Saturday, June 20, 2020

Flashback, June 1960: Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ Sets New Template for Thriller Genre

Sixty years ago this week, Psycho shocked audiences in every conceivable way upon its release. Given a minimal budget by a leery Paramount Pictures, it became the most successful film in the five-decade career of Alfred Hitchcock

Although it did not earn “The Master of Suspense” a Best Director Oscar, the film influenced later generations of filmmakers more than the other nominees in this category, who included Jules Dassin (Never on Sunday), Jack Cardiff (Sons and Lovers), Fred Zinnemann (The Sundowners), and even Billy Wilder (The Apartment). 

Hitchcock created a template for aspiring filmmakers eager to prove that a low-budget movie could be as entertaining yet artful as what the director called “glossy Technicolor baubles,” including sand-and-sandal epics of the period, such as another film released that year, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.

To one extent or another, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) followed in the type of horror/suspense film that Hitchcock mined so successfully: the “slasher” genre. 

But some of these later movies would not get much beyond slavish imitation, while others descended into levels of gore that Hitchcock would never have contemplated. (Remember that the body count for Psycho is only four, and two of these killings—involving Norman’s mother and her lover—occur offscreen and in the past.)

 The following conventions of the slasher film assumed their later shape as a result of Psycho:

*A human monster, preferably one in disguise. The killer perpetrates the most horrendous, goriest crimes. While his identity will become known by the end of the film, he will appear with his face covered or otherwise obscured—the better to leave his victim (and the audience) unsure of his identity.

*Punishment of premarital or extramarital sex. As a residual element of Hitchcock’s Roman Catholic upbringing, he saw the need to make Marion pay, with her life, for her adultery with Sam Loomis. Later filmmakers working in this genre noted the primary audience for these films—adolescents—and made their victims hot-blooded teenagers.

* “The last girl.” This figure in the slasher genre is the survivor—the “scream queen” who manages to outsmart the murderer and bring him to justice or, better yet, kill him. (The term was coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.) In Psycho, it was Marion’s sister Lila, who discovers the corpse of Norman’s mother. The quintessential “last girl” of the genre may be Laurie Strode, played by Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, in Halloween. (For an interesting but arguable ranking of the top "last girls," see this post from three months ago, on the blog "But Why Tho?", by Kate Sanchez.)

Why were contemporary audiences so shocked by Psycho? Several factors proved especially important:

*The virtually unprecedented death of the top-billed star so early in a film. Thirty minutes into the movie, Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, is killed off. One can only imagine the reaction of Paramount execs at this prospect: Can’t you keep her around for a while? But the reaction of audiences, not the studio, was what was really key here. They had expected a story of an adulterous thief and her success or failure in evading the law. Now, the narrative had switched to a timid but weird motel caretaker with mother issues. After this, filmgoers may have thought, anything was possible.

*The violation of a private, clean space. Bates Motel may have seemed creepy (12 rooms—and 12 vacancies, as Norman weakly smiles), but the shower in Marion’s room was a space of a different sort. The water coming down might have signified not just a physical cleansing, but a spiritual rebirth. (Indeed, she has flushed the $40,000 she stole from her company down the toilet, indicating that she will try to change the direction of her life from here on out.) But a peeping tom will violate her privacy—then, shortly after the glinting of a knife, her body. Critic-turned-director Peter Bogdanovich would remember: “Psycho is the moment in movies when for the first time movies weren't safe. I remember coming out of the screening and feeling I’d been raped or something, or mugged, it was absolutely terrifying. No one recovered from that shower scene.”

*Anthony Perkins’ boy-next-door appearance. Hitchcock didn’t change much in adapting Robert Bloch’s novel, but the alterations that were made were crucial. Turning Marion’s (or, in the novel, Mary’s) murder from a short beheading to a protracted shower-stabbing resulted in one of the most deconstructed scenes in film history. But the other change from the book was just as important. Norman in the novel is immediately off-putting: short, overweight, middle-aged, and unpleasant. No woman in her right mind would want to engage him in conversation. But casting Anthony Perkins—tall, young, good-looking—allowed Hitchcock to surmount that difficulty, with a character that, on first appearance, would be viewed as sensitive rather than sinister.

*The dissonant score. The nine-score, decade-long association between Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann ended abruptly five years after Psycho, when the stubborn composer clashed with the control-freak director over Torn Curtain. But in the case of Psycho, Hitchcock had enough sense to cancel his idea of a silent shower scene once he heard how Herrmann’s shrieking strings-only score magnified the suspense. Herrmann had conceived of an elegant aural counterpart to Hitchcock’s deceptively simple visual look: “a black-and-white score for a black-and-white movie.” According to Peter Ackroyd’s 2015 biography, Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life, the director not only doubled Herrmann’s fee but was quoted as saying, “thirty-three percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.”

*Shrewd pre-show audience manipulation. Hitchcock did everything he could to assure that audiences would be completely unprepared for what would occur, including: 1) reportedly instructing long-time assistant Peggy Robertson to buy up copies of the book to preserve the novel’s surprises; 2) referring to the project as "Production 9401" or "Wimpy"; 3) before production even started, securing the agreement of the entire cast and crew not to divulge any details of the story; and 4) in a brilliant stroke of marketing, telling theater owners not to admit anyone once the film had started.

Images were what obsessed Hitchcock, which explains both why he took so long to film the central shower scene (a week) and how he used 78 pieces of film in 45 seconds of screen time to imply a knife penetrating a nude body. But the contribution of his collaborator, screenwriter Joseph Stefano, should not be forgotten. 

Although Hitchcock used his usual method of intensely discussing beforehand his concept of the project with the screenwriter, he left it to Stefano to come up with motivation and nuance while the director concentrated on set pieces like the two onscreen murders. Three aspects of Stefano’s screenplay strike me as particularly worthy of comment:

*The interrogation of Norman by private investigator Milton Arbogast. First-time viewers of the film will pick up on the growing suspicions of the detective. Once he catches Norman in a lie, the tension ratchets up, as the viewers tries to figure where this is leading. Those watching the movie on subsequent viewings will watch aghast as even this enormously shrewd detective doesn’t grasp the jeopardy in which he has placed himself. (A writer at AlfredHitch Blog shares my affection for this scene.)

*The bird motif: Norman’s hobby—taxidermy—is referred to both explicitly and obliquely. Marion’s surname is that of a bird; at dinner, Norman tells her that she eats like a bird; a bird picture hangs on the wall; and the license plate on Marion’s call reads, “NFB 418.” The latter initials stand for “Norman Francis Bates,” with “Francis” referring to St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of birds.

*Mirrors: Normally, mirrors in film may symbolize schizophrenia or a fractured sense of self-worth. But in Psycho, the one figure who never appears in a reflection is Norman. This becomes a subtle way of making the viewer share the perspective and even consciousness of the killer.

No comments: