| 17.3°C Dublin

Psycho at 60: The story behind Hitchcock's rule-breaking hit

Critics were appalled by the film's seediness and violence, but the cinema-going public begged to differ, writes Paul Whitington

Close

‘Compellingly awful’:Janet Leigh in the legendary shower scene in Psycho, which took a week to film

‘Compellingly awful’:Janet Leigh in the legendary shower scene in Psycho, which took a week to film

‘Compellingly awful’:Janet Leigh in the legendary shower scene in Psycho, which took a week to film

Sixty years ago, American punters were queuing around the block to see Psycho. In the foyer, they were greeted by a giant cut-out of the film's director, looking tetchy and pointing at his watch.

"It is required that you see Psycho from the very beginning," the poster told them, and it wasn't kidding - latecomers were not permitted.

It was all part of an ingenious lo-fi publicity campaign orchestrated by Alfred Hitchcock himself, who had invested a great deal of his own money in Psycho and stood to lose big if it failed. It might well have: filmed in black and white at a time when Technicolor ruled, it had been deemed so transgressive by Hitch's studio, Paramount, that they had refused to back it.

It broke all sorts of tried-and-tested Hollywood rules, including killing off its apparent lead character halfway through, showing an unmarried couple in bed and giving a close-up of a toilet, at that point a major no-no. Though serial killers had always existed in America, no one had ever dared build a film around one, and the infamous shower scene outraged many critics.

But the punters loved it: made for less than $1m, Psycho grossed more than $50m at the box office. In the process, it spawned a host of imitations, completely reimagining the horror genre and giving us (for better or worse) the slasher craze of the 1980s and 90s, as well as that hackneyed modern staple, the serial killer movie. More important than any of that, however, Hitchcock was expanding the language of cinema, and working on a shoestring seemed to actually inspire a man who had grown used to giant sets and big budgets on films such as North by Northwest and Vertigo.

He shot Psycho in less than three months using the crew from his TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And so it stands, pared back, still deeply disturbing, an enduring testament to his extraordinary talent.

In 1959, Hitchcock and his wife and collaborator Alma Reville were anxiously looking for new material following the collapse of several projects with Paramount. When an assistant showed him Robert Bloch's new crime novel Psycho, Hitch was entranced and bought the rights straight away. Perhaps entranced is not the right word, because Bloch's book told the story of a mother-obsessed psychopath who runs a rundown motel. It was based on the story of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin murderer who beheaded women and kept their heads in jars.

What in God's name was all this, Paramount executives not unreasonably wondered when presented with Hitchcock's plan. Through the 1940s and 50s, he had established himself as the maker of stylish and glamorous nail-biters in which disturbing psychological themes were sublimated, confronting only those who cared to notice. In Psycho, the horror was full on, and hit you in the face. Nothing like this had been made by a mainstream studio before, and Paramount was not about to buck the trend.

They had been expecting a film called No Bail for the Judge starring Audrey Hepburn: instead they'd been presented with the story of a cross-dressing maniac. They passed (though they would eventually agree to distribute it), but Hitchcock believed in the project, and decided to finance it himself.

He did so ingeniously, and on the cheap. He worked well with his Hitchcock Presents TV crew, who cost much less than a full movie production outfit; shooting in black and white was another economy, but there were also artistic motivations. Hitchcock was a great admirer of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955), a seedy tale of small-town murder shot in muted monochrome. Black and white would suit Psycho's mood, but it would also make the shower scene he was already planning more palatable - imagine all that crimson blood shooting everywhere in a film released in 1960.

Hitchcock's Catholic upbringing constantly informed his work, and for he and Leigh, the shower scene had a beatific theme. As Marion steps into the shower, the water represents grace and soul-cleansing: as she washes herself, she is renewed, redeemed.

He persuaded Janet Leigh to work for a quarter of her usual salary, and Anthony Perkins accepted a similar deal. Production began on November 11, 1959, and finished on February 1, 1960. When his own money was on the line, Hitch could work with wonderful efficiency.

Leigh is Marion Crane, a secretary at a property company in Phoenix, Arizona, who when we first meet her is in a motel with her boyfriend, Sam. She is in love with him, but he lives in California and has too many debts to pay for their wedding. In desperation, Marion decides to steal a $40,000 deposit from her employer and sets out for California. And along the way, she pulls off the road to spend the night at a lonely motel.

Its owner, Norman Bates (Perkins), seems pleasant, if a little tense, and shows Marion to her room. But through the walls she can hear him bickering loudly with his overbearing mother. What she doesn't know is that Norman's mother has been dead for years, that he is watching through a peephole, and that the sight of her undressing is about to send him into a psycho-sexual frenzy.

Hitchcock's Catholic upbringing constantly informed his work, and for he and Leigh, the shower scene had a beatific theme. As Marion steps into the shower, the water represents grace and soul-cleansing: as she washes herself, she is renewed, redeemed.

Not for long of course, as an elderly woman enters the room and stabs her repeatedly with possibly the shiniest knife in cinematic history. We know it was really Norman but audiences didn't.

That famous scene took a week to finish - that's a 10th of the overall shoot. It lasts three minutes but includes 76 different camera angles, and 50 cuts. This close-up jumping was used by Hitchcock to make sure his film didn't fall foul of the censors by revealing too much of Leigh's body, or the attack. The awful knife sounds were made by gouging a melon, and though Hitchcock had originally intended the scene to be scoreless, Bernard Herrmann persuaded him otherwise. His jarring violin and cello piece 'The Murder' made a compellingly awful scene almost unbearable.

In advance of the film's opening, cinema owners worried that Hitchcock's 'no late-comers' policy would be bad for business: instead, the gimmick worked, and word of mouth made the film an instant hit. Film critics, however, were less impressed, initially by the fact that Hitchcock had insisted there be no press screenings. The indignity of having to attend a screening with actual people did not improve the critics' moods: most of them rounded on the film and accused Hitchcock of resorting to sensationalism and cheap thrills.

"I couldn't give away the ending if I wanted to," fumed The Guardian's CA Lejeune, "for the simple reason that I grew so sick and tired of the whole beastly business that I didn't stop to see it."

"His denouement falls quite flat for us," sniffed Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who described the film as an unsubtle "low-budget job". To his credit, Crowther seemed to have reconsidered his assessment, later including Psycho in his 10 best films of 1960.

The director's finances were hugely improved by Psycho's success: he earned more than $15m on the picture, and a canny share purchase made him - in theory at least - his own boss at Universal. But one could argue that Psycho was the last great film Hitchcock made. The Birds (1963) has its merits I suppose, but a couple of clever scenes aside, it is a pretty silly film.

Marnie (1964) was interesting, but hardly a classic and, after that, as his health worsened, the quality and quantity of Hitchcock's output declined.

He died in 1980, safe perhaps in the knowledge that many of his films would long outlast him. Psycho might not be the best-loved of them, but it does contain by far Hitch's most celebrated scene.

For more culture and entertainment news, reviews, interviews and features directly into your inbox sign up for our weekly newsletter HERE.

Indo Review