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Psycho

by Peter Bogdanovich
October 31, 2010 3:15 AM
11 Comments
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In June, 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (available on DVD) first opened in New York, neither the public nor the press had any idea what it was about. Contrary to all accepted policy, there were no advance screenings, and no synopsis or story outline was supplied to critics or reporters. The very first time the media saw the movie was the same morning the public did—-the 10:00 a.m. running at the (now long gone) DeMille Theater at 47th Street and Broadway. One thousand eager paying customers filled the downstairs, and five hundred members of the press were in the balcony—-myself included. It was the single most memorable performance of a film I’ve ever attended. Not the most pleasant one.

It is difficult—-now that Psycho has been studied, endlessly imitated, sequelled four times, remade “officially” in 1998, been available for home viewing over three decades, and talked about incessantly for fifty years—-to imagine the impact the picture had in its first few months of life. This inexpensive (less than a million) black-and-white little film not only changed the way people went to see movies—-no one was allowed in after the feature had begun, an unheard of idea then—-but permanently altered the experience itself. Psycho was the first time movie-going stopped being safe. Psycho was a physical assault.

To that first of all audiences, the impact was the greatest because we hadn’t even heard a rumor of anything. Sitting there the initial forty-five minutes, I was convinced this was a robbery picture, so entirely was I absorbed by Janet Leigh’s dilemma: in love with John Gavin, stealing cash from her boss, running away, fearfully driving through the rain, stopping at an out-of-the-way motel where she registers for the night with a famously likeable, if slightly neurotic, all-American boy-next-door. That’s how Anthony Perkins was perceived by everyone before Psycho. After a warm talk with him, Janet Leigh goes to her room, decides to return the money, gets undressed, and takes a shower. The next 45 seconds transfigured movie history.

I never heard the soundtrack for the shower stabbing-sequence until I saw the film on TV, so loudly were the people downstairs screaming. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen to see if any of the press were also, but some of the screams seemed pretty close. Part of the mass outcry was because everyone wanted to look away and could not. Unlike all subsequent slasher imitations that make you avert your eyes, Hitchcock’s brilliant montage was rivetingly swift and impressionistic—-yet seemingly graphic—-so that everyone was certain they had not only glimpsed Janet Leigh naked but had seen the knife cut into her body. In fact, there is no nudity and the knife never actually touches the body--as Hitchcock said, “You only think it does.” The director took a full week to film the 72 camera positions he had visualized to convey in 45 seconds the murder of his star. But, of course, that was the real shocker: Barely halfway through the movie, Janet Leigh, the star character we have been following throughout, is dead.

No one in the audience ever really recovered from this unprecedented horror. I could feel myself continuing to shake internally until quite some time after the film ended. When I walked out onto the street it seemed odd that it was only noon—-odd, too, because it looked as if the world had changed forever (certainly shower-use dropped precipitously). Personally, I felt as if I had been violated in some irredeemable way. Psycho has never been my favorite Hitchcock, but I have come to realize that it was the director’s prescient comment on the death of the female star in cinema: from the ‘60s onward, she has virtually disappeared.

I first met Hitch six months later, and when I said I hadn’t actually enjoyed Psycho, he told me this was because I hadn’t understood the essentially humorous way he had approached the material. “I couldn’t make a film like that seriously. One can’t,” he said very rationally. “If I had wanted to make the film seriously, I would have had to go inside it, and show the inner workings of the character. But, you see, I showed it from the outside.” To prove his point, he ran the special trailer he had shot starring himself. He’s extremely funny in it, meandering around the locale in which the film took place, pointing out where the two murders happened, giving sly little hints, and saying things like, “Oh, it’s horrible and bloody,” mock-seriously to the camera. When the short was over, he stood up and said, “You see what I meant?” Well, yes and no...

In the long interviews I did with Hitchcock in the ‘60s and ‘70s—-which all appear in my 1997 collection, Who the Devil Made It--he goes into great detail about how he shot the infamous shower sequence, including all the meticulous and often extraordinary lengths the director went to so that he could scare the hell out of us. Boy, did he succeed!

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11 Comments

  • Maggie | November 30, 2010 10:42 AMReply

    In the early seventies I remember reading an opinion piece in TIME magazine written by Richard Schikel and this quote has always stayed with me:

    "There is a compact between filmmakers and audiences that no matter what they create they will never hurt us. Twice now that has been broken - first with PSYCHO and now the EXORCIST".

    There have been plenty of scary movies, both before and since but I can't think of any others that have continued to "hurt" us the ways these do.

  • John Bleasdale | November 28, 2010 1:31 AMReply

    I like the fact that they wanted to cut one shot from the film. And it wasn't any of the ones you might think of if asked. It was the shot of the toilet.
    Something Hitchcock laboured to put in all of his films.

  • Christopher Stilley | November 5, 2010 4:08 AMReply

    to this day ,the only thing that really creeps me out in Psycho is at the very end when the camera holds on Perkins' face and it begins to take the form of a skull as the scene fades into the car being pulled from the mud.
    Thats skeeerry! =:oO

  • Harold Wallin | November 3, 2010 10:33 AMReply

    By the time I first saw Psycho, the shower scene was well known.

    Your post however, reminds me of watching Vertigo for the first time, not knowing anything about it, and seeing "Madeleine" die in the middle of the picture. I was stunned that the female lead was killed partway through. Even though there is a twist and we see Kim Novak again, you might say that Hitchcock had already had a dry run with this idea of radically changing the audience's expectations in the middle of the movie a few years before Psycho.

  • Ron Norman | November 2, 2010 6:11 AMReply

    It is a great pleasure to be able to experience your writing through indieWIRE. Your life personally embodies what I passionately love about film. We can celebrate (and sometimes mourn) cinema and filmmaking together. I also really appreciate What’s Up, Doc?, Noises Off, They All Laughed, Saint Jack, and Mask, among many others in your creative work, and happily reveal them to my graduate film students at the three national arts universities in Taiwan. As artists and dreamers, they are deeply affected by the films' tones, feeling, control, and joyful use of the full range of cinema language. Thank you, Peter.....

  • Nelson Núñez | November 2, 2010 5:33 AMReply

    Dear Mr. Bogdanovich.
    Two questions:

    1-) What´s your favorite Hitchcock and why?
    2-) What do you think about Frenzy?...

    Thanks!

  • David Ehrenstein | November 2, 2010 4:10 AMReply

    Thanks for the memories Mr.Bogdanovich. I saw "Psycho" at the DeMille as well, and as you say it was quite a shock. By this time audiences were cued to enjoy horror films thanks to the British "Hammer Films" series. But a Hollywood movie with really big stars in it was a very different story. I found the shower murder shocking in and of itself but more shocking was the fact that it did away with the star. Hitchcock pulled the ground right from under you with that act. As a result we were forced to rethink the entire trajectory of traditional movie storytelling. The closest point of comparasion is Antonioni's L'Avventura." Lea Massari vanishes. We never find out how and can only guess why. But as a result we're froced to drift freely right along with Monica Vitti on the road to who knows where.

  • Michael Cade | November 2, 2010 1:43 AMReply

    Someday I'd love to hear what went through your mind when you first watched "Family Plot" and saw the master crib from you! The scene of Dern slamming on his breaks as Karen Black moved past his windshield is clearly the same as Streisand's introduction in "What's Up Doc?". Is it not?

  • Joe Frankel | November 1, 2010 3:18 AMReply

    Great blog, Sir! I gather from everything I've read of yours that the horror genre probably isn't your favorite, and it isn't mine either but I do occasionally find one that I love...Are there any titles (apart from Psycho) that you would rank as 'favorites' -- genre notwithstanding?

    Also: you've written a lot about Hitchcock. How do you feel about DePalma?

  • Suzie Wolkoff | November 1, 2010 1:57 AMReply

    I was just a kid when I saw Psycho and was completely scared out of my mind from the shower scene and of Anthony Perkins from that time forth. I have never been as frightened in my life by a film Being a 13 year old and seeing it in the movies was a life altering moment for me. Horror movies always intrigued me but they were Campy such as the Bela Lugosi movies and the Frankenstein classics. Psycho was numbing. The only other movies that were scary to me were Dr. Strangelove (the atomic Bomb destroying the world) and of course Jaws and the original Alien. The stars in those movies were cast perfectly. Again, Jaws was scary by your imagination and not by what you saw. Alien was scary by the visual and what it could do to a Human Being. Comedy is my favorite type of movie, and Cary Grant, Humprey Bogart and Fred Astaire are my favorite leading men. I love all of the old movies and most of the old movies were cast with amazing stars, both men and women. Thank you again for sharng your insights. Incidently, Anthony Perkins forever scared me since he did Psycho. I actually believed that he was able to show the dark side of a truly mad individual.
    Thanks Peter!
    Best,
    Suzie Wolkoff

  • Brad Reed | October 31, 2010 8:53 AMReply

    Thank you for the wonderful screenings of "the searchers" and "citizen kane" here in toronto. it was wonderful to hear your stories. i remember interviewing you what seems like a lifetime ago when you were promotoing "at long last love" and you autographed my copy of "fritz lang in america" and i gave you a button i made with the poster for "targets" pasted on it. it was a delight to be in the same room with you again - albeit a huge screenign room . . .

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