An Appreciation – Psycho (1960)
Few films stand as clear touchstones. Every so often, a work will leave such an enormous impact that it will cause a notable shift within the cinematic landscape. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is one of those films. It operates as a clear transitional point, drawing the curtain down on the immediate post-war era and helping to usher in a new wave of storytelling that would dominate the late 1960s and into the ‘70s. It effectively put an end to the classic Film Noir age, planting the seeds that would eventually take down the Hays Code and bring about new forms of expression. Of course, Psycho isn’t the only film to do this, but rarely has a film left such a massive cultural footprint.
Some have labeled Hitchcock as a director who only stayed in one lane, that his skill was regulated only by the thriller genre. This thought is shortsighted. Hitchcock’s brilliance was largely due to his ability to adapt – to flow with the changing times. Yes, he had themes and obsessions that would run throughout his career: fear of being wrongfully accused of a crime, fear of police, fear of domineering parental figures, a compulsive obsession of strong-willed women, etc. But he encompassed those ideas within an ever-shifting style. Consider that he was not only able to sustain a forty-plus year career as a director, but was able to work in silent film, in black and white, in color, within genres like thriller, horror, adventure, comedy and romantic melodrama. He wasn’t just making passable films but high-quality ones, many of which are now considered masterpieces.
Hitchcock existed almost entirely within the studio system, and yet he did so with the vision of an artist. Psycho was such a change of pace for him that it could almost be considered experimental. It comes right between the big budget productions of North by Northwest (1959) and The Birds (1963). He utilized the crew from his television show, shot in black and white, and used a limited amount of sets in the Universal backlot. In interviews, he mentioned that he was going for the look of an exploitation film, with a stripped down, rougher feel than his usual, glossier work. Of course, there is also the narrative itself – written by Joseph Stefano (adapting Robert Bloch’s novel). It took a huge risk in killing off Hitchcock’s biggest star a third of the way into the plot and relying on a relative unknown to carry the audience from there on out.
It’s easy to forget – more than sixty years later – just how much of a gamble Hitchcock and his crew took. By this time, Hitchcock was just as big of a name than those he cast, and it’s no doubt that he used his influence to make the film he wanted. But he always made sure that his expert craftsmanship led the way. Hitchcock was a master manipulator when it came to storytelling. He was of the belief that the process of directing also meant swaying an audience to get a particular reaction. He tosses our allegiances back and forth like a hot potato, constantly questioning character motivations so that at one point we find ourselves rooting for the villain. The noir-centric feeling of anxiety and moral ambiguity is twisted and amplified to the extreme.
How does Hitchcock pull this off so successfully? The first act operates like a usual Hitchcock plot, in which secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer to run away with her lover Sam (John Gavin). Right away, Hitchcock is setting us up for what’s to come. By creating a situation where we side with Marion (even though she is committing a crime), we are placed in the position of accomplice. We are going on the run with her, and her growing anxiety of being apprehended is shared. When her employer catches her driving away, we feel her unease. That unease is expanded into fear when she runs into a police officer and is questioned. Her nervous answers immediately draw suspicious glances.
Just by describing Marion’s predicament, we are already finding ourselves getting drawn back into her story. That’s how effective the writing and direction is. We are put into a vulnerable position both as an accessory to Marion’s action as well as a detached observer. We go along with her and are unable to do anything about it. Much of the film has a voyeuristic quality – in how we observe events unfold and how characters observe each other. This is established in the opening, in which the cinematography (John L. Russell) features a shot that begins over the city of Phoenix, Arizona and gradually zooms into a hotel room where Marion and Sam (both partially undressed) are staying in. It’s this feeling of seeing what we are not supposed to see that pervades the entire narrative. From there on out, there is a constant feeling of paranoia.