looms in the background, and John L. Russell’s camera captures the couple at weird angles.

Um . . . this is not a private island!

In the centerpiece scene where  the parlor behind the motel office, Marion and Norman are dwarfed by the stuffed birds of prey that lean over them. (Notice all the paintings of birds that hang in the motel room of Marion – last name Crane, and she eats like a bird – it’s almost like Hitchcock wants to make a film about people surrounded by threatening birds – but that can’t be right.) In the parlor, we finally discover the meaning of the film’s title: Norman’s mother . . . well, she hasn’t been herself lately. She just goes a little mad sometimes. A boy’s best friend is his mother. 

Oh-oh . . . 

“It looms, Norman! It looms!”

By the time Marion decides to go to bed and then drive back to Phoenix to make things right, we can tell that Mother’s influence has made a mess of Norman. He is clearly aroused by his guest, but all he can do about it is stare through the hole hidden behind a religious painting in his office at Marion undressing. Of course, sexual arousal is a good thing, and it looks like his feelings might give Norman the strength to have it out with Mother and begin a process toward independence. Maybe Norman will have the same happy ending that Perkins had playing Cornelius Hackl in The Matchmaker!?! Unfortunately, once he gets to the house, he loses his steam and retreats sulkily to the kitchen, paving the way for Mother to make her way down to Room #1 to have it out with the hussy who has been making eyes at her son. 

I won’t attempt to provide any real insight on the shower scene, which mostly likely has been viewed even by those who have not watched the entire film. Director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) calls it “the purest expression of the assault on the female body.” I found that quote in a documentary I watched about the scene called 78/52 (the number of shots and cuts that it took to make). It’s available on Hulu. I learned among other things that the scene was shot separately from the rest of the film, and that the body double hired to play Marion through most of the scene ended up working seven days compared to Janet Leigh’s twenty-one. The significance of this is the amount of time and care taken for the first time on a scene depicting violent death. Another first for Hitchcock and for Hollywood (as was the presence of a toilet in the motel bathroom!!) 

A shower that ends in spirals . . .

People are so gobsmacked by the shower scene that they do not notice the brilliant psychological transference of audience sympathy – from Marion, who we hope will get away with her theft and find love with Sam, to Marion and Norman, who we hope will both escape their private traps, to Norman, tasked with covering up Mother’s latest horrific crime. Again, we are treated to a procedural-like sequence of Norman cleaning, washing, and getting rid of all the evidence, including that $40,000 Maguffin. 

One of the most interesting oddities is that our sympathies hardly extend to Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) who comes to Fairfield to confront Sam and find her sister. Our teacher Elliot suggested that Hitchcock might have handed this role to Miles as punishment for abandoning him during Vertigo (how dare she have a baby!) and indeed Miles is as dowdy as she was in The Wrong Man and oddly repressed for a woman in a movie with such an up-to-date attitude towards sex and violence. In the film Psycho II, we discover that Lila and Sam got married, but he’s already dead, and (spoiler alert!) she doesn’t make it to the closing credits. 

Even after Lila and Sam meet, the real focus turns to Mr. Arbogast (Martin Balsam), an insurance investigator hired by Marion’s boss to find her and avoid scandal. Arbogast combs through the town and winds up at the Bates Motel where he makes mincemeat of Norman. There’s a great moment when the investigator is examining the sign-in book and Norman leans over to watch him, revisiting the bird imagery as his neck moves like a turkey’s gullet. When he isn’t gulping, Norman is pecking at a handful of candy corn (a bit that Anthony Perkins himself added to the character; it fits!)

The scene facing Arbogast: Hitchcock stairs!

Arbogast’s death is just as beautifully filmed as the shower scene, beautifully edited and scored, including the first of two bird’s-eye (get it?) shots of Mother coming out of her room. Here, she strides purposefully, knife raised. Later, she struggles in her son’s arms as he carries her downstairs to the fruit cellar (“You think I’m ‘fruity,’ boy?!?”) for her protection. 

There’s not much movie left – but there’s more than usual in a Hitchcock film because after the thrilling climax where it is revealed that Mother and Norman are closer than one could ever have believed and then Sam rescues Lila, we should be at the point where a quick wrap-up signals the cue for “THE END” to appear on the screen. Hitchcock was never one for long resolutions. But here he got scared. What would audiences make of Norman Bates’ transition to his mother? Would they confuse it with homosexuality, as people have been doing for generations when it comes to transvestism? Would they laugh at Norman’s permanent submergence into his mother’s head? 

The Final Couple: a long way from Hitchcock’s usual happy ending of love and marriage

Hitchcock wanted to avoid all of this. He wanted the audience to understand all that had come before and what they were about to witness when a cop brings a blanket for Mrs. Bates (“she says she’s chilly!”) And so he cast Simon Oakland as a psychiatrist who explains the mental nightmare Norman has been living through his entire life. On the one hand, it does slow things down for a minute. On the other, I think for the time Hitchcock made the right call. The final moment, where we hear Mother speaking inside Norman’s head, and the instantaneous superimposition of her corpse-like face over Norman’s face in that final shot as Marion’s car is dredged (along with how many others?) from the swamp, is a perfect coda for a late Hitchcock where it’s very clear that the Darkness has won.

I am writing this two days before Thanksgiving. Due to the holiday, our final class session has been pushed back a week. To compensate for that, Elliot has given us not one, not two, but THREE bonus films. One is a Hitchcock I do not love, one is a De Palma film that might be his best, and the third is something I have never even heard of before. All of this to accompany Hitchcock’s last great film, another tale of love and marriage, of Hitchcockian tropes like stairs, eyeglasses, and water, where the director sets his sights on nothing less than the apocalypse! See you next week!

Caw! Caw!

A happy Thanksgiving from us to you and yours!

23 thoughts on “A CUT ABOVE: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

  1. A really great encapsulation of a really great film, Brad. If I had a time machine, going to see Psycho in 1960 with an unsuspecting audience would be my first stop (plenty of time to visit the Grassy Knoll after that…). I believe Peter Bogdanovich described the shower scene as eliciting an endless scream from its audience then, and it still packs a punch all these years later. What I think is even more interesting about the film is that, arguably, for the first time, Hitchcock is chasing a trend instead of paving the way. Hitchcock could not ignore the success of cheaply-made William Castle and Hammer Films horror movies and took it upon himself to do the same. But at this stage of his career, he was still in such control that Psycho *did* end up a trailblazing film; something that cannot necessarily be said for his later efforts as he scrambled to catch up the quickly-changing movie environment around him.

    I could go on and on but I’ll leave my thoughts at that for the moment. When do we start our Hitchcock podcast, Brad?

    Also, Psycho II is great.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nick, if you EVER seriously want to do a Hitchcock podcast together, count me in!! I’ve been talking to a former student who has always been my tech mentor and go-to about doing one. I have an idea for how to bring the concept “Ah Sweet Mystery” to a podcast, and Hitchcock would be at least part of it. But the current podcasts about the Master leave me a bit cold.

      I think you make a great point about Hitchcock following a trend. William Castle had indeed inundated the market with his cheap but fun thrillers at the end of the 50’s. What is fascinating is that he started production on Homicidal at the end of 1960, and while I always saw it as something of a Psycho ripoff (and one that doesn’t stand much in comparison to the earlier, better film), you can’t deny that Castle was an innovator. I have found nothing yet to suggest that this film was influenced by Hitchcock’s movie OR Bloch’s novel.

      As for Psycho II, let me address my opinions to the gentleman whose comment lies just below yours . . .

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I know what you mean about FRENZY, though it is technically impeccable and full of good ideas. It is a salutary reminder to us all what a grubby and depressing time it was in 1970s Britain (and then Thatcher came and capitalised on that misery of course).

    Glad to see Arbogast’s death scene getting some attention as it is brilliantly done. And much gorier of course. Have you read the original novel? It is in many ways less gory than the film (barring a small element of the shower scene) and a good deal subtler in some respects. And it is I think worth remembering just how faithful an adaptation it actually is (the long final explanation is in fact all taken directly from the novel – even the final line is identical). Stefano has always given himself far too much credit on this project in my view. All you have to do is read the book and see how full of BS he was. It really is another one of those examples where the original author does not get enough credit. On the other hand, the casting of Perkins is sheer genius, very far from Bloch’s middle aged schlub.

    Quite right to include Powell’s masterpiece here, thanks Brad. In retrospect though it’s easy to see why PEEPING TOM failed commercially as it is a far more unsettling experience in what it asks us to align our sympathies to. PSYCHO is far more commercial – a whodunit masquerading as a Gothic thriller in a spooky old house with a giant twist at the end. Much more saleable, much more recognisable as a standard horror movie.

    However, with apologies, can’t agree with you about the sequels though. I think PSYCHO II is a really solid film, well played (Meg Tilly is great) and well written, with a twist at the end that actually makes sense. PSYCHO III is less impressive but has lots of great scenes and is very well directed by Perkins. The fourth one is less persuasive as the radio structure is too odd but the flashbacks are actually pretty good!

    Must have been great to be around folks who’ve not seen it before!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think PSYCHO II and PSYCHO III are decent horror flicks. I was pleasantly surprised by both.

      I’ve never been happy with the ending of PSYCHO. Even the first time I saw it I was disappointed by the ending. A great movie though.

      As for George A. Romero, I think he may be the second worst film director in cinema history. The worst is of course Sidney Lumet.


      • Ah, dfd, I know I have disagreed more wholeheartedly with other people, but when I read your opinion of Sidney Lumet, I can’t remember who these these people are. I can’t speak intelligently about George Romero because I only watched the first NotLD; everything after that was too gross.


        • How did Romero get into this thread? He has made some exceptional films – outside of his DEAD series – such as MARTIN and MONKEY SHINES, the latter being one of the most honest and touching depictions of tetraplegia in cinema.


        • How is the director of 12 ANGRY MEN, THE PAWNBROKER, THE HILL, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, RUNNING ON EMPTY el al, the worst director in history? There speaks someone not familiar enough with the oeuvre of such dire directors as Irwin Allen, John Derek, Michael Winner, Al Adamson, Brett Ratner, ad nauseam.


  3. Meg Tilly IS great in this . . . and just about everything else she did. She is the scariest thing about the lukewarm 90’s remake of BODY SNATCHERS. And I thought it was interesting that Lila was essentially the villain here. Obviously, they picked up on the negative aspects of her character from the original. Her murder is over the top gross, but by then what could you expect.

    I, however, disagree with your assessment of the ending, Sergio. Tom Holland had some gall to rewrite the original history, and it looks like BATES MOTEL corrected that. Plus, to have a completely minor character turn out to be the killer is what I fight against in this blog every day when it comes to classic mysteries. If one is to accept this from writer Tom Holland, one might as well buy the ludicrous proposition that the serial killer was a child’s doll! And who’s gonna buy that?!?!?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Well, it comes out of left field but is basically plausible. And it’s only meant to be the cherry on the top after all. Sorry you don’t like it more. Saw it when it came out and really liked it then too. There is something inherently severe about Vera Miles, though she was great working for John Ford. But she went in to TV incredibly quickly – she tended to be better as tough villains (great in a slightly lesser COLUMBO). Bit of a shame really.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful assessment, as usual! I really hope you dig into LAST EMBRACE, a wonderful example of a hyper-talented young director temporarily imbued with the spirit of a true master. Demme would eventually achieve his own level of mastery over the long haul and this film, an early one, is tremendously invigorating in that certain way that only Hitchcock movies can be.

    Liked by 2 people

    • LAST EMBRACE is great (have it on Blu-ray in fact). It’s one of those great neo-Hitchcock movies from that era – like STILL OF THE NIGHT, OBSESSION, ROAD GAMES and THE BEDROOM WINDOW – that pays homage but also paddles it’s own canoe. Love the Rozsa score too. And the references to that Noir in Technicolor NIAGARA too 😁

      Liked by 1 person

    • Likewise, marblex! But it brings this to mind: after so many years and viewings, it no longer scares me. I enjoy taking it apart as a piece of Hitchcockian cinema. And I can recite most of the dialogue along with the actors. But REAR WINDOW? I still get breathless when I watch it. The hair goes up on my arm when Thorwald turns and sees Jeff. I still laugh as soon as Stella appears, even though I know exactly what she’s going to say. I still get nervous when Miss Lonelyhearts lays out enough tranquilizers to put all of Manhattan to sleep or when she and Lisa stand at two windows, listening to the composer’s song, as Thorwald heads down the hall to his door. That’s how I know RW is my favorite film of all . . .

      Happy Thanksgiving to you!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. 1960 saw the premiere of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. The influence these two films had on what would be deemed acceptable to watch on the legitimate screen in terms of sex and/or violence was profound.

    There were loads of Hollywood movies at that time trying to take a more grown-up approach to sex. The World of Suzie Wong – all-American regular guy falls in love with a prostitute. Breakfast at Tiffany’s – a breezy romantic comedy about a male prostitute and a call girl. And Butterfield 8, which doesn’t dare to actually tell us outright that the lead character is a call girl but makes it pretty obvious and it’s a surprisingly interesting movie in its approach to female sexuality.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’d describe Frenzy as an anti-giallo. Giallos showed brutal murders but did so in a way that glamourised murder – directors like Argento made murder seem artistic and even in a perverse way beautiful. In Frenzy Hitchcock wanted to show us that murder is dirty, sordid, messy, disgusting and ugly. He also wanted to show us that people do not die easily.

    And he wanted to show us that the aftermath of murder is sordid and miserable, hence the infamous potato truck scene.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’ve seen the old Psycho and the new one. I’ve seen the series ” Bates Motel” and all these are very interesting. Psycho, the first one, is a masterpiece. I’m happy that you know Dario Argento, who is italian like me ☺

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’d like to know Argento’s work better, but frankly he’s not a director I want to watch alone!!! I have heard his death scenes described as works of beauty, but I’ll admit I have a hard time acknowledging “it’s only a movie” when I see gore onscreen. Any suggestions would be much appreciated! 🤨

      Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t like gore at all, but Argento could make gore poetic and beautiful in a way no-one else could. I think THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (his first giallo) and SUSPIRIA (which is not a giallo) are the Argento movies to see. If you don’t like those two movies you definitely will not like his other films.

        The gore in the better giallos is a lot easier to take than the gore in American slasher movies. The Italians did extreme violence in a theatrical stylised way so you always feel that it has no connection with reality. When American film-makers do gore they tend to do so in a crass, crude way. If you compare Argento to George Romero then Argento is clearly an artist while Romero is an incompetent hack who relies on gore because he has no talent.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I saw Dario Argento’s films as a young girl with my father. I have never loved horror movies with blood and in the past it was just beyond my taste for me. But Dario Argento is in fact very different, he is a set of things, his films are very complex and he pays attention above all to colors and those scenes are something special. Furthermore, the stories are very particular. I advise you to see Phenomena and Suspiria, as the first films, and after DEEP RED, 4 Flies on gray velvet, Cat O’Nine tails, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL plumage …. All his movies of 70ies are the best. 😉

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