PSYCHO: Manipulation and Exploitation At Its Finest

Great filmmakers craftily direct films, auteurs direct people.  Alfred Hitchcock, better than any other director, was incredibly adept at directing people, whether individually or en masse.  His most celebrated work is quite possibly his 1960 masterpiece, PSYCHO, which entailed great efforts of manipulation on Hitchcock’s part, including changing the literal way audiences would go to the movies, and going so far as to finesse the head of the Production Code Administration at the time.  It wouldn’t only be Hitchcock’s ability to exploit the classical Hollywood system that would make PSYCHO such a long-lasting success, but also his ability to exploit viewers’ emotions and expectations through his work.  Hitchcock’s incredibly precise filmmaking technique, style, and a notorious shower scene would play major roles in solidifying the film’s place in cinematic history.

Based on a novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, PSYCHO centers on the investigation of the disappearance of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) at the hands of lonely motel- owner and voyeur, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).  While the premise of the film is admittedly basic, Hitchcock placed importance on the storytelling components that come together to make an effective film.  In his famous 1962 sessions with fellow auteur, Francois Truffaut, which led to the publication of the legendary Hitchcock/ Truffaut by Truffaut, Hitchcock would say of PSYCHO “I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound track and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream.”

PSYCHO poster Alfred Hitchcock

As smoothly as he stitched together his film in actual technique, Hitchcock also manipulated the system and viewer to ensure his film would be crafted and seen exactly the way he wanted.  Up until this point in cinematic history, there had been a general formula to the creation and viewing of Hollywood films.  The rules were fairly simple: there was always a beginning, middle, and end, and in that order; the hero was always good, the villain was always bad, there was no wiggle room; and the hero would always get the girl.  The vast majority of Hollywood films followed these guidelines, and because of that, movie-going had been a fairly passive act for the general public; cinema attendees often would enter and exit as they pleased, and for the most part, that didn’t affect the experience.  It’s important to note that Marion Crane was played by the incredibly famous and talented blonde-bombshell, Janet Leigh and was billed as the film’s star, yet her character dies within the first forty minutes.  Because of this, Hitchcock had placed a cardboard cut out in every theatre lobby informing viewers they would not be permitted to enter after the film had begun.  Hitchcock had mentioned to Truffaut that

“in the average production, Janet Leigh would have been given the other role… It’s rather unusual to kill the star in the first third of the film. I purposely killed the star so as to make the killing even more unexpected. As a matter of fact, that’s why I insisted that the audiences be kept out of the theaters once the picture had started, because the late-comers would have been waiting to see Janet Leigh after she has disappeared from the screen action.”

Much as he would forever change how viewers literally saw films, he would also play a role in changing the Production Code Administration and what they allowed viewers to see. 

Hitchcock wanted PSYCHO to be much more graphic and sex-ridden.  He even mentioned to Truffaut that he wanted Leigh to be fully topless in the opening scene.  However, as mentioned before, Hollywood had rules; as much as conventional storytelling techniques were silently accepted and unconsciously enacted by filmmakers, the Motion Picture Association of America or the MPAA, enforced hard and strict codes onto filmmakers.  Dave Thompson notes in his book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, that the code stated that there was “no nudity permitted, no undue suggestiveness, no hint that sexual relations outside marriage were pleasant… and no undue kissing” were among few stipulations that PSYCHO had inherently challenged.  To remedy this, Hitchcock contacted the head of the MPAA, Geoffrey Shurlock

“…and talked to him about the problems an ingenious, creative movie director faced.  Shurlock was flattered; he took an interest in the project and the dilemma… As a plot point, Hitchcock needed to have a toilet being flushed.  Then there was the matter of the slaughter in the shower, to which Hitchcock said he would do it as quickly as possible and take care that the [viewer] never saw a knife piercing skin.  He was persuasive, and the times were ready.  So a toilet was flushed, and the idea of a woman was slashed to pieces,” also noted by Thompson.

The shower scene would become one of the most famous cinematic scenes in film history.  Hitchcock told Truffaut it took a seven solid days to shoot and was quite meticulous in its production.  He would go on to speak of its creation, explaining

“there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage. [They] used … a naked model who stood in for Janet Leigh [and] only showed Miss Leigh’s hands, shoulders, and head. All the rest was the stand-in. Naturally, the knife never touched the body… [They also] shot some of it in slow motion so as to cover the breasts. The slow shots were not accelerated later on because they were inserted in the montage so as to give an impression of normal speed.”

The scene utilizes approximately seventy-eight camera setups and fifty-two cuts, making it one of the most meticulously shot scenes in history.  Saul Bass provided storyboards for the scene, and while he and Hitchcock have famously argued over who the actual scene’s auteur is, both being present on-set each day of shooting, they were obviously a strong foundation for an incredibly effective and historic scene.

Aside from the detailed visuals of the scene, the sound track plays an equally important role, in not only the shower scene, but also the film as a whole piece.  Hitchcock was working with an incredibly small budget; he produced the film himself with only $800,00 and used the set of his famous television series, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS (1955- 1962).  Similarly, he not only filmed PSYCHO in black and white to ease the MPAA on graphic content, but to also spare his budget.  Hitchcock often employed Bernard Herrmann for the sound tracks in the majority of his works.  Steven Smith, Herrmann’s biographer had stated of the composer and the work,

“[Herrmann] later said that he wanted to complement the black-and-white photography with a black-and-white score. Well, just as there’s tremendous range in black-and-white movies in the photography of them, Herrmann found tremendous range within this limited group of instruments, the string section… It’s cold, it’s chilly, and he uses the strings also for percussive effects, since [they didn’t] have the traditional things like timpani and all the sort of devices that film composers use to scare or startle people. He created percussive effects in the strings.”

Herrmann’s technique worked, the score during the shower scene is the perfect example of sound track perfectly complementing the partnered visuals.  The high-pitched whining of the strings during the stabbing is widely recognized and used in homages across generations of media content.

Viewers would not only become engrossed in the technical aspects of the film, but also the psychology of the villain.  Never before had a killer been so identifiable with audiences in the ways that Norman Bates would be.  At their bases, Hitchcock films examine, if not celebrate the act of voyeurism, and Norman Bates would become the epitome of the concept of all his works.  Filmmakers would were increasingly restless with happy endings and characters soaked in absolute morals.  Soon, villains would become the identity of many films.  Hitchcock had purposefully chosen Perkins for his timid and innocent image in Hollywood at the time, and the director had felt that identity was integral to coaxing and exploiting the viewer’s trust.

Hitchcock’s talents were equally expended in his ability to manipulate not only celluloid, but people as well.  In fact, that is most likely the foremost reason his films are so expertly crafted.  When he had faced hurdles in merely assembling his piece, he produced it entirely himself and then finessed the head of the MPAA.  He engineered the very way audiences would see his film to ensure that it was viewed the way it deserved and demanded.  The precise methodology he enacted to create his pieces would seamlessly transfer to the screen, changing the way viewers would evaluate pieces.  Hitchcock would help usher in a revolutionary era of film, one that no longer adhered to the unwritten, yet widely acknowledged conventions that filmmakers had practiced up until that point.  It would further solidify his title as an auteur, as deigned by André Bazin some years prior in his publication, Cahiers du Cinema, one of the most important authors and publications in cinematic history. PSYCHO had never set out as in important film, as admitted by Hitchcock, but when Truffaut asked if PSYCHO was his biggest film to date, he would reply with “Yes.  And that’s what I would like you to do.” In the end, PSYCHO would become one of the most universal and important pieces ever made all thanks to precision, talent and technique, and a little bit of manipulation and exploitation.

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