Tuesday 20 March 2018

it's the mother of all horror movies

Psycho is 50 this year, an anniversary that has inspired several commemorative books and a new print of the film, which was shown this week in Dublin's IFI as part of a Hitchcock season.

Of all the master's celebrated thrillers, Psycho remains the most notorious and talked about, and also arguably the most influential of his films.

At this remove, after literally hundreds of slasher movies and serial killer sagas have imitated and diluted the 1960 film's style and innovations, it's difficult to imagine how controversial Psycho was in its day.

But Hitchcock's film broke so many of Hollywood's unwritten rules that critics initially savaged it and his studio did everything they could to dissuade him from making it in the first place.

In 1959, Hitch was looking for a change of direction, as he felt that his trademark thriller style was now being over-imitated by competitors. He wanted something darker, more shocking, that could be a vehicle for a new kind of thriller, and in Robert Bloch's crime novel Psycho, he found the story he'd been looking for.

Bloch had partly based his book on the notoriously grisly Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein, who killed several women and kept their heads as household ornaments, but had added significant flourishes of his own.

And Hitchcock was instantly fascinated by the rich Freudian possibilities of Bloch's cross-dressing, mother-fixated protagonist, Norman Bates.

Once his studio, Paramount, got wind of his plans to make the film, they did everything in their power to dissuade him from doing so. Executives told him Bloch's story was "repulsive" and "impossible to shoot", and refused to grant him a decent budget or even let him use their soundstages for his shoot.

Hitchcock responded with typical ingenuity. He decided to use the crew from his TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, who'd cost far less than a studio crew, and set his project a gruellingly tight shooting schedule to ensure it be made as cheaply as possible.

He would shoot it for under a million dollars on the Universal lots, and forgo his normal $250,000 director's fee if Paramount would agree to distribute it.

They agreed, and the shoot went ahead. Hitchcock showed great astuteness in cutting financial corners. Psycho's stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins agreed to appear for a fraction of their usual fees just to work with Hitch, and shooting in black and white saved the production considerable outlay.

Glorious Technicolor was the order of the day in 1960, and in films like North by Northwest Hitchcock himself had become synonymous with it.

But his choice of black and white was not dictated merely by economic pressures: he felt the sinister shadows of the older medium would better suit his story, and in particular the film's crucial shower scene, which might have looked too overwhelmingly gory if shot in colour.

Hitchcock embarked on the project in the mood for gleeful rule-breaking. The first convention he flouted was killing off the apparent main character less than halfway through the film.

Janet Leigh's Marion Crane was in some ways the typical troubled blonde heroine of Alfred Hitchcock's middle period, but with some significant differences.

Like Tippi Hedren in Marnie she's a thief, who embezzles $40,000 from her boss at the start of Psycho in order to elope with her boyfriend.

As usual with Hitch's heroines, she later sees the error of her ways. But before she has a chance to atone and return the stolen money, she stops off at a sleepy motel and decides that it would be nice to take a shower before dinner.

The murder of Marion Crane was especially disturbing as Hitchcock had previously made sure the curvaceous Leigh had titillated every man in the audience. She appeared several times in her underwear (again a Hollywood no-no of the day), and by building up this atmosphere of desire Hitchcock made his audience feel somehow complicit in what came after.

Cross-dressing serial-killers were not exactly 10-a-penny in mainstream films of the day either. In Bloch's original book Norman Bates had been an overweight and physically repulsive middle-aged man, but Hitchcock's unerring instinct told him it would be much more interesting to make him an initially sympathetic and seemingly friendly person.

He was right, of course, and Perkins' mild-mannered kindness to Marion Crane when she first arrives at the Bates Motel makes what happens afterwards all the more shocking.

Many urban myths have grown up around the shower scene. Hitchcock was supposed to have thrown ice water over Leigh in order to make her look more frightened, and neglected to tell her she was about to be attacked by a knife-wielding transvestite to further heighten her onscreen shock.

There was even a rumour that Hitch's regular storyboard artist Saul Bass had directed much of the shower scene himself.

All rubbish, as it turned out. In subsequent interviews Janet Leigh always insisted that throughout her gruelling seven-day, 70-shot shower shoot "Hitchcock was right next to his camera", and it seems unlikely that such a perfectionist as Hitch would have delegated this iconic scene to an underling.

What neither Leigh nor her director would ever mention, though, was the extent to which a body double was used. In a new, exhaustive study of possibly the most famous scene in movie history called The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower, American crime writer Robert Graysmith explains that one Marli Renfro, a Dallas-born model and stripper, had appeared extensively in the scene, so much that whenever you don't see Leigh's face in the scene, it's Ms Renfro's body.

Hitchcock's insistence that Leigh had basically stood around naked for seven days was typical of the cunning zeal with which he marketed his film. Before Psycho's release he banned all preview screenings; his actors were sworn to secrecy regarding the story, and he even went to the extreme of buying up all extant copies of Bloch's novel so that no one would know what was going to happen.

In movie theatres of the time posters showed Hitchcock pointing to his watch and sternly advising latecomers that they would not be admitted. A buzz developed, and word of mouth soon spread that here was a new and deeply disturbing kind of film.

It was a huge box office hit, but even Hitch would subsequently struggle to match its heights of terror and daring visual and storytelling innovations.

Psycho screened this week at the IFI, Temple Bar, Dublin, as part of its Hitchcock in America season. www.ifi.ie


Irish Independent

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