Movie: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)
by Joe Rubenstein
Joe Rubenstein: Greetings to you. Joe Rubenstein here, producer and host of Real Time 1960s. I want to thank you very much for joining me today, hoping you enjoy the second episode of this parallel universe of 60 years ago, where I document and reflect on the ‘60s, in real time, with both podcasts and our daily timeline, which I’m updating for you each and every day, with posts, photos, video of what happened exactly 60 years ago. And that timeline, along with all our podcasts, social media links, contact info, so you can reach me directly -- and please do, I would love to hear from you -- all that can be found on our website, www.realtime1960s.com.
Today’s topic: Psycho, a surprise smash hit 60 years ago for the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Now, this is a film that I’ve seen many times, and I also just finished a really good book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, by Stephen Rebello. There’s a link to that book in today’s episode notes, in case you’re interested. So, today’s podcast will be a combination of personal observations and fascinating facts, gleaned from that book and elsewhere, about this groundbreaking shocker. So, buckle up for Psycho, top ten thoughts -- right now. [Music]
All right, so, let’s set the stage. When Alfred Hitchcock purchased the rights to a new novel called Psycho in 1959, he was coming off two films, Vertigo in 1958, and North by Northwest in ’59, whose receptions displeased him, for various reasons -- especially Vertigo, which is often said to have been critically panned. It was not. There were some very positive reviews -- The New York Times, the L.A. Examiner -- but The New Yorker just hated it. Highbrow publications, at least in America, at that time, were generally very condescending toward Hitchcock, whereas highbrows in Europe tended to overpraise him. Variety magazine and the L.A. Times were lukewarm, so, mixed reaction to Vertigo.
But on a separate front, for whatever reason, Vertigo did not do well at the box office. Now, Hitchcock -- unfairly, I think -- blamed Jimmy Stewart’s age for this. Stewart was 50 at the time, and Hitchcock would never hire him again. But, whatever the reason, tepid audience response was very hurtful to Hitchcock, and not just financially. Vertigo was a very personal project for him. It’s unusually sincere, unusually passionate, and certainly one of his very best films.
His next film, North by Northwest, was a deliberate crowd-pleaser that critics loved, as did audiences. But Hitchcock felt -- and this may have been justified -- that MGM did not market North by Northwest properly, that they sold it short in favor of the massive epic, Ben-Hur -- which you can kind of understand. MGM had sunk over 15 million into Ben-Hur. That was a small fortune then. And the studio was in serious financial trouble. So, they needed big numbers, which they certainly got. But, years later, Hitchcock told an interviewer that he was told by MGM, back in 1959, to expect few, if any Oscar nominations for North by Northwest because the studio was going all in pushing Ben-Hur. And here, too, they were successful. Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards. That’s a record that remains, actually. It was later tied by Titanic and, I think, the last Lord of the Rings movie.
So, Ben-Hur totally cleaned up, and North by Northwest -- which, if you haven’t seen it, is probably Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining film -- did not. Three nominations -- Screenplay, Art Direction, and Editing -- but zero wins, which was an old story for Hitchcock, who, like Stanley Kubrick, would never receive a Best Director Oscar in his life. Rebecca, back in 1940, had won Best Picture, but that award goes to the producer, not the director. So, on the heels of Hitchcock’s disappointment with Vertigo’s reception, this total whiff at the Oscars also left a bad taste in his mouth.
That sets the stage for the first of my top ten thoughts on Psycho, which is: Alfred Hitchcock, who, by 1960, had directed dozens of thrillers, but never a film that could be placed squarely in the horror category, had a number of different motivations for choosing to film Psycho. First of all, he was wild about the idea of killing off Janet Leigh a third of the way into the film. Nothing pleased him more than playing with and then upending audience expectations. If you look at his interview with Dick Cavett, from 1972 -- it’s on YouTube -- it’s clear how much he enjoyed being a master manipulator. So, the shock of that shower murder -- which, to fully appreciate, I think, you have to have seen it back in 1960, in the theater, without knowing what was coming. I mean, if there’s one film from before my time that I’d most like to see with the original audience, this is definitely it.
Another major motivation, besides killing off Janet Leigh so early, was to make a different sort of killing: at the box office. And there, he certainly succeeded. He blew everyone’s expectations, including his own, sky high. North by Northwest made a good profit, pulling in 9.8 million, but Psycho just shredded box-office records all over the world and remains the most profitable black-and-white film ever made. By the end of its run, it grossed $50 million domestically, and just massive numbers in South America, Europe, especially England, where, despite getting universally destroyed by British critics, it was, if anything, more popular there than it was here. Now, certainly, the controversy surrounding the film’s violence, as well as its sexual frankness -- at least by contemporary standards -- helped, as did the brilliant marketing job -- to a large extent, masterminded by Hitchcock himself, but also based on the marketing of a French film, a psychological thriller released in 1955. We’ll get to that.
But, in 1960, only Ben-Hur made more money than Psycho in America. But the cost of Psycho, just over $800,000, was obviously miniscule by comparison. Charlton Heston alone was paid a quarter million to do Ben-Hur. Tony Perkins, on the other hand, was paid $40,000 to play Norman Bates. Janet Leigh, $20,000. Now, obviously, those two parts were much less involved than what Heston had to do in that almost-four-hour movie. Janet Leigh was only on set for three weeks. Heston was in Italy, shooting that film, for months. But, considering the quality of performance that Hitchcock got from those two, especially Perkins, that’s a steal.
Hitchcock, who came from a pretty poor -- or, at least, working-class background in East London, was the son of a grocer, and they lived in this one-room flat over the store. So, he always had his eye on the bottom line. And Psycho just set him up for life. In 1962, he would swap the rights to both the film and his TV series for 150,000 shares of MCA stock. MCA -- which no longer exists -- was originally a talent agency, but by 1962, it was this goliath media conglomerate. So, Hitchcock became the third-largest shareholder and an instant multimillionaire, which, in the 1960s, meant you were set for life.
But there was still one more motivation for Hitchcock, who, despite that kind of placid exterior, was a very competitive man. And by 1959, there had been quite a bit of recent history of prominent A-list directors taking on B-movie material, and having both commercial and critical success with it. Howard Hawks -- another great director who never won an Oscar -- produced The Thing from Another World in 1951, a sci-fi classic that was remade by John Carpenter 30 years later. So, that was a hit. Charles Laughton -- great British actor -- directed a film called The Night of the Hunter in 1955, starring Robert Mitchum as a minister-turned-serial killer. That was a big critical success. And, finally, Mervyn Leroy, who, like Hitchcock, had a long list of credits dating back to the 1920s, including I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, from 1932 -- if you’re interested in 20th century American history, that’s not only a compelling film, it’s a remarkable social document of the Great Depression. But more recently, in 1956, Mervyn LeRoy had directed The Bad Seed, about a psychopathic child -- another hit.
So, Hitchcock said, “Well, if these guys can do it, why can’t I? And, to keep costs down, I’ll shoot it in black and white. I’ll shoot it on set, no locations,” which are much more expensive. The only location, in Psycho, is the scene at California Charlie’s, the used-car dealer, which was filmed at an actual used-car lot in North Hollywood. But when Hitchcock, in 1959, heard about this nasty little book called Psycho, he devoured it in one sitting, and he then bought not only the rights, but as many copies of the physical book as he possibly could, to prevent the press and future audiences from knowing some of the plot twists of the story. So, these were the primary motivations for Hitchcock: shocking the audience, making tons of money, and beating out his contemporaries at this brand-new game of taking, essentially, B-movie material and making it into a first-class film.
Okay, the second of my top-ten thoughts on Psycho -- I mentioned a French thriller, released in 1955, that influenced Hitchcock. The name of that film is Les Diaboliques, usually translated as The Fiends, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. And my second point is simple. There are a number of striking parallels, both in content and marketing, between Diaboliques -- which Hitchcock was certainly aware of. I found a New York Times article, from June of 1959, in which he said that his next film would be “in the Diaboliques genre.” And back in ’55, he’d actually tried and failed to purchase the rights to the novel on which it was based. But among the parallels between Diaboliques and Psycho -- and this isn’t a criticism, by the way. Hitchcock certainly did not recreate Diaboliques in whole cloth. If you look at them, side by side, there are critical differences along with the parallels. So, there’s no question of plagiarism by Hitchcock. First of all, Psycho is not his screenplay; he didn’t write screenplays. And it’s based on a totally different book from Diaboliques, which -- I tried to read the book, Psycho, and could not get through it. It’s just so badly written.
But I did get far enough to learn that the shower scene, in the book, is actually more violent than the film. In the book, the Janet Leigh character is beheaded in the shower. But even the book doesn’t hold a candle to the man that it was based on, this total sicko named Ed Gein, whose activities I will not recount. Suffice to say, the cops in Wisconsin who discovered his handiwork, in November of 1957, were completely traumatized by what they found. But, even though the source material of Diaboliques and Psycho are different, Hitchcock was undoubtedly attracted to Psycho, at least in part, because he had seen the runaway success of Diaboliques, which, like Psycho, centers on a shocking murder -- of a man, in this case. His wife and mistress conspire to drown him in the bathtub after sedating him.
So, on top of that similarity -- brutal bathroom murders in each film -- here’s a few others. First of all, they’re both in black and white, in an era when color, at least in America, had become the norm. By the late ‘50s, various advancements in technology had drastically reduced the cost of shooting in color. So, by the mid-60s, black and white -- you see it, in films like The Pawnbroker or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but it was really only being used, at that point, as an artistic option. And in 1960, Hitchcock hadn’t made a black-and-white picture in 7 years. His last before Psycho was I Confess, back in ’53.
So, each film has a bathroom murder, each in black and white, and also, both have twist endings. And it’s funny. You don’t think of Psycho as having a twist ending because today, everyone knows Norman Bates is the murderer. That name has become practically synonymous with psycho killer. But again, audiences, in 1960, watching this film for the first time, did not know that he was the murderer until the end. They thought that Norman was the weak victim and reluctant accomplice of his murderous mother. Also, each film features a kind of hard-boiled, everyman-type private detective who investigates the murders. In Diaboliques, it’s Inspector Fichet. In Psycho, it’s Arbogast, played well by Martin Balsam. Actually, the scene where Martin Balsam grills an unraveling Anthony Perkins and catches him fibbing is one of the best-acted scenes, I think, in all of Hitchcock.
Another parallel, the killers in both films conceal their respective victims in bodies of water: the French corpse in a nasty-smelling swimming pool; and Norman, of course, stows his body in a swamp. Also, in Diaboliques, there’s an extended closeup of the bathtub drain, post-murder. Same kind of shot in Psycho. But also, in terms of tone, both films have characters leading lives of quiet desperation -- money worries, deadening jobs they dislike. I mean, no one’s exactly happy in Psycho. Marion and Sam are both frustrated by Sam’s crushing alimony. Marion’s officemate -- played by Hitchcock’s daughter -- it’s a comic role, but still, she takes tranquilizers. Norman --- well, Norman’s Norman.
But beyond plot and tone are the marketing campaigns. And, with Hitchcock -- and this was true of Stanley Kubrick as well -- the marketing campaigns were almost as much a part of the creative process as the films. So, with Diaboliques, the ads, in France, discouraged moviegoers from seeing the picture except from the beginning. And titles at the end of the film read, “Don’t be diabolical yourself. Don’t spoil the ending for your friends by telling them what you’ve just seen. On their behalf, thank you.”
So, Hitchcock was very impressed by this and, essentially, put together a more extreme version of the same campaign. Every ad for Psycho stressed that no one would be admitted to the theater after the start. But in this case, it wasn’t a discouragement, as with the French film. Hitchcock insisted that theater owners follow this decree. And he enforced it with a contract with any theater that booked the film. He also sent them an elaborate sales manual called “The Care and Handling of Psycho,” which had a number of other suggestions, and which included order forms for large lobby clocks, to remind audiences of the start times for each show. They were also sent five-foot-high, cardboard standees of Hitchcock’s likeness, to be used with various recorded messages that were also sent, addressed to both incoming and outgoing audiences -- reminding the former of the no-late-admission policy, and the latter not to reveal the ending, all of which built tremendous word of mouth.
He even instructed theaters how to show the film. He told them to close the house curtains over the screen after the end titles and keep the theater dark for 30 seconds so the film would be “indelibly engraved in the mind of the audience,” at which point, the house lights were to be brought up in a greenish hue and spotlights shined across the faces of the departing guests. I don’t know if they followed that decree. But these are some of the parallels between both the content and the marketing campaigns of Psycho and Diaboliques. And any time you can turn a film into a special event, make people feel like they’re in for not just a film, but a life experience, and then you can deliver on that promise, that right there is a recipe for a blockbuster. When I was a kid, the movie-slash-life-experience like that was Jaws. It doesn’t happen often, but if you can pull that off, it reaps huge rewards, especially if, like Hitchcock, you can put it together for, essentially, nickels and dimes.
Okay, next up in my top-ten thoughts on Psycho, number three -- Hitchcock really did his homework when preparing this film, especially by the standards of a low-budget shocker. And that’s no surprise. One of his goals, as I said, was to bring the skill set of a major director with decades of experience. Psycho was his 53rd director credit. And part of any director’s, really, any artist’s skill set, is attention to detail.
So, just a few examples. In preparation for the scene in which Janet Leigh trades in her car, Hitchcock hired someone to spend a day observing the style, manner, and dress of an actual used-car dealer in Santa Monica -- to make a close study of his sales techniques and catch-phrases, which were then added to the script. And Hitchcock, as I said, never wrote a screenplay. But he was constantly doing this, adding and subtracting bits, based on research.
He also became an amateur expert on both taxidermy -- the other hobby of Norman Bates -- and motels: rates, layouts, administration. He scoped out the likeliest route someone might take to go from Phoenix to California, the trip that Janet Leigh makes. The Bates Motel is in the fictional town of Fairvale, California, but it’s supposed to be, roughly, between L.A. and Fresno. So he had his crew trace that route and take pictures all along the way. And he had that same crew obtain shots of psychiatric detainment facilities in California. He sent a memo to the studio research department asking what the condition of a corpse would be that had been poisoned at age 40, embalmed, and buried; then, after two months, disinterred and kept in residence for ten years. That would be Mrs. Bates. The answer was provided by an instructor at a Los Angeles college of mortuary science. He said the corpse would be mummified, with brown, leatherlike skin over the bones. So, the makeup men ended up obtaining an actual human skull -- from where, I have no idea -- to which they applied rubber, and then colored that rubber.
Now, there’s at least one detail Hitchcock got wrong. After the film’s release, a doctor, an ophthalmologist, sent him a letter, telling him that Janet Leigh’s pupils, after she’s dead, would be dilated, not contracted -- which must have mortified him, he considered himself such an expert on murder and death. And he actually corrected that error 12 years later in Frenzy. That was his second-to-last film. A woman is strangled, and afterward, a closeup reveals that her pupils are dilated. They must have used some sort of eyedrops.
He also, by the way, got a hilarious letter from a classical-music lover. If you remember, at the end of the film, Vera Miles is touring the Bates mansion before she finally encounters what’s left of Mrs. Bates in the fruit cellar. She’s in Norman’s bedroom, which is creepily decorated like a child’s bedroom. And at one point, she picks up a record, which is revealed, in closeup, to be Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. So, this classical-music fan wrote to Hitchcock that he was deeply offended by this. He called it “a direct insult to the composer and a very poor attempt to prove that Beethoven’s music is good for lunatics only,” which I thought was funny. But I’m pretty sure this was not Hitchcock’s intention. I mean, there is a big funeral march in that symphony, so, in a scene just prior to the discovery of the dead mother, maybe that’s Hitchcock hinting at what’s to come. I’m just speculating. I couldn’t find any actual data on the choice of that symphony.
Okay, number four. The famous shower scene, perhaps more than any other scene in the history of film, convinced audiences that they had seen something which they had not -- namely, an explicitly grisly murder. Now, I re-watched this scene, which lasts 45 seconds, a couple of times this week, once in slow motion. Janet Leigh is stabbed eight times. And there’s not one shot, not a single shot, of a knife wound. There’s plenty of sonic evidence of the stabbing; that’s how I got the number eight. And there’s certainly blood, which was actually Bosco chocolate syrup. They tried ketchup, but the chocolate had a more blood-like density, and obviously, the color didn’t matter; it’s in black and white. But the body of Janet Leigh remains immaculate throughout that scene. And yet, many if not most audiences, as well as hardened critics, were convinced they’d seen something gory.
Now, there’s a tremendous amount of motion in that scene, especially by the standards of 1960. Seventy-eight camera setups, fifty-two cuts, for forty-five seconds of footage, which, for Hitchcock, is highly unusual. He never used that kind of quick cutting. No one did back then. We’re used to it now; but the average shot length, in 1960, was 5 or 6 seconds. Today, it’s barely two. So, again, this is not a gory scene. Now, there is one very brief shot of the tip of the knife, not penetrating but pressed up against Janet Leigh’s abdomen. And it’s so quick, you can see why people thought that maybe they’d seen someone stabbed. But all they did was color the tip of the knife with fake blood, press the tip against Janet Leigh’s belly button, pull it back, and then reverse the film. But no, there are no special effects, a la David Cronenberg -- who seems to specialize in wounds -- that show an actual knife wound.
But the reviewer for Time magazine called this scene “one of the messiest, most nauseating murders ever filmed. At close range, the camera watches every twitch, gurgle, convulsion, and hemorrhage in the process by which a living human becomes a corpse” -- which is really not an accurate representation, at all, of what that scene either looks like or feels like. I mean, I didn’t find that scene nauseating at all. Devastating, yes, but not nauseating. When I first saw Psycho, I must have been 9 or 10 years old. Granted, it was on TV, but the shower scene didn’t scare me at all. First of all, you have ample warning that something’s about to happen, with that dark silhouette looming behind the shower curtain. So, you’re kind of able to steel yourself for what’s to come. And second of all, again, it’s not explicitly disgusting. Actually, the aftermath, the way that Hitchcock slows the tempo with that amazing music and gives us that remarkable dissolve, from the bathtub drain to Janet Leigh’s eye, is really quite beautiful. Now, the scene in the fruit cellar, which we’ll get to, that did scare me as a kid; but the shower scene did not.
Okay, next on my top-ten list of Psycho observations: after the shower scene, the other two scary scenes in the film -- the murder of Martin Balsam inside the Bates Mansion, and the reveal, in the fruit cellar, of the skeleton -- both of these scenes contain elements that are physically impossible. The murder of Balsam, Detective Arbogast; that’s a scene people rave about. Why, I have no idea. To me, it’s the clumsiest sequence in the entire film and one of the very few missteps. Balsam walks slowly up the stairs -- and try to picture yourself doing this, to fully appreciate how ludicrous what follows is. And I do think this is valid criticism because Psycho, you know, it’s not The Exorcist. It’s not a supernatural horror film with a built-in fantasy element. It’s a film, loosely based on a real person, where everything’s supposed to be plausible. So again, you’re walking up a long, narrow flight of stairs. You almost reach the top. But then, a dress-wearing maniac in a wig rushes you very strongly and stabs you in the face. We never actually see the stab, but there’s a clear gash on Balsam’s face. So, top of the stairs, stabbed in the face. What now?
So, the two likeliest next moves, in my view, are: number one, you lose your footing, fall a step or two, and remain kind of huddled, in a fetal position, on the staircase, maybe clutching the banister while you’re being stabbed to death; or number two, you tumble all the way down, and you’re killed at the foot of the stairs. This is, obviously, assuming you can’t fight off your attacker, which the script, unfortunately, mandates. But these, to me, seem like the only two possible options. But instead, what we see is Balsam -- without looking down, mind you -- essentially fast-walk backwards down this long, narrow flight of stairs, without using the banister and without falling, until he reaches the very bottom. Try that sometime. And leave the face-stabbing out; I’ll give you that. Just do that one thing: jog backwards all the way down a long, narrow flight of stairs, without looking down or using a banister. Then, after you’ve recovered from your concussion, get back to me. It looks preposterous; and that’s because it is.
Now, the scene is partially redeemed by, first of all -- that slow ascent is accompanied by some really good music, as is the whole film. I also like the overhead shot which prevents the audience from discovering the identity of the killer. And then, finally, as he’s being finished off, Balsam does deliver a really good, guttural scream. It’s brief, but he really gets his chest voice into it and conveys that excruciating pain. But that post-face-stab-flailing-backwards-no-look trot down the stairs is just ridiculous.
Now, the third scary scene, to me, the only scary scene, is when Vera Miles -- who, by the way, you may notice her hair looks substantially different in this film from other films. That’s because it’s not hers. Vera Miles wore a wig on Psycho because she’d recently shaved her head for her previous film, Five Branded Women, where she played a Yugoslav, during World War II, who’s falsely accused of consorting with a Nazi, for which she has her head shaved. You can actually fake that; you can fake a shaved head. Robert De Niro did it in Taxi Driver. But I guess they wanted to go the extra mile. Anyway, Vera Miles discovers Mrs. Bates, initially, facing away from her and the viewer, seated in a four-legged chair. Now, here’s the impossibility. Miles approaches and briefly touches the corpse’s right shoulder. It’s a light touch lasting no more than one second, at which point, the corpse slowly spins around with the aid of exactly no one. Even if it was a revolving chair, this would be impossible, obviously. Chairs do not spin by themselves. So, this is even more implausible than the Balsam thing, which, look -- maybe, if you scoured the ends of the Earth, you made a lifetime project of finding some freakishly talented, Olympic-level athlete with just an unbelievable sense of balance who could run backwards down the stairs after being stabbed in the face, you could find someone. It’s unlikely, but I guess stranger things have happened, although very few. Now, I will say that, unlike the Balsam thing, this fruit-cellar sequence is very effective from a visual standpoint. That slow revolution, impossible as it is, nicely draws out the tension. But simply put, corpses on four-legged chairs don’t spin around without any help. They don’t spin at all.
Now, there’s one final, minor goof I’ve never heard anyone mention, which I also believe to be physically impossible. In the shower scene, if you remember, Janet Leigh, seated in the shower after being stabbed eight times, and with the life rapidly draining out of her, somehow finds the strength to reach out and get a firm grip the shower curtain, which we then see, in closeup, tear entirely loose from the rod. Try that on your own shower, again, no stabbing, fully alive. You can even stand up. I think you’ll find that it takes a bit of force. And Janet Leigh -- who looks to weigh no more than 110, 115 pounds in this film -- seated and having suffered massive trauma and blood loss, I don’t see her even having the strength to reach out at all. But even if she could, somehow, grab that curtain, it’s not like rigor mortis has set in, which could maybe explain that vise-like grip. Again, it’s a nice visual image. So, as with the revolving, four-legged chair, Hitchcock probably said, “You know what? A compelling visual here trumps plausibility. And the audience is going to be so freaked out, they’ll probably be that much more inclined to suspend disbelief.” But the Balsam thing, to me, sticks out like a sore thumb, and I think it should have been filmed very differently.
Okay, point number six. Up until the final reveal, when Norman Bates is outed as the murderer -- and even after that, since we learn that he’s severely mentally ill, and maybe not entirely responsible for his actions -- Norman, with the possible exception of Marion, is, to me, the most sympathetic character in the film. Yes, we do see him covering up a murder in plain sight. But again, original viewers thought he was covering up for his mother, and in his mind, he was. So, even there, what he’s doing is wrong, obviously, but not entirely unsympathetic.
But Hitchcock seems to go out of his way to make the various functionaries in this film pretty unpleasant. The Balsam character, as presented, is aggressive and kind of sarcastic to Vera Miles, who’s very concerned about her missing sister, who ends up being dead. Also, that oily, misogynistic car salesman leaves a bad taste in the mouth. That crude real-estate buyer in the cowboy hat, who sexually harasses Janet Leigh in the office -- her officemate calls it flirting, but by today’s standards, that’s sexual harassment. The cop who questions Janet Leigh about sleeping in her car on the side of the road, he has these kind of disturbing, pitch-black sunglasses that make him look like a bug. There’s actually some dark humor in that scene that I noticed for the first time on this last viewing. The cop is questioning her, and he says, “There are plenty of motels in this area. You should have -- I mean, just to be safe,” which, considering her eventual fate at a motel, is pretty funny.
So, after dealing with all these people, not so much Balsam, whom she never meets, but the rest of them, Norman comes off not as a monster but almost as a rescuer of sorts, with a good deal more empathy and general good humor than anyone else we’ve encountered. But here, give all the credit to Anthony Perkins, who delivers, probably, the best performance of his career and as good as any in Hitchcock’s entire output, just an incredibly naturalistic job of acting. And that segue from that innocent, aw-shucks attitude to seething anger and back during that scene where Janet Leigh suggests that, maybe, he should put his mother “someplace” -- namely an institution -- it’s very controlled, very effective. It was also Perkins’s idea to have Norman constantly munching on Halloween candy. That’s a nice touch. And that stammer was his idea as well, which also elicits sympathy from the audience. It’s just a brilliant, subtle performance, and as I said, that scene with Martin Balsam -- another first-rate New York actor -- is just superb, timing, shadings, everything.
Okay, next on my list of top-ten thoughts, more of an opinion, but something I feel very strongly about: at least a third of the credit for the success of this film -- I’m tempted to say half; so let’s split the difference, 42 percent credit -- goes to the composer, Bernard Herrmann, who delivered, time and time again, for Hitchcock, 7 films in all. But his score to Psycho goes well beyond that famous stabbing motif for the shower scene. When it comes to setting mood, that sense of dread, of pervading doom, it really doesn’t get much better than this. Now, as I’m sure you know, Psycho was the first Hollywood film where the music is played exclusively by strings. Herrmann called it a “black-and-white score,” no brass, no winds, no percussion. And the strings, with the exception of that stabbing scene, are muted, which gives them that kind of fragile, glassy quality.
But Hitchcock, absolutely, knew how good and how important this score was to the film. He was a very parsimonious man with both praise and money, but after Psycho, he did something that was, basically, unheard of for him. He doubled Herrmann’s salary. That’s how pleased he was. Hitchcock and Herrmann had a really good relationship until their falling-out over Hitchcock’s absolute worst film, Torn Curtain, of 1966. Hitchcock was being pressured by Universal for a more pop-jazz score, which, if you’ve had the misfortune to see Torn Curtain, it’s a Cold-War drama set in East Germany, okay? Pop-jazz? Really? But Hitchcock was kind of vulnerable to that pressure because he saw how fast things were moving in the culture, in the ‘60s, and he was very worried about becoming old-fashioned. So he actually did hire Bernard Herrmann to write that kind of score. Herrmann accepted but then thought better of it, and on his own, wrote his own style of orchestral score. He and Hitchcock argued about it; and then, Herrmann was fired. And that was the end of that relationship. They never worked together again. But if you go on Spotify, you can hear a recording of the unused Bernard Herrmann score for Torn Curtain.
One last point on the score to Psycho. Hitchcock and Herrmann each had a bad idea that the other corrected. Hitchcock, originally, wanted no music for the shower scene, which is crazy. You can see it like that on YouTube, without a score. It’s terrible. But somehow, Hitchcock felt that the absence of music there would make the murder more personal. But Herrmann rightly objected. He wrote that famous stabbing cue; and the rest is history. But Hitchcock returned the favor, with that scene in the fruit cellar. If you remember, Norman comes rushing in, wearing the dress and the wig and making those crazy faces, and once again, you hear that stabbing motif, right? That was not originally there. Herrmann wrote just a climactic type of musical cue without that screeching reference. But Hitchcock said, “No, you want that stabbing music here, because that connects it to the previous two murders.” And that, too, was the correct decision. But again, Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to this film really can’t be overstated.
And that leads to my next point about Psycho, number nine, which is -- and you’ll never hear me say anything more true -- the Academy Awards are a joke. Because get this: Bernard Herrmann was not even nominated, not nominated for that masterpiece of a score. Anthony Perkins not nominated. The two biggest contributors to this groundbreaking blockbuster, other than Hitchcock himself, were not even remotely acknowledged by these terrible people. Now, there were a few nominations for the film, but as with North by Northwest, no wins. For Best Director, Hitchcock was beaten out by Billy Wilder, for The Apartment; really good film. But The Apartment won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Now, I have basically no problem with Best Picture or Best Screenplay for The Apartment. In fact, I would have voted that way myself. But I do think that Hitchcock’s direction should’ve gotten the nod. I mean, the direction is fine in The Apartment, but Wilder had already won Best Director for The Lost Weekend in 1945. Hitchcock had been snubbed for decades, and frankly, had made a number of films better than The Lost Weekend, which does not date well. So, I definitely think that he should have won Best Director in 1960. Now, Janet Leigh was nominated for Supporting Actress, but she was beaten by Shirley Jones in the totally forgettable Elmer Gantry. The cinematographer for Psycho, he should’ve won too. John L. Russell lost to Sons and Lovers -- again, totally forgettable, and like Elmer Gantry, based on a famous novel, so had the kind of highbrow pretensions that the Academy loves. But the two biggest crimes -- far worse than anything Norman Bates ever did -- are the lack of even the slightest acknowledgement of Anthony Perkins and Bernard Herrmann’s work on Psycho. I really can’t heap enough scorn on the Academy; just idiots, imbeciles, cretins, morons, dum-duh-dum-dum-dumb.
Which brings me to my tenth and final point on Psycho -- despite the fact that the movie was toned down from the book and the book was massively toned down from the actual psycho who inspired it, Psycho, the film, pushed a number of boundaries, and perhaps more than any other film released in the first year of the ‘60s, was an indicator of trends to come not just in terms of violence either. Hitchcock really enjoyed pushing sexual boundaries as well. As you probably know, there was a set of rules in Hollywood called “The Hays Code,” which was strictly enforced from 1934 until about 1968 or so. It was actually adopted in 1930, but was not initially enforced, which is why Hollywood films, prior to 1934, can be surprisingly frank about sex; and these are called “pre-Code” movies. But starting in ‘34, scenes of passion faced major restrictions, with movie kisses limited to mere seconds.
But Hitchcock, when he was filming Notorious in 1946, decided to circumvent this rule by cleverly filming Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman exchange an extended series of interrupted kisses. So, each kiss was brief enough to meet the Code, but the entire scene is, like, three minutes. So, he beat that rule. And then, with North by Northwest, there’s that famous final shot where you have, again, Cary Grant, this time with Eva Marie Saint. They’re on a train embracing, and then he cuts to the final shot, this hilarious visual pun on sex, a shot of the train entering a tunnel at a very high rate of speed. Somehow, the censors missed that; or maybe, they were just so amused, they kept it. But, again, it doesn’t actually break any rules.
But in Psycho, right from the get-go, you have a highly charged sexual scene: Janet Leigh, with no top, just a bra, and John Gavin, shirtless. And the former is something you didn’t really see in the 1950s. I’m sort of racking my brain right now, because I do watch a lot of old movies, and honestly, I can’t think of a single American film, prior to Psycho, in which a woman is wearing just a bra. But either way, it’s abundantly clear, in this opening scene, that these two unmarried characters have just had sex. There’s no other option. And it’s actually a very well-directed scene, despite John Gavin’s massive deficiencies as an actor. Hitchcock’s called him “the stiff” behind his back, and that’s exactly what he was. It’s weird. Gavin was in three major films in a two-year period, ’59 and ’60: Imitation of Life, Psycho, and then Spartacus. And then he just kind of faded into oblivion, deservedly so. But that image, Janet Leigh in a bra, was used in the film’s ad campaign.
So that’s one subversive element. Another is the fact that a toilet is shown, which is really kind of an odd piece of trivia, but it’s true. If you were an alien from outer space, studying our species from afar, exclusively through films prior to Psycho, you would have no indication that human beings eliminate waste. So, this was both the first toilet seen and the first audible flush in the history of cinema.
And then, there’s the cross-dressing, which actually gave Hitchcock more trouble than anything with the censors -- not so much Perkins in a dress, but they demanded that the word “transvestite” be cut. If you remember, there’s a lengthy final scene where a psychiatrist -- played by another very good New York actor, Simon Oakland, who would appear in West Side Story the following year -- actually, in the original script for Psycho, the psychiatrist was female, which would’ve been interesting. The screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, wrote it that way because he was in therapy himself at the time, and his shrink was a woman. But Hitchcock wanted a man in that role. But the shrink explains this split in Norman’s psyche. And Hitchcock, by the way, did not like scenes like this, which is kind of funny because a number of his films, from Spellbound -- which he described, accurately, as “just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis” -- to Vertigo, to Psycho, to Marnie, his films are littered with these scenes of bogus psychiatry. But with Psycho, Hitchcock expressed concern to Stefano that the final scene, with the shrink, would be a “hat-grabber” -- that’s what he called it. Meaning that people would get bored, grab their hats, and run. Which, I’m pretty sure everyone stayed to the end. That scene, glib as it is, is kind of necessary to explain what the hell just happened and why.
But during the dialogue, someone asks the shrink if Norman was a transvestite. And the Production Code people thought transvestite was synonymous with homosexual, which it’s not. But overt homosexuality -- which you do see in pre-Code films -- was something else that did not exist, apparently, between 1934 and 1968. I think, Midnight Cowboy, from 1969, may have been the first mainstream film with overtly gay characters. But anyway, once it was clarified to these Code people that transvestite and homosexual were not synonymous, the word stayed.
But here’s a director, at 60 years of age and, by all accounts, a pretty repressed individual, pointing forward into the ‘60s -- toward the sexual revolution, and certainly, toward the relaxing of censorship. And this was conscious, by the way. Hitchcock was interviewed by Francois Truffaut in 1966. And he said, “One of the reasons I wanted to do the opening scene in that way, was that the audiences are changing. It seems to me that the straightforward kissing scene would be looked down at by the younger viewers; they’d feel it was silly. I know that they themselves behave as Gavin and Leigh did.” So, with this push forward into a more sexual cinema; with the violation of other taboos, including the revelation that human beings actually relieve themselves; and certainly, the greater assertiveness in the realm of violence, which would crescendo throughout the ‘60s, both in the world and with films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Dirty Dozen, and The Wild Bunch; it’s clear that Hitchcock, with Psycho, was certainly a pioneer. All right, a quick look at our next episode, right after this. [Music]
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Coming up, on Episode 3 of Real Time 1960s, we enter The Twilight Zone, probably my favorite TV show of the '60s, along with The Fugitive. But 1960 was a tremendous year for Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, in terms of consistent quality. And, after reviewing all 35 episodes released that year, I will explain to you why 3 of them are just a cut above the rest. So, that’s going to be a lot of fun.
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