Free Film School #74: No One Will Be Admitted After the Start of the Performance

Professor Witney Seibold prepares you for Hitchcock with a look at the history, artistry and legacy of Psycho.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Warning. I assume at the outset that you are familiar with the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 blockbuster Psycho. I assume you know all the plot twists and left turns contained in that film. If you have not seen Psycho, or do not know the plot twists, I heartily and openly encourage you to actually abstain from reading this article until you have seen it. I don’t want to be the jerk that ruined a classic for you. I will take the advice of the famous newspaper ads, and keep Psycho’s secrets. Also, Rosebud was a sled.

So welcome back, fellow cineastes, to another edition of the quaint and (I would hope) insightful Free Film School here at CraveOnline U. Seeing as Sacha Gervasi’s film Hitchcock is being released in theaters this Friday, it seems timely that I should teach another lesson on the famously impish filmmaker. Before any of you cry foul on the topic, I will openly acknowledge that I have written about Hitchcock several times in the past as part of the Free Film School, most notably when Vertigo was listed as the newest "Best Movie Ever Made" by BFI’s famous Sight & Sound poll earlier this year. Psycho, incidentally, was polled at #35. I also once wrote an article on the brilliant huckster William Castle, and indicated that the master of the cinematic gimmick was very clearly trying to model his career after Hitchcock’s.

So yes, Hitchcock will be trotted out yet again. To my credit, he is often cited in film schools across the nation. Why should the Free Film School be different in this regard? Alfred Hitchcock is, after all, still considered one of the best filmmakers to have ever lived. He warrants study. He was one of those directors who was not only famous for his themes and his content (usually thrilling themes of wrongly-accused innocents and daring themes of borderline fetishistic sexuality), but was also a master of the cinematic craft, using the film form to its greatest effects through simple yet groundbreaking techniques. And while many of his films were enormous hits, made with millions of dollars and featuring handsome leading men (North By Northwest, for instance, was a flashy blockbuster in a more modern mold than most films of the era), the one film of his that tends to stick in our minds the most – the one film that Hitchcock is still probably best-known for – is his 1960 B-movie Psycho, which was made for a small budget, featured no huge-name actors, and was shot on the cheap using a TV crew on the Universal backlot.

In his famous interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock claimed that Psycho received such a dramatic reaction from audiences because of its cinematic purity. Psycho is, after all, not really known for its subtle messages or dramatic themes. It’s not even known for its great performances, however striking Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins are in this film. It’s not even known for its visual opulence; Hitchcock was much more visually grandiose in films like Notorious and Spellbound. Psycho is better known for its famously twisted story and, to use professorial terminology, mastery of visual storytelling. Psycho has long, long stretches that have no dialogue. Nothing is shown too explicitly (with the bold example of one or two famous scenes). The camera doesn’t bob and swoop. The photography was openly cheaper than Hitchcock’s “bigger” films (indeed, Hitchcock used the camera crew from his TV show rather than the crew from his feature films). And yet, we always know what is happening, how Marion Crane is feeling, and we can even intuit the mysterious motivations of Norman Bates. We are on board the entire time. Psycho is an example of how pure filmmaking can easily and dramatically trump notions of cinematic volume. Psycho is trim and brisk and wonderfully, wonderfully twisted.

You know the story, right? A clerk named Marion (Leigh) steals $40,000 in cash from her boss. She elects, kind of on a whim, to skip town with the money in the hopes of marrying her sexy lunchtime sweetheart. As she flees town, she becomes increasingly nervous, and has soon caught the eye of a machine-like highway cop. Marion is very nervous, and decides to buy a new car to throw off the cop, only to find that the cop has witnessed the transaction. Wanting to get off the road, and trapped by a thunderstorm, Marion pulls into the Bates Motel, a near-abandoned dive run by Norman Bates. Marion, it turns out, is the only guest in the entire motel that night, and spends a good deal of time chatting with Norman. Norman is a nervous, nervous fellow who seems vaguely threatening, and who deflects all of Marion’s attempts to flirt with him. Marion takes a shower. Marion is suddenly and unexpectedly murdered in the shower by Norman’s as-yet unseen mother, who lives in the spook house next to the motel.

I have always kind of known the story of Psycho, so I can’t imagine the shock audiences must have felt when the film’s main character was killed off 35 minutes into the movie. This sort of narrative double-back –  this left turn, so to speak – flew (and still flies) into the face of storytelling convention so dramatically that no one could have possibly seen it coming. “The Shower Scene” has become part of pop culture parlance, so I’m not sure if any young audiences could be truly surprised anymore. But it’s easy to imagine the surprise the audiences in 1960 must have felt, and, heck, it’s one corker of a scene.

From there, Psycho shifts focus from Marion to Norman, and the increasing traffic of humanity that comes to his motel looking for the missing Marion, and the missing $40,000. Marion’s boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) and sister (Vera Miles) have hired an investigator (Martin Balsam) who also goes missing, and eventually they turn up at Bates Motel themselves. Norman’s mother managed to kill the investigator, and Norman will have a scrape with Sam before the film’s end. We never get a clear shot of Mrs. Bates’ face, however, seeing her in long shots and overhead shots and in silhouette.

We all know of the famous end twist as well: Once Norman is apprehended, it’s revealed that Norman’s mother has been dead for years, and that Norman, having suffered a psychological break, now dressed as his mother and speaks like her, and murders as her. This is all explained in what is easily Psycho’s weakest and least necessary scene, wherein a shrink explains to the audiences exactly what happened to Norman’s mind. Many film scholars are baffled as to how such a taut movie would end with such a cheap and long-winded ending. My theory is this: Hitchcock was attempting to, perhaps, keep the tone of Psycho closer to that of a TV show, even through the ending, up to and including the cheap and corny TV trope of the wise psychiatrist explaining it all. Hitchcock, I think, knew the audience didn’t need an explanation like that, but gave it anyway as a subtle form of TV satire. But I know other film scholars will argue with me on this point.

I mentioned that Psycho was not well-known for any of its showcase performances, but I’m actually not entirely accurate in that respect. Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates, the twitchy, boyish, unstable owner of the now-infamous Bates Motel, has become of the landmarks of Hollywood acting of the 1960s. In Perkins, we see the desperation, the instability, and a strange streak of suspicious innocence in Norman. One of the film’s final shots is a close-up of Norman’s face, only he is now cracked, wholly “Mother.” His dialogue is in voiceover. Perkins is a handsome chap with a penchant for killing birds, spying on nude ladies, and murdering people. With Perkins, we believe the killer wholly.

Pay attention to the filming of Psycho. You will not find too many virtuosic shots as in Vertigo, but you will find a refreshing efficiency. Single static shots held for a long time seem to ratchet up the tension way more than a montage or a flashback could have. We are so laser focused on a single character for so long, it makes it easy for us to live in her headspace, and it’s all the more shocking when she is violently killed. It may be that the intense look at Marion Crane primed our eyes to look at Norman Bates. Norman would not be such a compelling or memorable character if we were somehow introduced to him at the film’s beginning. It also helps that we have Bernard Hermann’s iconic score to keep the film pulled tight. An interesting bit of trivia: Hermann, already well-known by this point in his career, elected to write the score for Psycho entirely for strings. Would the score for Psycho had been better if Hermann used a full orchestra? I would say no.

While all of these things listed above make Psycho an undeniably great movie, it should also be pointed out that Psycho was something of an important movie. Psycho was made in the late 1950s, at a time when murders were not so intimate on screen, and shower scenes were relegated to cheap stage reels and exploitation movies. What Hitchcock did with Psycho was take the elements, the language, the content, and even the mood of trashy exploitation movies, and used his filmmaking acumen to make it into art. All of a sudden, it came into focus that it was not necessarily the content of a film that made it exploitation, but the attitude. Hitchcock was making an exploitation movie, but he was also making a great movie. This was something that could play in grindhouses, but was intended for the mainstream.

Indeed, the film was kind of packaged as a grindhouse experience. I mentioned that newspaper ads implored audiences not to give away the ending. Psycho also famously enforced a new seating policy for movie theaters that barred latecomers from entering. To remind you once again, in 1960, film schedules weren’t as regularly printed in newspapers; films were shown on a loop with B-features, trailers and cartoons, and people often came and went into movies as they pleased, often seeing films out of order. Hitchcock, in what pretty much amounts to a brilliant marketing gimmick, implored people to come at the very beginning and stay through to the end as he filmed his movie. It was Psycho that started to codify the notion of movie theater schedules.

But about that grindhouse content. Psycho wasn’t quite as raw as some of the gore flicks that sprang up around it; it would only be a few years before the gory glory days of Herschell Gordon Lewis, but it did show to otherwise “decent” audiences some of the edgier things that weren’t often seen in regular studio fare. A shower scene for one. Not only is there a scene wherein the busty Janet Leigh strips down, but Norman spies on her intently. This is not regular sexuality. This is a forcefully dirty version of sex. There’s not a lot of blood, but there is some, and the stabbing scene is one of the most famous in all of cinema. There are close-ups of kills, of corpses, and of unhealthy men getting off on voyeurism, all under the aegis of Universal Studios. Psycho is often credited, also, as the first film to ever show a flushing toilet on camera. Not that toilets themselves are an important footnote in the world of cinema, but Hitchcock was clearly trying to push on a few boundaries with it. In the now-famous and oddly playful trailer for Psycho (which I’ve referred to before) Alfred tromps around the Psycho set, and wanders into a few bathrooms.

I would perhaps even argue that Psycho was one of the first films to chip away and break down the wall between the good-dirty-fun of the exploitation circuit and the mainstream filmmaking world. Given that so many of today’s blockbusters are mining content from films that were once considered B-movie material, this is an important step. Think about the last action blockbuster you saw. In 1960, things like car chases, shootouts, sex scenes, and the criminal element could only be seen on the outskirts of town in the more unsavory theaters. Mainstream film more often resembled the so-called “prestige” pictures of today. Now you can see buckets of blood, explosions, and men carrying around their own limbs in Oscar-nominated Spielberg movies. Kiddie matinee material featuring superpowered men in tight costumes are now making billions. Did Psycho start all this? Perhaps it did.

There is a counterargument to Psycho, however, which came up in 1998. That year, famed indie filmmaker Gus Van Sant decided to remake Hitchcock’s Psycho with an all new cast, but using the exact same storyboard that Hitchcock used. It was a shot-for-shot remake, something that hadn’t been done before (with the one exception, perhaps, of Porky in Wackyland). The resulting 1998 film was… well, it was not well-received by critics or by audiences. What’s more, the film just didn’t have the same sort of impact as the 1960s version. It wasn’t just redundant, it was a failed experiment. I admire Van Sant greatly for trying it out, but it just didn’t work. The failure, however, may have revealed something vital about the film and about filmmaking in general; they have to, necessarily, be a product of their time. What Hitchcock called “pure cinema” wasn’t so pure 38 years later. Filmmaking trends has evolved, and the purity now had a new definition. We like to think that there is a kind of bold, pure version of film that is eternal and universal, but 1998’s Psycho may have proven that notion to be false.

But then, we go back to the 1960 version of Psycho, and it still plays. It’s still tense, it still holds us rapt, and it’s still a little bit shocking. A new film may not be able to hold us the way Psycho does, even if it’s identical. But Psycho was so awesome in itself, that all we need is the original. The next time you hear about a remake of any movie, think of the 1960 Psycho and how its purity remains, and how the purity could not – just could not – be translated into a modern idiom. It’s already fine.

So yes, Psycho is a great horror movie and a taut thriller, but it also broke ground in several vital ways. It changed a lot of what was considered to be acceptable in mainstream movies. It made sure you show up to movies on time. Consider this as well: Movie ads to this very day still cite it. How many times have we heard “It does for __________, what Psycho did for showers?”

Homework for the Week:

I’m going to ask you to watch the 1998 version of Psycho first. Did it work for you? Why or why not? Consider the notion of a film’s content. Do you think the original Psycho is better than its exploitation counterparts from the later 1950s? Why is it better? What makes certain content “exploitative” and what makes it “art?” Can you put a finger on the difference? Mood? Tone? Editing? How open is sexuality in movies from the late 1950s and early 1960s?

Follow Witney Seibold on Twitter at @WitneySeibold to hear his random musings and attempts at humor.