Psycho (1960): Hitchcock’s Experimental, Revolutionary Horror Thriller that Forever Changed Hollywood and Film History

For decades, Alfred Hitchcock (born in 1899) has been considered to be one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers in world cinema, beginning in Germany, continuing in the U.K., and then developing, progressing, and culminating a glorious career in the U.S.
However, it was  a single, modestly budget, black-and white film, Psycho, in 1960, that convinced critics that Hitchcock was much more than the “Master of Suspense,” or the director who delighted audiences with frightening thrills and frills.  Arguably the most influential movie ever made, Psycho was an innovative picture, showing genuine experimentation in theme, structure, characters, visual style, and perhaps most important of all, new ways of viewing and reacting to movies.


Grade: A (***** out of ******)

Over the years, Hitchcock has become a cult filmmaker, whose 53 films continue to be
subjected to critical evaluation and reevaluation.  His signature and his style have become “Hitchcockian,” a label, a concept, a strategy, and a philosophy that go way  beyond the real-life director and his solid work.
Hitchcock’s career began with the Gothic thriller Rebecca, in 1940, which won the Best Picture Oscar, and ended with Family Plot, in 1976.  He passed away in 1980, after making 53 feature movies, half of which terrific, brilliant and long-lasting in offering all kinds of pleasures, thematic, visual (what he called pure cinema) and emotional.
Hitchcock’s 1930s British films explored issues and problems related to the international situation preceding World War II. The best of these were “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.” His Hollywood films for Selznick, a mixed bag artistically, reflected the war and post-war mentality, but with the exception of “Spellbound,” none was as successful as “Rebecca.”
In the 1950s, the best decade in his career, Hitchcock made films that captured the mass paranoia of America during Cold War mentality, such as “Rope” and “Strangers on a Train.”
The source of Hitchcock’s commercial appeal rested on his ability to adjust his own popular formula—suspenseful thriller, romance and comedy carefully mixed and sometimes balanced in equal proportions–to the demands of the mass public.
Then, in the 1960s, Hitchcock’s style changed, when he took big risks by dropping the guise of the popular filmmaker and mass entertainer. With “Psycho,” Hitchcock ceased to be the director who delighted audiences with frightening fun, experimenting in theme, structure, characters, and style.  As a result, he and his film found himself at the center of controversies about various issues, such as narrative structure, screen heroes (is it permissible to get rid of the tale’s heroine after the first reel and still keep the viewers engage), the graphic and explicit use of violence in films.
“Psycho” begins with one of Hitchcock’s favorite devices for making audiences accomplices in the action. The camera passes past the Phoenix, Arizona, skyline and seemingly randomly picks out a window of a hotel, then glides in to watch two people, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) involved in an adulterous affair. But if they are guilty of a sexual indiscretion, we are guilty of voyeurism. Their affair–sordid and sad, since the man cannot afford to divorce his wife and marry his lover–was in itself a mild shock, for it was still unconventional for movie stars to play such unglamorous roles.
In the next sequence, Marion compulsively steals a large sum of money from the safe at the real estate agency where she is employed as a secretary, hurriedly packs her belongings, and drives in the direction of San Francisco, where Sam lives. Still, adultery and larceny prove to be mild jolts from our “heroine,” at least compared with what happens next: when Marion checks in at a roadside motel she is suddenly, shockingly murdered by a mysterious figure while showering in her room.
The murder itself breaks with one of the most basic conceptions of American movies–nothing can happen to the central character, least of all attractive heroine like Janet Leigh, until the end of the story. But the manner in which the killing was filmed provides a far greater impact than the shock of the incident itself.
Marion is stabbed over by what appears to be an old woman–the mother of the proprietary Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). We learn later that Norman–who has a secret identity in which he masquerades as his long deceased mother–actually killed the woman. The shower sequence– long, terrifying, and bloody–set the new standard for depiction of violence, which would reach its excess and extremity in “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), and Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969).
The graphic and intense nature of the violence in Hitchcock’s most famous sequence has been overstated and overanalyzed (almost to death). We never actually see the knife make contact with the woman’s body, though audiences think they see it. As a result of the brilliant editing and montage, moving from Marion’s screaming face, to the water streaming down, to the assailant wielding the knife, to the blood at the bottom of the tub, the spectators believed they see the knife penetrating Marion’s body, though the penetration takes place in each viewer’s mind. Future films would in fact actualize the violence that Psycho only suggested, but it was nonetheless this film–Hitchcock’s first film of the decade–that introduced the new style for the new decade.
On one level, “Psycho” could be perceived as a “typical” Hitchcockian tale in terms of his theme. First, there is the physical resemblance of John Gavin and Anthony Perkins (both tall, dark haired, and handsome), re-establishing Hitchcock’s old theme of a hero and villain who are in fact the opposite sides of a single coin, as in North By Northwest, where Cary Grant and James Mason were look-alike men.
Throughout, the implication of the movie is that the guilt for the crime is a morally complex issue, and no one character is finally responsible. The film implicates the spectators in murder and voyeurism from the very start, when Marion decides to steal 40,000 to help her lover pay his debts so that he can marry her.
“The MacGuffin,” or final solution to the mystery, becomes clear in the very last reel, when policemen restrain Mrs. Bates and discover it is, in fact, Norman in disguise.
The movie’s impact derived from its demonstration of Hitchcock’s perceptive view of the upcoming decade. In “Psycho,” the threat comes from within the nuclear family, epitomized by a nice, well-behaved, clean-cut, boy next-door type.
There’s narrative closure–the comforting statements of the psychiatrist, Dr. Richmond, who tries to exorcize our terror with the authority of science by providing rational explanation, but instead of comfort and security (after the explanations), Hitchcock cuts to Psycho’s face, and viewers are left with the enigma of the “sane and rational.”
Hitchcock ends the film with a length and dry psychiatric explanation of the “mad” Norman Bates behavior. But the explanation is mocked for its irrelevance to the force and truth of what we have previously witnessed. e scholar Vivian Sobchack goes farther, pointing out that “Psycho” pokes fun at the notion of explanation as a way of allaying “the most formidable and haunting idea” of madness and violence that threatens social order with erupting into chaos, which is Hitchcock’s most recurrent motif.
The movie is full of ambiguities when it begins, which continue when it ends–and beyond. The central enigma remains unexplainable—operating on an almost supernatural level. 
The last shot of the film, which returns us to Norman’s face, succeeds in holds the mysteries intact. It implies that if madness  and perversity cannot be explained rationally, than neither can sanity and normalcy.  And besides, there’s a very fine, fragile line between the two domains as defined by mainstream society and its culture, a line that’s bound to be crossed.
Cast:
Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)
Lila Crane (Vera Miles)
Sam Loomis (John Gavin)
Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam)
Sheriff Chambers (John McIntire)
Dr. Richmond (Simon Oakland)
Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson)
Caroline (Pat Hitchcock)
Menacing Policeman (Mort Mills)
Man Standing Outside Office in Cowboy Hat (Alfred Hitchcock)
Credits:
Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on Psycho by Robert Bloch
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Cinematography: John L. Russell
Edited by George Tomasini
Production company: Shamley Productions
Distributed by Paramount
Release date: June 16, 1960 (DeMille Theatre), September 8, 1960 (US)
Running time: 109 minutes
Budget: $806,947
Box office: $50 million