November 1959. Film director Alfred Hitchcock is at his commercial and critical peak after the successes of Vertigo (1958) and that year’s North By Northwest. So what does he do next? A hastily shot black-and-white made-for-TV movie, with no big-name actors and a leading actress who takes a shower, and… well, we’ll come to that.
Alfred Hitchcock is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. The legendary English director shunned the studio system and its strict rules, instead creating his own unique visual language. To this day, read any film review and critics will call certain techniques or motifs “Hitchcockian”. Known for his coruscating catalogue of genre films, Hitchcock was notoriously specific in every detail, crafting complex characters and themes that only a master of the medium could – themes which often explored the darkest depths of the human psyche, obsession, sex, death, and more.
Firmly entrenched in the cinematic canon, arguably one of his most celebrated films is the 1960 psychological horror, Psycho. Though it is really two films, glued together by probably the most iconic scene in cinema history. Not to mention Bernard Herrmann’s chilling score.
Part one is a run-of-the-mill morality tale. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, born 93 years ago today) steals $40,000 from her Phoenix employer, and goes on the run. Guilt-stricken, she pulls into a deserted motel and chats with the owner, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). He seems friendly enough – he invites her to join him for sandwiches and milk and talks fondly about his mother – and Marion resolves to return the money.
Part two is a whodunnit. Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) and her lover (John Gavin) investigate her disappearance, and trace her steps back to the motel. Soon, they begin to have suspicions about Norman, who turns out to be the shadowy slasher in the shower.
The experienced Hitchcock fan might reasonably expect the unreasonable—a great chase down Thomas Jefferson’s forehead, as in North By Northwest, or Cary Grant (again) cat burgling his way across the rooftops of Monaco, à la To Catch A Thief. Instead, audiences were treated to “a spectacle of stomach-churning horror”, said Time magazine, not entirely enthusiastically, with a cast headed by the relatively unknown Perkins as the knife-wielding maniac.
The story was based on the Wisconsin killer and graveyard robber, Ed Gein. In 1969, his neighbour, Robert Bloch, created a fictionalised suspense novel, Psycho, that was loosely based on the murder case. He introduced the general public to the serial killer Norman Bates, who ran the rundown swamp view motel. While Bates’ character suffered from dissociative identity disorder, Gein, known as the Butcher of Plainfield, also had severe mental health issues. After reading Bloch’s novel, Alfred Hitchcock decided it’d make an excellent movie. He acquired the rights to the novel for $9,500 and bought all the books up, so moviegoers wouldn’t know the ending. However, Paramount executives scoffed at Hitchcock’s film proposal and refused his usual budget.
In his response, the director offered to film Psycho swiftly and cheaply in budget-friendly black and white using his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series crew. James P. Cavanagh, a staff writer on the mystery anthology TV programme, wrote the original draft. All of Hitchcock’s trademark obsessions are on show: voyeurism, the dominant matriarchal figure, the blonde heroine, the untrustworthy cop.
What unfolds is an expertly gothic thriller that remains hugely influential. Psycho altered the suspense genre forever and even changed what can be shown on film. Audiences saw things in Psycho that had never been shown before on screen. A murderer who goes unpunished. A post-coital Leigh, lying on a bed, dressed only in white underwear, while Gavin stands topless over her.
In addition to the reams of blood, it was also the first film to show a flushing toilet (in 2020 that sounds unbelievable, but censors had a problem with Janet Leigh flushing a piece of paper with figures written on it. Movie audiences rarely saw toilets in film scenes of this era full stop, and it set the bar for the lengths to which a filmmaker would go to avoid spoilers.
Hitch famously ordered cinemas to not let any latecomers into screenings of Psycho, to keep the element of surprise. Previously, cinema-goers could wander into a film midway through, watch the last half, and then stick around for the restart to catch up on what they had missed. When your leading lady is butchered 45 minutes in, the film makes little sense if you arrive late – hence Hitchcock’s decree.
Over his career, Hitchcock had always flouted Hollywood’s Production Code, those rigid rules that had been in place since the 1930s that prohibited onscreen nudity, sex and violence. And nowhere is his brazen censor-defying clearer than in Psycho’s shower scene.
Marion steps into the shower, a shadowy figure rips back the curtain, and cinema’s most visceral scene unspools, brutally, before our very eyes. At close range, the camera watches every twitch, gurgle, convulsion and haemorrhage in the process by which a living human becomes a corpse.
Hitchcock, the master of suspense, never actually shows knife slicing flesh. Everything is implied, through liberal doses of chocolate sauce, hacked watermelons, Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violins, and Leigh’s blood-curdling screams.
In one 60-second scene, Hitchcock shatters all the rules. It’s the most famous of all bait and switches: you expect one thing, but get another. Up to that point, no film had killed off its lead character so early in the story (nowadays, such an audacious twist shows up everywhere, from The Lion King to Game Of Thrones). As Leigh slides down the blinding white tiles, arm outstretched, a new kind of cinema is born: twisted, shocking, primal. It was art. And it was disturbing art.
From then on, anything was possible. As the meek Bates transforms into a cold, calculating psychopathic killer, his violence is not gratuitous but always deeply psychological. It’s a bloodlust that plays on universal fears.
Legendary film critic Roger Ebert well surmised the universal resonance of the film. “What makes Psycho immortal, when so many films are already half-forgotten as we leave the theatre, is that it connects directly with our fears,” he wrote. “Our fears that we might impulsively commit a crime, our fears of the police, our fears of becoming the victim of a madman, and of course our fears of disappointing our mothers.”
In celebration of Psycho turning 60, I’ve put together six of the best: a half-dozen of the most iconic scenes in Hitchcock’s filmography. Starting with the obvious, here’s exactly why the director earned his title, Master of Suspense.
Psycho (1960) – The shower scene
Arguably the most iconic scene in any Alfred Hitchcock movie (let alone in the history of film), the shower scene in Psycho remains masterful even by today’s standards. When the unknown killer pulls back the curtain and begins calmly stabbing at Marion Crane, the instantly iconic shrieking violins start, entering the collective subconscious of an entire generation. At the time, it was shocking to see so much nudity and blood on screen. But Hitchcock was extremely clever in that he only gave the illusion of it all; the editing and cuts suggest a horrific murder when in reality we only see glimpses of a knife in the air and the victim’s stomach and arms outstretched. Hitchcock played the system.
North By Northwest (1959) – Outrunning the crop-duster
North By Northwest felt like a Bond movie before there were Bond movies, and it’s exemplified perfectly in this scene. Four years later, From Russia With Love went so far as to recreate it with a helicopter. The idea that something bad is about to happen has already begun to build before we see the crop-dusting plane appear on screen, as Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) waits by a bus station in a relatively quiet and contemplative moment. After a few agonisingly tense moments, he is suddenly being chased down by a toxic plane. With no music or dialogue, it’s enthralling to watch Thornhill race toward the screen. An exquisite example of a chase.
Rear Window (1954) – Jeff falls from the window
The chilling voyeuristic Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s more well-known movies, and it rightly deserves its popularity. Many moments in the film deserve a spot on this list, but Jeff’s (James Stewart) face-off with his murderous neighbour is too good to miss. Thorwald is obscured in the shadows just behind our protagonist, as tension builds till it’s hard to bear. When Jeff suddenly replaces the bulb of his camera, almost as though reloading a gun, he blinds Thorwald with his flash. What follows is a gripping fight between the two to overpower one another, where Thorwald ends up throwing Jeff out of the window as neighbours look on horrified.
The Birds (1963) – Gas station attack
In The Birds, wealthy socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) follows a man to a small Northern California town in the pursuit of love. It all takes a dark turn, though, when the birds in the town begin attacking people. In this particular scene, gasoline pools towards a car and an unsuspecting man as he lights his cigar. Onlookers a few stories high, including Melanie, try to get his attention, but he drops the lighter and erupts in a fiery explosion. As the fire travels along the gasoline trail to the nearby gas station it came from, Hitchcock cuts back and forth between the fire and Tippi Hedren’s terrified face. The tight-framed close ups and (literal) birds-eye-view darting back and forth are enough to put any audience on edge.
Notorious (1946) – The never-ending kiss
Under the Hays Code in Hollywood at the time, there were strict rules that meant two characters couldn’t kiss for more than three straight seconds. Hitchcock, once again, played the system, and depicted intense and prolonged passion without breaking any rules. Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia and Cary Grant’s Devlin tightly embrace and seemingly kiss non-stop, but the director got away with it as in between every peck and smooch the pair spoke to each other. The nearly three-minute makeout session is impossible to look away from, as it captures the youthful passion of two people who just can’t keep their hands off one another.
Vertigo (1958) – The Bell Tower
Vertigo is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time, and maybe Hitchcock’s most unique. It explores Scottie’s (James Stewart) obsession with a young woman and at times feels almost supernatural, with the score taking it to new heights of surrealism. In the breathtaking finale, we revisit the bell tower, where the object of his obsession, Madeleine, had died. By this point, Scottie has become the antagonist of his own story, and his infatuation and instability is downright terrifying. As he follows Judy – who he has manipulated into becoming a new Madeleine – up the stairs of the bell tower, his vertigo kicks in and he must conquer his phobia to find the truth. The cuts between James Stewart’s petrified expression and the ominous spiral staircase are enough to make anyone nauseous, and let to the famous camera dolly-zoom technique that’s used here to become dubbed the ‘vertigo shot’.