Ahead of the release of Hitchcock, which tells the story of the making of Psycho, it's a good time to go back and take a look at the classic 1960 thriller.
Based on the 1959 novel by Robert Bloch, the story sees Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) embezzling $40,000 from her employer to help her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and going on the run. She stays at the Bates Motel, run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who lives with his mother in an old house close to the motel. It's a decision that proves fatal... Much like The Exorcist, so much of Psycho has passed into popular culture that it's entirely possible to know the film without having seen it. No more is this evident than in the famous- or infamous- 'shower scene'.
Having decided to return the money she's stolen, Marion takes a shower. Whilst in there, a shadowy figure- Norman's mother- enters the bathroom and stabs Marion to death. Hitchcock plays an audacious twist on his audience by killing off his leading lady so soon into the picture. Up until this point, the story has been all about Marion. We sympathise with her, even if we don't agree with her actions. It's a truly shocking moment when she's murdered- but it's a truly iconic one too. It's a moment that has been referenced and parodied throughout popular culture- there's a particularly elegant pastiche of it in an early episode of The Simpsons. The scene, which took a week to film, features seventy-seven different camera angles. Psycho is filmed in black-and-white so the blood in the shower was actually Bosco chocolate syrup which looks more realistic than stage blood. The sound effects of the stabbing were achieved by stabbing a knife into a casaba melon. Due to the frenetic editing during the attack, you never see the knife penetrate flesh (although it does touch it at one point). The audience's mind does most of the work. There is no truth to the rumour that Hitchcock made the water run ice-cold in the shower to elicit a genuine scream from Janet Leigh. There also seems to be no truth to the rumour that Saul Bass- who storyboarded several scenes and created the title sequence for this and other of Hitchcock's films (Vertigo and North By Northwest)- actually directed the shower scene, although he would have storyboarded it.
One of the integral parts of Psycho is Bernard Herrmann's sublime score. Recorded using only string instruments, it is one of the most recognisable scores in movie history. Despite Hitchcock's objection to there being music in the motel scenes, he soon changed his mind when he heard 'The Murder'- the infamous shrieking strings that accompany the shower scene. Hitchcock later remarked that '33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music' and reportedly doubled Herrmann's salary to $34,501. The film simply would not have the impact it does without Herrmann's score.
There are strong performances throughout, with Anthony Perkins giving such a brilliant performance as Norman Bates that it nearly ruined his career (as he was constantly typecast). He's nervy and can deliver lines like 'We all go a little mad sometimes' without sounding like a lunatic. Even though he doesn't say a word in the final scene, he is absolutely chilling. Leigh gives a warm and empathetic performance as Marion which makes her demise all the more shocking. Martin Balsam gives a solid performance as Milton Arbogast, a detective who is commissioned to find out what happened to her sister; his murder is another shocking and unsignposted moment. Vera Miles is also strong as Lila, although John Gavin's performance as Sam is a little wooden in places. Simon Oakland's slightly hammy performance as Dr. Richmond in the final scenes also slightly detracts from the explanation he's giving.
The marketing and promotion for Psycho was a masterstroke by Hitchcock. The original trailer was over six minutes long and featured Hitchcock giving a tour of the house and motel, culminating with a shock... Cinema managers were sent large cardboard cut-outs of Hitchcock pointing to his watch with a message stating that 'The manager of this theatre has been instructed at the risk of his life, not to admit to the theatre any persons after the picture starts'. There would be no late admissions to any screening; if you missed the beginning, you simply had to wait for the next screening (a ploy that should be revived today, if you ask me). Newspaper adverts confirmed the 'no late admission' policy, and also asked people who had seen the film not to give the ending away as 'it's the only one we have'. So determined was Hitchcock to preserve the plot that he forbade Leigh and Perkins from doing promotional interviews (preferring to do them himself) and also did not give advance private screenings to film critics- meaning the critics had to line up with the general public to get to see the film. Early reviews were, as you might expect, mixed; but one reviewer- C.A. Lejeune- was so offended by the film, she not only walked out of the screening but resigned as film critic for The Observer.
I had the very good fortune to see Psycho on the big screen in 1998, in an art-house cinema in Cardiff. It was an absolutely thrilling experience. Shocking, tense and gripping, Psycho truly is a masterpiece.