Essential Film: Psycho

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles

Year: 1960

Perhaps no other motion picture has encouraged audiences to invest in locks for their bathroom doors more than Psycho.  Based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name, Alfred Hitchcock’s film version almost never came to fruition.  Regardless of the critical acclaim and huge box office grosses generated by Hitchcock’s various pre-Psycho films including Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest as well as his reputation as a masterful director, Paramount studios refused to back the project due to its dark and potentially controversial subject matter.

The project would have been scrapped completely, had Hitchcock not taken matters into his own hands.  He personally purchased the rights to Bloch’s novel for $9,500, declined his usual salary in lieu of a sixty percent ownership of the film negative, thereby convincing Paramount to distribute the film, which was swiftly shot at Universal Studios on a strict budget of less than a million dollars.

Production costs were kept low by the use of black and white film over colour, while star Janet Leigh, who plays the ill fated Marion Crane, agreed to appear in the film for a quarter of her usual fee.  The director’s decision to hire the crew of his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents for the film may have led to speculation that the final product would be subpar and unworthy of cinematic release, but this could not have been more wrong.  Despite being filmed in under three months on a low budget – by Hollywood standards – Psycho emerged as an innovative, daring film, broke the Hollywood mould, and changed cinema forever.

The score, composed by Hitchcock regular Bernard Herrmann, sets the tone immediately.  Jarring and tinged with suspense, the opening credits create an underlying dread before the action even begins.  On the surface, as is the case with many innovative films, Psycho appears familiar.  Hitchcock planned for the look of the film to be as normal as possible.  Marion Crane dresses in ordinary clothes modelled on a real girl whom Hitchcock saw on the street, while the settings – the small town motel owned by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the real estate office where Marion works – are everyday and almost seem blandly commonplace.  However, any comforting sense of predictability soon fades as Hitchcock makes it clear that this cinematic enclosure is not safe: either for its characters or indeed for the audience.

Modern audiences may view the film as something they have already seen before, perhaps due to the various spoofs, parodies and shameless rip-offs which the film precipitated.  This is not the case.  Shocking to audiences at the time, the film still has the power to scare.  The harsh strings of Herrmann’s infamous shower scene music, the pathos in Perkins’ wonderfully unhinged performance, the shadowy cinematography and multitude of twists and turns all combine to make Psycho an experience unlikely to be forgotten.

By David Rush

(Originally published in Freshers’ Edition, September 2012)} else {