Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Joseph Stefano
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam
(109 minutes, B&W)
The main concert hall was very crowded, filled with people of all ages. As the orchestra began tuning, people shuffled to their seats. The conductor stepped out onto the stage. I read in the program that he was also the conductor for the Oscar-winning score of the film Atonement. The conductor had a digital timer on his podium. He shook hands with the concertmaster, and lifted his baton.
The lights dimmed. Chatter ceased. In the brief instant the conductor whipped up his baton, before the piercing first downbeat, everyone seemed to take a quick, collective breath. The baton fell at the speed of light, and the moment it dropped, the orchestra launched and led the audience into the most tense, terrifying movie ever made.
I read the advertisement in the paper. The weekend before Halloween, this magical and hypnotic experience was too superb to pass on. I had heard frequently of films being screened and accompanied by live orchestration, and the process always intrigued me, especially the timing. That's what the digital clock was for. At first after Psycho began, I didn't know which to concentrate on: the film or the orchestra. Both were seductive and mesmerizing. Soon after the film's opening I decided I was going to try and take them both in, as a single experience. The result was awe-inspiring.
Psycho is a movie that everyone has seen. I'd seen it before viewing it with a live orchestra. Its characters and plot twists, revolutionary at their release, are now common knowledge. The shrieking violins and shower slashing are now bedrocks of American culture, but every time one watches Psycho, they feel like they're experiencing the film for the first time. A great thing about seeing the movie with several hundred other people was that the crowd was comprised of adults returning to a treasured memory, and teens discovering the movie for the first time. The audience was respectful, but also connected only in the way a group of people viewing a horror movie together can be. Psycho is a shocker of the first degree. Even when you know what's coming, the anticipation is overwhelming. When Marion Crane shreds her penciled addition problems on paper and flushes them down the toilet, shedding her bathrobe as she does so, I was sliding off of my seat. I wanted to warn her. I wanted to yell at the screen. No one can imagine the breathless exhilaration I felt when the orchestra stabbed the first chord of Bernard Hermann's opening theme with a stunning vigor.
In short, Psycho stays with you. It's one of the few movies you can revisit again and again and it stays timeless. That fact would be surprising, I believe, to the film's creative team. Hitchcock himself would never imagine that one of his cheapest films, shot in B&W by a small television production crew, would be his most powerful. The man is one of film's greatest icons. Any one of his films could be considered the magnum opus of a lesser director. When most moviemakers were longing for one true hit, Hitchcock turned out masterpiece after masterpiece like clockwork. Read the titles of his films and you see the best of American film: Rebecca, The 39 Steps, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief, Dial "M" for Murder, The Birds, Frenzy, and Notorious, just to name a few. But people always come back to Psycho, time after time, generation after generation. It's not only the greatest American thriller, it is the American thriller.
During the late 1950s when Psycho entered the creative stage, Alfred Hitchcock, as one of the country's most famed directors, faced a problem most serious artists face at some point: people trying to copy or duplicate their style of work. The American public was so taken by what had been deemed the "Hitchcock thrill" that copycat suspense films were showing up across the nation in almost every cinema. Hitchcock needed to create something totally unique and inventive to solidify his filmmaking future in the coming decade. Today it seems ironic that the movie he designed to dissuade wannabes is his most influential and oft-copied film, even inspiring a tepid, grossly unnecessary shot-for-shot remake by Gus Van Sant in 1998.
Hitchcock viewed Psycho, based on the novel by Robert Bloch, to be a new kind of movie. He was determined that it would be shot for under a million dollars (the final budget came out to be close to $860,000, which today is a small fraction of what Hollywood studios spend on marketing alone). To preserve this estimate, he refused a large crew, opting instead to shoot the movie like a larger-scale television special, with the crew of his TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Hitchcock purchased the rights to the book for only a little more than $9,000. Despite the logic and frugality of his argument, Hitchcock had a hell of a time getting his film approved. It was only when he agreed to waive his directorial fee of $250,000 that the executives finally gave him a green light.
Psycho's story is deceptively simple. Upon first viewing, it almost seems too juvenile for a director so renowned for his twists and turns. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) cannot run away with her recently separated lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) until he has money to pay for his divorce. Marion's boss scores $40,000 in cash from a deal with a wealthy client. He trusts Marion with the money. Before the day is out, Marion has the $40,000 in her car and is on her way to meet Sam, ready to start her new life.
When the rain begins, Marion pulls off the road to an isolated motel. The blinking sign calls it the Bates Motel. It turns out the hotel is empty, but regardless, Marion reserves a room from the polite but shy owner of the hotel, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Norman is young, in his 20s, and lives in the home next to the hotel with his elderly mother. It's clear from the start that Norman is drawn to Marion. After he brings dinner to Marion in the manager's office, he gets into a shouting match with his mother, overheard by Marion from the lower building.
She remarks on it to Norman, apologizing for landing him in trouble. He tells her not to mind his mother. "She just goes a little crazy sometimes," he smiles. "A boy's best friend is his mother." The nervous and kind young man brings on a change of heart in Marion. She chooses to return home the next morning and face the consequences of her actions. She bids Norman goodnight. She steps into the bathroom and slips off her bathrobe...
Many of the people next to me really didn't know what was coming next in the movie. I felt like I was in an audience in 1960, where the "shower scene" famously caused patrons to faint in the middle of the theatre. As the silhouette behind Marion and the shower curtain grew, you could feel people sliding towards the edge of their seats. When the curtain was flung open and the knife plunged down, there were gasps and cries of shock.
Hitchcock took a massive risk in killing off his heroine before the film's halfway point. Audiences simply weren't used to a film not having a clear-cut hero all the way through. After Norman discovers "mother's" murder, cleans up the bathroom, disposes of Marion's body and her car in the lake, and the film cuts to intermission, audiences are confused. I heard people around me in the lobby pondering where the plot of the movie would go. As I heard them, I could picture Hitchcock smiling slyly in my head. Score: Hitchcock-1. Audience-0. The master of plot twists and turns had pulled one over on the audience, who wouldn't be able to recognize the trick until after the movie ended. By killing off his main character Hitchcock shifted the role of protagonist to the most unlikely source: Norman Bates, who is, after all, the murderer.
Hitchcock was notorious about keeping the film's twist a secret, leading to one of the most ingenious ad campaigns in film history. When Psycho was released in cinemas, no one was allowed to enter the movie after its beginning. "We have your entertainment interests at heart," Hitchcock's voice droned in every lobby. Surrounding the interiors of cinemas were posters imploring those who had seen Psycho not to reveal its secrets. "Don't give away Psycho's ending," one poster reads. "It's the only one we've got." The movie was a massive popular success, though critical reviews were mixed initially. Many called what is now called one of the greatest films of all time classless upon its release. A big reason for that was Psycho's censor-busting. The Production Code of the time was recently abolished, and Hitchcock was allowed to take his movie to new heights of "vulgarity." Psycho was the first movie to show a toilet flushing (though it only flushes paper). Marion and Sam are seen partially unclothed in bed together, whereas before showing unmarried people sharing a bed was considered tabboo and unacceptable. The murders contain unprecedented blood (though it's incredibly tame compared to today's standards), and the blood in the shower scene was another reason for Hitchcock shooting in black and white (he thought audiences would be too overpowered by the sight of pooling blood). At first censors objected to the brutality of the shower scene, as well as the sensuality of the film's opening with Marion and Sam. Hitchcock told them that if he was allowed to keep the shower scene, he would re-shoot the opening with the censors on set. They never showed up to the re-shoot, so the scene stayed. Later the censors said that at one point in the shower scene they could see one of Janet Leigh's breasts. Hitchcock pretended to cut the scene, but really resubmitted it unaltered. It passed unanimously. Industries in Hollywood were scared of Hitchcock's film, and audiences knew it. Its willingness to push boundaries ensured that it was an overwhelming commercial success.
I am a firm believer that a film's score supplies the movie's soul. A movie score is so vital to the action onscreen that the difference between a great or a mediocre score can sometimes be the difference between a great or mediocre movie. In the 1940s the golden age of film composers emerged. At the top of the list was Bernard Hermann. His work in film is varied and ranges from the "greatest" film of all time, Citizen Kane, to more contemporary films like the 1991 remake of Cape Fear. Hitchcock had an entirely different score in mind for Psycho when he conceived and shot the film. Legend has it the creative genius originally requested a jazz score from Hermann. Hermann followed his better instincts, however, and wrote two scores for the movie: not only did he begin the jazz score Hitchcock requested, but he also composed an original score led by a string orchestra. He also went ahead and scored the famous screeching strings for the shower scene, a pivotal point Hitchcock initially wanted to remain silent. Hitchcock heard Hermann's score for the movie and was instantly entranced. Later he would remark that exactly "33% of Psycho's effect is due to its music."
Seeing and hearing the score performed live with the movie only brings its impact to the forefront. The first time I watched Psycho I noticed the score, but I didn't appreciate it. My mind was absorbed by knives, room keys and guest books, and corpses in the basement. When the Omaha Symphony performed the score flawlessly with the film, the score ceased to be the film's undercurrent. The action onscreen was surrounded by the music, and immersed in it. Hermann's music became the movie's personality: dark, tense, and subtly seething.
The second half of the film, which follows the investigation of Sam and Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) into Marion's death and the uncovering of "mother"s true identity, is breathtakingly intense. It's narrative importance dims however, when compared to the brilliant trick already achieved by Hitchcock in the movie's first act. After Marion's dead, Norman is the only person the audience can sympathize with. His psyche is so twisted yet so innocent that the audience is almost subconsciously drawn into his mind. When he cleans the bathroom in a state of shock after Marion's murder, self-aware audience members will find themselves rooting for the car to sink into the lake before police arrive. We feel for Norman, despite his evil, because we see that at his core he's a person caught in circumstances he can't control.
Writer Slavoj Zizek, in his documentary about subliminal psychoanalytical messages in film, brings up an interesting point: the Bates house has three stories, each one paralleling the three levels of the human mind as presented Freudian psychoanalysis: the top floor is the superego, where Mrs. Bates lives; the ground floor is Norman's ego, where he functions as an apparently normal human being; and the basement is Norman's id. Norman's mother controls his decision-making and percieved morality from beyond the grave, and when Norman is seen "arguing" with her, the two are in the top floor of the home. The basement, on the other hand, is where Lila uncovers Norman's psycopathic identity and desires. Whether this was intentional by Hitchcock and his crew is unclear, but the implementation is brilliant. Because it lacks a single "protagonist", Psycho, in the end, is about Norman Bates's mind. That he can at the same time be so sane and so disturbed awakens primal fears in the audience, brought on by sympathy with Norman. What if we were ever in his shoes, and were pushed by external or, even scarier, uncontrollable internal means to commit murder, or worse?
The majority of Psycho's strength lies in its subtlety; what it's able to suggest rather than show. When Lila searches through Norman's bedroom during her inspection of the Bates house, she flips through hidden books full of apparently illicit material. This buried and repressed sexual obsession would perfectly fuel Norman's tortured soul, but Hitchcock never spells it out. In an earlier scene Norman peeps on Marion as she enters the shower. We see what he sees, and his eye pressed up against a hidden hole in the wall. In the 1998 "shot-for-shot" remake, director Van Sant changes the scene by having Norman masturbate. This detracts from the scene, and the movie as a whole, in unimaginable ways. It's implied by Hitchcock that Norman is secretly attracted to Marion, but nothing outright or sexual is shown. It's doubtless the aforementioned books seen by Lila are sexual or pornographic in nature, but all we see on the screen are blank covers. Psycho has a twisted sexual current simmering beneath the surface, but Hitchcock leaves it to us to imagine it, making us feel even more dirty and uncomfortable while we watch the movie. As if being "in on" a series of murders isn't enough.
Think for a second about all of the shameless spin-offs of Psycho we've seen. The treatment of the film and story by Universal Studios after the original Psycho's release was shameless. Psycho is so much more than a horror movie; it's a masterpiece. The fact that it has any sequels, let alone the shoddy, unintelligent, and immature sequels that were made, is disheartening. What would Hitchcock think, after trying so hard to preserve the surprises of Psycho, if he saw my DVD of the movie, which reveals all of the film's secrets on the back cover? I bet we'll see a colorized Psycho in the near future. The world we live in doesn't know how to treat classics.
Psycho is royal entertainment, but it is also so much more than that. It's Hollywood's scariest picture not because of its murders or corpses, but because of the depth of insanity Hitchcock is willing to bring the audiences to. Though smaller and shorter than most of his other films, Psycho will deservedly be remembered as Hitchcock's masterpiece among masterpieces. When my dad and I left the Holland after Psycho was over, I heard a lot of things that made me very happy. I heard complete strangers, who had never seen each other before and would probably never see each other again, laughing and arguing about the movie like they were best friends. Everyone was smiling. Everyone felt a bond to each person around them. I felt indebted to Hitchcock for the gift he had given me and those around me. That's what movies do when they're at their best: they inspire, create memories, and bring people together through common thought and experiences.
Psycho has been re-rated several times. It was "Approved" under the pass/fail ratings system of its release, and re-rated "M" (the equivalent of an early PG) in 1968. In 1984 the MPAA modernized its rating with an R for unspecified reasons. The inappropriate content pales in comparison to today's R-rated fare. Sexuality is implied, but nothing graphic is ever shown. Though the murders are bloody, the blood shown is far less than by today's slasher standards, and is in B&W. Profanity is mild. Despite its misguided rating, Psycho is a good film for older kids who are interested in classic movies.