With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock took his biggest risk and had his biggest success. The risk was not financial – at less than one million dollars Psycho was a comparatively cheap film to make – but there was considerable risk in the subject matter.
The film was about a deranged split personality, and if the public and press found it distasteful, the careers of actor Anthony Perkins and of Hitchcock himself would suffer a severe setback.
Hitchcock considered Psycho a “fun film” – like a roller coaster ride where the audience delights in the pleasure of a good fright.
Pretty secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) embezzles $40,000 from her firm and heads for California and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a storekeeper who cannot afford to marry her.
She stops at the rundown and isolated Bates Motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), an odd youth whose hobby is taxidermy.
From that point on the movie is basically structured around three shocks; The murder of the heroine (Leigh) in the shower; the murder of the private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) who has gone to look for her; and the discovery of the mummified body in the cellar which holds the clue to the identity of the murderer. The biggest shock is the first, coming completely out of the blue.
From that point onwards, the movie becomes less horrific but more tense, because the horror has been transferred to the minds of the audience.
The shower murder has become one of the most famous and analysed of all screen sequences. The British censor, John Trevelyan, made cuts to the scene because he thought it sadistic. Fourteen stabs were reduced to three.
In terms of visual gore, it is relatively restrained, but the scene has an enormous impact thanks to the icily effective screaming violins of Bernard Hermann’s score, the fast cutting of the sequence which corresponds with the slashing of the knife, and the fact that the victim is not only a star, but the character with whom we have been identifying so far in the film – The murder literally cuts the ground from under our feet.
From this point on, Anthony Perkins’ performance rules supreme. He gives the performance of his life (as does Janet Leigh).
Hitchcock broke the rules with Psycho. Prior to the 1960 film, movie audiences could be reasonably confident that the star of a movie would make it through to the final credits – or, at worst, expire in the last minute of the film as appropriate music swelled on the soundtrack.
Because of Hitchcock’s cinematic genius, this movie has proved an inexhaustible treasure-trove for movie and horror buffs . . . and motels and showers have never seemed quite the same since.
The unforgettable Bernard Hermann soundtrack was an afterthought. Alfred Hitchcock originally wanted no music at all in the movie.