Although Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was the biggest hit of his career with an adjusted gross of $400 million, it didn’t set records. (“Rear Window” made $472 million adjusted, but that includes reissues). It ranks #164 among domestic sound films, and was #2 among 1960 releases (second to “Spartacus”). Among black-and-white films, it ranks #5.
However, there are few films that have had the impact of this one. Written by B-movie horror writers and made for a Blumhouse budget, it was more than a financial success; it changed the kinds of films that filmmakers and actors would make, and informed the language of cinema around the world. Not bad for a film largely panned by stuffy and confused reviewers.
In 1960, Hitchcock was the rare director as brand, a status enhanced by his long-running TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” As creator, host, and occasional director, his humorous, sardonic appearances made him a celebrity. In the meantime he made a film each year, including “Vertigo” (a mild commercial disappointment, now recognized as a masterpiece) and “North by Northwest” (a major hit). “Psycho” represented the final film under his contract with Paramount Pictures, and he had the freedom to take chances.
Hitchcock had always been a student of film, influenced early on German expressionist films and particularly the great Fritz Lang (“M”) and more recently impressed by the French thriller “Diabolique” (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955). (He was aware of the French New Wave, but more later influenced by Antonioni; “The Birds” feels like an homage in part). “Psycho” represented a major shift, especially for a 60-year-old director.
Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh on the set of “Psycho” in 1960
It was nothing like a normal Hitchcock production. With an $800,000 budget ($7 million today), it was the lowest-cost film in his Hollywood career. He used his TV crew, not his usual collaborators, shot in secrecy under a false title. He also agreed to defer his salary for a 60 percent share in the film’s profits, which gave him by far the biggest payday in his career.
Since Paramount saw little potential in the project, he had a free hand in publicity. That allowed him to play off his TV image, guiding a close to unprecedented length 6:32 “preview” shown at theaters that may be the most famous ever created.
But he eschewed most other publicity, and barred Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins from making their normal PR rounds. It was a marketing strategy more familiar to the exploitation movies of William Castle, a minor director of low-budget horror hits best known for their promotions.
Castle’s first film, the “Diabolique”-inspired “Macabre,” provided all viewers with a $1,000 life insurance policy should they die of fright while watching. In a similar spirit, “Psycho” declared: No one would be allowed to enter a theater after the film began. However, it was more than a gimmick; it was a contractual obligation for engagements, and theaters enforced it.
Paramount told him to make a quick buck on his cheap film by going wide in early summer and taking every drive-in he could. It was a strategy very different from the prestigious paths his films usually followed. Top films opened in major cities in one or two theaters, played a few weeks; debut dates varied by city, but New York usually was the first. Hitchcock insisted on that for “Psycho.”
It opened June 15 (a Wednesday, the normal opening weekday then) at the DeMille on Broadway and the Baronet on the Upper East Side. But the cloak of mystery was complete: No junkets, no press screenings, and not even exhibitors could see it before booking. Critics had to see it with the paying audiences, which meant waiting in line — long ones.
Nonstop sellouts at both theaters caught Paramount’s attention, but as the film rolled out the scenario repeated everywhere. That’s when the studio got serious. Hitchcock then went on a press tour, where he played off his droll image as as TV host. The film was on fire: “Psycho” was exclusive at its two initial theaters for nine weeks before adding neighborhoods, while atypically staying at the DeMille and Baronet.
All of this changed film history. On the business side, it broke down barriers about what could work with mass audiences. Though the violence got the most attention (and little domestic censorship), its sexual freedom was original — the semi-nude opening scene, with its post-coital lunchtime tryst was close to unprecedented in a mainstream movie. “Psycho” also attracted a new and younger audience for Hitchcock, who likely became the core of his later status as a cult director.
“Psycho” made other leading directors and stars to do similar work. “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” is unthinkable without this; so are “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “The Exorcist.” The shift in conventional narrative was also hugely influential, soon to find acceptance in European films from Godard, Antonioni, and others.