Psycho (1960)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Cinematography by

John L. Russell

Psycho is a 1960 American psychological horror film directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock, and written by Joseph Stefano, starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, Vera Miles and Martin Balsam, and was based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. The film centers on the encounter between a secretary, Marion Crane (Leigh), who ends up at a secluded motel after stealing money from her employer, and the motel’s disturbed owner-manager, Norman Bates (Perkins), and its aftermath.

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When originally made, the film was seen as a departure from Hitchcock’s previous film North by Northwest, having been filmed on a low budget, with a television crew and in black and white. Psycho initially received mixed reviews, but outstanding box office returns prompted reconsideration which led to overwhelming critical acclaim and four Academy Award nominations, including Best Supporting Actress for Leigh and Best Director for Hitchcock. Psycho is now considered one of Hitchcock’s best films  and praised as a work of cinematic art by international film critics and film scholars. Ranked among the greatest films of all time, it set a new level of acceptability for violence, deviant behavior and sexuality in American films, and is widely considered to be the earliest example of the slasher film genre.

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After Hitchcock’s death in 1980, Universal Studios began producing follow-ups: three sequels, a remake, a television film spin-off, and a prequel TV series. In 1992, the US Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Hitchcock and Herrmann

23 November 2007 | by M. J Arocena (New Zealand) – See all my reviews

Robert Bloch wrote the original work, Joseph Stefano adapted it into a tight screenplay but it was Alfred Hitchcock with the extraordinary complicity of Bernard Herrmann who transformed this lurid tale into a classic, horror masterpiece.

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The score propels us into the moment before the moment arrives provoking the sort of anticipation that verges on the unbearable. The fact that the key scenes have become iconic film moments: copied, imitated, emulated and parodied, have not diminished its impact, not really. The anticipation, underlined by Herrmann’s strings, creates a sort of craving for the moment to arrive. That doesn’t happen very often. No amount of planning can produce it or re-produce it – otherwise how do you explain the Gus Van Sant version – so, the only possible explanation is an accident, a miraculous film accident and those do happen. Everything falls into place so perfectly that even the things that one may argue are below the smart standard of the film, are needed, the film without every frame is not quite the film. Try to turn away after the climax during Simon Oakland’s long explanation. You can’t. I couldn’t. Partly because you know you’ll soon be confronting those eyes, that fly, the car…

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Two Words: Hitchcock’s Best (…and you know that’s no small feat!)

10/10
Author: LoveCoates from Los Angeles
31 July 2001

Yes, everything you’ve heard is true. The score is a part of pop culture. The domestic conflict is well-known. But nothing shocks like the experience itself.

If you have not seen this movie, do yourself a favor. Stop reading thse comments, get up, take a shower, then GO GET THIS MOVIE. Buy it, don’t rent. You will not regret it.

“Psycho” is easily the best horror-thriller of all time. Nothing even comes close…maybe “Les Diaboliques” (1955) but not really.

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“Psycho” has one of the best scripts you’ll ever find in a movie. The movie’s only shortcoming is that one of the characters seems to have little motivation in the first act of the movie but as the story progresses, you realize that Hitchcock (GENIUS! GENIUS! GENIUS!) in a stroke of genius has done this on purpose, because there is another character whose motivations are even more important. Vitally important. So important that you totally forget about anything else. I was lucky enough to have spent my life wisely avoiding any conversation regarding the plot of this movie until I was able to see it in full. Thank God I did! The movie has arguably the best mid-plot point and climactic twist in thriller history, and certainly the best-directed ending. The last few shots are chilling and leave a lingering horror in the viewer’s mind.

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Just as good as the writing is Hitchcock’s direction, which is so outstanding that it defies explanation. Suffice it to say that this movie is probably the best directorial effort by film history’s best director. I was fortunate enough to see this movie at a big oldtime movie house during a Hitchcock revival. Janet Leigh, still radiant, spoke before the film and explained how Hitchcock’s genius was in his ability to 1) frighten without gore and 2) leave his indelible mark on the movie without overshadowing his actors (like the great Jean Renoir could never do). “Psycho” is clearly its own phenomenon, despite all the big-name talent involved.

Hitchcock does not disappoint by leaving out his trademark dark humor. His brilliance is in making a climax that is at once both scary and hilarious. When I saw it in the theatre the audience was both gasping in disbelief while falling-on-the-floor laughing.

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One more thing…

Tony Perkins. Janet Leigh got much-deserved accolades for this film, but it is Perkins who gives what remains the single best performance by an actor in a horror movie. He is so understated that his brillance passes you by. He becomes the character. The sheer brillance of the role is evidenced by the ineptitude of the actors in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 (dear God make it stop!) shot-for-shot “remake.” Though the movies are nearly identical, Hitchcock’s is superior mostly because of the acting and the atmosphere (some of the creepiness is lost with color). This is made obvious by the initial conversation between Leigh’s character and Perkins, a pivotal scene. The brilliance of Perkins in the original shines even brighter when compared with the ruination in the remake even though the words and the shots were exactly the same. The crucial chemistry in this scene lacking in the remake gives everything away and mars our understanding of upcoming events. The fact that Perkins could never escape this role – his star stopped rising star as it had done in the 50s – proves that he played the part perhaps too well.

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I keep using the word brilliant, but I cannot hide my enthusiasm for this movie. It is wholly unlike the overblown, overbudget, overlong fluff spewing all-too-often out of Hollywood today. “Psycho” is simple, well-crafted and just the right length.

The Greatest Horror Film Ever

Author: Sam Popenoe from Corvallis, Oregon
17 January 1999

When you look up the phrase “Horror Film” in the dictionary .. a picture of Janet Leigh screaming in a shower should appear next to it. Undoubtedly, Psycho is the greatest horror film ever made, bar-none. The story is incredible. The acting is near perfection. The cinematography is godly. The soundtrack is perfect. It’s hard to find anything wrong with Psycho. Perhaps the only imperfection I can find with Psycho is the inability to stand the test of time. One of the reasons the shower scene has become so notorious is that it’s not only filmed to perfection, but because the elements of sexuality and murder are so surreal.

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In 1960, seeing a nude women being murdered in a shower was something that no-one had experienced yet, and was quite shocking. Nowadays, seeing Jason double-spearing two lovers having sex is nothing uncommon. I envy those who experienced Psycho in 1960 in the theaters .. those experienced the full terror of Psycho.

Aside from this though, the movie is flawless. I won’t even go into to how incredible the cinematography is. One thing I think people seem to forget about the movie is the incredible soundtrack. Sound is such an important element in movies and Psycho is undaunted when it comes to sound. The only other horror movie that even comes close to using sound with such perfection is Halloween (1978).

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The movie is perfectly casted as well. Janet Leigh as the beautiful Marion Crane, Vera Miles as the concerned sister, Lila Crane, and of course the unforgettable performance from Anthony Perkins as the eerie yet charismatic Norman Bates.

I would recommend this movie to any horror movie film fanatic. I would especially recommend this movie to any horror movie fan not desensitized by Friday The 13th, Nightmare On Elm Street, or Scream .. if such a fan exists.

Perkins Is Remarkable

9/10
Author: Josh (darkjosh333@yahoo.com) from Los Angeles, CA
12 September 2000

Most modern-day horror films make the killer to be an absolutely inhuman, grotesque, unimaginable monster in order to scare the audience out of its wits. Most of the time, however, these stereotypes create a generic murderer a raving, ranting, clearly demented psychopath.

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One of the few memorable cinematic killers that does not adhere to these restraints and cliches is, of course, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, whom manages to effectively cause the audience to recoil without such drek as the aforementioned devices.

Anthony Perkins’ skillfully crafts his performance as Norman Bates, avoiding a ranting, raving, drooling, murder-happy, manic characterization; instead his performance as Norman is subtle, creepy, cool, and unsettling. He is brilliant; from his quiet conversations with Marion Crane amidst the stuffed birds, to his weasling wimpiness when confronted by Arbogast, his performance is so exact that it chills the viewer, all without the unnecessary disturbing images prevalent in more modern films (read The Cell, Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer).

Perkin’s fine performance, a tight script, and Bernstein’s classic score make Psycho a film that is now and will always be remembered as one of the pinnacles of the horror genre.

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Psycho is based on Robert Bloch‘s 1959 novel of the same name, which was loosely inspired by the case of convicted Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein.  Both Gein, who lived just 40 miles from Bloch, and the story’s protagonist, Norman Bates, were solitary murderers in isolated rural locations. Each had deceased, domineering mothers, had sealed off a room in their home as a shrine to her, and dressed in women’s clothes. However, unlike Bates, Gein is not strictly considered a serial killer, having been charged with murder only twice.

Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock’s long-time assistant, read Anthony Boucher‘s positive review of the novel and decided to show the book to her employer, even though studio readers at Paramount Pictures had already rejected its premise for a film.

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Hitchcock acquired rights to the novel for $9,500  and reportedly ordered Robertson to buy up copies to preserve the novel’s surprises. Hitchcock, who had come to face genre competitors whose works were critically compared to his own, was seeking new material to recover from two aborted projects with Paramount, Flamingo Feather and No Bail for the Judge. He disliked stars’ salary demands and trusted only a few people to choose prospective material, including Robertson.

Paramount executives balked at Hitchcock’s proposal and refused to provide his usual budget. In response, Hitchcock offered to film Psycho quickly and inexpensively in black and white using his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series crew.

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Paramount executives rejected this cost-conscious approach, claiming their sound stages were booked even though the industry was in a slump. Hitchcock countered he would personally finance the project and film it at Universal-International using his Shamley Productions crew if Paramount would merely distribute. In lieu of his usual $250,000 director’s fee he proposed a 60% stake in the film negative. This combined offer was accepted and Hitchcock went ahead in spite of naysaying from producer Herbert Coleman and Shamley Productions executive Joan Harrison.

Filming

The film, independently produced and financed by Hitchcock, was shot at Revue Studios, the same location as his television show. Psycho was shot on a tight budget of $807,000, beginning on November 11, 1959, and ending on February 1, 1960.Filming started in the morning and finished by six p.m. or earlier on Thursdays (when Hitchcock and his wife would dine at Chasen’s).

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Nearly the whole film was shot with 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras. This trick closely mimicked normal human vision, which helped to further involve the audience.

Before shooting began in November, Hitchcock dispatched assistant director Hilton A. Green to Phoenix to scout locations and shoot the opening scene. The shot was supposed to be an aerial shot of Phoenix that slowly zoomed into the hotel window of a passionate Marion and Sam. Ultimately, the helicopter footage proved too shaky and had to be spliced with footage from the studio. Another crew filmed day and night footage on Highway 99 between Gorman and Fresno, California for projection when Marion drives from Phoenix. Footage of her driving into Bakersfield to trade her car is also shown. They also provided the location shots for the scene in which she is discovered sleeping in her car by the highway patrolman. In one street scene shot in downtown Phoenix, Christmas decorations were discovered to be visible; rather than re-shoot the footage, Hitchcock chose to add a graphic to the opening scene marking the date as “Friday, December the Eleventh”.

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Green also took photos of a prepared list of 140 locations for later reconstruction in the studio. These included many real estate offices and homes such as those belonging to Marion and her sister. He also found a girl who looked just like he imagined Marion and photographed her whole wardrobe, which would enable Hitchcock to demand realistic looks from Helen Colvig, the wardrobe supervisor. The look of the Bates house was modeled on Edward Hopper‘s painting The House by the Railroad, a fanciful portrait of the Second Empire Victorian home at 18 Conger Avenue in Haverstraw, NY.

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Both the leads, Perkins and Leigh, were given freedom to interpret their roles and improvise as long as it did not involve moving the camera. An example of Perkins’ improvisation is Norman’s habit of eating candy corn.

Throughout filming, Hitchcock created and hid various versions of the “Mother corpse” prop in Leigh’s dressing room closet. Leigh took the joke well, and she wondered whether it was done to keep her on edge and thus more in character or to judge which corpse would be scarier for the audience.

During shooting, Hitchcock was forced to uncharacteristically do retakes for some scenes. The final shot in the shower scene, which starts with an extreme close-up on Marion’s eye and pulls up and out, proved very difficult for Leigh, since the water splashing in her face made her want to blink, and the cameraman had trouble as well since he had to manually focus while moving the camera. Retakes were also required for the opening scene, since Hitchcock felt that Leigh and Gavin were not passionate enough.

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Leigh had trouble saying “Not inordinately” for the real estate office scene, requiring additional retakes. Lastly, the scene in which the mother is discovered required a complicated coordinating of the chair turning around, Vera Miles (as Lila Crane) hitting the light bulb, and a lens flare, which proved to be the sticking point. Hitchcock forced retakes until all three elements were to his satisfaction.

According to Hitchcock, a series of shots with Arbogast going up the stairs in the Bates house before he is stabbed were helmed by assistant director Hilton A. Green, working with storyboard artist Saul Bass’ drawings only while Hitchcock was incapacitated with the common cold.

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However, upon viewing the dailies of the shots, Hitchcock was forced to scrap them. He claimed they were “no good” because they did not portray “an innocent person but a sinister man who was going up those stairs”. Hitchcock later re-shot the scene, though a little of the cut footage made its way into the film. Filming the murder of Arbogast proved problematic owing to the overhead camera angle necessary to hide the film’s twist. A camera track constructed on pulleys alongside the stairway together with a chairlike device had to be constructed and thoroughly tested over a period of weeks.

Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo is a signature occurrence in most of his films. In Psycho, he can be seen through a window—wearing a Stetson hat—standing outside Marion Crane’s office. Wardrobe mistress Rita Riggs has said that Hitchcock chose this scene for his cameo so that he could be in a scene with his daughter (who played one of Marion’s colleagues). Others have suggested that he chose this early appearance in the film in order to avoid distracting the audience.

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The shower scene

The murder of Leigh’s character in the shower is the film’s pivotal scene and one of the best-known in all of cinema. As such, it spawned numerous myths and legends. It was shot from December 17–23, 1959, and features 77 different camera angles. The scene runs 3 minutes and includes 50 cuts. Most of the shots are extreme close-ups, except for medium shots in the shower directly before and directly after the murder. The combination of the close shots with their short duration makes the sequence feel more subjective than it would have been if the images were presented alone or in a wider angle, an example of the technique Hitchcock described as “transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience”.

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The shadowy figure from the shower scene

To capture the straight-on shot of the shower head, the camera had to be equipped with a long lens. The inner holes on the shower head were blocked and the camera placed a sufficient distance away so that the water, while appearing to be aimed directly at the lens, actually went around and past it.

The soundtrack of screeching violins, violas, and cellos was an original all-strings piece by composer Bernard Herrmann titled “The Murder“. Hitchcock originally intended to have no music for the sequence (and all motel scenes), but Herrmann insisted he try his composition. Afterward, Hitchcock agreed it vastly intensified the scene, and nearly doubled Herrmann’s salary. The blood in the scene is reputed to have been Bosco chocolate syrup,  which shows up better on black-and-white film, and has more realistic density than stage blood. The sound of the knife entering flesh was created by plunging a knife into a casaba melon.

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There are varying accounts whether Leigh was in the shower the entire time or a body double was used for some parts of the murder sequence and its aftermath. In an interview with Roger Ebert and in the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Leigh stated she was in the scene the entire time and Hitchcock used a stand-in only for the sequence in which Norman wraps Marion’s body in a shower curtain and places it in the trunk of her car. The 2010 book The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower by Robert Graysmith contradicts this, identifying Marli Renfro as Leigh’s body double for some of the shower scene’s shots. Graysmith also stated that Hitchcock later acknowledged Renfro’s participation in the scene.

A popular myth emerged that, in order for Leigh’s scream in the shower to sound realistic, ice-cold water was used. Leigh denied this on numerous occasions, saying the crew was very accommodating, supplying hot water throughout the week-long shoot. All of the screams are Leigh’s.

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Another myth concerns Saul Bass, the graphic designer who created many of the title sequences of Hitchcock’s films and storyboarded some of Psychos scenes, claiming he had directed the shower scene. This was refuted by several figures associated with the film, including Leigh, who stated: “absolutely not! I have emphatically said this in any interview I’ve ever given. I’ve said it to his face in front of other people … I was in that shower for seven days, and, believe me, Alfred Hitchcock was right next to his camera for every one of those seventy-odd shots.” Hilton A. Green, the assistant director, also refutes Bass’ claim: “There is not a shot in that movie that I didn’t roll the camera for. And I can tell you I never rolled the camera for Mr. Bass.”Roger Ebert, a longtime admirer of Hitchcock’s work, summarily dismissed the rumor, stating, “It seems unlikely that a perfectionist with an ego like Hitchcock’s would let someone else direct such a scene.

However, commentators such as Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn have argued in favor of Bass’ contribution to the scene in his capacity as visual consultant and storyboard artist.

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Along with designing the opening credits, Bass is termed “Pictorial Consultant” in the credits. When interviewing Hitchcock in 1967, François Truffaut asked about the extent of Bass’ contribution, to which Hitchcock replied that in addition to the titles, Bass had provided storyboards for the Arbogast murder (which he claimed to have rejected), but made no mention of Bass providing storyboards for the shower scene. According to Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock At Work, Bass’ first claim to have directed the scene was in 1970, when he provided a magazine with 48 drawings used as storyboards as proof of his contribution.

Krohn’s analysis of the production of Psycho in his book Hitchcock at Work, while refuting Bass’ claims for directing the scene, notes that these storyboards did introduce key aspects of the final scene—most notably, the fact that the killer appears as a silhouette, and details such as the close-ups of the slashing knife, Leigh’s desperate outstretched arm, the shower curtain being torn down, and the transition from the hole of the drainage pipe to Marion Crane’s dead eyes.

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Krohn notes that this final transition is highly reminiscent of the iris titles that Bass created for Vertigo.

Krohn’s research also notes that Hitchcock shot the scene with two cameras: one a BNC Mitchell, the other a handheld French Éclair camera which Orson Welles had used in Touch of Evil (1958). In order to create an ideal montage for the greatest emotional impact on the audience, Hitchcock shot a lot of footage of this scene which he trimmed down in the editing room. He even brought a Moviola on the set to gauge the footage required. The final sequence, which his editor George Tomasini worked on with Hitchcock’s advice, however did not go far beyond the basic structural elements set up by Bass’ storyboards.

According to Donald Spoto in The Dark Side of Genius, Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, spotted a blooper in one of the last screenings of Psycho before its official release: after Marion was supposedly dead, one could see her blink.

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According to Patricia Hitchcock, talking in Laurent Bouzereau’s “making of” documentary, Alma spotted that Leigh’s character appeared to take a breath. In either case, the postmortem activity was edited out and was never seen by audiences. Although Marion’s eyes should be dilated after her death, the contact lenses necessary for this effect would have required six weeks of acclimation to wear them, so Hitchcock decided to forgo them.

It is often claimed that, despite its graphic nature, the “shower scene” never once shows a knife puncturing flesh.However, a frame by frame analysis of the sequence shows one shot in which the knife appears to penetrate Leigh’s abdomen, but the effect may have been created by lighting and reverse motion.

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Leigh herself was so affected by this scene when she saw it, that she no longer took showers unless she absolutely had to; she would lock all the doors and windows and would leave the bathroom and shower door open.She never realized until she first watched the film “how vulnerable and defenseless one is”.

Leigh and Hitchcock fully discussed what the scene meant:

Marion had decided to go back to Phoenix, come clean, and take the consequence, so when she stepped into the bathtub it was as if she were stepping into the baptismal waters. The spray beating down on her was purifying the corruption from her mind, purging the evil from her soul. She was like a virgin again, tranquil, at peace.

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Film theorist Robin Wood also discusses how the shower washes “away her guilt”. He comments upon the “alienation effect” of killing off the “apparent center of the film” with which spectators had identified

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