Psycho: Back in Theatres and Still Shocking at 60
9/21/2020 • 4 min read
This year is the 60th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock‘s terrifying and standard-setting horror movie PSYCHO, and the film is as powerful now as it was when first released in 1960. PSYCHO was a risk for Hitchcock. He financed the movie himself, and he shot it with a television crew. Emulating one of the movies that was a primary inspiration for PSYCHO, Hitchcock shot in black and white, immediately setting it apart from other major releases of the time.
Despite the many risks inherent in making and releasing PSYCHO, the movie was a massive success. It was re-released to theaters many times and became a staple of syndication on television long before cable existed. PSYCHO’s influence on thrillers and horror is incalculable. While the true birth of the modern horror movie is often credited to films that came out years later, like ROSEMARY’S BABY in 1968 in THE EXORCIST 1973, PSYCHO may be the true beginning of horror as a major obsession in the United States.
As Hitchcock’s black and white masterpiece comes back to theatres once again thanks to TCM, let’s look at why we’re still crazy about PSYCHO 60 years later.
The concept, based on the 1959 novel by Robert Bloch, is elemental. A woman flees a bad decision, and lands in the lair of a predator who is falling deep into his own psychosis. By the time he made PSYCHO, Hitchcock had directed dozens of films. He was acknowledged as the Master of Suspense, with the capital letters in that honorary title always implied in conversation. Hitchcock knew exactly how to construct a scene to evoke and exploit specific feelings. His style on PSYCHO was brisk and economical, and could be exceptionally brutal.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the murder of Marian Crane, played by the film’s lone marquee movie star, Janet Leigh. No one going into PSYCHO expected Leigh’s character to be killed off halfway through the movie, much less for it to happen in a dramatic and shattering sequence. The screeching strings and deep notes of the score by composer Bernard Herman turned the shower scene into a grueling horror showcase and sealed the movie’s first major murder as a cinematic all-timer. The scene is created with such great skill that it has power even today, even after being endlessly homaged, parodied, replicated and ripped off. The shower scene lasts all of three minutes, but that 180 seconds echoes through decades of cinema.
All Stripped Down
PSYCHO is entrenched as part of movie culture now, but its future was far from certain in 1960. Maybe you think of PSYCHO as an “old movie” (it is!), which makes its black and white aesthetic seem entirely appropriate. At the time, however, color was the norm for movies, especially for big pictures like those made by Alfred Hitchcock. His last movie before PSYCHO was NORTH BY NORTHWEST, a splashy caper starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. A hard-edged black and white thriller was an abrupt deviation from expectations.
Paramount didn’t want to make PSYCHO, so Hitchcock paid for it himself and produced it on the cheap. That meant using his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” production crew. Another money saving measure was the use of black and white film. All in all, PSYCHO cost under a million bucks; it was a fast, no-frills affair.
A useful side benefit of shooting in black and white was that it helped hide some of the movie’s gore. In 1960, Hollywood studios were still loosely bound by the fast-withering constraints of the production code. For decades, the production code had specified content seen as inappropriate for Hollywood movies. Explicit sex and violence were forbidden, and even implied content was strictly controlled. But the production code was on the way to obsolescence, and PSYCHO — which became a hit in part because of its shocking content — helped usher it out the door. No one had ever seen a movie like PSYCHO from Alford Hitchcock, or from any other major filmmaker working with an American studio.
No Spoilers… or Else!
Movie audiences now are averse to spoilers in a way that is fairly different from the norm in 1960, when it wasn’t uncommon for ticket-buyers to walk into a movie at any point during the running time, then sit through a program of a feature or two and multiple shorts. Hitchcock‘s well-documented flair for publicity, combined with exceptional word-of-mouth, helped turn PSYCHO into a bona fide hit.
As specified by the director, PSYCHO was promoted with a forbidding warning: No one would be admitted to the theatre after the movie began. Rather than turning audiences off from the movie, that stipulation created interest, and lines, and an ever-expanding audience.
A Horrific Legacy
PSYCHO led to sequels (two of which are surprisingly good), an eyebrow-raising shot-for-shot remake by Gus Van Sant (which is an oddly compelling experiment) and a five-season television prequel series, "Bates Motel." Those are just the direct descendents of the movie; the entire slasher genre owes a debt to Hitchcock, just as horror movies in general enjoy a popularity that might not be quite the same without this benchmark-setting shocker.
The PSYCHO 60th Anniversary, presented by TCM plays on October 11 and 12!
All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.