When Alfred Hitchcock stole a page from William Castle’s gimmicky playbook, Castle out psycho-ed PSYCHO with his very own HOMICIDAL. Break out the candy corn… things are about to get murderlicious!
Following the disastrous response to Alfred Hitchcock’s personal masterpiece of sexual obsession VERTIGO, the Master of Suspense was on the ropes — both personally and psychologically. He chose to “run for cover,” using an already proven scenario to construct an infallible money-making suspenser.
That would be NORTH BY NORTHWEST, the third of his “man on the run” thrillers, which he began with THE 39 STEPS and SABOTEUR. It was major hit for the aging master of suspense, but he wanted to do something deeper and more psychological than another “paint-by-numbers” mystery. When his secretary handed him the review of a new book by noted horror and mystery writer Robert Bloch, he lit up! Loosely based on the real-life case of Ed Gein, Bloch’s PSYCHO was no lightweight.
Buying the rights for a measly $9,500, he quickly commissioned a script by Joseph Stefano and brought the property to Paramount. But they didn’t want to risk bankrolling a potentially disturbing film, especially in 1959; the necrophilia, murder and king-size Oedipal issues tainted its allure. Financing the film primarily himself, Hitch enlisted the crew from his TV series ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and shot it on the Universal backlot in black and white.
While prepping PSYCHO for lensing, the market was in a state of flux: horror and shock ruled the box office. And its ruler was director/producer William Castle, cinema’s “King of Gimmicks.” Yet, behind every EMERGO and PERCEPTO marketing scheme was a well-crafted, entertaining and moneymaking fun flick — be it a HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL or THE TINGLER. With one eye on preproduction and the other eye on VARIETY’s daily box office reports, Hitchcock realized he had to resort to a few gimmicks of his own.
In the novel, Bloch’s description of Norman Bates was a morbidly fat, perverse, glandular case. All-American boy Anthony Perkins, who had recently starred with Jane Fonda in the romantic comedy TALL STORY, was cast against type as Norman. After revising the script, Hitch built up the part of Marion Crane, who pilfers $40,000 from her boss to run away with her hunky male lover (future ambassador to Mexico John Gavin). He convinced superstar Janet Leigh to play Marion, in arguably the most infamous stunt-casting move ever.
Accompanied by a masterful all-string score by composer Bernard Herrmann, Leigh steals the $40 grand and lits out, wracked by guilt, fear and sexual longing. Evading state troopers, used car salesmen and the apparition of her own boss staring her down, Leigh comes face to face with her own personal Crossroads demon: the mother-dominated caretaker of a lonely, isolated motel. Norman Bates is charming, a tad weird with his stuffed birds, and sympathetic to Leigh’s plight as he tells her “we all go a little mad sometimes”… but not so sympathetic as he peeps through a hole in the wall to watch her undress.
Resolved to return to Phoenix and face the music, Leigh enters the shower in a purification ritual — her temporary madness seemingly resolved… but not before cinema history is made.
In a series of carefully choreographed shots, Marion is brutally hacked to death in the shower by a shadowy figure as Herrmann’s violin crescendo shrieks in terror — each cut, each stab emphasized by the dispassionately repetitious music in a series of quick cuts. The knife, the hand, the nude torso, the swirling water, the struggle, the glassy-eyed pull back… Holy shit! Hitchcock just killed the star of his movie!
PSYCHO now shifts into its second and third act: the $40,000 is a meaningless McGuffin and Leigh is dumped unceremoniously into the all-consuming swamp. Now, the hunt is on for her killer… could it be Norman’s mother Mrs. Bates (who may or not be dead), or Norman himself?
In 1960, the climax of PSYCHO was a big, revelatory shocker. Now, after three sequels, a shot-for-shot remake, a TV-movie spin off (with HAROLD & MAUDE’s Bud Cort) and a more recent TV prequel BATES MOTEL, is there any question whodunit? Nah.
Yet, Norman is no faceless soulless serial killer like FRIDAY THE 13th‘s Jason or the flambéed Freddy… he is the dark side of the American Dream turned grim nightmare, the split-personality mama’s boy who loved his mother so much he murdered her and then dressed in her clothes and spoke in her voice to maintain the illusion she was still alive. So says Simon Oakland, the psychiatrist who turns up at the end of PSYCHO to tie up all the loose ends.
With the film in the can, Hitchcock was so insecure about its reception that he debated chopping it down and airing it as an episode of his TV show. Still, he soldiered on, unleashing a ballyhoo pandemonium blitz worthy of William Castle himself. Luridly displaying Leigh’s ample bosom in a white bra and lingerie in the poster, PSYCHO was marketed like any other exploitation horror show: “A new — and altogether — different screen excitement!!!” the one-sheet blared, promising titillation and terror.
PSYCHO’s trailer reveals nothing from the actual film. Hitch, in the persona of his genial sardonic TV host, gives a tour of the crime scene, gleefully warning of unspeakable horrors. And that’s not even Janet Leigh screaming in the trailer. It’s costar Vera Miles in a classic Hitch-and-Bait.
Taking a tip from French director Henri-George Clouzot, whose psychosexual thriller DIABOLIQUE was a runaway hit after a “no late admission” policy, Hitch followed suit. No one was to be admitted to PSYCHO 15 minutes after it had begun!
The ploy was an unqualified success as theater-goers lined the block for a chance to be scared witless. While critics and censors debated its moral and sexual ambiguities (“Good Lord… is that a toilet?! Are those… breasts?!”), PSYCHO was a runaway hit — and an undeniable masterpiece. Hitch’s gamble had paid off in spades.
To Be Continued… Tune in tomorrow for Part 2!