josh hadley | the shadows of pop culture | oct. 2015
"A boy's best friend is his mother." "We all go a little mad sometimes." "She might have fooled me, but she didn't fool my mother." "Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood! Blood!"
We all know the famous quotes from Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 game changing film “Psycho" — just as we all know one of the most famous scenes in movie history involving the shower. We all know “Psycho" to be a classic, but how many have actually sat and watched it? Examined it? How many know how it came to be?
I just returned from the 55th Anniversary screening of “Psycho," while this is the first time I have ever viewed the film on the big screen (being released 15 years prior to my birth and all) I have long held that, despite it being called a "classic," many out there still have not watched it and even fewer have noted it for just how unprecedented and innovative of a film it truly is.
"Psycho" may no be typical Halloween fare but let's delve into it anyway.
In 1959, Robert Bloch penned a novel loosely based on Wisconsin killer Ed Gein simply titled "Psycho." This novel was a modest success on its own but soon found its way into the hands of one Alfred Hitchcock, who just happened to be looking for an idea for his next film. Buying the rights to the book for a pittance, Hitchcock started the long and arduous battle to put the story of Norman Bates onto the silver screen.
Marion Crane is a desperate woman who makes a very bad decision and ends up running into a situation she can't conceive. Norman Bates is a lonely man under the oppressive thumb of his mother. As these hopeless people cross paths, nothing will ever be the same. I dare not share more of the plot, lest I ruin for you what is better left discovered on one's own.
No one wanted to make this film, not even with the great Alfred Hitchcock helming it. Hitchcock's home studio of Paramount wanted nothing to do with a screenplay so violent and filled with sexual innuendo (remember this is the Hays Code era). Hitchcock shopped the project everywhere and was turned away at every opportunity, eventually financing the film himself with a small investment from Universal and a backend deal with Paramount to distribute. As a cost-saving measure the crew from the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV series was brought in, as they knew how to shoot cheaply, shoot fast and shoot effectively. The choice to make the picture in black and white (already well on its way out as the standard for studio fare) was both a cost-saving measure, but also ramps up the mood and atmosphere of the final product in a way that color could not have achieved. Hitchcock was even able to get star, Janet Leigh, on the cheap based on his reputation alone.
With a budget of only $800,000 and change, Hitchcock made the film no one wanted him to make and they very well let him know it. Throughout production it was made clear to him that this film would be his downfall and might just end his near decade-long run on top (he had a string of extremely successful films up to this point and a hit TV series). The Hollywood trade press dogged the film from day one, the studio bosses begged Hitchcock to make something else, ANYTHING else, and even his own studio, where he was a stockholder, turned their back on their golden calf.
Production was completed and then the real battle started — the censors. Looking at "Psycho" today it seems that even television fare the likes of the insipid trash on Lifetime is more explicit, but back in 1960, Hitchcock was making a mainstream film like no other. Even with no curse words, no nudity and nearly no blood (let alone that you never actually see any of the killings as you would today) "Psycho" was considered base and lurid beyond that of good taste. The sexual underpinnings were deemed too much for audiences, you had an unmarried woman flaunting her affair and stealing money, a man heavily implied to be almost a sexual surrogate for a lover by his own mother, a woman butchered in a shower and you had a toilet. I am not kidding. "Psycho" was the first time in US film history that a flushing toilet was shown and that was deemed "unseemly" and "revolting." This is only on year after Jack Paar left “The Tonight Show" after a joke involving a woman seeking the “W.C." or "water closet" (toilet), was replaced by NBC censor without alerting Paar. Censors also insisted that Janet Leigh's breasts could be seen, as well as the knife penetrate her flesh. Owing to the masterful direction of Hitchcock, if you watch closely in the shower scene you never see Leigh's breasts and you never once see the knife perforate the skin. It's all misdirection and implication. To this day, people insist they see Leigh get stabbed ... and yet it isn't there.
The film, released on Sept 8,1960 with no studio backing and almost no fanfare rose to a riotous box office of $50 million dollars (a monstrous figure in 1960). The audience was not as fresh faced and naive as Paramount worried, and in fact, had the studio placed any faith in the project it may have made even more money.
While the audiences were there all the way, the critics were not. Perhaps due to the long-standing press coverage of the (perceived) negative aspects of the film and the general want to see Hitchcock finally fail, the press savaged the film. Attacking it for how grisly it was, for its lack of subtlety and most of all, for how "unnecessarily" graphic it was. Reviews from 1960 would lead one to believe that "Psycho" is a disaster of a film, to be avoided at all costs. Critics leapt onto Hitchcock and were just waiting to say that he had finally screwed up. Good thing audiences disagreed.
"Psycho" changed the entire game. It is arguably the first "slasher" film. There are camera setups that had never before been attempted that are now the standard, which were pioneered by “Psycho." And most of all, "Psycho" proved that one cannot trust the critics.
The film is a masterwork of misdirection, with Hitchcock leading viewers to believe that it's a suspense film about stolen money, and then at the halfway point kills its star — (something unprecedented) — creating a completely different kind of film, one filled with mood and subtle undercurrents of tension and unease. Even if you didn't know the plot twist all these years later, the clues are all there. Hitchcock wasn't leading you in the darkness alone; he was helping you see what lies in that same darkness.
Many who claim to love "Psycho" have never really watched it on the level it's intended to be seen, and that is a shame. People remember the famous scenes and forget why those specific scenes were so great.
"Psycho" was followed by three sequels, as well as a TV pilot, a terrible remake and an equally tepid TV series. The novel by Robert Bloch was followed by two sequels, which have nothing to do with the movies.
A fiercely confrontational and arrogant critic whose stubborn nature makes him immanently readable and equally angering, Josh Hadley is a writer for magazines such as Hustler, Fangoria, Paracinema, Shadowland, Grindhouse Purgatory and Cashers du Cinemart, as well as a radio host on Jackalope Radio. Find more from him at 1201beyond.com, a website that only the most anti-social personalities would engage.