Spoiler Alert — If you’ve never seen Psycho, I must insist, out of respect for Mr. Hitchcock, Mr. Perkins, and Miss Leigh, that you read to the end of this paragraph and then call it a day. About two months ago, I began to think about how best to tackle such a masterpiece as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This was primarily because I had invited my family to come visit the Bay Area, as the San Francisco Symphony was going to perform Bernard Herrmann’s score for the film. We had gone to see the San Francisco Symphony do The Wizard of Oz (1939) about a year ago, and it is a truly remarkable experience. The musicians sit below a large movie screen that shows an entire movie with its dialogue only. The symphony provides the film’s full score, and trust me, when performed live, the Wicked Witch of the West’s theme music provided me with some wonderfully familiar smiles. So when I discovered that the beloved San Francisco Symphony was planning to do Psycho, I knew I had to get the family up here. As with The Wizard of Oz, I assumed the audience was pretty familiar with Norman Bates, his mother, and their motel showers; perhaps all moviegoers can’t recite the film from memory like a certain crazy film blogger, but I really believed that the majority of the audience knew in which direction certain scenes were headed. And if not, they at least knew how the film came to its wonderful close . . . I was wrong. The startled reactions that consisted of gasping, screaming, and even a kick or two were, in turn, what startled me — it never even entered my mind that Psycho’s storyline would surprise anyone these days. A part of me was a wee bit jealous of those who were experiencing (or re-experiencing) it for the first time. When it was first released in 1960, Mr. Hitchcock demanded that movie theatres refuse admission to those who showed up after the film had begun — oh, how I wished I could do the same when I worked at Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. So again I beg you on behalf of all those who helped make it the masterpiece that it is, stop reading for now, pop yourself some corn, and treat yourself to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho from the very beginning . . . I’ll still be here.
If you’ve moved beyond my spoiler alert (there’s still time!), I’m guessing I don’t need to supply much of a plot summary — Marion Crane steals $40,000, hits the road, and stops at the Bates Motel for some rest, a meal, and perhaps the world of indoor plumbing’s most celebrated shower. Marion’s sister, boyfriend, and a private detective attempt to track her down and stumble into the Freudian world of Norman Bates and his mother. Originally stemming from a book by Robert Bloch, the idea to move from page to screen came about via Mr. Hitchcock’s weekly readings with his secretary of the New York Times Book Review. Joseph Stefano — who later battled the censor’s office over the film’s use of the word “transvestite,” not to mention the appearance of the first flushing toilet in film history — wrote a script that focused much more on the character of Marion (“Mary” in the book) than on Norman. When Mr. Hitchcock told Stefano that Alma read part of the script liked it, Stefano must have known it was going to be a success — from what I’ve learned, it was Alma Hitchcock who gave the last word on almost everything her husband brought to the screen.
After reading the story’s new treatment, Mr. Hitchcock felt certain that he could get a star to play Marion; he knew that since the poor girl is killed off about 45 minutes into the film, this would definitely throw even the sharpest audience off its game. According to her book, Miss Janet Leigh was the first actress to receive a copy of Robert Bloch’s book along with a definite offer from Mr. Hitchcock. Mr. Bloch’s original Norman Bates in an overweight, balding alcoholic, a character for whom the filmmakers did not believe audiences would feel sympathy. A few tweaks here and there allowed for the slim, young, and boyishly handsome Mr. Anthony Perkins to step into the role that, for better or worse, came to define his career.
My first memory of Psycho is actually by way of another childhood classic . . . that is, a classic according to my family. My parents had taped the movie Meatballs (1979) off of TV at some point, and it became another regular in our loop of “Over and Overs.” Like The Wizard of Oz and our beloved Soap, the VHS of Meatballs had some wonderful commercials from the late 70s and early 80s. Naturally my favorite was the “Where’s the beef?” Wendy’s lady (whose husky voice convinced me that she was actually a man — my first drag queen, perhaps?). Two of those commercials stand out as some of my most terrifying childhood moments, along with Bette Davis as Baby Jane and Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan. The first commercial was for a late showing of The Birds (1963), and I can still remember a scene with a group of children running from Mr. Hitchcock’s winged killers. The other commercial, in what must have been part of a delicious marathon, was for Psycho and showed Miss Janet Leigh screaming as her shower curtain was flung open. All that combined with the deep, dark voice of the station announcer (unless it was really the “Where’s the beef?” lady) was enough for me to put Psycho on the back burner for years. Thankfully I grew old enough to reach that silly burner and move Psycho to its deserving spot up front.
Evidently there are only two required elements that make up a truly terrifying moment on-screen — water and music. Steven Spielberg’s malfunctioning shark would not have kept me out of a pool’s deep end without John Williams’ brilliant score for Jaws (1975). The vulnerable freedom that water provides, be it in the ocean or in the shower, is truly terrifying even in the absence of sound. But when those music notes sliced through the shower curtain or burst up from below the ocean’s surface, I imagine movie theatre owners across the globe discovered how best to remove urine stains from their cushioned seats. The seven days that Miss Janet Leigh spent shooting in that shower certainly paid off. The 70-odd takes were pieced together with Mr. Herrmann’s score in a beautiful marriage of music of murder, and 15 years before John Williams and that shark dragged their first victim below the surface, Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann showed us what it really meant to be afraid of the water. When Mr. Hitchcock finally found the perfect stunt double for Miss Leigh, it turned out to be a melon. Apparently he was hunting for something that would provide the perfect sound for when the poor dear is fatally stabbed. When the blue-prize melon was chosen, what else could it bleed but chocolate syrup, and that’s what we see running down the shower drain. Why Hollywood later chose to remake this movie in color, I’ll never understand.
Stories have always floated around about how Janet Leigh rarely (or never) took showers after filming Psycho. If there was no other way to bathe, Miss Leigh would make sure the doors and windows of whatever building she was in were locked, the bathroom door remained open, as did the shower door (or curtain, heaven forbid,) so she could have a clear view of the bathroom. Once in the shower, she would always face the bathroom door, despite the location of the shower head. I imagine the floods that must have built up on the floor were a greater hazard than any other physical danger, but we all have our meshugas. However accurate these tales of Miss Leigh’s bathing habits are (a part of me is slightly suspicious), she claimed that they set in after she saw the completed film, not during production.
Watching Marion come to the end of the road during her soul-cleansing shower leads me easily into a brief examination of movie violence. When film blood and guts are shoved in my face, my imagination is held back from creating a frightening image of its own — and those are the images that keep me up at night. Film violence that’s a bit more withheld stays with me and creeps into my head much more than when it’s handed to me on a bloody (s)platter. In reference to both the violence and sexuality of Psycho, Miss Leigh said that Mr. Hitchcock “allowed the audience to create what they thought they saw,” and using this explanation was a perfect tool for arguing with the fools in the censor’s office. I love to imagine him saying something like “you didn’t see a breast; you only thought you did.” We never actually see the Bates kitchen knife make contact with Marion’s body; the camera cuts (ha-ha) are so fast that for me, it’s actually the music and the melon that bring the murder scene to life. The music that lines up so perfectly with the cuts of the camera proves to me every time I watch it that the graphic violence isn’t always necessary — all I need for good old-fashioned movie fright is some violent music and the sound of the right fruit.
When the audience at the San Francisco Symphony saw “Phoenix, Arizona” flash across Psycho’s opening scene, the hissing darted from row to row, immediately followed by laughter. Arizona has recently left a bad taste in our mouths due to silly immigration laws, and yet after the hissing, we smiled over the one thought we all shared: “Oh San Francisco. . . !” Our evening at the symphony allowed me an opportunity for another one of my favorite thoughts — “I forgot how good this movie is!” Triggered by Bernard Herrmann’s score (which consists only of strings), my heart gets goose bumps — you know those times when you’re sitting still, and then suddenly it feels like you’re on a roller coaster that just took a sudden dip? That’s what I call a goose-bumped heart, and there it was again, only two chords into the film’s opening credits. It reminded me of the only scientific thing I can remember from college; a word I always loved but could never get off my tongue’s runway is “synesthesia,” (when normally separate senses are not separate but instead cross-wired — sight may mingle with sound, for example). If I controlled the dictionary, the more fitting definition would be “Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho,” music that I can’t help but feel when I hear it. Mr. Herrmann more than deserved an Oscar for his score, but apparently he was too good for even a nomination, goose-bumped hearts be damned!
Like so many before me, I could go on and on dissecting the shower scene, but really I don’t know enough about the technical side of film production to be of much use. I’m sure I can dig up a few books of quality for your reading pleasure. But I must move to the other side of the shower curtain and pay respects to dear Mrs. Bates and her son. Another performance that was just too good to even receive an Oscar nomination was that of Mr. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Everything from his little-boy body language and stutter to his graceful facial expressions give Norman Bates the frightening charm that forever associated Mr. Perkins with Hitchcock, showers, and movie murders. As wonderfully creepy as he is, I think Mr. Perkins adds so much to the fright of the film with the realistic bits of humor that are thrown in by the Bates family.
In this, one of history’s greatest suspense films, are some lines that do nothing but crack me up. When Marion first arrives at the Bates Motel and overhears Norman arguing with mother, Mrs. Bates informs her son, “I refuse speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me!” Since Mr. Hitchcock did not want audiences putting the pieces together too early, Anthony Perkins did not supply Mrs. Bates with her voice. Some reports explain that it was a combination of actors and actresses, and elsewhere I’ve heard it was only one woman. Because sometimes I laugh at uncomfortable situations, and other times I laugh when cranky old women are funny (especially when they’re really men), Psycho and its sprinkling of humor are not to be overlooked! When Norman goes to tell Mother she needs to hide in the cellar, Mrs. Bates screams at her son, “No! I will not hide in the fruit cellar. Ah-ha, y’think I’m fruity, huh? I’m staying right here!” Because he forces us to imagine what this conversation looks like, as we only hear it taking place, again I believe the power of Psycho lies in what Hitchcock decided to withhold from us, be it violence, humor, sexuality, or psychotic behavior.
So after all that, why should you watch it again? The more I write, the more I come to realize that “just because it’s a classic” is not an acceptable reason for me — that reason led me towards a number of films that I found less than enjoyable. Psycho, however, is one of those wines that only gets better with age (or do all wines do that?). It still makes me want to shout “For the love of God, don’t get in that shower,” or “Whatever you do, don’t go up to that house!” I must extend enormous thanks to the San Francisco Symphony for reminding me of Psycho’s ability to decorate my heart with goose bumps after all these years. From the overall beauty of a black-and-white film and its chocolate syrup blood to Mr. Hitchcock’s masterful skills that force me to shift sympathy from a victim to her murderer in a matter of seconds; from violence that, by modern standards, is only hinted at but sparks my imagination to no end, to the mesmerizing performances of Mr. Anthony Perkins and Miss Janet Leigh — these are just a few of the countless reasons why I recommend Psycho to you all. I hope you do watch. You’ll see . . . you’ll see, and you’ll know, and you’ll say “Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly . . .”
Add it to your queue.