Psycho at 60: Hitchcock’s Horror Thriller–Most Influential Film Ever Made?

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, now celebrating its 60th anniversary, may not be the scariest thriller, but it certainly is the most influential horror picture ever made. It’s the first postmodern cinema work, leaving its mark on every aspect of the industry.

By my count, there are over 100 books about Hitchcock and Psycho.  The “shower scene” alone is the most famous act in history and the most dissected one, shot by shot, frame by frame.

But Psycho is so complicated and complex, that each progressive viewing tends to result in new lingering questions and disturbing concerns that call for further analysis and thought.

First, the particular position of Psycho in the rich (53 features) and diverse oeuvre of Hitchcock.  Made in 1960, Psycho came out after North By Northwest, one of the master’s most entertaining films, starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint at their very best.  And it was followed up by The Birds, in 1963, Hitchcock’s last undisputed masterpiece.

Whether intentional or not, there are thematic  continuities between the two films: Birds feature prominently in Psycho.  You may recall that Norman Bates’s hobby is to “stuff” birds (In English slang, to stuff also bears sexual connotations). In the movie’s longest dialogue sequence, set in the parlor of his office, birds of various sizes loom menacingly over Marion, as she is having (but never finishing) her sandwich. Norman tells hers that “she eats like a bird,” and, indeed, before long she would become a prey, just like the other birds.

Hitchcock: Four Consecutive Masterpieces

It’s hard to think of another filmmaker who has made four masterpieces in a row, a trend that began in 1958 with Vertigo, and continued with North By Northwest in 1959, Psycho in 1960, and The Bird in 1963.  In its 2012 survey, the British Sight & Sound magazine voted Vertigo as “the best film ever made,” pushing Orson Welles’s 1941 Citizen Kane from the top slot it had occupied for many decades.

Moreover, Psycho, a smash hit made on ultra-modest budget (less than $1 million), singlehandedly launched a new sub-category of horror, the “slasher” (or “splatter”) movie.  Taking another crack at the already declining Production Code, Psycho set a new level of acceptability for the graphic portrayal of violence, deviant behavior and sexuality.  But Psycho not only led to the making of numerous horror films (the Hammer Films in U.K., Roger Corman’s Factory in Hollywood), it also validated the genre by attaching the signature of a respectable auteur to what was previously deemed  a cheap and debased exploitational fare.

Other persistent and troubling concerns relate to the film’s sexual and gender-bender elements. Hitchcock cast Anthony Perkins as the “likable villain,” fully aware of the actor’s homosexuality (an “open secret” until the 1980s), and he had already shown interest in transgressive subject matter in the 1948 Rope, which is also ripe with gay overtones (and co-stars Farley Granger).

At the end, when Norman cross-dresses with a robe and a wig in his attempt to kill Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), viewers finally make the connection to the strange figure that had stabbed Marion in the bathroom.  Later on, at the station, when Sam Loomis (John Gavin) asks why Bates was dressed that way, the police officer, ignorant of Bates’ personality, simply utters, “he is a transvestite.” But Norman is not a transvestite, and it’s the psychiatrist who corrects him by saying, “Not exactly.” He then explains–not entirely convincingly–that Bates believes he is his own mother, when he dresses in her clothes.

Yet watching the movies from today’s perspective, there are all kinds of clues that Norman may be a tormented gay, a pervert voyeur, a jealously possessive and incestuous son, a victim of split personality. Whenever Norman feels attracted to a woman, “Mother” kills her. We learn that Norman had killed his mother and her lover, and that, as “Mother,” he had killed two girls before murdering Marion and private inspector Arbogast (Martin Balsam).

And not to forget, the story ends with Norman in jail, while “Mother” protests in voice-over that the murders were Norman’s doing, not hers (“Why, she won’t hurt a fly”).

Francois Truffaut, who wrote the most significant interview/book about Hitchcock, once observed that “Psycho owes its very existence to Les Diaboliques, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s superlative thriller of 1955  (the scariest movie I’ve seen). French scholars have followed Truffaut by claiming that Hitchcock was jealous of the stature that Clouzot assumed in Gallic and world cinema in the early 1950s.  The Wages of Fear won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, and Les Diaboliques was a smash hit all over the world.  Also appreciated in America, Les Diaboliques  earned the Best Foreign Language Film from the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), then the only critics group in the country.

Finally, an observation about the context in which Psycho was viewed. There is a revealing poster with a large image of Hitchcock pointing at his watch. The words at the other side of the poster read, “It Is Required That You See Psycho From the Very Beginning!” The director asked theater staffs to advertise the precise beginning of the next showing.

Poster Art featuring director Alfred Hitchcock Psycho 1960

Paramount Pictures/Photofest

Hitchcock’s “No Late Admission” policy was a bold and unusual for the time. It was based on his belief that if people entered late and never saw the star, Janet Leigh, in the first reel, they would feel cheated and deprived.  At first, theater owners opposed the idea, fearing they would lose business. However, after the first day, the strategy proved beneficial and owners across the country reported of long lines of spectators waiting to see the film.  It should be noted that Hitchcock’s idea was not entirely original: Clouzot had successfully done the same in France for Les Diaboliques, though he could not enforce it in the U.S.

Significantly, Hitchcock did most of the promotion for Psycho himself, forbidding Leigh and Perkins to make the usual TV, radio, and print interviews out of concern that they might reveal plot points. Even critics and journalists were not privileged with press screenings, as was the norm. Instead, they had to see the movie with the general public, and then write very cautiously about it.