Arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous movie and a seminal film in the development of the horror genre, Psycho has been much discussed and much dissected over the past half-century. In honor of Psycho’s 50th anniversary, Cary Conley attempts to put a new spin on the discussion as he examines the controversy this film created upon its initial release and its effects upon the horror genre and cinema in general.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I belong to a couple of hoity-toity, high-falutin’ cinema societies here in my little western Kentucky town. One of the film groups gets together once each month to view a new foreign film with a discussion afterwards. The other group is part of a film series the local community college runs. This group chooses a theme and six or eight films that demonstrate that theme. Again, we watch the film and then discuss it afterwards. I always enjoyed attending these gatherings, but once I was hired at the college, I joined the planning group hoping to somehow influence them and slip in a horror or cult film every once in a while. Hey, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Fellini and Kurosawa, but I think cult films deserve as much attention as so-called "serious films." I must confess that I have largely failed in that endeavor….
However, I have to admit that I was pleased that this semester the group decided to do a Hitchcock retrospective. Along with classics such as Rear Window, Notorious, and Vertigo, Psycho was also chosen. I have the utmost respect for Hitchcock and have seen most of his films and I love them all. I would be happy to be a discussion leader for any of old Hitch’s films. Knowing the choice would be insanely difficult, my solution was to politely defer to the others in the group and take whatever film was left. As it happened, I was assigned to lead the discussion for Psycho. It must have been fate.
Now I would be lying if I told everyone that I was a huge fan of Psycho. Of course I enjoyed the film. And I knew the basic history of the film and I appreciated it’s influence on modern cinema. But I had always looked at Psycho as kind of a quaint little horror film that was terribly frightening in its day but in modern times didn’t hold up as well as some of Hitchcock’s other films. I kind of thought of Psycho as I did of Universal’s Frankenstein and Dracula: I knew they were shocking to yesteryear’s audiences, but in this day and age they come across as more than a little dated. And so, with those thoughts in the back of my mind, I delved into my research of Psycho to prepare some talking points for the audience. I listened to audio commentaries and interviews with original members of the cast and crew. I read up on the film in my collection of movie books. And I combed the Internet for any new information I could find. The result was that I gained a wonderful new insight into just how shocking Hitch’s low-budget thriller really was to audiences of 1960. Along with this newfound insight, I also gained a renewed appreciation for just how important this film was not just to horror movies, but to American cinema as a whole. Along the way I also learned about the many myths associated with Psycho, some of which can be debunked and others which may still end up being proven as truth.
The story of how Psycho came to be made is an interesting tale unto itself. Robert Block published his original novel in 1959, but even before it came out, Hitchcock was aware of the book and the interest it was generating. Knowing that having his name attached to buying the rights would automatically increase the cost of those rights, he submitted a bid anonymously and bought the film rights for a scant $9,000 (the film went on to earn over $11 million on its first run). He then sent his assistants out to buy up as many copies of the novel as they could find to prevent people from reading the story so the film would be a surprise.
Just why did Hitchcock choose to make Psycho his next project? There are probably many reasons for this, one of which is because he liked the source material. But others contend that Hitchcock had started to notice the abundance of low-budget shockers that were becoming more and more popular. Films such as Macabre, The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and 13 Ghosts–all filmed between 1958 and early 1960–were cheaply made but very popular low-budget affairs. More than one Hitchcock associate has been quoted as saying that Hitch wanted to make a low-budget thriller that outclassed all the others; in other words, he wanted "to show them how it was done."
At the time, Hitchcock was at Paramount Studios, but Paramount turned Hitch’s proposal to make Psycho down flat–twice. Hitchcock wanted to make the movie badly and he countered with several offers to Paramount. He offered to take a pay cut from $500,000 to only $250,000 but the studio still wouldn’t bite. Hitchcock promised Paramount to film the movie on the cheap, convincing stars to take salary cuts and proposing to use his TV crew from his TV show to save money. Again, Paramount balked at the offer. Finally, Hitchcock completely deferred his salary for a 60% ownership of the film negative, agreed to finance the film himself, and found space to film at Universal’s backlot if Paramount agreed to distribute the film. This ended up being a shrewd deal for Hitchcock as the film became his biggest hit to date and made him unbelievably large sums of money due to his ownership in the film. Psycho’s budget was set at just over $800,000 and filming commenced in early November of 1959.
At first viewing it seems an odd choice to film Psycho in black-and-white; after all, Hitch had been filming in color since 1948’s Rope. But aside from the obvious fact that he was filming on a very tight budget and black-and-white film was cheaper than color, Hitch was a huge fan of Diabolique (1955), the famous black-and-white French horror film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. He was quite impressed with the film and many of his associates recollect him talking quite openly about his admiration for the film, so some speculate that the lack of color was, in a way, an homage to Clouzot and Diabolique. Yet another, more pragmatic reason, was Hitch’s fear of the infamous shower scene in Psycho. He worried that in color, the blood running into the drain would be too gruesome for both audiences and censors alike. Hitchcock had for years had an uneasy relationship with the censors, and while he was quite successful in slipping in little nuances here and there, the shower scene was certainly problematic. Filming in black-and-white would solve that very real problem.
There are several interesting stories about the shower scene. Of course, most people know the famous story that Janet Leigh refused to take showers after that scene was filmed. While that story has been embellished over the years (Leigh has gone on record as saying that she was nervous for years after that scene, but she didn’t stop showering entirely), other controversies have arisen over the scene. For many years, Saul Bass, Hitchcock’s storyboarder for his title sequences–and who also storyboarded the all-important shower scene–claimed that he actually filmed the entire sequence himself. While several crewmembers as well as Janet Leigh herself have gone on record to refute this story, the rumor persists to this day. Another myth is that Leigh didn’t film the scene at all; rather she had a body double do the scene. Leigh as well as many others present during the filming state emphatically that Leigh was in the tub the entire time and that a body double was used only for a very few shots and primarily for when the body is wrapped up in the shower curtain. But as recently as just this year, a new book published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the film again makes claim that a body double was used in several scenes. One more controversy with the shower scene is the argument of whether there is nudity shown or not. Many viewers swear that they can catch a very brief glimpse of Janet Leigh’s nipple as she slowly slides down the wall of the shower, reaching out to grasp the shower curtain. Still others see nothing. While I would say that this argument is really a "fanboy" type of argument, it is nonetheless important for if it can be proven it would be a very early example of nudity in a widely released mainstream film as well as the very first instance of nudity in Hitchcock’s work (if one ignores this argument, then 1972’s Frenzy would stand as the first and only example of nudity in a Hitchcock film). Perhaps a bit ironically, I remember seeing Psycho for the first time on TV during a Halloween horror marathon as a teenager, probably around 1983 or 1984. I distinctly remember being surprised at a brief glimpse of a nipple during that scene. So, well before I was aware that there was any kind of controversy, I felt like I saw nudity in the shower scene and remain convinced to this day that you can see a very brief and out of focus shot of Leigh’s nipple towards the end of the scene. Is it real or imagined? You’ll have to be your own judge and jury.
There are other myths about the shower scene as well. One famous story says that in order to get authentic screams from Leigh, Hitch ordered ice cold water to be run in the shower during a strategic point in filming. However, Leigh has stated over and over and quite emphatically that Hitchcock thought only of her comfort and ensured that the water was always very comfortable. Another controversy has arisen when discussing the number of edits and shots in the shower scene. While doing my research, just about every source I found insists upon a different number, with a low of about 50 separate shots and running as high as 70 or 75 shots. Again, this might be more of a "fanboy" argument as I don’t think it really matters how many individual shots were used in the scene. The fact remains that as it stands, the scene is still very effective.
As a bit of an aside, Hitchcock originally planned on the scene being shown with no music, but Bernard Herrmann went ahead and secretly scored the scene. When Hitchcock saw the scene with Herrmann’s score, he doubled the musician’s salary on the spot and admitted to him that it would have been a tremendous blunder to show the scene with no music. When the film was shown to the British censors, they predictably objected to the shower scene. Overnight, Hitchcock had the shower scene redubbed with a different score and the British censors were satisfied and allowed it to pass, a testament to the power of Herrmann’s score.
If you think about it, Psycho is really two films in one. The film opens with Marion Crane stealing $40,000 from her place of work so she and her longtime beau can get married. The first part of the film is really the story of how Marion comes to steal the money and whether or not she will get caught. And Hitchcock really played this part of the film up. Once Marion has stolen the money, she excuses herself from work, claiming illness. But as she is leaving town, she is stopped at a traffic intersection. She comes face-to-face with her boss who stops dead in the middle of a crosswalk when he sees it is Marion driving the car. He looks at her with a perplexed expression as Marion impotently waves at him. At this point the audience thinks the film will be about the chase for the missing woman and the money. Hitchcock has Marion trade vehicles in order to confuse any police agencies who might be looking for her and ends up asleep in her vehicle on the side of the road. A curious policeman stops to check on her and even remarks that she seems very nervous but eventually sends her on her way even though he is suspicious of her. All of these scenes are very dramatic and extremely tense and serve to further pull the audience into the story of Marion and the stolen money.
But at this point, Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under the audience by having Marion killed in the shower by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The story then changes direction and becomes more of a murder mystery as Marion’s fiancée, among others, begin the search for the missing woman. Hitchcock knew that the killing of Marion Crane would generate major controversy on several different fronts. First, Janet Leigh was a major star at the time, and it was absolutely unheard of to kill off your star midway through the picture. Hitch was worried that audiences would feel cheated that Leigh’s role ended so early on in the movie. Second, apparently it was not unusual for audience members of the 1960’s to casually enter a film late. At the time, it was no big deal to enter a theater where a film had been running for 15 or 20 minutes. Hitch knew that any late-comers to the film would feel cheated if they walked into a film billed as a Janet Leigh vehicle only to never see Janet Leigh! And third, he also knew that the success of the film hinged on audiences not giving away the twists within the film. So Hitch did something that had never been done before: in all of the advertising, not only did he insist that the audience not talk about the film’s content in public, but he also insisted that no one would be allowed into the theater once the film had started. This was a very controversial decision and one that wasn’t initially supported by the theater owners as it had never been done before. But by the end of opening week, the theater owners fully supported Hitchcock’s demand as audiences patiently waited for blocks to get into the next showing of Psycho. The marketing strategy ended up being wildly successful.
Aside from the famous shower scene, there were plenty of other scenes or bits of dialogue that generated controversy amongst filmgoers and censors alike. One of the very first scenes in the film has Marion Crane in bed with her lover. This is controversial because not only were men and women not typically shown in bed in American movies at this time, but they were unmarried to boot! The whole idea of presenting the concept of premarital sex so matter-of-factly was more than a little risqué in 1960.
Another huge controversy surrounded the ending scenes and use of the word "transvestite." In 1960 America, the average audience member was not very well-versed in psychological theory. The term "transvestite" was synonymous with "homosexuality" and both were taboo subjects for mainstream cinema. Hitchcock anticipated problems with the censors, both in Perkin’s wearing of a dress as well as the use of the word "transvestite," and in an attempt to circumvent this problem, he used a scene from the original novel that attempts to explain Norman’s sickness. The scene involves the cast discussing Norman with a psychiatrist and at one point, the potentially offensive word is used, but quickly dismissed by the psychiatrist and explained away. The gist of the scene is to explain to audiences that even though Norman wore his mother’s dress, he was neither a transvestite nor a homosexual; rather, he had a split personality disorder, so when he wore his mother’s dress, in his mind he became Mother, even speaking in her voice. This soothed the censors as well as any potentially offended members of the audience. However, one person who thought the scene ridiculous was the famous movie critic, Pauline Kael. In her review for Psycho, Kael called the scene "the single worst scene in any Hitchcock film." In hindsight and with many years behind us, the scene does seem a bit absurd. It seems that Hitchcock tried very hard to remove the stigma of transvestitism and homosexuality from the film, opting to go for the–at the time–less offensive knife-wielding schizophrenic murderer explanation. The result is–as viewed today–the film seems to condone the act of murder more so than being a transvestite or a homosexual, which of course is more than a little silly. But one must remember the timeframe in which Psycho was made and the views of the public a half-century ago.
But perhaps the silliest–and, at least for me–the most surprising taboo that was broken in Psycho involved the use of toilets. Psycho is the very first film in which a full toilet is seen. Not only is the toilet seen, but there is a shot of the toilet flushing. While not strictly forbidden by the censors, filmmakers generally understood that toilets shown for any reason were frowned upon and up until Psycho was made, had shied away from not only toilets but bathrooms in general. So audiences were shocked to not only see an actual toilet bowl but also to see it used (a slip of paper is torn into pieces and flushed) as well as hear the sound of the flush. According to my research, there are only two instances of American films that showed even a section of a toilet before Psycho, and they were both animated shorts that showed only an edge of a toilet. Some film historians argue that Disney’s The Shaggy Dog (1959) is the first film that uses the sound of a flushing toilet (which occurs off-screen). However, many historians suggest that the sound was added in much later, possibly during a restoration. Regardless of which film was the actual first, audiences were most certainly surprised and shocked at Hitchcock’s obvious disregard for American taboos.
Taken individually, all of these taboo-breaking scenes and lines of dialogue don’t seem to add up to much nowadays. But many people suggest that the release of Psycho signaled the apex of a slow but eventual relaxation of censorship in film. There is no doubt that the film depicted sex and violence on a level never before seen by American movie audiences, and it was quickly followed by dozens of "copycat" shockers. The production code continued to erode, and only three years after Psycho’s release, a cheap, low-budget film made strictly for southern drive-ins was released to horrendous reviews and huge box-office. The film was entitled Blood Feast (1963) and it ushered in a whole new era of sex and violence. Blood Feast is widely considered the very first "splatter movie" and garnered its director, Herschell Gordon Lewis, the title of "Godfather of Gore."
One final controversy that seems to follow Psycho is in which genre it should be placed. There are as many reasonable arguments about this topic as there are knock-offs of the film itself. Many argue that it is simply a murder mystery, Hitchcock’s favorite genre, while others point to the final scenes and describe it as a crime drama. Still others place it squarely in the horror genre and describe Psycho as both the first horror movie of the modern film era as well as the very first "slasher film." Psycho was quickly followed by Homicidal (1961), Blood Feast (1963), 2000 Maniacs (1964), Strait Jacket (1964), Color Me Blood Red (1965), and Hitchcock’s own horrific follow-up, Frenzy (1972), all of which are classified as horror films, most of which could also be categorized as slasher films.
Regardless of which camp you choose to agree with, no one can deny the impact that Psycho has had on American cinema since its original release in 1960. I can’t help but think that old Hitch would be slightly embarrassed but quietly proud of the effect that Psycho–and indeed, his entire body of work–has had on the film world.