Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
Since I was thirteen years old I wanted to be a film director. I loved movies and that summer 1989 showing of Tim Burton’s Batman broke open that idea in my mind. I haunted all the video stores in Tucson, played with my dad’s video camera, and prepared. In 1994 I went to New York University to attend the Tisch School of the Arts Film Program. It was all happening. I was on my way. I was eighteen years old.
Psycho (1960) contains maybe the biggest bait-and-switch of any American studio film but to that point: a long, protracted beginning that builds the character of Marion Crane and her motivations. We learn about this young woman, the man she loves, and his debts and obligations. We see her impulsively steal $40,000 (rough $326,000 in 2016 dollars) and embark on a trip to join her boyfriend. Slowly the tension builds as a policeman is suspicious and she buys a car to throw him off the scent. These scenes are slow-paced yet riveting, a combination of Hitchcock’s TV show and film noir. Voices play like a Greek chorus in Marion’s head as she imagines the consequences while the desert unfolds behind her.
Finally a rainstorm drives her to a motel where she meets a quirky owner, someone trapped in a box of his own making. His sad plight inspires her: she’s going to go back and turn the money in. We see her figuring out how much she’d have to pay back, then taking a shower before turning in.
And that’s it. Her story is over when she steps into that shower and “Mother” enters the bathroom. The film is half over, just under fifty minutes done and the leading actress, the well-known wife of Tony Curtis, is gone. Audiences had never seen anything like it.
Psycho is still a remarkable, cold, and chaotic work. There is no happy ending here, no embrace that makes it all okay. Coming after the wildly cheeky ending of North by Northwest, Hitchcock’s ultimate wrong-man Hollywood fantasy, Psycho is shockingly grim. It’s the anti-North by Northwest and an incredible turnaround from Hitchcock that echoes the end of his beloved Vertigo more than anything else. Despite Psycho’s huge profile and box-office success, it might be one of his most unique films.
I loved film school. I devoured the required classes and bluffed my way into an advanced Hitchcock seminar. I ate, drank, and breathed movies. All my friendships revolved around movies too. We talked endlessly about directors, what kinds of movies we would make, and discussed the perennial benchmarks: Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 26 years old. Jim Jarmusch (an NYU album) made Permanent Vacation when he was 27. Martin Scorsese (also NYU) made Who’s That Knocking at my Door when he was 25. Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi when he was 24. And on and on. These were who we held up, who we looked up to. Everyone in my class was 21 or 22 when we graduated and we were going to conquer the world.
It was 1959 and the movie industry was rapidly changing. In an era of cheap horror from people like William Castle & Roger Corman, and foreign upstarts like Henri-Georges Clouzot, Hitchcock wanted to show what would happened if a “real” director tackled the same subject matter. Many others would follow his example, making films like William Wyler’s The Collector or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.
Yet a desire to show these kids how it was done is only a piece of the story. After the monumental success of North by Northwest (zing!), Hitchcock didn’t know how to top himself. After months of searching he came across the book Psycho by Robert Bloch and bought the rights anonymously. When no studio wanted to make a movie full of murder and men dressed as women, Hitchcock took a huge step. Reports I’ve read vary on the details, but the accepted account seems to be that Hitchcock financed Psycho himself, waiving his own director’s fee in exchange for 60% of the gross. Paramount studio heads figured they had nothing to lose and went for it, giving Hitchcock complete control and the ability to shoot by himself on the Universal backlot that he used for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The total budget was $800,000.
Some accounts attempt to frame this as a do-or-die proposition, with the clumsy 2012 biopic Hitchcock making a big deal of this point. The film even goes so far as to claim that Hitchcock staked his personal fortune on the film, and would be out on the street if it failed.
This was a gamble for Hitchcock, no question, and yet another unprecedented move from a man who built a career on them. But I highly doubt it was that dire for him. In 1960 the Hitchcocks owned at least two houses (maybe three) and Hitchcock was guaranteed $25,000 per episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, at a time when TV series ran for 36-40 episodes per season. The point being that in one season alone, Hitchcock could expect to make $900,000 (yes before taxes and agent fees, but still). Funding Psycho by himself was less a high-stakes gamble than a challenge to himself, to see if he could make the movie that cheaply. Fed up with the big budgets of films like North by Northwest and star salaries, Hitchcock went small for Psycho. The result was the most wildly profitable venture of his career.
I graduated from NYU in 1998 and no one handed me a directing job. I had a film that had done well in a NYU film festival, but nothing came of it. I didn’t know how to get anything started, and I didn’t have a script. So I took a job renting film-specific audio equipment to movie and TV productions. I wrote at night and on the weekends. I wrote a few terrible screenplays, one of which I got to a reader at Miramax through a friend of a friend. Her comments were…constructive, to be charitable. Meanwhile I was trying to finish editing a documentary I started in film school about the cultural mythology of Elvis Presley. We shot in Memphis, in Sun Studios, and Elvis’s birthplace in Tupelo and everything. I made a teaser 24 minute version and showed it at a few festivals and marketplaces. No one wanted my eager yet clumsy documentary that covered well-tread territory. Looking back, I don’t blame them.
Critics are always searching for connections in Hitchcock’s movies. They cite things like his coldness, his mother figures, his obsession with blondes, etc. That only works if you overlook the fact that most of his movies are vastly different. Psycho has very little precedent before it; even a film like The Lodger (1927) focuses on a large cast of characters rather than the murderer himself. Hitchcock’s perverse choice to make us empathize with Norman Bates, even to root for him that he’ll get away with it, is truly unique.
What other directors copy from Psycho are the motions of the plot: a cross-dressing killer, a stabbing in a shower, etc. Yet no one captures the astonishingly confident camera, the slow build of tension, the reliance on playing an audience like a fiddle. And they overlook the smaller, quieter moments.
There are the crushing details of Norman’s spare childhood room, including a sad-looking stuffed rabbit and a rumpled twin bed. Or the malevolent tint to the policeman’s sunglasses who questions Marion. Or even the tawdry lunchtime rendezvous between Janet Leigh and John Gavin. These are details that reveal a rich, full world onscreen.
The Hollywood production code demanded that Hitchcock end the film with an explanation and proper condemnation in the form of the psychiatrist who wraps everything up in a (too) neat package. Yet details like the sad rabbit and bed, contrasted with the garish opulence of Mother’s bedroom, tell us far more about her and Norman’s relationship than any dialogue ever could.
I quit my audio job to finish my documentary and that went nowhere. So I worked on various TV and film sets as a production assistant and hated it. A low point was a music video in Prospect Park where the director didn’t plan ahead and kept two child actors shivering the cold hours after they were needed. I wanted out. So I got a job at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as the project manager in their Design department. It didn’t have anything to do with movies, but it paid okay. I kept working and I kept writing. I saw a lot of performances and tons of movies. As an exercise, I wrote a screenplay in a weekend, about a teenage girl band in high school inspired by the ghost of Joey Ramone. I didn’t know what I was doing.
Much is made of the film’s reliance on the bird motif, and it’s definitely there. Marion CRANE. The birds that Norman practices his taxidermy on. The way Norman leans over to look at the hotel register, his chin lit with bright high-contrast lighting and looking for all the world like a bird of prey. But what does it all add up to?
The rest of the film is full of mirrors and closeups, eyes watching repeated over and over again. But birds? It’s fun to think that this is somehow hinting at Hitchcock’s next feature, The Birds, yet that project wasn’t even in development when Psycho was in production. It’s a fun idea but as far as I can tell it’s a red herring, much like the $40,000 that we see Marion carefully place in a newspaper and then see Norman casually dispose of. When life doesn’t mean anything in a cruel film like this, details don’t mean anything either.
I was working at BAM in the Cinématek department when I turned 26. My friends from the Design department made a card for me; it showed Stanley Kubrick & Orson Welles on the front, talking about how they made their first films when they were 25 and 26. Inside they were both chased away by the ghost of Akira Kurosawa, who chided them by saying he hadn’t made anything until his thirties. It was a nice gesture but it stung more than they meant it to, probably because I knew where I was heading. I was still part of the film industry, just not making movies. I didn’t have any ideas I loved enough to try and fund it myself. But I knew lots of cool people; I’d met some directors & actors and worked with people at all kinds of film & TV companies. This would be my life, running a repertory film theater. This would be how I lived and breathed film.
Some of Psycho’s innovations are now invisible to modern viewers. As you can imagine, Hitchcock had legendary battles with the censors over the now-famous stabbing sequence. However one of his toughest fights was over the toilet in the bathroom. Yes in 1960 America, a toilet had never been seen onscreen. Hitchcock insisted that seeing the toilet was necessary to establish a clue, specifically a scrap of paper that proved Marion was at the hotel.
But that’s clearly a smokescreen; the detective and family knew Marion was at the hotel because her handwriting is in the register; Bates even admits it. Instead I think this is a situation where Hitchcock got lucky; he probably included the toilet shots as a fallback position, something he could take out if necessary to appease the censors over another shot.
Instead what ended up happening is that due to the quick cuts of the shower stabbing, the censors were flummoxed as to what they had and hadn’t seen. Remember: this was before the censors could pause and watch a film frame by frame to determine if nudity was present. Instead Hitchcock was able to judiciously shuffle shots to make it seem like he was working with the censors, all the time creating the sequence to his specifications. Using these carefully planned quick cuts and working closely with editor George Tomasini, his own preparation saved him and he triumphed over the censors with almost all of his initial cut complete (even the toilet, a first for American audiences).
Yet for me, the stabbing sequence isn’t even the real clincher. Sure the surprise of it is horrifying, the invasion of the shower as a place where we’re at our most vulnerable. And the sequence (storyboarded but not directed by Saul Bass, as he sometimes claimed) is amazing for the way it suggests but never shows actual violence. But the cruelest moment comes at the end, when Mother retreats and Marion falls forward onto the bathroom floor. There’s a shot of the blood washing down the drain, and then a dissolve from the drain into Marion’s lifeless, unblinking eye. The camera holds on her eye then pulls back to show her body awkwardly slumped on the floor, face squat against the tile. It’s a great shot, part optical trick and part incredible stillness from Janet Leigh, but the effect is horrifying. Her body is no longer being treated like a character; instead it’s lifeless in a cold, uncomfortable position. While Psycho does empathize with Norman Bates, it also shows the cold hard reality of murder here, something many imitators and horror films fail to do.
This is important. There’s not a sense of “yeah, wow that was an awesome kill” in the film, in the way that many horror films cultivate. The shot of Marion on the bathroom floor is unsettling; there’s no music on the soundtrack, just the sound of the shower running as the light is gone from her eyes. In later films (such as The Birds) Hitchcock would play death for comic effect or gross-out potential but here it’s still a sad, somber affair. More than anything else in Psycho, this speaks to the idea that this is a true filmmaker at work here; not just someone looking to make teenagers scream at the drive-in.
I was 31 in the spring of 2008 when I was told that I needed to resign from BAM. It was awkwardly handled but there wasn’t a place for me anymore and I’d made myself unwelcome. I was mad about slights both real and perceived and the company didn’t know what to do with me. I made mistakes, they made mistakes, and I paid the price. Working at BAM made me crazy, it made me happy, it made me anxious, and it made me who I am. Now I had to start over. I didn’t have a job but I had a fiancé so we moved to her hometown of Pittsburgh for a fresh start.
Perhaps the only shot that doesn’t age well, or maybe never truly worked in the first place, is the shot of Arbogast falling downstairs after being stabbed. The camera glides downstairs while Martin Balsam flails in front of a rear-projection screen with fake blood on his face; it’s a shot that elicits laughter, not terror.
Or is that what Hitchcock wanted? The rest of the film is loaded with dark humor, including tossed-off lines like “a boy’s best friend is his mother,” that make audiences roar with laughter. Most of this is clearly intentional; much of the film functions as a black comedy, as the car sinks halfway into the swamp, then stops and Norman looks around nervously. Could the shot of Balsam on the stairs be intended for laughs, coming directly after the spine-tingling overhead shot of Mother rushing out of her bedroom to stab the detective? Maybe. Anything is possible when you’re playing the darkest impulses of humanity as dark, pitch-black comedy.
Making movies now seemed impossible. I didn’t know anyone in Pittsburgh or have any contacts. I got an agent but no one wanted my book on Hollywood character actors. My fiancé was anxious that I make some money. So I drove a Fedex truck for a winter. I spent a few months as the assistant manager of a Pittsburgh theater which ended badly. I worked for an animal shelter. And I worked for my neighbor Rebecca when she started her card/gift store named Wildcard. I liked it and Rebecca gave me a lot of freedom. Enough freedom that when I had a wacky idea to photoshop a Godzilla-type monster into an 1867 lithograph of Pittsburgh, she encouraged me to do a whole show of these prints. So I did and a new career started.
The Psycho cast is uniformly excellent, with even all the small parts hand-picked by Hitchcock. Yet the real star is Anthony Perkins. He turns in the role of a lifetime here, to the point that it overshadowed his early teenybopper work in films like The Matchmaker and Desire Under the Elms. Perkins reportedly had a love/hate relationship with the role, trying to escape its shadow for the rest of his career yet also playing Norman in three Psycho sequels of declining quality. Perkins was also gay, a open secret in Hollywood at the time, and many are eager to describe this as the reason Hitchcock cast him.
Yet that idea plays into a very tired and dangerous cliche: the gay man as “mother’s boy,” pampered, damaged, and deviant. It’s certainly possible that Hitchcock held some of these retrograde views on homosexuality; the man certainly wasn’t a social progressive. But he also knew how to work with actors to create subtext. Look at the way he used Farley Granger in Rope and Strangers on a Train, with the actor effortlessly suggesting a homosexual subtext when almost none was present on the page.
Other than the stereotypical “mother’s boy” aspect, there’s nothing about Norman to link him to homosexuality; after all, it’s his attraction to Marion that causes Mother’s jealousy. There’s a long sad history of actors being forced to play “sissies” and other coded ways that Hollywood portrayed homosexuality; none of that is present with Norman. Instead he’s a bundle of nerves and anxiety, quick to anger, and constantly eating candy corn or snacks, always afraid of being found out (Strangely, the film goes to great lengths to make the point that Norman is not a transvestite or a transsexual. He suffers from Dissociative Personality Disorder, as a man whose mind houses two distinct personalities at war with each other).
Perkins may have been gay, but is it so hard to imagine that Hitchcock cast him because he knew he was a great actor? And by having Perkins play against type, it would further subvert audience expectations? Remember, in an age before spoilers and internet rumors, the audience would be going into Psycho blind; knowing only the actors and that it’s a Hitchcock picture. None of them could have expected what was waiting for them.
I made prints and cards for my new company, Alternate Histories. As my marriage was ending, my work took off after some features in blogs. I sold a book through a new agent and spent my 36th year creating images and writing the text for that book. I quit my job at Wildcard and lived on my own. My agent tried (and is still trying) to sell some ideas from my book to movie studios. I doubt it’ll ever happen. My life became craft shows and selling online and Etsy and my own website and packaging and a spare room filled with cardboard boxes I never have time to break down. It’s busy. Always busy. I work other freelance jobs to pay the bills, but I’m my own boss, living the creative life. Still not making movies.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to take away from Psycho is one of age. Alfred Hitchcock was sixty years old when he began production on this grisly slasher film and would turn sixty one by the time it was released. This is not what we expect from a comfortable man entering his fortieth professional decade. Whether it was borne out of a desire to show that he could do better than this new crop of horror filmmakers, or an impulse to legitimize the genre, or even just another in a long line of challenges to himself, Hitchcock succeeded beyond any expectations. Psycho is not what we expect from an older director nor is it the work of young artist. It’s formal in the way it moves, at times even remarkably reserved, yet it explodes into stylized, terrifying violence. It defied all Hollywood logic about structure, functioning as a two act film with a surprise in the middle and at the end. And it proved wrong for all time the idea that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks; here Hitchcock taught himself and the world a dozen new tricks and came away with his biggest hit in the process.
Psycho and Hitchcock’s story in general show that established narratives are nonsense. Hollywood and America glory in the primacy of youth, this idea that the most innovative, sexiest, most important works are made by young people. It’s part of what drives the news engine behind film festivals and keeps the goal of 26 year old Orson Welles alive. And while age can be a factor in creating art, so can experience, wisdom, talent, and the ability to challenge oneself.
What’s frustrating is how we can buy into these narratives for ourselves. I found myself turning 40 and amidst all the griping about my gray hair and how my knee hurts, there was an underlying sadness for me. A feeling t somehow I felt that I’d missed it. My chance. That I wasn’t going to make my movie or write that book or do anything substantial. That while I made my living with art that people enjoy, that it was somehow all over for me.
Fortunately I have this Hitchcock 52 project, which has helped me see the age lie for what it is. You can create interesting work at any age, period. Hitchcock came off one of the biggest films of his career, and instead of trying to recreate that success, he dug deep and challenged himself, Hollywood, and audiences themselves. By exploring the work of someone who spent a career challenging himself, I’m ready to start challenging myself again.
Psycho is not streaming on any services, but can be rented on Amazon or iTunes, or rented from your library.