Psycho at 60
On the Unimonster’s short list of great filmmakers, there are several who wouldn’t be considered household names; a few who not even dedicated movie fans might recognize. Much of this can be traced to my love of Exploitation film; I much prefer filmmakers who can make an entertaining, profitable movie for what a major motion picture spends for craft services over some film school graduate who makes “art” that gets seen by 12 people. If given a choice between Harry Novak and Martin Scorsese, I’ll take Harry, every time.
But there are a few names on my list that everyone should recognize. Akira Kurosawa, whose Seven Samurai is one of the greatest films ever made, in this Unimonster’s not-so-humble opinion. Mario Bava, who is, almost single-handedly, responsible for my love of Italian Gialli. John Ford, the greatest American director ever. And at the top of the list is Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, arguably the greatest filmmaker ever to thread film into a camera.
If I were to compile a list of 100 classic movies that every cinephile must see (and I have, both compiled the list and seen every film on it), it would be replete with the Master’s work. There’s 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, perhaps my favorite Hitchcock film. Rope, from 1948, which was a technically innovative film, as well as marking the start of the director’s collaboration with Jimmy Stewart, who would go on to play the lead in two of Hitchcock’s most memorable films—1954’s Rear Window, his most brilliant technical achievement, and 1958’s Vertigo, one of the director’s best mysteries. 1959 brought North by Northwest, one of Hitchcock’s most critically acclaimed films. And on September 8, 1960, a film opened nationally that would soon be recognized as Hitchcock’s definitive masterpiece—Psycho.
Based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, which was inspired by real-life Wisconsin ghoul Ed Gein, the film opens with a man and woman finishing an afternoon tryst in a cheap hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), though obviously in love, are having an argument. She’s tired of meeting him in tawdry rooms that charge by the hour. She wants him to marry her. Though Loomis isn’t opposed to the idea of marrying her, he feels as though he’s in no financial position to do so. In debt, and paying alimony to an ex-wife, he believes that marrying him would only provide Marion a life of poverty. In the end, nothing changes, and she leaves him to head back to the real estate office where she works.
Shortly afterward, her employer returns to the office, along with a wealthy client who’s buying a piece of property for his daughter as a wedding gift. He lays down a pile of cash—$40,000 worth—and an idea forms in Marion’s mind. When her employer asks her to go to the bank and place the cash in the safe deposit box, then take off for the weekend, the idea becomes a plan, and Marion is soon on the run, with the $40,000 in her purse.
Marion’s desperate bid for riches begins to unravel before she can leave the Phoenix city limits. As she sits at a stoplight as she is heading out of town, her employer crosses the street in front of her car. A look of recognition and confusion appears on his face as their eyes meet, and she hurriedly drives on as soon as the light changes. From that moment on, Marion is a marked woman, as her guilt places suspicion in the minds of everyone she encounters. Hitchcock expertly builds the tension as, seemingly at each turn in the road, Marion’s nervous, furtive actions betray her to others. After two days on the road to Fairvale, California, where Sam Loomis lives, she finds herself driving at night, in a raging thunderstorm. Mindful of the warning of a State trooper who had cautioned her against sleeping on the side to the road that very morning, Marion pulls of a side road into the parking lot of the Bates motel.
After she checks in, the owner, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), fixes her a sandwich, and they sit in the office parlor chatting as she eats her supper. As he shares the details of his complicated relationship with his invalid mother, Marion realizes that she’s as trapped by her circumstances as Norman is by his. Though Norman may be unable or unwilling to alter his situation, she knows that she still has a chance to correct her mistake. She decides to return to Phoenix and face up to her actions.
It’s at this point that what had begun as your average, everyday Hitchcock mystery, perhaps an overachieving episode of his television series, transforms into the extraordinary as the tension that has built up is quickly drained away, as Marion settles in for a relaxing shower. Without warning, someone enters the bathroom, and in the space of forty-five seconds, comprised of seventy-eight separate editing cuts, Marion Crane lies bleeding on the cold tile floor, and her part in the film is done.
After twenty minutes of setting up the entire plot of Janet Leigh’s character stealing the money and her desperate flight across the southwest, Hitchcock completely shocks his audience with the brutal, seemingly random murder of the star of the movie. So determined was he to preserve the film’s shocking twists that he went to exceptional measures to keep them secret. He tasked his assistant, Peggy Richardson, the person who had brought the novel to his attention, to buy up all existing copies of it. He handled all promotional appearances himself, to strictly control what information was given out to the press. He even went so far as to require all theaters exhibiting the film to institute a “no late admittance” policy.
Whether or not such measures were necessary is hard to say. What is certain is that the same level of secrecy would be impossible to achieve today. It is also certain that, with Psycho, Hitchcock transformed Horror, by making the monster just an ordinary man. Not a vampire, not a werewolf—the owner of a roadside motel, just like millions of us have stayed in, before and since. Horror was no longer something that happened in gothic castles in a bygone age, or through the evil machinations of mad scientists. Horror could happen to anyone, anywhere. Even to a beautiful young embezzler, in a motel in Southern California.
Sixty years ago this week, Psycho debuted across the country—and Horror’s modern age began, thanks to the greatest director to ever pick up a camera.
Creature Feature © D. Dyszel 2020
Dick Dyszel - Voice Actor