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The Industrial Concerns of Psycho

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Over the course of his career Alfred Hitchcock made a name for himself as the “Master of Suspense”, and would be considered by some to be the greatest director who ever lived. Hitchcock’s greatest contribution to the film industry would come with the release of his 1960 film Psycho. Throughout the making of this film Hitchcock had to work against strict censorship code, a small budget, and preconceived notions of what a horror film should be. Despite these issues working against him Hitchcock still managed to create a film that would change cinema forever. The scope of this paper will cover how Psycho skirted the strict censorship codes, shocked its targeted audience, provided a deep sense of auteurism, and birthed new techniques to change the way audiences everywhere viewed horror.

The first industrial concern with Psycho deals with its budgetary constraints. The film was entirely funded and produced by Hitchcock and needed to stay under a budget of one million US dollars. One key way the film overcame this obstacle was by avoiding the casting of big box office names. The exception to this is Janet Leigh who plays Marion Crane. Hitchcock wanted Leigh, as he understood having a big name on the cast would draw in audience members (“Behind the Camera on Psycho”). Having the biggest star of the film killed off so early would also increase the shock factor.

While Leigh was the big name on the cast, the other actors were not unknown to cinema. Anthony Perkins, who played the infamous Norman Bates, already had one Oscar nomination under his belt when he took on the role. Vera Miles, who played Marion’s sister Lila, had previously worked with Hitchcock on The Wrong Man in 1956. Another up-and-coming actor named John Gavin filled the role of Sam Loomis. Prior to his work on Psycho Gavin worked on the critically acclaimed soap opera Imitation of Life (“Behind the Camera on Psycho”). By avoiding the use of A-list actors, but filling the roles with still successful actors, the film was able to proceed under budget.

Another interesting way Psycho worked around its budget was through the use of black and white film. Hitchcock was no stranger to black and white films with earlier movies such as Rebecca, The 39 Steps, and Strangers on a Train utilizing the technique. By the time Psycho debuted in 1960 however, Hitchcock was working in color films. Black and white film was cheaper and easier to produce (Robb). The use of black and white also allowed Psycho to bypass the strict censorship codes in effect, a ploy that will be discussed in the next paragraph.

As previously mention, Psycho utilized a black and white filming technique to work around the strict censorship of the Hay’s code. One of the most iconic scenes in the film features Marion Crane’s brutal murder in the shower of the Bates Motel. Leigh’s character is filmed being repeatedly stabbed by an unknown attacker. The scene shows flashes of Marion’s body, the swing of the knife, and Marion’s blood washing down the shower drain. Hitchcock knew that the scene would never be approved if it showed splatters of red blood (Robb).

In addition to the black and white film some creative editing was needed in order for the scene to pass. The film could not show the knife penetrating Leigh’s skin or any outright nudity. Instead of visually showing the murder Psycho leaves the stab wounds to one’s own imagination. Leigh’s body is shown in brief flashes: a look of terror when she sees her attacker, a close-up of her screaming mouth, her arm as she tries to fend of the knife, her navel, and finally her hand grasping for the shower curtain. Another clever tactic to avoid the Hay’s code was used when the censors demanded Hitchcock change the scene he sent them a copy of the same scene unchanged. This confused the censors and made them believe they had previously scene something they had not (Johnson). Through the use of 78 different camera angles, 52 cuts, and the famous violin score playing in the background, the film paints a picture of a violent attack (Dollar). The shower scene is pivotal to the plot of Psycho and the dedication to keeping it in is shown with the knowledge that it took an entire week to film.

Psycho isn’t considered a legendary film for the shower scene alone. As the film’s first forty-five minutes focuses on Marion, her death serves as a central turning point in the film. Luring the audience into caring for Marion, and believing that as the central character she would be safe from harm, set an unprecedented take on what a horror film should be. It is the revelation that Norman Bates is the murderer that serves as the ultimate plot twist however. Not only had the audience began to care for Marion, but they also are led to feel sympathetic towards Norman.

In order to protect this plot twist Hitchcock used some creative marketing. Johnson (2010) states “Hitchcock built the movie’s entire campaign on the idea of sealing the movie inside the cinema”. In a then unheard of move he demanded late comers not be allowed into the theater. Hitchcock also leaked false information about the actresses he was considering for the role of Mrs. Bates. This was a clever way to conceal that Norman is the murderer.

Hitchcock’s auteurism can be seen all over the film. The most obvious example of this is the multiple shocks throughout. The “Master of Suspense” pulled out all of the stops to keep audiences on their toes. As a director Hitchcock was a notorious perfectionist. This drive for perfection observed in the creating of the film. One example of this was the set for the shower scene. Hitchcock needed a set that allowed for all four of the walls to be removed so the camera could film at all angles (“Behind the Camera on Psycho”). While most films of the time used a third person viewpoint, making the moviegoer appear as a bystander, Hitchcock used first person camera angles. This technique was unique to Hitchcock, and placed the audience in the middle of the action.

Through placing the viewer in the point of view of the characters Psycho creates a breakdown in the barrier between the movie and the lives of those watching. This is what Julia Kristeva would refer to as abjection. We see Marion being spied on while she showers, and this makes us uncomfortable. We are forced to come to terms with the fact that peeping toms exist, and it could happen to us. We are again faced with a sense of abjection when Marion is murdered. The scene relies heavily on suggestive horror. We the viewers see the attack in our imagination. This causes it to seem more real, and more likely to happen to us.

Carol Clover identifies a common trope in horror movies: the final girl. This girl is usually the main character and the person who will survive. If the final girl does become a victim she is usually the last to die. Psycho used this preconceived notion of who is safe in a horror film and used it play emotional tricks on the audience. First we root for Marion, and then for Normal, and finally for Lila Crane.

In conclusion the film became a blockbuster hit despite its lack of an extensive budget. Casting individuals who were known in the industry, but had not reached fantastical levels of stardom helped to achieve this. The use of back and white cinematography played multiple roles in the films success. Firstly it was cheaper to produce, and secondly it helped to get a pivotal scene to the plot past the restrictions of the Hay’s code. Hitchcock’s personal touches in the filming and editing of the final project showcased his personal flare. His shrouding of the film in secrecy acted as a challenge of sorts to the audience. By playing on our mortal fears, shocking us with the on screen violence, and using our conceptions of how a horror film will play out against us, Psycho changed the genre and cemented its place in cinema history.

Works Cited

  1. “Behind the Camera on Psycho.” Tcm.com, http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/191164%7C0/Behind-the-Camera-Psycho.html. Accessed 7 November 2018.
  2. Dollar, S. “Psycho’s Shower Scene: How Hitchcock Fooled Censors”. History.com, https://www.history.com/news/psycho-shower-scene-hitchcock-tricks-fooled-censors. Accessed 7 November 2018.
  3. Johnson, B. “The Psycho Effect.” Macleans, https://www.macleans.ca/culture/the-psycho-effect/. Accessed 7 November 2018.
  4. Robb, S. “How Psycho Changed Cinema.” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8593508.stm. Accessed 7 November 2018.
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