Psycho Analyzed

The Hitchcock classic at 50, still inspiring discussion and debate
by David Sterritt  posted March 2, 2010
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First, the history. Fifty years ago this June, the redoubtable Alfred Hitchcock launched Psycho with pre-release showings at two of Manhattan's more respectable cinemas. A week later it moved to Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other locations across the country, in order to saturate the market—in the pre-Jaws era, that meant hundreds, not thousands, of theaters—before its surprises were undercut by what we now call spoilers. Reviews were all over the map, but moviegoers lined up for blocks, lured by the first well-funded publicity campaign Hitchcock had ever personally supervised, complete with a global publicity tour, unusually droll trailers, and special instructions to exhibitors recorded by Hitch himself, admonishing them to keep the theater dark for half a minute after the end titles. "During these 30 seconds of stygian blackness," the disembodied voice intoned, "the suspense of Psycho is indelibly engraved in the mind of the audience, later to be discussed among gaping friends and relations. You will then bring up houselights of a greenish hue, and shine spotlights of this ominous hue across the faces of your departing patrons."

Most famously, Hitchcock policed the audience from afar, mischievously emulating Mrs. Bates, who polices her son from beyond the grave. "No one but no one will be admitted to the theater after Psycho begins," he ordered in trailers, teasers, and lobby cards. "Please don't tell the ending," a second message cajoled. "It's the only one we have." Patrons obeyed with pleasure, delighted to conspire with the world's most celebrated movie director. The publicity, the gimmicks, the buzz, and the movie's excellence combined to give Hitchcock the runaway hit of his career, earning $9.5 million in its initial runs and an additional $6 million in international grosses.1 It also brought Hitch the last of his five Academy Award nominations, although neither he nor the film's other nominees—Janet Leigh for supporting actress, John L. Russell for cinematography, and Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy, and George Milo for black-and-white art direction and set decoration—were winners on Oscar night.

The entertainment industry and the knowledge industry have been capitalizing on Psycho ever since. The former has cranked out two sequels—Psycho II in 1983 and Psycho III in 1986—and a prequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning, in 1990, all starring Anthony Perkins, who also directed the 1986 opus. A television pilot, Bates Motel, made a fleeting appearance in 1987. Gus Van Sant cooked up a not-quite-totally slavish remake in 1998, on the extremely dubious theory that color photography, masturbation noises, and Vince Vaughn would revitalize Hitch's vision for the post-boomer crowd. Meanwhile, an enormously wide bookshelf of Hitchcock studies has appeared, including whole volumes on Psycho alone. Among them are Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990), by Stephen Rebello, which details the film's production history; Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: A Casebook (2004), edited by Robert Kolker, aimed at academic readers; and Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller, a 1995 memoir written (partly) by Janet Leigh, the ultimate insider.2 Also noteworthy are 24 Hour Psycho, a 1993 video installation by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon that shows Hitchcock's film at about two frames per second, and Don DeLillo's novel Point Omega (2010), which deals with themes of time and consciousness inspired by DeLillo's viewing of the Douglas work in 2006.

The run-up to the film's golden anniversary has brought three more Psycho-specific volumes: Psycho in the Shower: The History of Cinema's Most Famous Scene, by Philip J. Skerry, a professor; The Psycho File: A Comprehensive Guide to Hitchcock's Classic Shocker, by Joseph W. Smith III, a journalist; and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, by David Thomson, a critic.3 Of these writers, Skerry seems to have the most single-minded fascination with the film, having published a 409-page study called The Shower Scene in Hitchcock's Psycho: Creating Cinematic Suspense and Terror in 2005. His new book clocks in at a more modest 316 pages, and even that may seem like rather a lot, even for cinema's most famous scene. Despite the narrow focus of its title, however, Psycho in the Shower ranges beyond Marion's four minutes in the bathroom. Skerry discusses the movie as a whole; traces elements of its style to Soviet montage theory and German expressionism; locates antecedents for Marion's spectacular demise in a long list of earlier Hitchcock films, from Blackmail in 1929 to episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1950s; and more along these lines.

For those of us who've been taking long, hard looks at Hitchcock for as long as we can remember, much of Skerry's work is anything but new. More than a hundred pages in, you still collide with numbingly dull topic sentences like "Psycho is the culmination of Hitchcock's obsessive interest in crime, madness, and claustrophobia." And whole chapters are consumed with material that isn't exactly essential. Chapter 1, unpromisingly called "My Research Trip," gives a detailed account of how Leigh almost ignored Skerry and Stefano as she happened to walk past their table at a ritzy restaurant. (She noticed them at the last second and said hi. Whew.) The last chapter, wherein Skerry's friends and acquaintances tell how scary Psycho is, doesn't score even as trivia.

This stuff is easily skipped, though, and on the plus side, Skerry piles up an impressive quantity of pertinent facts, semirelevant factoids, zealously close analyses, and meandering flights of cinephilia. One section got me thinking again about the kinship between Saul Bass's title designs for Psycho and for Vertigo (1958), so different visually—the former with its frantic tempo and compulsive horizontals, the latter with its leisurely pace and lissajous spirals—yet linked by the way the gazing female eye at the beginning of the earlier film anticipates the blinded eye of the murdered Marion, which is accompanied by spirals of abjection, not allure. Skerry usefully deploys the concept of suspense-film cataphora—cues that point to information not yet incorporated by the text, shaping the horizon of possibility for subsequent events without manifestly signaling these the way foreshadowing does.4 (Think of the scene with the highway cop, which heightens our sense of a tightening trap but foreshadows nothing that ever materializes.) A chart summarizes the 34 shots in the knife-attack sequence; a production still shows the shot of Marion's bare backside (actually that of Marli Renfro, Leigh's stand-in) that Hitchcock couldn't get past the censors; and so on.

The book's obsessiveness adds to its entertainment value, as when Skerry resurrects an old Psycho question: is there or isn't there a shot showing Norman's knife penetrating Marion's flesh? In the days before home video, this kind of thing kept movie buffs awake at night. The question was settled years ago—there is a shot of that description, and it's been reproduced in various books—but high-level participants in the production have stated that there is not. Hitchcock: "Naturally, the knife never touched the body; it was all done in the montage." Leigh: "People swear they saw the knife go in, but they never showed that." Stefano: "Actually, it never touches the skin."5 This drives Skerry crazy, so he sets out to prove the nonbelievers wrong, with amusing results. His interview with Hilton Green, the film's assistant director, includes this:

Green: We never did...anything where it penetrated.

Skerry: But where did that shot come from because it's in the film? I did a shot-by-shot analysis of the film.

Green: We never shot it.

Skerry: Where the hell did it come from?

Green: Hitchcock was very proud of that restraint. Maybe that was put in later by somebody, after the fact.

Still determined to enlighten the benighted, Skerry sits Terry Williams, the film's assistant editor, in front of a DVD, hitting the pause button when the tip of the knife pierces Marion's skin. "See, there it is," Skerry exclaims. "It's clear as day." Peering at the same screen, however, Williams doesn't think the knife is actually "touching the flesh." Still determined to enlighten the benighted, Skerry assembles multiple copies of the film—a laserdisc, a DVD, a VHS cassette, a TV version—and subjects them to microscopic scrutiny, confirming the existence of the penetration shot with a certainty that Jacques Derrida couldn't argue with. But he also finds "minor differences" between the versions, converging on that very shot! And here even Skerry must let the matter rest. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?

Joseph Smith's The Psycho File also presents a lot of lore, some of it erroneous. The Eroica is Beethoven's third symphony, for instance, not his ninth. And while it's unclear why Hitchcock placed this particular record on Norman's phonograph—my theory is that "Eroica" resembles "erotica"—the idea that Hitchcock was playing on (a) the symphony's association with Napoleon, who hoped to "take over the world," and (b) Norman's remark that the house "happens to be my only world," strikes me as uproariously far-fetched. Smith also repeats the legend that Leigh "never took another shower" after watching her Psycho death, but in 2002 she told me this wasn't so—she just took to leaving the bathroom door open.

Smith's interpretations can be acute, however. Discussing the film's ambiguous sense of time, he remarks that as Marion drives forward while viewing the police car in her mirror, objects seem to move forward and backward simultaneously, making visible "the way so much of the story moves toward the past" even as it pushes relentlessly ahead. Calculating that Marion must be on the road for more than 20 hours before arriving at the Bates Motel, he notes that her thoughts have little to do with the most urgent matters facing her—her relationship with Sam and her moral culpability for stealing—and concludes that her impassivity bespeaks an ability "to distance herself from herself," revealing a "splitting of the personality" not entirely different from Norman's fragmented condition. Commenting on the film's symmetries and reversals, Smith poignantly connects our last view of Marion in death with her explanation of why she pulled her car off the road for a nap. "I couldn't keep my eyes open," she told the highway cop. A few hours later, tragically and irremediably, she can no longer keep them closed. Observations like these make Smith's book well worth perusing.

The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder comes from the British-American critic David Thomson, who specializes in film-related biographies. There isn't much biography in this book, but there's more plot synopsis than you'll find this side of a well-stocked press kit. Thomson is a proudly "opinionated"  pundit, which would be fine if his opinions were better grounded, his prose more disciplined, and his attitude less condescending to the art (and audience) with which he's chosen to engage. His outlook on silent film is a good example of his wrong-headedness, and it's very relevant to his Hitchcock criticism. In his 2004 book The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, he writes that "if there was an ‘art' in silent film, it was too reliant on stilted dance, Victorian theatricality, and the beginnings of Soviet dynamism in composition and editing (the latter generally rejected by Hollywood in that they were too radically intrusive, too dialectical)." Even the greatest silent films, he declares, represent merely "a half-made medium."6

So much for the long list of masterpieces that period produced. I quote Thomson's nonsense because Hitchcock learned his craft in silent movies, and as Sidney Gottlieb has amply demonstrated, he remained committed to visual storytelling—the "pure cinema" he spoke about so often—throughout his career. Psycho is exemplary in this respect, most stunningly in the long stretch of wordless narrative that begins when Marion returns to her room after talking with Norman and ends with the cry of "Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood! Blood!" that rends the air after Norman has cleaned up the murder scene. Of course there is music during some of this, but there was music in silent-movie theaters too. Is a critic who looks down on silent cinema a good choice to opine about a film that communicates so richly through images alone?

I think not, and here are some Thomsonisms from The Moment of Psycho to back up my contention. On the protagonists: "The great difficulty facing Psycho is that our identifier in the film (Janet Leigh) is gone. The only real replacement is Norman Bates—and that isn't going to work." On the film's rationale: "I don't credit half a second of this rigmarole about Mother having taken over Norman." On the film's second half: "Hitchcock has lost interest, and he has known all along that his payoff in Psycho is a drab concession to the trashiness of ‘slasher' horror movies." On the film's place in Hitchcock's oeuvre: "He had achieved an international sensation and helped establish the power of the director as auteur. But he had also isolated films from the larger horizons of meaning." Now let's think for a moment. Thomson says Hitchcock conceded to the slasher-movie subgenre, when in fact he pretty much invented it with this very film;7 that Perkins's Norman is insufferably dull, which makes you wonder how he became a near-universal icon of American culture; and that Psycho somehow cut off cinema's ability to connect with important issues, which disregards the myriad critics and scholars who have found its horizons of meaning to be very large indeed. All this reinforces my belief that Thomson's sensibility isn't so much scrappy and opinionated as insular and contrarian. This book was not one of his better ideas.

I've been concentrating on critics' responses to Psycho, but people who worked on it have also expressed interesting views, and sometimes puzzling ones, like the notion that there's no knife-penetration shot. Even reminiscences can be perplexing. Seeing the picture in Los Angeles on opening day, screenwriter Stefano told Rebello years later, he was astonished to see grownup moviegoers "grabbing each other, howling, screaming, reacting like six-year-olds at a Saturday matinee....I never thought they'd be so vocal. And neither did Hitchcock." Perkins reported a similar experience, saying that "after hearing audiences around the country roar, Hitchcock—perhaps reluctantly—acknowledged that it was OK to laugh at the film and that, perhaps, it was a comedy after all. He didn't realize how funny audiences would find the movie, generally....He was confused, at first, incredulous second, and despondent third." Hitch even petitioned Wasserman to remix the soundtrack with added volume in spots, according to Perkins, because "leftover howls from the previous scene" rendered the hardware-store meeting of Sam, Lila, and Arbogast "practically inaudible."8

I'm skeptical about these stories. If he actually saw what he describes, Stefano should have remembered (as I'm sure he did) that the film's pre-release publicity blitz had promised the kind of nerve-jangling shocker that many moviegoers—especially the fans and connoisseurs who line up on opening day—take as enjoyable occasions for yowling and braying and clutching their companions in make-believe fear and trembling. This in no way diminishes the film; as critics have long observed, its deeper meanings are likely to emerge only with multiple viewings, and Psycho soon accumulated more return visits than any picture had before.9 The first time around, audiences usually find it to be exactly what Hitchcock said it was in 1963: "a fun picture."10

Perkins's story is even more problematic. The "previous scene" that elicited long-lasting howls of laughter was, of all things, the shower murder. Are we really to believe that "audiences around the country" responded to this brutal event and its gradual, near-hypnotic denouement with guffaws that persisted for more than 15 minutes? Hitchcock may well have asked Wasserman to fine-tune the soundtrack—he wouldn't have been the first filmmaker to seek adjustments at (or beyond) the last minute—but Perkins's account of the circumstances rings hollow.

I'm also skeptical because I saw Psycho in the summer of 1960, at a first-run theater in my Long Island town. I couldn't tell you today how the audience responded to this or that scene, because I immediately took to the movie as a personal experience and ignored everything except the screen and my own thoughts. I am dead certain, however, that no one but no one, including the casual fun-seekers among us, acted remotely like the hooting mood-busters described above. Even at 15 I would have resented and remembered such behavior, especially at a movie by the director I regarded as the greatest long before I was certain what a director did.

It's a truism that popularity says nothing about a film's enduring worth, but the hypnotic pull of Psycho is reaffirmed for me every time I screen it for university students. I do this as often as I can get away with it, mostly because it generates unusually thoughtful discussions, but also because Psycho is among the few films that never fail to engross virtually everyone, whether or not they've seen it before. They certainly don't laugh in the wrong places, and they're surprised when I tell them Hitchcock considered it a comedy, until I add what he told me in 1972—that if he'd wanted to tell this story in a truly serious way, he would have filmed it as a case study without "mysterioso" touches. Many cultural critics today place Psycho into the centuries-old tradition of "carnivalesque" art, and that gets it exactly right. Not because it's funny ha-ha or even funny peculiar, but because its ultimate purpose is to laugh disdainfully and sardonically in the face of decadence, dementia, and death. Hollywood cinema doesn't come more exciting, ingenious, or subversive.

____________

1. Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (New York: Dembner Books, 1990), 164.

2. Other such volumes are Filmguide to Psycho (1973), by academic critic James Naremore; Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1974), assembled by Richard J. Anobile, who reconstructs the film via frame blowups and dialogue captions; a three-issue comic-book series also called Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1992), written by Joseph Stefano, the film's screenwriter; and A Long Hard Look at Psycho (2002), by Raymond Durgnat, the respected British critic. More recent books touching on the film include Alfred Hitchcock: The Icon Years (2010), by John William Law, about Hitch's career in the 1960s and 1970s, and The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower (2010), by Robert Graysmith, a true-crime account of a serial killer who had an unhealthy interest in Marli Renfro, the model who stood in for Leigh when shower-scene shots required glimpses of bare skin.

3. Philip J. Skerry, Psycho in the Shower: The History of Cinema's Most Famous Scene (New York: Continuum, 2009). Joseph W. Smith III, The Psycho File: A Comprehensive Guide to Hitchcock's Classic Shocker (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2009). David Thomson, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder (New York: Basic Books, 2009).

4. For full discussion see Hans J. Wulff, "Suspense and the Influence of Cataphora on Viewers' Expectations," in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff, and Mike Friedrichsen, eds., Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996), 1-17.

5. Hitchcock interviewed by François Truffaut in Truffaut , Hitchcock (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), 277. Leigh interviewed by Tom Weaver, "The star of ‘Psycho' relives her finest shower," The Astounding B Monster Archive, n.d. http://www.bmonster.com/horror19.html (accessed February 25, 2010). Stefano interview in E! Online, quoted in "The Psycho Shower Scene Myth," The Sewergator Sanctuary, n.d. http://www.sewergator. com/gfz/psycho/ (accessed February 25, 2010).

6. David Thomson, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 152, 153.

7. Michael Powell's Peeping Tom arrived in British and American theaters a month before Psycho, but had little immediate influence because of its initial failure both critically and commercially.

8. Wasserman said no, citing the cost of the prints. For this and the Stefano and Perkins accounts, see Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, 162-3. Emphases in original.

9. Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (New York: ReganBooks, 2003), 601.

10. Ian Cameron and V.F. Perkins, "Hitchcock," Movie 6 (January 1963), 4-6; reprinted in Sidney Gottlieb, ed., Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), 44-54, cited at 47. 

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THE AUTHOR

David Sterritt is chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, chief book critic of Film Quarterly, and film critic of Tikkun. His most recent books are The B List (Da Capo, 2008) and The Honeymooners (Wayne State UP, 2009).

More articles by David Sterritt