In June, 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (available on DVD) first opened in New York, neither the public nor the press had any idea what it was about. Contrary to all accepted policy, there were no advance screenings, and no synopsis or story outline was supplied to critics or reporters. The very first time the media saw the movie was the same morning the public did—-the 10:00 a.m. running at the (now long gone) DeMille Theater at 47th Street and Broadway. One thousand eager paying customers filled the downstairs, and five hundred members of the press were in the balcony—-myself included. It was the single most memorable performance of a film I’ve ever attended. Not the most pleasant one.
It is difficult—-now that Psycho has been studied, endlessly imitated, sequelled four times, remade “officially” in 1998, been available for home viewing over three decades, and talked about incessantly for fifty years—-to imagine the impact the picture had in its first few months of life. This inexpensive (less than a million) black-and-white little film not only changed the way people went to see movies—-no one was allowed in after the feature had begun, an unheard of idea then—-but permanently altered the experience itself. Psycho was the first time movie-going stopped being safe. Psycho was a physical assault.
To that first of all audiences, the impact was the greatest because we hadn’t even heard a rumor of anything. Sitting there the initial forty-five minutes, I was convinced this was a robbery picture, so entirely was I absorbed by Janet Leigh’s dilemma: in love with John Gavin, stealing cash from her boss, running away, fearfully driving through the rain, stopping at an out-of-the-way motel where she registers for the night with a famously likeable, if slightly neurotic, all-American boy-next-door. That’s how Anthony Perkins was perceived by everyone before Psycho. After a warm talk with him, Janet Leigh goes to her room, decides to return the money, gets undressed, and takes a shower. The next 45 seconds transfigured movie history.
I never heard the soundtrack for the shower stabbing-sequence until I saw the film on TV, so loudly were the people downstairs screaming. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen to see if any of the press were also, but some of the screams seemed pretty close. Part of the mass outcry was because everyone wanted to look away and could not. Unlike all subsequent slasher imitations that make you avert your eyes, Hitchcock’s brilliant montage was rivetingly swift and impressionistic—-yet seemingly graphic—-so that everyone was certain they had not only glimpsed Janet Leigh naked but had seen the knife cut into her body. In fact, there is no nudity and the knife never actually touches the body–as Hitchcock said, “You only think it does.” The director took a full week to film the 72 camera positions he had visualized to convey in 45 seconds the murder of his star. But, of course, that was the real shocker: Barely halfway through the movie, Janet Leigh, the star character we have been following throughout, is dead.
No one in the audience ever really recovered from this unprecedented horror. I could feel myself continuing to shake internally until quite some time after the film ended. When I walked out onto the street it seemed odd that it was only noon—-odd, too, because it looked as if the world had changed forever (certainly shower-use dropped precipitously). Personally, I felt as if I had been violated in some irredeemable way. Psycho has never been my favorite Hitchcock, but I have come to realize that it was the director’s prescient comment on the death of the female star in cinema: from the ‘60s onward, she has virtually disappeared.
I first met Hitch six months later, and when I said I hadn’t actually enjoyed Psycho, he told me this was because I hadn’t understood the essentially humorous way he had approached the material. “I couldn’t make a film like that seriously. One can’t,” he said very rationally. “If I had wanted to make the film seriously, I would have had to go inside it, and show the inner workings of the character. But, you see, I showed it from the outside.” To prove his point, he ran the special trailer he had shot starring himself. He’s extremely funny in it, meandering around the locale in which the film took place, pointing out where the two murders happened, giving sly little hints, and saying things like, “Oh, it’s horrible and bloody,” mock-seriously to the camera. When the short was over, he stood up and said, “You see what I meant?” Well, yes and no…
In the long interviews I did with Hitchcock in the ‘60s and ‘70s—-which all appear in my 1997 collection, Who the Devil Made It–he goes into great detail about how he shot the infamous shower sequence, including all the meticulous and often extraordinary lengths the director went to so that he could scare the hell out of us. Boy, did he succeed!