Those who weren’t around when the Alfred Hitchcock picture, “Psycho,” opened in 1960 have no idea of the revolutionary impact it had on the movie business.
Hitchcock put sex and violence front and center in a Hollywood film for the first time. From that moment on, moviemakers were given license to keep upping the ante. By the end of the 1960s, blood flowed freely in films as diverse as “Bonnie & Clyde” and “The Wild Bunch” and sexual situations that would have been unimaginable ten years earlier were integral to the plot of the X-rated 1969 best picture Oscar winner “Midnight Cowboy.”
The British critic and historian David Thomson takes us back 50 years in his excellent new book, “The Moment of ‘Psycho’: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder” (Basic Books).
Of course, the motel shower stabbing death of Janet Leigh — only 40 minutes into the film — was the key moment that shocked and terrified 1960 moviegoers who had no idea that the director of “Rear Window” and “North by Northwest” would turn the camera toward terrible violence, rather than away from it.
The scene of the crime made the sudden murder completely unexpected and strangely titillating to audiences 50 years ago — the combination of the strongly implied nudity of Janet Leigh and the savage violence she faced was startling in the extreme.
But, Thomson points out how “Psycho” broke Hollywood rules right from the start when his camera crept into a Phoenix hotel room where Leigh had obviously just had a lunch-break sexual tryst with her lover (John Gavin).
We quickly learn that the man is piled under debt (including alimony payments to his ex) and cannot offer his “girlfriend” much hope of a future together: other than similar daytime sexual encounters in cheap by-the-hour hotels.
“Look at a hundred other films from the ’50s and you will not find the same cramped air. As a rule, (in other films) the rooms are larger and brighter than they would be in reality, waiting to be filled by the hopes and energies of the era. Most films of the ’50s are secret ads for the American way of life. ‘Psycho’ is a warning about its lies and limits,” Thomson writes.
The author tells us how Hitchcock faced opposition from Paramount when he decided to make an inexpensive little black-and-white shocker — the executives thought the material was so sleazy that they pressed the director to shoot the film at another studio and granted him an unprecedented deal in which Hitchcock would have 60 percent ownsership of the movie (a deal which would make him one of the wealthiest Hollywood directors).
It was only because Hitchcock was such a popular filmmaker — and personally well liked by the people who ran the Production Code censorship board — that he was able to include unprecendented material in a Hollywood film, including a shot of a toilet flushing (the first toilet ever seen in a studio movie!), the opening post-coital hotel scene and the two graphic murders.
Hitchcock knew he was venturing into totally new territory by killing the biggest star in “Psycho” about 40 minutes in. As Thomson writes, the murder opened an abyss that left moviegoers feeling disoriented and helpless — if an intensely likable star like Janet Leigh could be disposed of so ruthlessly, who knew what horrors awaited them in the rest of the movie?
Leigh’s performance comes in for considerable — and well-deserved — praise from Thomson who notes how much of her poignant, dissatisfied character she has to portray without the crutch of any dialogue.
In subsequent viewings, “Psycho” does indeed lose a lot of its power in the scenes after the shower murder, as Thomson notes, but Leigh’s performance and her sad dinner with the shy motel manager Anthony Perkins are as strong as ever.
After taking us through the film, Thomson traces the movie’s influence over the subsequent five decades which have seen Hollywood films include violence so explicit that many horror films have become a form of torture porn.
“There is no need to blame Alfred Hitchcock alone for this development,” Thomson writes of the ghastly special effects-driven horror films of recent vintage. “(They are) rooted in the culture as a whole. But ‘Psycho’ more than any one film had said, ‘Forget the consequences of a case study if the end product is thrilling enough.’…What (has been) lost (over the years) is Hitchcock’s unique jaundiced vision — the thing stressed in the first forty minutes of ‘Psycho’: his sense of the unkind society.”