d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 109 mins.
Note: You may think it ridiculous to submit a warning that this review discusses significant plot details and should only be read by those acquainted with the film, but if teaching at the college level has taught me anything, it's that each year at least two-thirds of my intro-level creative process class are neither familiar with Psycho nor its most famous sequence. In any event, if you're new to the film, you've been warned.
Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker in 2008, noted that we're inclined to think genius "is inextricably tied up with precocity," essentially something that thrives on the energy we have in our younger days. Among his many examples are Orson Welles, who made Citizen Kane at 25; Herman Melville, who began writing a novel per year in his twenties and finished Moby-Dick by 32; Pablo Picasso, discovered at 20; and Mozart, who wrote Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat-Major at 21. He might have included Bob Dylan, who had gone from Freewheelin' to Blonde on Blonde before he was 25, or Paul McCartney, who was not yet 28 by the time the Beatles had broken up.
But then – and Gladwell mentions him specifically by name – there was Alfred Hitchcock. The director went to work behind the camera at the age of 26; his first film, The Pleasure Garden, was made after years as an apprentice designing title cards. He broke onto the scene with The Lodger when he was 28, and before he turned forty he made The Man Who Knew Too Much (35 years old), The 39 Steps (36 years old), and The Lady Vanishes (39 years old). Yet the director's unmatched masterpieces were all made after he turned fifty.
His most famous film, and in many ways his most experimental, is Psycho, the film Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan dubbed as possibly "the most overly familiar motion picture in history." It is only when one sits down and tries to imagine something new to say about the film that one's brain begins to shake. What is left to say that hasn't been written countless books and essays, hasn't been taught in any random liberal arts college course, and hasn't been dissected now on the Internet? Not much new it seems, but plenty worth repeating because it focuses in on the particular genius of Hitchcock and how, at 61, he managed to turn his greatest experiment into a canonical piece of cinema.
Released in 1960, Psycho was a turning point even for the man who always seemed to procure a previously unknown corner. There's a necessary point to be made about this film coming so late in the director's career: in the 1940s he often experimented for the sake of effect (Lifeboat, Rope, etc.), but in the 1950s and 1960s he experimented as a way to drive a stake into the establishment for the sake of profundity. Psycho deviates from the director's films of the previous decade in three important ways: it was cheap and fast, made with only half of his standard crew; it was scandalously sexual and was among the loudest announcements that the 1950s were definitively over; and the director had a greater monetary stake in its success than he had ever had before.
Hitchcock pitched the film to Paramount and his staff as "a simple, low-budget American shocker, in the style of his TV show, which would provide a breather from more lavish, grandiose productions" (McGilligan). But few were as excited as he, and as ironic as it may seem, he ended up forging ahead on production with a crew largely different from the reliable personnel he repeatedly used on his films. His steadfast cinematographer, Robert Burks, who had worked on almost every Hitchcock film in the 1950s, had been assigned to a different project; the same went for famed production designer Robert Boyle. (They were replaced by a cameraman and production director who had both worked extensively with the director on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.) His only real long-time collaborator carryovers were editor George Tomasini and composer Bernard Herrmann.
To save money, Hitchcock deferred his salary (more on that in a moment), shot in black-and-white (as much for budgetary reasons as to disguise the color of blood), and kept the project as low-key as possible. He anonymously bought Robert Bloch's 1959 novel through an agent for a one-time fee of $9,000, and the whole production cost Paramount around $800,000 (about $5.5 million, in 2007 dollars), roughly one-fifth the cost of his previous film, North by Northwest. Cheap then, comparatively, and quick, too; but cost and speed in the context of Hitchcock don't equate to inattentive. Although he intended Psycho to look like a B-movie, the distance between a poverty-row production like Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour and this film is still quite cavernous. In other words, Hitchcock was willing to sacrifice a lot but he wasn't willing to sacrifice the essential elements — the star, the vision, the tightness of the screenplay, the intentional foray into controversy, the meticulous planning — that makes a Hitchcock film what it is.
Psycho proves itself a continual reward because of those essential elements on the part of the director, the right knowledge of where to cut and what to keep. Few directors could work artifice into theme like Hitchcock, but with Psycho he proved he hadn't lost the talent honed on the cheap in England of producing brilliance on a budget. Hitchcock's cinematic language in Psycho is clear and careful. A friend of mine once suggested Citizen Kane is the easiest film to teach because Orson Welles lays out his cinematic language in the most obvious and instructional of ways. I countered with Psycho, which I teach to my creative process class. Because it has a forest's worth of paper devoted to it, few films document the movie-making process and the collaborative nature of the industry better.
Consider the point, still early in the film, when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) stops at the Bates Motel in the middle of a rainstorm, where she meets the caretaker, Norman (Anthony Perkins). The levels to which Hitchcock is able to manipulate your impressions of the scene, from the obvious to the subconscious, are still staggering to this day. Those new to the film waver between comfort and fear; we're trained to feel leery of such isolated locales, but also to be cautious of driving in intense weather. Marion makes the best decision she can at that moment, and we go along with it. A lesser director might let the tension deflate, but Hitchcock builds it steadily. Is she safe? We seem to think so; Hitchcock even slips into the frame a textual cue through a folded newspaper in Marion's purse, the banner headline stating voters have okayed a particular measure, but due to the shape of the folds, only the word "OKAY" can be read.
Our radar is made murky by Perkins' performance as Norman, impeccable to the degree he captures how simultaneously reassuring and creepy awkward niceties can be. There is an ebb and flow of tension and curiosity, Marion obliviousness to her boundaries and Norman fervently aware of his. The pace kept through the editing is remarkable in that it lowers the viewer into comfort through repetition and formality, but willingly jerks us back to the potential danger of the situation by shifting angles or rearranging the staging.
What helps drive this tension is Hitchcock's most subversive element. To the unacquainted, Marion is the film's primary character; so why is Norman such a powerful presence? Why does all of the storytelling elements seem to suggest the two are equal at this point, particularly when one character materializes seemingly out of nothing? The film's center of gravity shifts beneath the scenes of Norman and Marion, culminating in the apex of Marion's story and what emerges as the foothills of Norman's: the infamous shower scene.
It is one of cinema's lasting treasures, for all the obvious reasons. Storyboarded by Saul Bass, filmed over the course of one week, and put together as a montage from 78 flash pieces of film, the shower scene of Psycho justly earns its the cinematic canon for what it is (a horrifying murder, the likes of which still haunt showerers to this day) and what it is not (lacking in general fanfare, discreet and even-handed with only the slightest moment of penetration between knife and flesh). It stands on its own, of course, but it is richer in its form and meaning inside the context of the film — the glimmer of hope we have for Marion, recanting on her crime; the virtual silence of a person's unknown last moments followed by the staccato of Herrmann's icy strings; eventually Norman's frantic clean-up and the equally powerful scene of the sinking car in the nearby pond. It is an expertly built sequence (is there another of equal cultural recognition and cinematic skill?), yet it possesses all the more merit for serving not only as pure cinema but a gearshift inside Psycho, the moment the story officially transcends Marion and is placed between Norman's shoulders. (We indeed follow him all the way through to the end, when the film makes the slightest misstep by giving a fumbling and verbose diagnosis of Norman from a prison psychologist; although to be fair, it was a decision Hitchcock deliberately made to bring the film to a close as soon as possible and avoid any kind of decompression on the audience's part.)
Not surprisingly, the Production Code board struggled with Psycho. They railed against the opening scenes, where Leigh is shown in her white lingerie after her unmarried afternoon tryst Sam Loomis (John Gavin), and of course they shrieked at the shower sequence — and, no doubt to Hitchcock's delight, it was because of the scene's potential display of nudity rather than the brutal murder. Stephen Rebello, author of the definitive Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, reports that three members of the board believed they saw nudity and two did not. They demanded Hitchcock remove the nudity and screen the film for them again. But when it came back, the breakdown reversed itself: now the three who had previously seen nudity were satisfied, but the other two were livid. McGilligan reports:
[Hitchcock's] final maneuver was volunteering to reshoot the opening if he could leave the shower sequence alone—adding the stipulation that the censors had to show up on the set for the reshoot because he was confused as to how to satisfy their objections. The story—perhaps apocryphal—is that the reshoot was scheduled, but the censors never materialized, so nothing was changed. "And," script supervisor Marshal Schlom said, "they finally agreed they didn't see the nudity in the shower sequence which, of course, was there all the time."
The Production Code office signed off on Psycho, and numerous decency boards cautioned heavily against it. But Psycho was one of the gambits in the late 1950s and early 1960s that helped severely weaken the previous strength of the Code. It was a phenomenon upon release, and with so many people flocking to see it, the culture tide began to splash against the censors.
No film up to that time created as many return visits than Psycho, which proved glorious for Hitchcock. In order to persuade Paramount to fund the film, he deferred his standard salary and directed it free, on the condition that he be considered 60 percent owner of it until Paramount hit its intended box office goal and then all further revenue and ownership would be his. He heavily marketed the film himself, appearing in its trailers and dropping clues to its mysteries and insisting no one would be admitted once the film had begun. It was the second-largest grossing film of 1960 and earned Hitchcock his fifth and final Best Director nomination from the Academy Awards.
McGilligan notes that Hitchcock always insisted he never foresaw Psycho as a blockbuster, and that any money he earned from it was a "secondary consideration" to making the film itself. With many others, you'd have to wonder if that's true, but I think in Hitchcock's case it genuinely was. The film's screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, always believed Hitchcock was drawn to Psycho because of his and his wife's illnesses in the late 1950s, making "the picture at the very time he was grappling with his own mortality." That may be why Psycho was and remains Hitchcock's last masterpiece. The director had spent an entire career offing people in a variety of ways and for a multitude of reasons, but certainly no other Hitchcock film showed the randomness of death in such a shocking and emotionally powerful way. This is a capstone to an unparalleled career.
19 April 2009
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 109 mins.