Warning, spoilers

Psycho must represent one of the most abrupt changes of tone and style in the work of an auteur director.  Hitchcock’s 1959 North by Northwest is a glossy, technicolor spy thriller with amiable, old Hollywood A-lister Cary Grant. Psycho is a macabre psychosexual nightmare, a shocking blast of modernity which in cinema terms abruptly ended the safe and conservative world of the 1950s and its family-friendly blockbusters. Yet there is at least one fascinating link between the two movies. The crop dusting scene In NBNW is a clear portent of the shower scene in Psycho: a sudden, violent threat out of nowhere..

Psycho was conceived when Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Robertson showed him the recently published novella of the same name by Robert Bloch, featuring a cross dressing serial killer called Norman Bates. The character was based on the notorious rural murderer and necrophile Ed Gein.

Unsurprisingly, Paramount’s executives were horrified and refused to finance the film. So Hitchcock financed it himself and filmed cheaply in black & white, using his TV film crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The established lead actors accepted reduced fees. The film often has a gritty feel, low key and naturalistic. Almost an art movie, yet probably his most successful at the box office.

Bloch’s novella is a small and chilling masterpiece in its own right. But Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano made crucial changes. In particular, they restructured the narrative, putting Marion Crane centre stage in the early scenes. And they cast the young and charismatic Anthony Perkins as Bates; Bloch’s Bates is unprepossessing and middle-aged. This was a masterstroke, enabling Marion to have a plausible empathy with Norman and the audience to root for him against their better judgement. Perkins was brilliant, and the rest is indeed history. If Perkins could never quite escape his greatest role he at least eventually embraced it, in three sequels in the 1980s. All enjoyable in their own right, if far lesser works, the best being Richard Franklin’s Psycho 2.

For all the grimness, Stefano and Hitchcock also introduced a mischievous element of black comedy. Perkins’ famous one-liners feel almost designed for a retrospective audience, as if the film was immediately becoming it’s own myth. And then there are the stuffed birds. (How many Hitchcock films contain intimations of his next one? Discuss.)

Other than Perkins’s performance, and the halfway twist to end all twists (a six-foot-wide shower head was built to facilitate extreme close ups) there are two other elements of genius. Bernard Herrmann provided a marvellous score – his budget reduced, he wrote for strings only – and, shower scene aside, the music is all brooding anxiety and mounting unease. Then there is the supremely creepy House, which was based on a painting by Edward Hopper. Indeed, the whole extraordinary visual architecture of the gothic pile above, the functional motel below, embodies the twin worlds that Norman alternates between.

Janet Leigh is excellent as Marion and it, of course, became her defining role. Martin Balsam brings method acting realism to his portrayal of private detective Arbogast. But the film belongs most of all to Perkins’s tortured Norman, and to Hitchcock’s camera – Psycho is perhaps his purest piece of visual cinema – as it scrutinises Marion’s anxious, squinting face, driving through the night and blinding rain; or later, as it prowls though the morbid, chintzy, interior of that House, with skincrawling dread.

Even now the film feels uniquely disturbing. Though Hitchcock, ever the Showman, perhaps wishing to distance himself from such dark psychological elements, claimed the film was no more than an elaborate joke at our expense. Yet Mother and her hold over Norman have entered our modern mythology as dark comedy as much as grim horror, and the psychology of horror tapping into the taboo and transgressive, yet providing a kind of cathartic release was well understood by him.

If countless exploitation movies, in which vulnerable young women are attacked by knife-wielding maniacs, are Psycho’s unwanted legacy, it remains – largely for all its other elements – Hitchcock’s most singular achievement. (SF)

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  1. […] Sim has written an in-depth appreciation of Hitchcock’s proto-slasher, which I have placed on its own page. […]

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