First released in June 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho is a voyeuristic masterpiece that challenged Hollywood’s taboos around sex and violence. The English director behind popular thrillers such as Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder had approached Paramount with the idea of filming Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel about a serial killer, but the studio refused to give him his usual budget: it was too sordid a story, they said.
Hitchcock filmed it anyway, using a television crew who shot it in cheaper black and white. He dedicated some of the money to buying up all the copies of Bloch’s novel so that the plot would remain a secret. He also insisted that cinemas refused entry to anyone who arrived late, as was quite common in the 1950s.
Once shut in, audiences were confronted by one indiscretion after another. The opening sequence of the film featured protagonist Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, with her boyfriend in a hotel room in her underwear. Crane steals money from her employer and drives out of town. In pouring rain, she decides to spend the night in a secluded motel run by a coy yet friendly young man with an interest in taxidermy. He lives with his tyrannical mother in a gothic-style mansion overlooking the guest rooms.
The most famous scene in Psycho is, of course, Crane’s murder in the shower. The forty-five-second scene contains seventy-eight pieces of film put together in a way that showed no explicit nudity and no shots of the knife entering flesh. It succeeded in passing the censors, while it left nothing to the audience’s imagination.
With the protagonist eliminated halfway through the film, Hitchcock could then focus on his real person of interest: Norman Bates. Played by the actor Anthony Perkins, Bates is a murderer with a dissociative identity disorder caused by a childhood of abuse. Perkins’ iconic performance introduced a new kind of sympathetic psychopath to the world; one echoed in future characters, from Hannibal Lecter to Dexter.
Hitchcock was intrigued by Freudian psychology and the associations made between sex and death. Emotionally repressed men and manipulative women feature in many of his films, including Spellbound, Vertigo and Marnie. Psycho is probably Hitchcock’s best-known movie. It opened doors to a new genre of erotic horror films made permissible for a mainstream audience to enjoy with their use of irony. It influenced numerous cult classics, from A Clockwork Orange to Pulp Fiction.