For his first professional acting job, a 22-year-old Anthony Hopkins took a train from South Wales to Manchester. With time to kill on a rainy day, he dropped off his bags and headed to the movies, where a long queue wound outside the cinema.
“It was packed,” Hopkins recalls. “I sat down and I didn’t know what ... I was in for. I had heard stories about it. When it got to the shower scene, I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life.”
The movie was, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” a film that 52 years after its shocking premiere still hasn’t released audiences from its subversive thrall. The film, which Hitchcock called “a fun picture,” was revolutionary in its violence, its sexiness, its sympathy to the perspective of the criminal mind, and, perhaps above all, its technique.
“What if someone really good made a horror picture?” wonders the British director, played by Hopkins, in the new film “Hitchcock.”
Directed by Sacha Gervasi, it depicts the making of “Psycho” with a keen focus on Hitchcock’s relationship, and profession indebtedness, to his wife, Alma Reville (played by Helen Mirren).
It is only the latest example of the undying fascination with “Psycho,” a film that ushered in a new darkness in American movies, one with a playful sense of irony toward violence but also a serious treatment of that which previously had been considered mere “schlock.” Though Hitchcock made a dozen films that easily could be labeled masterpieces, none seized audiences with the same power as “Psycho.”
Made for just $800,000 at the end of Hitchcock’s contract with Paramount (which distributed the film but left Hitchcock to finance it himself), “Psycho,” based on Robert Bloch’s novel, went on to gross $32 million, the biggest hit of his career.
The director famously handed out manuals to theaters with explicit directions not to let anyone in after the movie began. Though most critics dismissed the film then, some finally began to consider Hitchcock an artist of the highest order, most notably Robin Wood, who called “Psycho” “perhaps the most terrifying film ever made.”
“We are (taken) forward and downward into the darkness of ourselves,” wrote Wood. “ ‘Psycho’ begins with the normal and draws us steadily deeper and deeper into the abnormal.”
That “Psycho” killed off its star, Janet Leigh, after just half an hour was only one of its many unheard of elements. Scenes of Leigh in her underwear were unusual for their time, too, and prompted lengthy negotiations between Hitchcock and the sensors. Even a flushing toilet, considered a vulgar sight, had never been seen in such a big movie.
Of course, the infamous shower scene in which Leigh’s Marion Crane meets her demise, immediately recognizable from the “screaming violins” of Bernard Herrmann’s score, is the film’s piece de resistance.
In his book “The Moment of ‘Psycho’: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder,” critic David Thomson argues that the influence of “Psycho” is everywhere in movies, including “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Jaws,” “Taxi Driver,” many of the films of Stanley Kubrick and even the James Bond movies. “Psycho,” Thomson writes, let “the subversive secret out,” after which “censorship crumpled like an old lady’s parasol.”
“It’s one of the most influential films ever made,” says Thomson. “It’s the beginnings of a flood of violence. Violence becomes more acceptable in film.”
In the famous interviews with French director Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock said he was most interested in “all the technical ingredients that made the audience scream” and hoped that “Psycho” would be “a film that belongs to filmmakers.”
In the every-decade polling done by film magazine Sight & Sound, Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (released two years before “Psycho” to largely negative reviews) earlier this year displaced Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” as the best film of all time, according to voting critics.
Among filmmakers who have voted for “Psycho” is Errol Morris, who, years after seeing it, interviewed the real-life inspiration for Anthony Perkins’ character, the serial killer Ed Gein, at the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Wisconsin.
Morris was then a graduate student at U.C. Berkley, but the interviews he did with Gein helped set Morris on the path that would be his life’s work: films that might in some way be summarized by a scene in “Psycho” that deeply affected Morris. Near the end of the film, a psychiatrist offers a pat, insufficient explanation of Gein’s psychosis.
“You feel that all psychological explanation is defeated,” said Morris. “It’s the ultimate noir idea, that somehow psychological explanation isn’t enough. It’s defeated by some kind of mechanism that stands behind all of our plans and our thoughts, our machinations. It’s the feeling of being haunted by the inexplicable and the unknown.”
In “Hitchcock,” which is partly based on Stephen Rebello’s book, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” Gervasi imagines the director communicating with Gein.
Fearing a negative portrait, the Hitchcock estate didn’t allow the use of “Psycho” footage or dialogue for “Hitchcock.” But the film nevertheless takes pleasure in re-creating and imagining the circumstances of making a film that still transfixes.
“It was a point in history where we were going from an idealistic, stylized imagination of what America could be to this very visceral, brutal, violent period where the president is getting killed and people are getting assassinated,” said Gervasi. “Here we are 52 years later talking about the shock of a film. I mean, that’s a pretty powerful film.”