Wednesday, 27 July 2016
Classic Film: Psycho
Equal parts revolutionary and risqué in its time, Psycho has gone on to embed itself in our collective cinematic lexicon and reshape horror for over half a century.
Think Alfred Hitchcock and you think Psycho. It’s arguably Hitchcock’s zenith, arriving at a point where the English auteur had already made a name for himself as the ‘master of suspense’ with thrillers North by Northwest and Rear Window. But with Psycho, the director steered his career, and legacy, into newer, altogether bloodier waters that shocked and outraged audiences at the time.
It’s a film that, at first, bears all the hallmarks of a quintessential Hitchcock film; the gorgeous blonde in Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane coupled with the voyeuristic menace and underlying mystery of unsettling motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Where Psycho catches you out is the infamous shower scene in which the director rips the rug out from underneath the audience and flips the narrative on its head.
3 minutes long and composed of over 70 angles and 50 cuts, the shower scene famously took over a week to piece together. Constrained by the choice of using black and white, the production crew also employed the use of chocolate syrup to emphasise the contrast of the dark blood on the stark white bath. It’s also a sequence that posed a lot of issues for Hitchcock with the censors who were worried about the shocking violence and the nudity.
In fact, censors apposed a lot of Hitchcock’s choices during the production process, but thankfully the director held firm. The film is now infamous for the numerous milestones it lay down en route to attaining iconic status with cinephiles the world over; it marks the first time that a toilet was depicted flushing onscreen (how scandalous!) as well as reaching new levels of depravity by showing Sam (John Gavin) and Marion sharing a bed in the opening scene, despite not being a married couple (for shame!).
Tasked with preserving the central mystery surrounding Norman’s overbearing mother, Hitchcock was also forced to employ some inventive camerawork techniques, such as the odd overheard shot employed to frame the murder of Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam). The intricate pulley system that ran parallel to the stairs and sat atop the hallway, thus concealing the secret, achieved the desired effect, but it took weeks to prepare and test.
In fact, preserving secrecy and mystery was an important part of the distribution process. Trailers told audiences that Psycho was a film that had to been from the beginning, or not at all. Even after the film had hit theatres, Hitchcock was adamant that latecomers should be denied entry to the theatre, citing that they wouldn’t receive the full experience. It’s a shame that this practice isn’t still upheld! Nowadays we’re used to films like The Force Awakens being shrouded in secrecy, but not even JJ Abrams is that stringent on the secrets, particularly with social media causing spoilers to spread like wildfire.
They might seem cute by 2016 standards, but the boundaries that Hitchcock pushed on Psycho certainly titillated audiences at the time; initial mixed reviews were cast aside as reams of people flocked to see what all the hullabaloo was about. This in turn caused numerous publications to reconsider their verdicts; Time Magazine’s lukewarm appraisal was famously altered to include superlatives such as ‘masterly’ following the larger-than-expected box office takings.
Not even a slew of sequels, a misguided shot-for-shot remake and a spin-off TV movie have diluted the lasting impact of Psycho. Looking back, the film isn’t just a singular work of art that caused a storm; through Psycho, Hitchcock redefined the horror genre, practically spawning what we now call the ‘slasher’ in the process. Who can say that the careers of Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper would have been as ripe had it not been for the legacy of Psycho?
Psycho is screening at Windsor Cinema on Friday 29th July and Sunday 7th August as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Film Festival.
This review was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out.