Monday, August 3, 2009

1960: Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)

Released: June 16, 1960

Director: Alfred Hitchcock; Screenplay: Joseph Stephano and Samuel Taylor based on the novel by Robert Bloch; Cinematography: John Russell; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Producer: Alfred Hitchcock; Music: Bernard Herrmann

Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (Marion Craine), Martin Balsam (Detective Milton Abrogast), John Gavin (Sam Loomis), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), Simon Oakland (Dr. Fred Richmond), John McIntire (Sheriff Al Chambers), Frank Albertson (Tom Cassidy), Patricia Hitchcock (Caroline)

It’s quite easy to look back on this landmark 1960 horror film and acknowledge what a powerful and trendsetting movie that Psycho would become. Try analyzing it as if you were a studio executive in the late 1950s trying to make sense of what Alfred Hitchcock wanted to do. Hitch was on a run of films that was stunning, receiving praise among critics and at the box office as well. His list of achievements over this period – ranging from Strangers on a Train, to Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North By Northwest among others – were blockbusters, boasting first-rate stars and massive budgets. Hitchcock was filming in Technicolor, convincing studios to construct unprecedented lavish sets, and shooting on location in exotic locales. And it had all worked, with the English-born director becoming one of the most successful men in Hollywood. He had found a niche in the type of movies he wanted to create, was able to extract the performances he wanted from actors that he obviously felt contempt for, and was prized by studio employers as a result.

So as amazing as it is to think of it today, Paramount Pictures was dead set against Hitchcock even bothering to make Psycho. Although Hitchcock was famous for toying with the fears and insecurities of audiences, the studio felt that the murderous storyline of Psycho would be too much. Hitchcock had to try and finance the film himself and make due with what he had at hand. Rather than the lavish finances he had recently enjoyed, he shot the entire movie on a budget of less than $1 million. The beautiful use of Technicolor in his films was discarded so as to further cut costs and he shot the film in black-and-white. Most of the crew used in filming was plucked from the set of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, reducing expenses even further. The sets used had already been constructed for other films. And in the story itself, defying all conventional wisdom, he deliberately has the most identifiable personality in the entire movie killed less than halfway through.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Paramount was leery about distributing such a movie. Looking at it now, of course, the fact that they botched the handling of rights to the film and ultimately lost out on much of the $40 million profits is a decision akin to Decca passing on The Beatles. But at the time, it’s easy to imagine them wanting Hitchcock to simply stick to the playbook that he had put together over the course of his major-studio 50s run. Fortunately for movie fans, Hitch did as he pleased and the result is one of the most influential films ever made.

The film opens with Phoenix secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) at a surreptitious lunchtime rendezvous with her soon-to-be divorced boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin). When she returns to work that day and is asked to make a $40,000 bank deposit for a client, Marion begins scheming. Rather than make the expected deposit, Marion takes off with the money and begins to make plans of meeting up with Sam and going away together. Here is Hitchcock defying conventional wisdom right from the outset, as the biggest star in the film is immediately shown to be a thief. Marion quite clearly shows nervousness and questions what she is doing, but there is no getting around what she has done. She manages to get a new car and is quickly on the run, but in the process becomes caught in a rainstorm and lost on the road. This is how she comes to find the Bates Motel and meets the seemingly normal Norman Bates.

You quickly learn that like Marion, however, Norman also is not as he seems. Soon after Marion retires to her room, Norman scrambles to a hole in the wall that allows him to look into her chalet and spy on her. It is Hitchcock returning to a theme he had explored in the past, the idea of voyeurism and what it could lead to. Soon thereafter, in quite possibly the most famous sequence in the history of cinema, Marion is killed in the famed shower scene. The shock of the brutality of the scene may have lessened over time, but it’s still manages to be chilling in its minimalism.

Just 45 minutes into the film and the leading character, the only person in the film that the audience has been able to identify with, is gone. It’s an audacious movie by any director. For fellow music and classic rock fans, it reminds me of The Band deciding to lead off their debut album Music From Big Pink with a slow, sad song simply because everybody told them that’s something that just can't done. From this point on, the focus of the story quickly shifts to Norman and the demons that he is wrestling with. Hitchcock begins to probe what has made Norman into the socially awkward man he is. Are his homicidal tendencies ones that he was born with or are they the result of other developments? As we follow further investigations into the death of Marion, the answers to these questions slowly begin to be answered. Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to the film also cannot be ignored. His all-strings score is chilling and creates an atmosphere that perfectly matches the dark black-and-white photography. It sounds like a soundtrack to a nightmare.

As a mystery and thriller, Psycho is as good as they come. Watching it purely for the escapist entertainment still makes for an unbelievably wild ride. But as is the case with nearly all of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, there are other striking facets of his characters that are always intriguing. The thing that immediately struck me is how every character that is introduced to the audience has something to hide. Marion is making off with $40,000 of someone else’s money. Sam is having an affair and scrambling to clean up financial problems. Marion’s co-worker Caroline (Patricia Hitchcock) is revealed to have hidden prescription medication. Cassidy (Frank Albertson), the client who asks Marion to make the deposit for him, is concealing income to avoid paying taxes. Norman Bates is hiding secrets that are unthinkable. Everybody has something to suppress. I point this out not to show that every character is shady or a bad guy, as might be the case in many noirs. I bring it up because these are situations one can relate to. _Everybody_ on this planet has a dirty little secret or small detail that they want to keep to themselves. I don’t care who you are, there is some tidbit – however innocuous or serious – that you are not going to want aired to the public. Hitchcock knows this and show people as they scramble to maintain control of such information.

The most fascinating facet of the film for me is how Hitchcock deliberately manipulates who the audience identifies with over the course of the story. For the first third of the movie, the audience witnesses Marion taking part in a clandestine affair and then running off with $40K in stolen money. Still, you identify with Marion and basically reach the point of rooting for her to make a successful escape. Once she is killed, then the only readily available character to identify with is Norman. Hitchcock then deliberately begins to maneuver the viewer to see things as Norman does. Things begin to be shown as Norman sees them, miraculously managing to make a killer somewhat endearing. I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that you root for Norman to get away with murder, but it’s not a stretch to say that you at least hope that no drastic harm comes to him.

would be the last of Hitchcock’s irrefutable masterpieces. At times, I think it might be my favorite of his films. Even after all of the thrills have been experienced, when you know every twist and turn that is going to come up in the story, it still never disappoints. It is a film that has spawned thousands of imitators and none have come close to matching it.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1960:
Psycho is another that was never challenged in my mind for the top spot. But Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is a favorite and I would consider it to be Wilder’s best comedy, certainly ahead of Some Like It Hot. Jack Lemmon once again shines. The other films that I want to at least mention as being among my favorites for the year are: The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges), Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher), Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti), Le Trou (Jacques Becker), and a film that many consider 1959 but I’m staying consistent and counting it as 1960, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. Godard is a director I struggle with, but I find this to easily be my favorite of his films that I have seen.

It is no oversight that I did not include Federico Fellini’s lauded La Dolce Vita. I simply did not like it and have not revisited it since. I own it, so I suppose I will at some point, but it’s going to take a proper time and mood to make it through the three hours again. At the end of the film I remember thinking, “so what?” It’s not good to feel like you just wasted three hours after completing a movie. That’s how I felt after La Dolce Vita. I also surprisingly have never been a fan of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player.

The only glaring omission in this year is Antonioni's L'avventura. It is one that I have not seen and so obviously it was not in consideration. It's one I should have seen by now, but haven't. As I said at the beginning, I consider myself pretty well-rounded, but there are some movies that I'm still in the process of getting to. This is one of them.


  1. My Own #1 Film of 1960:

    The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak; India)


    Devi (S. Ray; India)
    Psycho (Hitchcock)
    The White Dove (Vlacil; Czechoslovakia)
    The Naked Island (Shindo; Japan)
    When A Woman Ascens the Stairs (Naruse; Japan)
    Black Sunday (Bava; Italy)
    Les Bonnes Femme (Chabrol; France)
    L'Aventura (Antonioni; Italy)
    La Dolce Vita (Fellini; Italy)
    The Virgin Spring (Bergman; Sweden)
    Spartacus (Kubrick)
    Breathless (Godard; France)
    The Apartment (Wilder)
    Paris Nous Appartement (Rivette; France)
    Shoot the Piano Player (Truffaut; France)
    Rocco and His Brothers (Visconti; Italy)

    Great consideration there of PSYCHO, which is surely on of Hitch's best and a seminal film for more reasons than one. Of course 1960 was also a banner year for Eurpean and Asian cinema, and I dare say it ushered in the 'beginning' of so many renowned movements. My own top film is as shattering a film as has ever been made in India, and Ray's DEVI is just about as great too. I respect your feelings on the Truffaut and Fellini, but I am in the opposite camp, which is fair enough.

  2. “Psycho” is number one for me, though Wilder’s “The Apartment” gives it a run for the money. I also, have to add Breathless as a strong contender. Excellent point on “everyone in the film has something to hide.” That never hit me before.

    #1 Psycho

    The Apartment
    Peeping Tom
    La Dolce Vita
    Shoot the Piano Player
    Black Sunday
    Elmer Gantry

    Comanche Station is good though I do not believe it is one of the best Boetticher/Scott westerns. “The Magnificent Seven” I always was under impressed by.

  3. Hard to argue with this choice as #1, though my own pick would probably be the Wilder film instead -- his best and most humanist movie. I also have to second Sam's inclusion of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, a wonderfully moving Naruse film with some of the Japanese director's most gorgeous cinematography.

    I think Psycho, for all its many qualities, is one of those films where the passage of time -- and its pop culture ubiquity -- have dulled its impact for those who see it now. It's hard to get into the mindset of 1960, to imagine how startling it must have been at the time, how disorienting its segmented narrative with shifting audience identification would've been. And, of course, it's hard to imagine a time when one could see the film without having already been exposed to its most famous set pieces, like the shower murder, through various other pop culture manifestations. Most people today have probably seen parodies of Psycho before they've seen Psycho itself.

  4. "Most people today have probably seen parodies of Psycho before they've seen Psycho itself."

    I couldn't agree with you more Ed.

  5. For the reasons Ed Howard cites, I find myself reluctant to agree on Psycho, but its innovations are indisputable and its performances have earned their legendary status. To be honest, I've found it harder to pick a winner for 1960 than in any previous year because the pickings are so diverse. It was a landmark year for horror worldwide, and Psycho is part of that, but there were landmark arthouse films as well. Anyone's list is bound to be an eclectic one, so here's mine:

    Peeping Tom
    Classe Tous Risques by Claude Sautet: the closest you can get to a Jean-Pierre Melville film without Melville.
    The Bad Sleep Well by Kurosawa
    Spartacus: Kubrick's most compromised film, with too many mawkish moments but still a mighty show.
    The Alamo by John Wayne: an even more problematic epic, yet a fascinating one in being a film about heroes fighting Mexico by a producer-director-star who clearly loves Mexico.
    Jigoku by Nobuo Nakagawa: you see what I mean about global horror.
    Comanche Station
    Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan).

    Dave, don't feel bad about La Dolce Vita. I tried to watch it last week and conked out in the third hour. What I saw wasn't bad, but I think Fellini didn't do his best work until he gave up bothering with plot. And to complicate things further chronologically, I just saw a trailer for Boccaccio '70 that declares La Dolce Vita to be a 1959 film. If that's so, we're all late talking about it, anyway.

  6. Samuel - that is strange about the date. According to IMDB the premiere in Italy was Feb 1960.

  7. I guess I agree with the idea that Psycho has been parodied and copied to death, but even so I still think it works well. I saw it for the first time many years after its release, after watching many horrible horror film ripoffs, and still loved it.

    Peeping Tom is one I see on most everybody's, but I was completely underwhelmed by it. That is a movie that felt very dated, playing up very cliche psychological issues.

    Everyone's lists also makes clear to me that there are a number of films that I haven't seen from 1960 that I definitely need to get to.

  8. This is probably the toughest year yet as there are six or seven films of equal masterpiece status vying for the top position. Ultimately, I would probably go with the Fellini film though Virgin Spring, L'Avventura, and Psycho make a strong showing.

    La Dolce Vita is, I think, a great movie. I had the exact same reaction as Dave and Samuel on first viewing, but something compelled me to return to it...the evening after I watched it no less! This time I was riveted. If approached in the right mood, it still provides a great experience - one has to accept and even marvel at its thematic ambition, otherwise it can seem pretentious. But I find it caps a certain passage of Fellini's career quite effectively (the girl calling to Marcello across the stream can be seen as the Giuletta Masina figure, the innocent protagonist of Fellini films past calling out to the decadent hero taking her place in the Fellini films of the future.)

  9. i dont think psycho is a flat ten. I thought the only minor complaint was the supporting cast. I thought John Gavin talks like he’s reading the news, Vera Miles looks like she’s on valium and Simon Oakland almost ruins the closing scenes with some over acting that really stands out in such a wonderfully understated film.
    Blasphemy I know