Thursday 14 November 2019

Psycho: the work of genius that never fails to fascinate

Iconic: Janet Leigh in the 1960 Hitchcock classic ‘Psycho’
Iconic: Janet Leigh in the 1960 Hitchcock classic ‘Psycho’
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Since announcing his retirement from film-making last year, Steven Soderbergh has been remarkably busy. He has developed a TV drama called The Knick, is planning a Broadway musical on the life of Cleopatra and flogs booze and T-shirts on his wonderfully esoteric website, Extension 765.

Movies still seem to fascinate him, though, and a couple of weeks back he posted an intriguing new version of Psycho on his site. Soderbergh's Psychos is essentially a 'mash-up' of Alfred Hitchcock's original 1960 film and Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot 1998 remake. For the most part, a scene from one version is directly followed by a scene from the other, but at several crucial points Soderbergh splices together Hitchcock and Van Sant shots from the same scene.

All of which might sound pointless and hopelessly nerdy to some readers, but Soderbergh's edit is strangely fascinating to look at. The shower scene, for instance, is given a horrifying new power by intercut colour and black and white shots of Jamie Lee Curtis and Anne Heche meeting the same grisly fate at the hands of crazy Norman Bates.

The reason I find Psychos so interesting is that by taking apart and putting back together Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, Steven Soderbergh shows us how it works and why it's so very, very good. In a way, Gus Van Sant was doing exactly the same thing with his 1998 film – remaking Psycho in order to reveal its perfection.

Psycho is an odd film, no question about it, a masterpiece constructed at speed using the hack language of B-movies. And while in ways it's totally untypical of the great director's output, you could also argue that it's quintessential Hitch, the purest and most uncompromised expression of his perverse genius.

It was uncompromised because Hitchcock was forced to make the film alone and using his own money after Paramount had refused to back the project. It was a huge risk, because the tone and content of Psycho were unlike anything seen in mainstream cinema to that point and could conceivably have destroyed Hitchcock's career and reputation.

Instead, they enhanced it, and make one wonder what other weird and wonderful films he might have dreamt up if he'd managed to free himself from studio constraints earlier.

He stumbled on the idea by chance. In 1959 a Paramount project called No Bail for the Judge had fallen through when its star, Audrey Hepburn, became pregnant. Hitch was bored, restless and desperate for a new idea when his assistant, Peggy Robertson, handed him a copy of Robert Bloch's novel, Psycho.

Bloch's book was a lurid horror novel based on the true exploits of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, a singularly unbalanced gentleman who killed and eviscerated women and decorated his farmhouse with human body parts.

Hitch was intrigued by the idea of making a movie about such a monstrous person and was so confident Bloch's book would make a great film that he immediately bought the rights. But when he showed his idea to executives at his studio, Paramount, they were less than enchanted.

Psycho was "repulsive", they decided, and "impossible to film", but they did eventually agree to distribute the movie after Hitchcock waived his normal $250,000 directing fee in return for a 60pc stake in the profits. But as Hitch and co prepared to begin shooting, those profits looked notional at best, as no one was sure if America was ready for a grim tale of butchery, maternal complexes and cross-dressing.

Remarkably, Hitchcock shot his most famous film for under a million dollars, using the crew from his Hitchcock Presents TV show and shooting on the back lots of Universal Studios. His decision to film in black and white was partly to save money, but also had an aesthetic motive – he didn't want the shower scene to end up looking like an accident in a butcher's shop.

Free from studio interference, Hitch was in the mood for flouting rules and he broke some pretty big ones. Janet Leigh played Marion Crane, an Arizona secretary who steals $40,000 from the estate agent's where she works and goes on the run. For the first third of Psycho she's the entire focus of the film's attention, but after Marion made the terrible mistake of stopping off at the Bates Motel, Hitch killed his protagonist off, confusing and disorientating his audience.

Then, of course, there was the manner of her death. Psycho's wordless and unbearably tense shower sequence has been called the greatest single scene in cinema history and it's hard now to grasp how shocking it was for its time. Hitchcock spent seven days shooting the scene, which only lasts three minutes but includes over 50 cuts and 70-odd different camera angles.

Rather than shooting the scene straight, Hitchcock used extreme close-ups of Leigh's face, the shower head, the plughole and those slowly popping shower curtain rings to turn the murder into something horribly intimate. He used chocolate syrup for the blood because it comes up best in black and white, and those ghastly stabbing sounds were done with a kitchen knife and a melon.

Though Hitchcock had originally intended to run the scene without music, Bernard Hermann insisted on composing a short piece for it involving screeching violins and cellos. When he heard it, Hitch instantly realised it would greatly intensify the horror of his scene and gave Hermann a raise.

Believe it or not, Psycho was also the first American film ever to show a toilet flushing on screen. This amusing statistic was symptomatic of a sleazy, down-and-dirty quality to Hitchcock's film that marked a significant departure to his previous work. In his earlier films, sex and madness and human venality had been expressed mainly in symbolic, elegantly coded forms. But Psycho displaying the human animal at its very worst and not everyone was impressed.

Walt Disney called it "that disgusting movie", The Observer's film critic, CA Lejeune, was so incensed by it that she walked out halfway through and resigned and Bosley Crowther of the New York Times snobbishly dismissed it as "a low-budget job".

But that was part of the point: in Psycho, Hitchcock had set out to make a good B-movie and a film that worked ambitiously and originally within a hackneyed, trashy genre.

And in any case, the public absolutely loved it, queuing around the block to see it and setting box office records in the US, Japan and Europe. Psycho would be the highest-grossing film of Hitchcock's career, a personal and public triumph that the great showman would find very, very difficult to follow.


What Hitch Did Next

Emboldened by the success of Psycho, and now working with Universal Studios, Alfred Hitchcock decided to adapt Daphne du Maurier's strange short story The Birds (1963).

His blonde star, Tippi Hedren, has since accused Hitch of extreme cruelty during the shoot, but whatever about that, the film was a big success, though it seems lightweight compared to Psycho.

Hedren and Hitchcock collaborated again on the underrated 1964 psychological thriller Marnie, but after that, things began to go wrong for the ageing director

In the late-1960s, he made two comparatively lacklustre thrillers, Torn Curtain and Topaz, projects that may have been forced on him by Universal.

And in 1972 he returned to London to make a depressingly sleazy serial killer movie called Frenzy. His last film was Family Plot in 1976, a black comedy that recaptured some of the playful wit of his early films. He died in Los Angeles in 1980, at the age of 80.


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