In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock came across a novel by Robert Bloch, called Psycho. The novel was loosely based on the crimes of Ed Gein, the infamous grave robber and murder that shocked America in the mid 1950s. Hitchcock enlisted Joseph Stefano, and together they developed it into a screenplay. Hitchcock took the directors chair and Psycho found its way to cinema screens on 16th June 1960. Where is was met with excellent box office success and overwhelmingly positive reviews.
So, what makes Psycho so outstanding? First, don’t be fooled by the slightly jumpy opening credits, this is deliberate. The jittery, jagged words mirror the unstable mind of Norman Bates. This referencing of his mental state is also apparently in Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack, which is genuinely uncomfortable. It somehow blends seamlessly into the movie while simultaneously being impossible to ignore. Once the movie starts the production quality becomes sleek and professional. Deliberately shot in black and white, in a time when most films were in colour, the picture is sharp and polished, and as the film progresses, it becomes clear that it could never have been shot in colour. It was a story meant to be told in black and white. Finally, the acting is first-rate, and though there was no question that Anthony Perkins was a world-class actor before Psycho, his performance as Norman Bates; both beautifully creepy and terrifyingly charming, and is easily the best of his career.
Psycho holds claim to one of the most iconic scenes in cinema; the shower scene. It took 77 different camera angles, 90 splices, over 50 cuts and a 7 days to make the 3 minute scene. It is one of those markers in cinematic history that destroyed conventional barriers of the time. Overall, Psycho was unpredictable, which on a subconscious level made people feel unsafe, but more than that, it crawled under the skin of its audience because it was believable. Along with North by Northwest, Psycho established Hitchcock as the most influential filmmaker of all time and, more significantly, gave birth of two new horror sub-genres; psychological horror and slasher films.
Although not a reflection on the film itself, Hitchcock did some brilliant promotional work before Psycho’s mainstream release, including a 6 minute trailer to introduce the film and a short, to the point radio ad that ended with loud woman’s scream. Also, Hitchcock brought up as many of the copies of the Psycho novel as he could, to keep the ending as much of secret as possible but, best of all, theaters were supplied with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Hitchcock pointing to his wristwatch with a note from the director saying:
“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. Any spurious attempts to enter by side doors, fire escapes or ventilating shafts will be met by force. The entire objective of this extraordinary policy, of course, is to help you enjoy PSYCHO more. Alfred Hitchcock”