Masterpiece: Psycho

If five minutes is an eternity in pop culture, then 50 years is almost inconceivable. In 1960, America lived in fear of war with the Russians, Beatlemania was some exotic foreign disease, and cinema was in danger of being eclipsed by an upstart cathode-ray tube that had all but taken over as audiences’ entertainment of choice. The world’s come a long way since then, but Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho endures — casting as long and as influential a shadow over filmmaking as it ever did, half a century since the director pared back the shower curtain to kill off his leading lady to the shrieks of moviegoers. Cast your mind over any horror movie made since and you’ll see the influence of Hitch’s masterpiece; throw a rock and you’ll hit a pop culture reference, from The Simpsons’ Norman Bates-esque Principal Skinner to A Single Man’s all-consuming billboard, cementing the film as a cultural touchstone across generations.

Psycho’s twin infamies — the grisly shower murder scene and (spoiler alert!) Anthony Perkins’s cross-dressing inhabitance of his dead mother — ride high in the collective consciousness; so much that they can sometimes obscure what a deliciously tense and groundbreaking little shocker the film was. Coming off a run of exquisite big-budget thrillers with A-list stars (North By Northwest, Vertigo, To Catch A Thief), Hitch picked up Robert Bloch’s pulp novel and set about filming a low budget black-and-white piece that would match the sensibilities of younger, savvier movie audiences. But as ever, the director was one step ahead of his target market. “Psycho has a very interesting construction,” he later told Francois Truffaut, referring to the red herring of Janet Leigh’s apparent central character, “and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ.”

And how. The movie opens like a classic tale of infidelity and theft: Marion Crane (Leigh) is involved in an illicit rendezvous with a married man when she happens upon a stash of bills and decides to hit the road, hoping to buy herself into a new life. She didn’t reckon upon a fatal night at the Bates Motel, however, where the clean-cut, taxidermy-loving office manager Norman Bates (Perkins) will soon give chilling new meaning to the phrase, “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” That shower scene — and if you haven’t seen the film, please, stop reading — has gone down as probably the most notorious in cinema history, the iconic imagery of Leigh’s blood circling the plughole to the sound of Bernard Herrmann’s spiky, insistent score forever seared into audiences’ minds. Just as shocking, though, is the fact that it takes place 45 minutes into the film; by disposing of his star and the viewer’s expectations, Hitchcock had lured his audience into a trap. From that point on, anything went. Hitch went so far as to ban patrons from entering the theatre if they arrived late to the film, to preserve his narrative’s element of surprise.

In a way, arguably more than his vaunted masterpieces of the ’50s, Psycho was Hitchcock’s lasting legacy to movies. It was a truly modern film that anticipated much of what was to come, matching his young French New Wave worshippers at their own game and setting the standard for murder thrillers for years to come. Hitchcock’s manipulative use of POV — check the audience-implicating frenzy of the shower peephole shots — practically birthed the slasher genre that would proliferate the following decade, while every second deranged movie loon would soon carry an elaborate backstory that drew on populist psychology the way Bates’s relationship to his mother was portrayed. Curiously, for all its avant garde breakthroughs, it’s the nasty undercurrents of Psycho’s worldview that remain the most backward. Marion’s apparent punishment for her sexual indiscretions and the depiction of cross-dressing, possibly homosexual Norman as a deranged nutjob may say as much about Hitch’s personal attitude as they do about society.

April 2010

Originally published in Empire

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