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Friday, June 25, 2010

Psycho Semi-Centennial: The Movie That Changed Everything

Last week marked the actual 50th anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho to theaters. Yes, I know I missed it. Having a feature entitled "Psycho Semi-Centennial" and missing the actual semi-centennial week, I should really be ashamed of myself. And so, to make up for such an egregious lapse, I'm bringing you the return of this year-long feature with a look at the many important ways that Hitchcock's landmark film changed the landscape of cinema forever. Better late than never, I always say...

Starting at the Beginning
As bizarre as it always seems to me, up until Psycho it was common practice for moviegoers to enter at any point during the movie, and stay into the next showing until they got up to the part they walked in on. This disjointed practice went out the window thanks to Hitchcock's vehement insistence that people come in at the start of the movie for the full effect. When they did so, resulting in lines around the block thanks to everyone arriving at the same time, they understood why.

First Flush
This may seem like a trivial matter to many post-modern viewers, but Psycho was the first American film in history to depict a toilet being flushed. Granted, it was only Marion disposing of her note, and not dropping a deuce, but this was a historic moment nonetheless, and encapsulated the frank, realistic tone Hitchcock and his screenwriter Joseph Stefano were going for. In fact, Stefano was adamant that a flushing toilet be shown for this very reason, and wrote the scene specifically so it would be integral to the plot.

Following, as it did, on the heels of the somewhat conservative (on the surface, at least) 1950s, Psycho's shower scene was shocking not just because of the violence, but because of the sheer amount of bare flesh on display. Both Janet Leigh and her body double show off quite a bit for the time, and it reportedly put censors--and more dour film-goers--into a tizzy. While still nothing beyond a PG-13 by today's standards, it was certainly pushing the envelope for a mainstream American film, and to this day viewers argue over how much was actually shown--a testament to the editing skills of George Tomasini.

No One Is Safe
Psycho sees its central protagonist, the character is which the audience has invested all its attention and interest, killed off roughly halfway into the movie. This was unheard of, and literally threw all traditional standards of cinematic storytelling out the window. If the main character could die so soon, all bets were off. Anything could happen. Viewers knew they were experiencing something truly new.

Let's Talk About Sex
To give you an idea of the level of censorship common at the time, the MPAA took issue with the word "transvestite" being used in the film's epilogue scene. Psycho deals with sexual subject matter in a manner that was very frank and open. Even from its opening scene, showing Marion and Sam enjoying a nooner in their little love nest, Psycho pushes the boundaries. Then you have an antaganist--Norman--whose entire character revolves around psycho-sexual issues. The whole speech given by Dr. Richmond at the end, though admittedly a bit forced and tacked-on, was a somewhat shocking explanation which took some of the more sheltered moviegoers of 1960 into territory they would have been far less familiar with than the average viewer of today.

Mother, Blood!
Hammer Films may have popularized blood in horror with their technicolor '50s spectacles, but Psycho was a mainstream Hollywood A-movie showing it, which was something entirely different. One of Hitchcock's reasons for filming in black and white was to make the gore of the shower scene more acceptable. But the sight of that Bosco syrup pouring down the shower drain helped prepare American audiences for the copious showers of red stuff to come in the future of the horror genre.

Musical Minimalism
The score of Psycho is one of the movies' most memorable thanks to the genius of Bernard Herrmann. Up to then, most Hollywood productions featured epic scores performed by vast studio orchestras, but Hermmann insisted on a pared-down, strings-only score performed by a small group of musicians. And although the John Williams-era of the late '70s brought back the epic score to a degree, the Psycho influence is still felt.

Big Screen/Little Screen
During the '50s, the movie biz did everything it could to compete with the introduction of TV. This usually involved going as big and bold as possible with things like widescreen and 3-D, showing all the things that TV didn't do. Hitch's genius was to go in the other direction. Thanks to his own TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the director gained an appreciation for the sparse, basic, low-budget style of TV film-making, and adapted that to the silver screen, bringing a bare-bones sensibility to Hollywood.

The Monster Next Door
Though not the first horror movie to feature a non-supernatural villain, Psycho certainly set the standard to come, and changed the course of the genre in the process with its depiction of a "real" human being as the threat. Monsters were the order of the day up to that point in time, but Psycho showed that reality-based horror could work--that the creepy guy next door could potentially be far scarier than vampires or werewolves. And although Psycho may not technically be a slasher film (debatable), it certainly set the stage.


Rabid Fox said...

It's really something when a movie like this can stand the test of time. Beneath all the iconic scenes and nostalgia afforded to Hitchcock--and the Bates Motel--the movie is just a damned good tale.

Wish I could say the same about the Van Sant remake.

Brian (a.k.a. Hellstorm) said...

I'm surprised that you mentioned John Williams and not how Psycho's minimalist score seems to have influenced Williams' score for Jaws.

I was also under the impression that Hitchcock "borrowed" the idea of insisting no one be allowed to enter theaters once the film began from Clouzot's Diaboliques (1955). In fact, Hitchcock (and much of what people like about Psycho) was so influenced by Diaboliques that he purchased the movie rights to Vertigo (based upon the novel D'entre Les Morts) from the authors of Diabolique’s source novel (C’Elle Qui N’Etait Plus).

While there are admittedly no transvestites in Diabolique, we do have a wife seemingly accepting of - and friends with - her husband's mistress, which I imagine was at least somewhat shocking to American audiences in 1955. We also have non-supernatural villains / "real" human beings as the threat in Diabolique.

It could even be argued that the relatively early death of Marion Crane in Psycho is reminiscent of the relatively early death of Michel Delassalle in Diabolique, but who likes to argue. ;)

As much as Psycho undoubtedly influenced the slasher genre, the apparent "resurrection" towards the end of Diabolique undoubtedly influenced similar scenes towards the end of Carrie, Halloween and Friday the 13th (the original films, that is).

B-Sol said...

Absolutely on the money about Les Diaboliques, Brian. It had a major influence on Psycho in many ways. That's why I specified that Psycho brought these elements into play in a mainstream Hollywood production. I think that was Hitchcock's contribution, that he translated it into American cinema, which, not to sound like a chauvinist, is a whole other level. But yep, European cinema, and particularly French cinema, had been getting away with a bit more than prudish America in the 1950s, that's for sure.

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