In the annals of movie history there are names that inspire adoration, respect and reverence. Be it actors, directors or films, there are certain names that strike in such a profoundly iconic fashion. There are films that also set the senses of the ardent horror fan a-tingling. Dear reader, I open this piece with two especially notable names, Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho.
It was a film that appeared toward the end of a most noteworthy and lengthy Hollywood career for Hitchcock as a director. Widely regarded as one of the best of Hitchcock’s considerable output, Psycho is also one of the greatest thrillers of all time. Hitchcock put out some truly great films in his career, The 39 Steps, Rebecca, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, I could go on. For myself personally, Psycho is the work of a master at the height of his game.
For the uninitiated: Norman Bates is a mild-mannered loner who runs The Bates Motel for his elderly mother. A seemingly ordinary everyman, and no real concern to the world, right? In actuality, Norman has psychotic impulses that have as strong a hold on his behaviour as his mother has on his psyche. One day, Marion Crane, a woman on the run after embezzling a large sum of money calls by the motel. The rest, as they say, is cinematic history.
Psycho: Genesis of A Masterpiece
Adapted from the 1959 Robert Bloch novel, Psycho had previously been rejected by Paramount pictures. Some time after the initials pitches, Hitchcock was presented with the book by his assistant. Seeing promise in the novels potential as a movie, he bought up the rights for a song at $9,500. With his acquisition in hand, Hitchcock ordered his assistant to buy up as many copies of the novel as possible. His intention was to maintain the integrity of the novel’s fantastic twist.
Hitchcock first of all had to convince Paramount to put their backing behind Psycho, a film they saw little promise in. Reticent in financing the shaky project, outright refused to give Hitchcock his usual filming budget. In response to this, Hitchcock proposed to film in black and white, personally fund the picture and use his own production company. All he demanded was a 60% stake in the films box office earnings in lieu of his usual directors few. In hindsight, a master stroke of negotiation on Hitchcock’s part. Paramount accepted the offer and Psycho was green-lit for production.
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We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes
Psycho without doubt set new standards of acceptance for the portrayal of violence in cinema. Before Psycho, onscreen violence seldom felt as immediate or raw in its delivery. Norman Bates’ victim is not a sympathetic one. Marion Crane is a thief who arguably courts fate in her actions which lead her to The Bates Motel. When a victim is nefarious or of a morally ambiguous nature, it becomes easier for an audience to stomach violence against them. That’s not to say it’s any more right but it allows the audience to draw upon their own moral compass in their acceptance of Norman’s actions.
In its portrayal of violence, criminality and sexual behaviour, Psycho not only broke taboos, it shattered them. I would say Psycho is perhaps the earliest example of a slasher movie in these respects. It set the standard and invented the tropes of the forthcoming genre.
The Production Code
For obvious reasons, Psycho was a film that courted more than its fair share of controversy. The Motion Picture Production Code was an archaic set of moral guidelines in place for the industry at that time. The code, established in 1930, dictated what was acceptable to be depicted in motion pictures. Use of violence, sexual activity and profanity were subjugated to protect the sensibilities of the viewing public at the expense of stifling creative freedom in the movie industry.
Hitchcock flouted numerous points of the production code in making Psycho. Censors took exception with the sexual activity between Marion Crane and Sam Loomis out of wedlock, Norman’s cross-dressing and a possible insinuation of transvestism or trans-sexuality. Along with the obvious exceptions to the films violence, perhaps the point that really hammered home the ridiculousness of the code was their issue with Marion flushing a toilet. Yes, Due to flushing note paper, the censors upholding the code took exception again. The production code, ridiculous and outdated, was history some 8 years later.
Following In The Footsteps of Psycho
Psycho made a lasting and important impact on modern cinema in numerous ways following its release. It’s use of violent imagery certainly paved the way for other such films to push the envelope. Without Psycho we may never have seen the brutality of Night of the Living Dead or Suspiria for example. Psycho is the precursor to the entire slasher genre. No Psycho, no Halloween, no Scream, or Friday the 13th. The slasher genre owes a colossal debt to Psycho and could very well have not existed without it.
The cultural impact of Psycho is something that cannot be discounted also. Many genres of film have referenced Psycho over the years. The likes of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Mel Brook’s High Anxiety and Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure- they all tipped their hat to the shower scene. even Police Academy 3 couldn’t help but have a stab. I think that these cases of influence and reference really do illustrate just how ingrained in the public psyche Psycho is now. We have only to hear high-pitched violin stabs to start emulating a knife in our hand with a stabbing motion. When that happens, everyone knows what you’re imitating.
And to think, Paramount Pictures couldn’t see promise in Psycho. If it hadn’t been for the chutzpah of Alfred Hitchcock, the cinematic landscape of today could have been a very different place indeed.
When did you first see Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? Did it change you forever? Let us know in the comments below, on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!