Psycho: June 16, 1960–The Movie that Forever Changed Cinema

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Second article in a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of "Psycho."

"My films went from being failures to masterpieces, without ever being successes"–Hitchcock
 
A key work of world cinema, Alfred Hitchcock's “Psycho” was released in New York in two theaters, on June 16, 1960.
 
For many different reasons, "Psycho" is one of my very favorite films. I revisit the movie time and again, perhaps in order to relive its anxieties and to rejoice in its many narrative and stylistic pleasures. Most of Hitchcock's films deserve repeated viewing due to their density and allusiveness. Each viewing of a Hitchcock work offers new insights about the particular movie, the filmmaking process, and the unique properties of the film medium.
 
Historical Significance
 
Released exactly fifty years ago, Psycho" is Hitchcock’s best-known and most commercially popular movie. Its release date marks the end of classic Hollywood Cinema (roughly 1929 to 1960) in mode of production, style, narrative structure. It signals the beginning of a more amorphously defined film, one that’s post-classical and post-modern.
 
In the 1970s, as a result of a new generation of critics and scholars (such as Andrew saris and Robin Wood), “Psycho” entered into the canon of the most frequently taught and critically revered films. It began to get serious attention that went beyond its sensational aspects and fairground appeal.
 
Fashion in Film Criticism
 
The historian David Bordwell has charted the journey of “Psycho,” its gradual acceptance or legitimization as a great work, within the fields of film criticism and film scholarship.   The initial response of critics, such as the middlebrow N.Y. Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, was negative. Indeed, many saw it as a minor, low-budget, black-and-white thriller that was not even up to his standards.
 
Five years later, “Psycho” became the subject of an influential chapter of a major study of auteurism. Ten years later, the movie gained the status of a classic worthy of close analysis and scrutiny. Fifteen years after initial release, “Psycho” is almost universally accepted as a subversive work of postmodernism.
 
Commercially Profitable
 
“Psycho” may be the most commercially successful art film ever made. Yes, you read right, "Psycho" is an art film with experimental dimensions. Shot in black-and-white, the film resembles the exploitation quickies shown in drive-ins in the late 1950s and 1960s. Made on a low budget of about $800,00, the film grossed over $20 million, thus qualifying as Hitchcock's most commercially profitable film. "Psycho" was Paramount’s top-grossing film after Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic- spectacle, “The Ten Commandments,” in 1956.
 
Precision
 
The film begins with a panoramic view of Phoenix, where the first chapters are set, indicating the precise day, Friday, date, December 11, and time, 2:43p.m.
 
In the opening sequence, the camera descends from a high, bright viewpoint over Phoenix to a dim hotel room, and the screen turns totally dark for a brief moment.
 
Formal Visual conception
 
Frame by frame, the film is calculated, tight and closed and yet full of ambiguities and open to interpretations. The visual design of Psycho is tight, abstract, consistent, and concise. Hitch described the composition to Truffaut as “a vertical block and a horizontal block.”
 
The abstract design helps Hitchcock in maintaining a unified vision, a special coherence in the film. Take the ominous (phallic) house in which Norman lives (vertical) and the motel (horizontal) adjacent to it, in which Marion stays.
 
Or the first scene, in which Sam (John Gavin) stands up, half dressed (vertical), while Marion still lies in bed in her white lingerie (horizontal). Later in the scene, he sits down and she stands up.
 
Dark and Grim
 
Even within the Hitchcock canon, "Psycho" occupies a special place by being a movie that continues to be both profoundly upsetting, through its dark and grim worldview, and irresistible amusing, through its witty humor. 
 
The austere, insulating wit, operating below the surface of the action, is almost unavailable at first viewing. And its striking style is so dense, illuminating, and allusive that it certainly merits several viewings.
 
Experimental Film
 
"Psycho" merits the label of experimental film in many ways, primary among which was the manipulation of audience reaction—the film offered a major cinematic analysis of the viewers themselves, while they were engaged in the act of spectatorship. The French scholar-critic Jean Douchet wrote perceptively: "Hitchcock first excites the worst feelings of his audience, and then through his spectacle, authorizes them to be satisfied."
 
Dark Recesses of the Human Mind
 
"Psycho" analyzes the dark recesses of the human mind, and it also investigates the capacity for evil by and among ordinary individuals.  Indeed, In the course of the tale, the viewers are led from sheer observance to approval (or disapproval) of what they see, to complicity and fear of discovery. But the question remains: Does "Psycho" offer any sense of catharsis, any elements of healing, any pure and noble feelings? Having watched the picture at least 15 times, I doubt it.
 
Conducting research for this series of pieces, I found a revelatory piece that Hitchcock wrote in 1960 titled, "Why I Am Afraid of the Dark." "I don't want to seem immodest," the maestro notes, "but I can't help comparing what I've tried to put in my films with what Edgar Allan Poe put in his novels, a completely unbelievable story told to the readers with such a spellbinding logic that you get the impression that the same thing could happen to you tomorrow."
 
We want Marion to succeed in escaping with her boss’s money. Later on, we want the car, in which Marion’s corpse and the money are contained, to sink completely. There is a second after Norman has run the car into the swamp, when the car stops sinking. You could almost hear the audience holding their breath—until the car resumes its descent below. At this point in the story, the audience becomes implicated in the execution of the seemingly “perfect crime.”
 
The camera encourages, even forces identification, first with Marion, then with Norman. The extensive use of mirrors reflects the characters out toward us. The film is replete with scenes of mirrors, though the characters may or may not look at themselves. As viewers, it’s impossible to remain detached, emotionally and psychologically, from the characters’ journey toward descent—and extinction.
 
Acerbic, Subtle Wit
 
There is persistence wit in “Psycho,” expressed in the dialogue as well as the characters’ conduct, but the humor is austere and insulating. For some, wit is Hitchcock’s tool, his less conspicuous means of indifference.
 
Operating below the surface of the action, the wit is unnoticeable on first viewing. Do you remember that Marion actually smiles in this otherwise grim picture at least four or five times?
 
Fun Picture: Roller Coaster
 
It was, of course, intentional on Hitchcock’s part, as he told Francois Truffaut in the book-long interview: “You have to remember that ‘Psycho’ is a film made with quite a sense of amusement on my part. To me it’s a fun picture. The processes through which we take the audience, it’s rather like taking them through the haunted house at the fairground of the roller coaster.”
 
No Catharsis, No Relief
 
The movie derives its power from pool and push forces. On the one hand, we can’t stop watching. On the other, there is a growing sense of uneasiness with what we watch, a level of discomfort caused by the dark, stifled and stifling nature of the tale and the milieu in which it is set.
 
Jean Douchet has observed that throughout the film there is no point of release for us, just gestures of release; it’s also unclear what we want or expect to be released from. And George Toles has noted that the discomfort is an endlessly renewable response to the film, which many of us have been drawn to see many times.
 
Hitchcock increasingly deprives us of our sense of safety, of what we consider a secure place, like the comfort of a home, not to mention the privacy and regeneration of taking a shower.
 
The viewers' identification is made with increasing subjectivity. After one third of the film, our sympathies are transferred from Marion Crane, the victim, to Norman Bates, the murderer. Throughout, there is ingenious use of forward tracking shots, which pull us closer and deeper into the film’s world.
 
Conflicting Feelings
 
The movie doesn’t provide any light or enlightening information about the characters; in fact, it provides confusing, contradictory information. It lures the audience into becoming the characters, sharing their anxieties and fantasies and living out their experiences.
 
Take the first scene, set in a shabby hotel, where Marion and her divorced lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin) have just made love. How do we feel toward Marion Crane? Do we desire her (Janet Leigh looks quite sexy in her white lingerie), feel sorry for her that she has to have quickie sex in her lunch break, or just feel contempt for her (mis) conduct (after all, she is an unmarried woman).
 
We also have conflicting reactions toward Sam, sympathy for his plight, since he has to pay alimony to his wife and pay the debts of his dead father (a lousy businessman). We may also feel sorry for him.
 
For Hitchcock, artistic creation is based on knowledge of social psychology, a quasi-rational approach of how to influence and modulate viewers’ emotional reaction. Hitchcock encourages, even demands active participation of his audience, not to mention his expectations for respect and attentiveness, which explain his insistence that no spectators be admitted once the movie begins.
 
Voyeurism
 
The movie illustrated the perverse apparatus, the bizarre mechanize of film as a unique medium. "Psycho" is as much about the viewers as it is about the characters and the actors who play them. Some critics have claimed that Hitchcock, using the camera as the viewers' eyes in subtle but calculated ways, was more concerned about directing his audience than directing his performers. On another level, you could say, that the persons in the story represent different aspects of the viewers’ minds and psyches. 
 
 
The Villain—Monster
 
“Psycho” represented the moment in American film history—and American life—in which horror entered deep inside into the family.
 
The late great critic Robin Wood has depicted “Psycho as the film that transformed the genre’s formula, leading the ways to the more subversive horror films of the 1970s. The strategic locus of the horror is the family, that scared American institution. Horror is being produced from within the family institution itself. In the past, the monster was always foreign ad often an exotic creature; here he is an ordinary, even likable person
 
 
Depicting Violence
 
The most famous scene in the film is the shower sequence, which expressed Hitchcock’s experiment in ways to depict violence on screen in an innovative and effective way.
 
There had been nothing like this one-minute montage before: Hitchcock constructs the sequence as a series of slashes. A lot has been written about this scene—it’s one of the most famous in film history.
 
Hitchcock took the stance that, despite the gruesome montage, the viewers never actually see the knife penetrating Marion’s flesh; he wanted us to imagine it. But the scholar V.F. Perkins sees it as the justifying of the shower’s repellent brutality through a skillful montage, as if Hitchcock wished to lessen the cruelty of the murder by aestheticizing it, unlike, say, the graphic depiction of strangulation in his later film, “Frenzy.”
 
Ultimately, the shower scene is as much an assault on the viewers as on Marion, and it is still unsettling, because it reaches into deep fears about privacy, intimacy, and security.
 
Doubts Over Psychiatry and Therapy
 
In the next to last scene, Hitchcock offers the psychiatrist’s semi-rational explanation, but it’s cold and deliberate in tone. As played by Simon Oakland, the psychiatrist is pompous, unappealing and not entirely trustworthy—despite his effort to use concise and detailed rationale for the murders. In other words, he can’t dispel our worries and doubts. With his professional authority and presumed knowledge.
 
Moreover, shrewdly, Hitchcock does not end the film with this explanation. After that scene, set in an austere police station, the gaze is redirected at Norman, draped in white sheets, with his mother’s voice explaining how she wouldn’t hurt a fly. 
 
The camera tracks to Norman’s face and Hitch dissolves in the image of the mother’s grinning skull. The two images are then punctured by the car (in which Marion and the money are buried), pulled out from the swamp.
 
Mocking Tone
 
Norman’s final speech reflects Hitchcock’s mode of joking through the mocking voice of Mrs. Bates, whose sockets are both full and hollow. Inhabiting the body of her lost son, she sees it as her duty to put an end to a bad son.
 
In Mother/Norman's last words, she/he reminds us of the deceptiveness and inadequacy of words (and language) to depict and comprehend reality: "It's sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son, but I couldn't allow them to believe that I would commit murder. They'll put him away now, as I should have, years ago. He was always bad. And in the end he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man. As if I could do anything except just sit and stare, like on of his stuffed birds. They know I can't even move a finger, and I won't. I'll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do suspect me. They're probably watching me; well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I'm not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They'll see. They'll see and they'll know, and they'll say, 'Why she wouldn't even harm a fly.’"
 
Changing Ways of Viewing Films
 
The original ads for the film showed Janet Leigh in a bra screaming, while the text stated flatly: “No one will be admitted after the picture has started.”  This, as I will show in another article, was an innovation, too. Among other things, "Psycho" changed the dominant American patterns of going to the movies and viewing them.