Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Half a century after Alfred Hitchcock inspired audiences to reassess the wisdom of shower-taking, we're still reeling from Psycho. Norman Bates remains the schizoid stuff of American folklore, as does his grotesque inspiration, homicidal transvestite Ed Gein. The Master of Suspense's 1960 thriller continues to reverberate throughout cinema, as well as other media--perhaps most notably, stretched frame-by-atomistic-frame, two a second, the length of an entire day as the subject of Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho videowork (first unveiled in 1993), an installation which itself chillingly bookends Don DeLillo's latest novel, the moodily minimalistic Point Omega. Hitchcock's film plunged a blade into our collective psyche, where it has lodged ever since, but getting the project greenlighted took some considerable maneuvering.

The Nineteen Fifties witnessed a staggering growth in television ownership, from four million sets at the beginning of the decade to nearly forty-eight million at its end. Not coincidentally, average weekly film attendance fell precipitously, from eighty-two million in 1946 to thirty-five million in 1958; by that time, annual box office receipts were less than a billion dollars. People were glued to their small screens, and increasingly reluctant to venture into the Bijou. Hollywood countered with Cinemascope and 3-D, but even the Master saw the writing on the wall; the result was his weekly teleseries, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65), which made him a sardonic fixture of the American living room. One studio, however, was making money with its shoestring emphasis on hot rods and horror: American International. Hitchcock wanted a piece of the action.

In his book-length essay, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder (Basic Books, 2009; 183 pages), film historian David Thomson explores the making and the meaning of this seminal picture. The studio heads at Paramount, firmly entrenched as they were in their "middle-aged decorum," weren't at all keen on an adaptation of Robert Bloch's then-recent fiction. Hitchcock's original followup to North by Northwest (1959) was to have been another innocent-man-hounded-by-the-law story (No Bail for the Judge, based on Henry Cecil's novel), but star Audrey Hepburn was concerned about an attempted rape of her character in one scene, plus she was pregnant, so the project was scuttled. Hitchcock was particularly taken with Bloch's book, the film rights to which had been secured for nine grand when MCA acquired Universal. The director's agent, Lew Wasserman, assuaged Paramount's financial jitters over this culturally disreputable endeavor by arranging for Hitchcock to direct Psycho on a low budget (not to exceed eight hundred thousand dollars) and to forgo his salary in return for sixty percent ownership of the picture. (Wasserman also suggested that the movie be shot not at Paramount, but at Universal, just as North by Northwest had been lensed at MGM.) This strategy made Hitchcock enough of a mint for him to bid goodbye to prissy Paramount, his home for many years. It was definitely their loss, which they would feel keenly.

James Cavanaugh, who had written for Hitchcock's show, began work on the screenplay, but Joseph Stefano--who subsequently produced The Outer Limits (1963-64)--replaced him; indeed, he would revisit, with diminishing returns, the character of Norman Bates for 1990's Psycho IV: The Beginning. Stefano later confessed his "disappointment" when he read Bloch's novel, as he disliked Bates and felt the book "certainly wasn't a Hitchcock picture." Bloch's conception of his deranged motel owner was, in the novelist's words, "the equivalent of a Rod Steiger type"--a fat, fortyish man who read Aleister Crowley and P.D. Ouspensky; one unlikely, at any rate, to suggest the popular Anthony Perkins. Stefano revamped the character, allowing Perkins to lend his edgily delicate otherness to the project; indeed, it's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anyone else playing the killer, as Vince Vaughan definitively demonstrated in Gus Van Sant's disastrous 1998 remake. Perkins had, in fact, arguably laid the foundation for Norman Bates with his bizarre-but-fascinating miscasting as the father-dominated, bipolar Red Sox center fielder Jimmy Piersall in Robert Mulligan's Fear Strikes Out (1957).

Stefano also significantly expanded the character of Marion Crane. Janet Leigh was cast as the absconding secretary after the director had rejected Hope Lange and Eva Marie Saint, who had just appeared with Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Lana Turner, battling back from scandal, was also considered. Hitchcock originally wanted Stuart Whitman for the role of Sam Loomis, but Wasserman proposed future U.S. Ambassador to Mexico John Gavin, Ms. Turner's boyfriend in Douglas Sirk's lavish Imitation of Life revision (1959). Vera Miles, who co-starred in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956), and whose pregnancy cost her the role of Judy Barton in Vertigo (1958), was Crane's sister Lila, while Martin Balsam was ill-fated private investigator Milton Arbogast. Hitchcock even perpetrated a rumor that he was casting the role of Norma Bates, in order to keep everyone in the dark regarding the movie's climactic revelations. Perkins' pal Paul Jasmin supplied "Mother"'s voice, as did Virginia Gregg and Jeanette Nolan, while Margo Epper actually wielded the knife in the shower sequence; all four are uncredited in the film.

Psycho's celebrated, James Allardice-scripted trailer, in which Hitchcock conducts a tour of the Bates Motel (and which featured Miles, not the unavailable Leigh, shrieking in the shower), reflexively lampooned "story, advertising, and the whole apparatus of coming attractions," building momentum for the picture's immanent release. Wasserman, attempting to preclude any negative press, made the then-unprecedented move of opening in Los Angeles and New York, then circulating the film in as wide, and swift, a national release as possible. Taking a cue from William Castle's gimmicky Columbia promotions, no one was admitted to the movie after it began (Pinkerton guards enforced this policy at early engagements)--and who could ever forget the image of Hitchcock on some of Psycho's posters, imploring viewers, "Don't give away the ending--it's the only one we have"?

The film shattered so many taboos that Thomson somewhat melodramatically proclaims it a work of "insurrectionary defiance." Leigh appeared prominently in slip and bra ("a good 36 D-cup," he estimates), as well as in a flesh-colored suit for the shower scene (model Marli Renfro, also uncredited, served as her stand-in for several shots), and a toilet was photographed in all its scandalously flushing glory. Thomson, then but nineteen, first saw the picture with a sparsely-populated audience at London's Plaza; he recalls that "somehow the solitude added to the intensity." The author had recently entered film school, where he soon found himself at odds with the faculty's "social realist tendencies." Thomson "was certain that Psycho was the film of the year," but his sycophantic instructors were all gooey over Guy Green's The Angry Silence, which (yawn) examined British union issues and was (surprise) produced by the head of the school. This lack of vision accurately reflects the American and English criticism of the times, whose reviewers and scholars lagged significantly behind the French; their writers had lionized Hitchcock for years, and had even devoted the entire October 1954 number of Cahiers du Cinema to him. Back home, alas, the director was regarded as a mere "entertainer," one "excluded from gravity by such things as nuns in high-heeled shoes, the wicked use of national monuments, and"--most damnably--by "that old sneaking habit of dainty murder." Hitchcock's malicious "meringue of style" was an obstacle to any deep English-language appreciation of his work, but, beginning in L'Hexagone, the critical tide was turning.

And what, finally, of the film itself? While it's ridiculously hyperbolic to assert that Hitchcock taught us to love murder, Psycho is most significant to the more mature Thomson for opening, in its first forty minutes, a window onto "a grasping, devious, and ordinarily nasty nation." The author maintains that Marion Crane's murder "grows out of the grim unkindness of the world we have seen, not from the lurid casebook of the Bates family." He treasures the doomed affair of Crane and Loomis, an unhappy pair trapped "between romance and money"--to him, the couple "[act] like a man and a whore, or like two lovers who must not be seen." As Thomson construes him, the alimony-plagued Loomis "is not that desirable a husband;" moreover, his "emotional reluctance" to marry Crane causes the desperate woman to take Tom Cassidy's (Frank Albertson) money and run to him. "Most films of the '50s are secret ads for the American way of life," Thomson contends, but this movie "is a warning about its lies and limits." The couple are lost in the limbo of "lunchtime hotel rooms": Loomis lives in back of his hardware store, while Crane, the author suggests, could easily have been a prostitute in her previous life. Her realty employer, George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), "is a rat," and Lowery's sleazeball "bullfrog" client Cassidy blatantly propositions the woman. Only the fragile, bird-stuffing Bates truly connects with Crane.

Camille Paglia, in her monumental survey Sexual Personae, cleverly links Psycho to Honore de Balzac's novella The Girl With the Golden Eyes, identifying Marion as "an art object vandalized and abandoned" by a "megalomaniacal but phallically impotent cultist," but Thomson, I daresay, would have none of this: it is our "noir society," and not sex-crossing, son-devouring mother psychosis, that is the real culprit. Indeed, he several times describes the film's employment of Bates' schizophrenia as--an interesting choice of words--"cockamamie." Thomson doubts that Hitchcock "ever believed in this idea of a character taking over another--only in the ways it would be filmed." (Why, then, does Mother rush out of Cabin 1 after killing Crane, if she doesn't want her son to see her? Scenarist Stefano was certainly a believer.) For Thomson, the remaining sixty minutes of the picture fail to fulfill the promise of those first forty, degenerating into Freudian shock (schlock?) effects and constituting "an hour that is as fabricated and spurious as the first hour is solid and resonant." After Crane's slaughter, in other words, there's nowhere for the film to go but downwards. Thomson even proposes an alternative shower sequence, one in which the killer's secret identity is immediately revealed ("her" face is shown in Saul Bass' original storyboards), and Crane is stabbed only once--which, he believes, would be more realistic, and would make "Mother" less preposterous. (Crane is actually decapitated in the novel.) Frankly, I find this proposal dubious. We are in the lethal realm of sexual violence, whose manifestations of personality malfunction are seldom if ever dainty. The Domineering Mother is one of Hitchcock's recurring themes, and here the director takes it to darkly comic extremes. Carping about realism seems curiously irrelevant.

Stefano, who was then in analysis regarding his own mother, introduced the character of Dr. Fred Richmond to explain Bates' madness; he also recommended Simon Oakland for the part. (It is Loomis who, after meeting with a police psychiatrist, performs this task in Bloch's book, sharing with Lila what the authorities have been able to piece together.) Hitchcock reportedly "thanked [Oakland] for saving the picture," though Thomson argues that "what needed to be 'saved' was the film's and Hitchcock's indifference to the stated content." I have seen Psycho many times, and, for the life of me, I cannot discern this mysterious "indifference"--it's not, after all, as if the picture has been deformed beyond recognition. One may as well, and just as unfairly, blame Bloch for the construction of his story.

Of course, Psycho would not have achieved its artistic heights without Bernard Herrmann's score, whose archetypal shrieking strings "[reach] out for the fusion of film and opera," thus catapulting the thriller "past realism and into mythology." Hermann's contrapuntal main title and tense ostinato passages are perhaps the most famous notes in film history, but--incredibly--the composer was not even nominated for an Oscar, although others were: television cinematographer John L. Russell (whose black-and-white lens revealed "a new acid-rural poetry"); Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy, and George Milo (Art Direction); and Hitchcock received his fifth Best Director nod. Perkins was ludicrously passed over for Best Actor, although Leigh was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The film itself was not even recommended for Best Picture; that year's Academy Award, in case you're wondering, went to Billy Wilder's The Apartment.

Thomson pads his book with a chapter on films he believes felt the ripple effect of Hitchcock's masterpiece, from James Bond adaptations to Brian De Palma and Jonathan Demme shockers. "The extended significance of 'the moment of Psycho' is not just the impact of an isolated sensation," he explains, "but the spreading influence it exerted on other films, especially in the treatment of sex and violence, and the room it opened up for the ironic (or mocking treatment) of both." Thomson admits that his list "is not exhaustive," and I was frankly disappointed to see that there's no mention of Castle (whose genderbending Homicidal [1961] pays direct hommage to the Master), nor, for that matter, of any Hammer film or Mario Bava, the godfather of Italian fantastic cinema, who in many ways initiated the "body count" genre with such chillers as Sei Donne per l'Assassino ("Six Women for the Murderer," 1963; U.S. release, Blood and Black Lace) and Ecologia del Delitto ("Ecology of Crime," 1971; U.S. release, Twitch of the Death Nerve)--and, mamma mia, where is Hitchcock's most obsessive disciple, Dario Argento? Their omission is not completely unexpected, however, as Thomson predictably disparages Tobe Hooper's Gein-inspired The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) for "requir[ing] that we regard such dangerous nonsense as 'good, clean fun'" and "leav[ing] us filled with rueful nostalgia for the days when Norman Bates could put an elegant sentence together." (This completely misses the mark of Hooper's frightful deconstruction of the American frontier.) He even derides Hitchcock's pride in the shower scene's relative "restraint"--a "piety less than warming or admirable"--and, in an absurd fit of association fallacy, complains that the director's said piety is "too close to the technical pride taken by gas-chamber engineers and too removed from the plain and undeniable impact of that work." The author's senior decorum, I submit, is plainly showing.

Nevertheless, Thomson is a compelling, challenging critic, and it's obvious that Hitchcock's classic has haunted him for decades. Not unlike artist Gordon's epic video piece, he rigorously breaks down Psycho to examine its inner workings from opening to closing shot, encouraging us to revisit the film and see it through his reality tunnel. As Gordon illustrated, even a solitary frame of celluloid contains myriad worlds. The nameless gallerygoer of Point Omega appears day after day to experience the picture. "What he was watching seemed pure time," DeLillo writes of his mysterious, obscurely menacing character. "The broad horror of the old gothic movie was subsumed in time. How long would he have to stand here, how many weeks or months, before the film's time scheme absorbed his own, or had this already begun to happen?" It began to happen, for all intents and purposes, fifty years ago, but the moment of Hitchcock's masterpiece is eternal. Whenever we watch it, we are never wholly ourselves, and our time is never entirely our own.


Bloch, Robert. Psycho. New York: Overlook Press, 2010.

Caminer, Sylvia and John Andrew Gallagher. "An Interview with Joseph Stefano." Films in Review Volume XLVII, Number 1/2, (January/February 1996).

DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage, 1991.