Monday, 20 August 2012

Special Movie Monday: Psycho and The Master of Suspense

Yes, Psycho is the perfect film. 

I must have watched it hundreds of times now, frantically looking for flaws. A boring scene, a misplaced line, a facial expression that changed just a few micro-seconds earlier than it should. I couldn't find one single thing. Psycho is the perfect film. 

It did not have the perfect actors. I think of only a handful of actors can be described as so (the likes of Spencer Tracy, perhaps? Lucille Ball was the perfect comedian, Bette Davis the perfect villain. Perfection is not at all easy to find.) It did not have the perfect studio settings. I don't know that there is one, but the Universal Studios back lot is hardly it. However, it did have the perfect director. I don't know how or why that was, but the flawed and imperfect cast and crew came together in a timeless masterpiece, that has survived decades and will survive centuries. With a seemingly simple plot line, with a twist that makes every hair in your arm jerk up, acting that swizzles your muscles entirely and a black and white atmosphere that has everyone on the edge of their seat. The truth is that Psycho was never expected to be a work of art. In fact, it wasn't expected to be a success at all. 
Alfred Hitchcock was very disappointed when Audrey Hepburn, one of the biggest stars of the day, had a miscarriage in the late 1950s. Hitch looked forward to directing the then 30-year-old actress, who he had heard was an absolute delight to work with, always having her lines on the tip of her tongue and accepting directions like an obedient child. Audrey herself was thrilled at the perspective of working with the famous mind behind Notorious, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo. After her miscarriage, she got pregnant again and her doctor advised her to stay in bed rest throughout nearly the whole pregnancy. She would not be able to work in 1959. What to do? 
Then, something wonderful happened. Hitch came across a fascinating novel, by a young actor named Robert Bloch that had recently been published: "Psycho". Astounded by the interesting plot, Hitchcock's film-making  mind saw through the pages and envisioned a movie that would be very easy and cheap to make, but that would end up being a smashing hit. Hitch anonymously contacted Robert Bloch and offered him nine thousand dollars for the movie rights. Without the slightest idea that it was the master of suspense on the other side of the phone, Psycho was sold.
From then on, Alfred Hitchcock began a lofty quest to make movie magic work as cheap and easy as he could possibly make it. Black and white, in the backlot studios, the biggest amount of money he spent at once was buying every single copy of "Psycho" he could find. He wanted to keep the ending a secret. He picked non-A listers as actors and waived his salary for 60% of the proceeds.
Smart move. Hitchcock made a fortune.
The plot consists of a beautiful young woman, played by Janet Leigh, who is in a life she doesn't care very much for. She is a secretary at a real estate agency, a desk job that doesn't fulfill her at all. She has a boyfriend who keeps putting off the day he will propose to her. She feels she has no excitement whatsoever to live for. That is, until a very rich client shows up at her agency and hands her boss forty thousand dollars in live cash. Corrected by inflation, that would add up to nearly half a million dollars. Her boss relies on his trusty secretary to go deposit the amount. She ends up running away with all that cash, looking to turn her life around. When she spends the night on a motel on the side of the road, she finds its friendly owner is not who he appears to be. Pure suspense gold
There are many subtle touches to the final product in which Hitchcock's hand is discernible. Marion Crane, Leigh's character, didn't have clothes custom-made my the costume department. She wore off the rack. Hitch wanted women everywhere to identify with her and he wasn't gonna do it by dressing her in Edith Head from head to toe. On the first scene, she is shown wearing a white bra, her face looking natural and angelic. After she steals the money, her makeup is slightly heavier and she is wearing a black bra as if her purity was tainted by the terrible act she had just committed. 
Many quotes of "Psycho" went on to being very famous: "Mother! Blood!" and "A boy's best friend is his mother." are some of the creepiest. 
Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh delivered the best performances of their lives. All for a movie no one but its intrepid director believed in. 

Psycho grossed 40 million dollars, 50 times its cost of production. Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar. 

So long,

This is my contribution to the Universal Backlot Blogathon!


  1. Psycho...Perfect. Even though I kind of knew the ending before I watched it, it still freaked me out. Plus Anthony Perkins plays disturbed so well, I also watched him in Murder on the Orient Express (Great movie will Lauren Bacall, if you havent seen it check it out) and he was portraying s similar character.

    1. It's so freaky! Especially the last lines and the expression on Perkins' face! I think he's so good at playing bad guys 'cause he has that creepy angel face ahahah I've seen Murder on the Orient Express: All-star movie with an all-star cast!

  2. Now I'm imagining how it would be a Hitch movie starring Audrey... or better, Audrey as Marion Crane!
    It's truly a masterpiece, and Anthony Perkins, known by his sympathetic characters, added brilliance with his performance. Too sad that he was typecasted after Psycho.

  3. Love this article and just Tweeted about it! Thanks so much for participating!!

  4. I think Janet Leigh was such a good call, When I watch Charade I dont get the critic's comparisons that it was "the best hitchcock film hitchcock never made". Its a b-lister in comparison, in my opinion, despite Grant and Audrey. My huge soft spot for Peter Lorre makes Man Who Knew Too Much my fave Hitch film, but this would be in my top 5 (which seems to rotate every time i re-watch 39 Steps, Rear Window, and NxNW, ha)

    I didnt even know Anthony Perkins real name, for years. I always called him Norman Bates. :) Great piece!

    1. Thank you!
      As much as I adore Charade, I agree a million percent. Charade is such a feel-good picture, it had none of the psychological suspense created by Hitchcock.
      I can't even pick my top 5! ahah

  5. I saw this only recently for the first time (despite being in my 50s!) and had somehow managed to miss knowing about one of the most famous plot twists, which nearly made me jump out of my skin. A great movie. I hadn't realised Audrey Hepburn was nearly cast - but Janet Leigh does a great job anyway. Enjoyed your article a lot! Judy