Going ‘psychotic’ over Hitchcock’s Psycho

*by Norman Yusoff

“We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” – Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) remains my most-watched film ever. I must happily declare that I have watched it at least 60 times. I believe all of us have films that penetrate straight to our hearts; in my case, Psycho happens to be one of them. To commemorate its 50th anniversary this year I feel compelled to write something about the film (perhaps something more personal), although I must admit that my exhaustive readings on the film (both popular and academic writings – even prior to my exploration of ‘film studies’) have thus shaped my thoughts and weltanshauung of the film. That being the case, I shall not offer any critical review of the film; nor shall I embark on the film’s analysis and interpretation.

Its 50th anniversary celebration encompasses a number of screenings (mostly at art-house cinemas) held in the U.S., Britain and other parts of the world. In Australia, Bernard Herrmann’s disturbingly screeching score was brought to life (with the digitally-projected screening) at the Sydney Opera House earlier this year. The 50th anniversary DVD of the film has also been released worldwide. Psycho remains ‘a must-see’ – if you have never seen it, this is the year to do so. It is a shame that many people (especially among Malaysian moviegoers and those self-declared movie buffs as well as horror aficionados) have not seen the film. They would rather plume themselves on their experience watching some dull blockbuster (such as Avatar).

Dah orang kata don’t look down, don’t look down lah…

Deliberately made in black-and-white with a modest budget, Psycho emerged as an instant hit. The film has been heralded as perhaps the scariest piece of celluloid make-believe to ever run through a projector. Hitchcock directed so many films, but Psycho, for many reasons, remains his most popular work, though not regarded by critics and scholars as his best work (as his dark and intricately elegant Vertigo [1958] has been unanimously endorsed as his best, instead). Neither does Psycho figure as prominently as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) in the ranking of the greatest Hollywood movies ever made. Yes, it is not the greatest, but its impact in the history of cinema has been tremendous.

Psycho was the first Hollywood film to include a scene showcasing a toilet being flushed. The film has also been conceived as a significant modern American film, in particular the ways in which it signaled a significant shift in the horror genre. It was one of the earliest Hollywood horrors to have featured a living human being (a psychopath) as its monster. It was also the first film that dared to violate one of the conventions of the Classical Hollywood Narrative concerning its female protagonist (associated with Janet Leigh – the Hollywood star) when her character is killed off during the first act of the three acts in the film, jolting audiences out of their complacency.

Psycho went on to influence many other films, ranging from the graphically gore and raw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) to the spine-chilling Silence of the Lambs (1991). The film’s influence also necessitated the emergence of a new horror sub-genre called ‘slasher,’ exemplified by films such as Black Christmas, Scream Bloody Murder, Silent Night, My Bloody Valentine, Terror Train, Prom Night, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, to name a few. Psycho spawned two sequels, a prequel and a remake. Anthony Perkins reprised his role as Norman Bates in Psycho II (1983) and Psycho III (1986) both of which received lukewarm response. The prequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) was such a lackluster effort initially made for television. Acclaimed director Gus Van Sant came up with a remake of the film in 1998 (in colour though) – a virtually shot-for-shot remake replicating Hitchcock’s camerawork and editing, with the critical backlash heaped upon the film during its release. Coincidentally, there was a British film released in the same year (just a few months earlier prior to Psycho), Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell, which also deals with atypically mild-mannered serial killer protagonist, hinting at the Freudian Oedipal theme(s) and misogynism.

At the time, Edward didn’t have scissors for hands yet.

When it comes to Psycho, it would be churlish not to mention the notorious shower sequence which has attained an iconic status, perhaps the most famous scene (and one of the sexiest, too!) in the history of cinema. When the killer (the grey tall figure) enters the bathroom whilst brandishing a butcher knife and stabs his victim (Marion Crane – played by Janet Leigh) to death, believe me, it is frighteningly good. The brutal stabbing coupled with the shrieking of Bernard Herrmann’s violin which reverberate with Marion’s screaming petrifies not only Marion, but the audience as well; this is reinforced by Hitchcock’s fast, rhythmic editing (influenced by Soviet filmmaker Eisenstein) that manages to disorient us. The scene took about seven days to complete, using 70 camera set-ups. The shower scene has left enormous impacts, either cinematically, psychologically or culturally. It was reported that, perturbed and horrified by the scene, many female audiences were afraid to enter the shower after watching the film. The shower scene itself has been referred to, imitated, parodied and spoofed in numerous films, TV shows and advertisements.

Of course, there are scenes which I seem to distrust, though I think they are not extraneous. For example, in one of the scenes towards the end in which a psychiatrist pops in to explain at great length Norman’s psychopathic disposition is perhaps too preachy and elaborate. However, I certainly disagree with many critics claiming that the effect of the scene is almost parodic, belying the film’s serious tone. I would contend that Psycho is indeed sprinkled with seemingly unintentional humour by which its dramatic suspense is balanced.

The New York Times: bastion of knowing what they talk about. Or not.

During its release in 1960, Psycho received mixed reviews. Many critics were appalled by the film, particularly in terms of how violence is exploited as spectacle. The film even elicited derision from New York Times, claiming: “Psycho is sicko.” The good thing is that Psycho went on to receive a critical reappraisal, making it the only Hitchcock’s film widely written about, analysed, and discoursed, thanks to Andrew Sarris (one of the most important American film critics) for developing an intellectual American film culture which exploded in the 1960s. Besides, the institutionalisation of ‘film studies’ as an academic discipline in the late 60s also enabled such valorisation.

Psycho attracted not only film critics, scholars and historians, but also cultural critics, philosophers, and scholars from other disciplines; this includes pieces by Raymond Bellour, Donald Spoto, Robin Wood, Robert Kolker, Fredric Jameson, Tania Modelski, William Rothman, Stephen Rebello, Raymond Durgnat, James Naremore, Philip J. Skerry, Slavoj Zizek, and many more. Interestingly, these writings on Psycho explore a wide range of topics, ranging from Freudian Oedipal theme(s) and narrative, structuralist-oriented close analysis, feminist-influenced gender criticism, questions of genre (as a horror/suspense-thriller/psychological horror-thriller/Gothic thriller/slasher), voyeurism and film spectatorship, to Christian morality and philosophy of dualism. Therefore, the (re)appraisal of Psycho, in many ways, proves that, when it comes to cinema as art form, value judgment is hardly a fixed, stable and non-porous entity.

“Teh tarik lima!” was her dying wish…

My favourite analysis of the film is the one offered by Britain’s renowned film critic, Victor F. Perkins, in his groundbreaking book in the arena of film criticism (and ‘film studies’), Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies (1972). Perkins actually only focuses upon the murder shower sequence. What seems intriguing is that Perkins offers a scrupulous and cogent analysis which accentuates that every element, ranging from cinematic styles to actor performances, interacts with each other so as to contribute to the film’s overall form. From the water in the shower that ‘washes away’ Marion’s blood (in the sense that ‘washes away’ Marion’s sins) to the shower curtain which manifests the binary pattern anchored at the heart of the film’s narrative (throughout, the film deals with thematic patterns: ‘hiding/concealment’ vs ‘revelation/release’). Best of all, Perkins proves that his interpretation is simply an act of revealing meanings embedded in the film’s text, not ‘excavating’ or ‘making’ (new) meanings which are not there (Indeed, the issue of ‘interpretation’ has become a huge polemic in contemporary film studies). The reputable positioning of Psycho within the purview of ‘film studies’ (including film criticism) has totally altered my view on cinema, and thereby sparked my interest in film scholarship which I am now pursuing. Previously, even when I taught courses such as Film Criticism, Psycho definitely ranked among the ‘must-use’ texts in the classroom.

The film’s 50th anniversary certainly makes me reminisce over a sweet little memory when I had the opportunity to meet the late Janet Leigh in person in 1997 during my undergraduate studies. Janet Leigh was in West Palm Beach, Florida launching her book (co-written with Christopher Nickens), Psycho – Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller (in conjunction with the Palm Beach International Film Festival). Realising that I was head-over-heels in love with Psycho, my professor Cheryl Pridgeon (who taught my elective course ‘Film Art,’ introducing me to the art of film appreciation) took me to the Q-&-A session where I managed to get a copy of Leigh’s book, as well as her autograph. When I mentioned my name upon her request, whilst about signing her name, Leigh straight away replied: “I hope you’re not Norman Bates, are you?”

Norman Yusoff is currently studying film somewhere. The shy person that he is, he doesn’t want to be more revealing than that.

Featured image credit: brylcreem4lyfe / reddit

2 thoughts on “Going ‘psychotic’ over Hitchcock’s Psycho

  1. Great article. I believed any filmmakers who have even slight interest in attempting horror and thriller genres should at least spend some time rediscovering the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Strangers on a Train are definitely his other recommended masterpieces.

    1. Absolutely. One of the best ways forward on the filmmaking path is to see how those who trod on it did. I’ve used North by Northwest and Birds in some of the classes I’ve taught.


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