Psycho at 60 – How it changed Hollywood
PUBLISHED: 19:00 02 September 2020
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Psycho celebrates 60 years of terrifying audiences. We take a look at how director Alfred Hitchcock became an indie film-maker and changed the face of Hollywood
It’s 60 years since Alfred Hitchcock scared everyone out of the shower when he released Psycho, one of the greatest chillers of all time, onto the big screen. Propelled by Bernard Herrmann’s iconic staccato, stabbing score and Hitchcock’s quick-fire, almost sub-liminal editing, Psycho left audiences numb with shock.
Not only was Psycho a landmark film for movie fans and Hitchcock enthusiasts, it was a milestone release for Hollywood itself, although it didn’t realise it at the time. It rewrote the rule book on what could and could not be shown on screen and hastened the end for America’s much derided Hays Code which had kept the US film industry in the Puritanical Dark Ages while European cinema was exploding with such groundbreaking films as The Bicycle Thief, Diabolique, And God Created Woman and La Dolce Vita.
Psycho was Hitchcock announcing to the world that Hollywood could compete on equal terms, could produce grown-up, adult features if it could move away from the idea that all films should be suitable for all audiences. This was the basic tenant of The Hays Code, a set of cast-iron dos and don’ts, which kept Hollywood safe for family audiences for 30 years from July 1934.
Presided over by Jesuit layman Joseph Breen, the Hays Code had been a buttress against state censorship boards, but Breen had retired in 1954 and by 1960 the new team in the Hays Office was beginning to waver. Without Breen’s religious fervour, and with European movies making Hollywood’s homegrown fare look increasingly childish (this was the era of Jerry Lewis knockabouts and low grade sci-fi movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still), the Hays Code was starting to crack.
Howard Hughes fought an unending battle to get Jane Russell’s low-cut necklines in The Outlaw passed the censors and some quick edits were required to allow Burt Lancaster’s romps in the surf in From Here To Eternity, but, these were signs that perhaps, Hollywood could return to making the sort of grown-up movies they were making in the Pre-Code era in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Hitchcock decided to put the matter to the test. He would make a film that combined flashes of nudity, cross-dressing and murder and worst of all he would set it in a bathroom, the one room of the house that Joseph Breen had forbidden to shown on screen. And, to add insult to injury, he would kill off his leading lady, something Hollywood never did.
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These were all ingredients that ten years earlier would have seen his film refused a production seal and therefore a release in American cinemas. Psycho turned out to be not only a movie classic but also the ultimate act of rebellion.
But, getting Psycho made wasn’t as smooth as Hitchcock was used to. Even though The Master was coming off a decade of huge hits Dial M Murder, Rear Window, Vertigo, To Catch A Thief, North By Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Paramount were very nervous about Hitchcock’s desire to bring Robert Bloch’s edgy, some said ‘perverted’ novel to the big screen.
In an effort to get him to rethink, they refused to provide him with an adequate budget to shoot the movie, convinced that the movie would flop and Hitchcock would destroy his reputation. Hitchcock responded by waiving his director’s fee and proposing to shoot the film quickly in black and white using the crew from his weekly TV series rather than a movie crew.
Hitchcock said that he would finance the film himself if Paramount would agree to distribute the finished film. In return Hitchcock would take a 60% share of the gross profits. Paramount agreed, knowing that if the film flopped, as they were convinced it would, they could just bury the prints and they would not be exposed to any financial losses.
As we now know the film was a huge hit. Hitchcock created not only a cinematic masterpiece but also made himself financially secure for life. In 1960 he netted just over $15 million, his usual directing fee was £250,000. Adjusted for inflation, his Psycho take for 1960 alone would be just over $120 million at today’s prices.
But, it wasn’t just about the money or breaking the stranglehold The Hays Code held on Hollywood’s film-making abilities, Hitchcock transformed the way that movies were made.
The iconic shower scene, which lasts for little more than three minutes, took an entire week to shoot, involving 77 camera set-ups, 50 rapid edits, with Hitchcock using a mix of extreme close-ups and medium shots, showing flashes of nudity, glimpses of a large bladed knife, blood twisting its way down the plug-hole, and was overlaid with Janet Leigh’s screams and Bernard Herrmann’s slashing score.
Psycho was one of the very first Hollywood films to truly unnerve its audience. Hitchcock described the meticulous creation of the scene as “transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience”. The fact the scene retains such visceral power today suggests that he was indeed The Master.
The Hays Code limped on until 1967 but was increasingly ineffectual as the Sixties began to swing and was eventually replaced to age classification system similar to the one used in Britain.
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