The Psycho Effect

Fifty years ago, a movie by Alfred Hitchcock changed the way audiences viewed films. Its influence is still being felt.

The Psycho EffectThe censors didn’t know what to make of the shower scene. No one had seen anything like it. The shock of the curtain being ripped open. Janet Leigh’s scream as the knife comes down. The flashes of nudity, a cubist montage, cut to the shriek of that stabbing violin. Leigh’s hand clutching the shower curtain. Her body sliding down the white tile, slumping to the floor, as the curtain is torn from its hooks. The lazy swirl of blood being washed away. Then the drain dissolving into a full-screen close-up of the victim’s cold, dead eye.

The censors objected. They’d seen a flash of a navel, a breast in profile. Some swore they saw a nipple. But with so many cuts, how could they know? The 45-second shower scene contained 78 pieces of film. By today’s standards of strobe-like editing, that’s almost leisurely, but it was unheard of at the time. Director Alfred Hitchcock reassured the censors that there was no untoward nudity, and no shots of the knife hitting flesh. He said it was all in their imagination, a conjuring trick. So the scene survived. Psycho ushered in a new age of erotic horror. And cinema has not been the same since.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Psycho, which was released in June 1960. The movie caused a sensation at the time, and its influence is still being felt. Just as Star Wars (1977) is cited as the game-changing film that launched three decades of sci-fi and special effects, Psycho is the picture that shattered Hollywood’s taboos around sex and violence. In a new book, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, David Thomson, America’s pre-eminent film historian, says it opened the floodgates. “Sex and violence were ready to break out,” he writes, “and censorship crumpled like an old lady’s parasol. The orgy had arrived.”

Although Psycho’s shower sequence remains its notorious tour de force, it was not the only watershed moment. The movie opens in downtown Phoenix with a scene of Leigh’s character in a bra and panties enjoying an afternoon tryst in a cheap hotel room. Until then, under Hollywood’s Production Code, no American movie had shown an actress in her underwear. And before Leigh’s character slips off her robe to take her fatal shower—on the run after stealing $40,000—she tries to flush away an incriminating note. Trainspotting fans take note: this was the first time a flushing toilet appeared onscreen.

But it wasn’t just the broken taboos that made Psycho such a landmark. It was the way Hitchcock, a supreme showman, presented the movie as a dare to his audience. Starring in a publicity campaign as diabolically plotted as the movie itself, Hitchcock insisted that no one would be admitted to the theatre after the film had started—a revolutionary notion in an era when moviegoers routinely drifted into movies midway through and stuck around for the next show to catch up on what they’d missed.

Hitchcock had made a movie whose biggest star is murdered after just 40 minutes. Someone arriving late might wonder where she was. Also, the suspense hinged on a vital secret and a gotcha ending.

So Hitchcock built the movie’s entire campaign on the idea of sealing the movie inside the cinema. As a further precaution, he bought up all the copies of the novel on which Psycho was based.

People took the bait, and lined up around the block. Psycho was one of the first “event” pictures. As Hitchcock, the English gentleman as funhouse funeral director, explained, “It’s rather like taking the audience through the haunted house at a fairground.” It was a ride to be taken at your own risk, spring-loaded with a shock ending, yet cushioned with comic innuendo—winking double entendres like, “Mother’s not feeling herself today.”

Thomson argues that Psycho changed the way movies worked—“owning up to the idea that a film is a game to be played as opposed to a dream to be inhabited.” And he says its voyeuristic cruelty left a mark on everything from the James Bond franchise to such films as Bonnie and Clyde, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, The Shining, Fatal Attraction, The Silence of the Lambs and Pulp Fiction.

Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho was sparked by the case of a real-life serial killer with a flair for taxidermy—Ed Gein, who dressed in his dead mother’s skin, and later inspired The Silence of the Lambs. The movie, meanwhile, has generated its own weird and cultish obsessions. In another new book, The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower, author Robert Graysmith (Zodiac) unravels the mystery of redhead starlet Marli Renfro—Janet Leigh’s nude body double in the shower scene—who later vanished and was reported murdered. Graysmith also tracks the case of Henry “Sonny” Busch Jr., a serial killer with a mother complex who resembled Psycho’s Norman Bates. Busch strangled one of his victims hours after he saw Hitchcock’s movie—provoking endless debates about the effects of screen violence. Hitchcock dismissed it as pure coincidence.

By the time he made Psycho, the filmmaker was well established. He had directed a string of hits, including Notorious, Rear Window and North by Northwest, and was famous as the sardonic host of television’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Although Psycho would become Hitchcock’s biggest hit, grossing $32 million, it was a low-budget film, costing just $807,000. Despite his track record, Paramount Pictures found the script so unsavoury that it refused to finance it. Deferring his usual salary of $250,000, Hitchcock bankrolled Psycho himself, and retained 60 per cent ownership of the movie. He shot it cheaply, using the CBS crew from his TV show. And Paramount executives were relieved when he agreed to film this nasty bit of business on Universal’s backlot.

The director cited practical reasons for shooting in black and white: it was cheaper, and if he shot in colour, the blood would never get past the censors. But black and white also darkened the horror with classical severity, and allowed Hitchcock to draw his characters into the shadowed badlands of noir. Psycho was Hitchcock’s indie adventure. Though revered by the French New Wave, this son of a London grocer (who would never win an Oscar) was not getting the artistic respect he deserved in America. So here was a chance to show off his cinematic virtuosity, especially with the shower sequence—45 seconds of orchestrated terror that took up nine of the film’s 27 shooting days, a third of the production schedule.

Janet Leigh shot the scene wearing moleskin patches covering strategic areas. But for the myriad angles that would convey the impression of nudity, Hitchcock used Renfro, an athletic model and avid nudist. She was thrilled to serve as Leigh’s body double, even if she wasn’t allowed to tell anyone. Renfro went on to star in a western skin flick, Wide Open Spaces, that was re-edited by the young Francis Ford Coppola, and retitled Tonight for Sure. It was Coppola’s first directing credit. She also became a Playboy cover girl, and one of Hugh Hefner’s original bunnies.

Which is how Graysmith first encountered her: he taped her Playboy cover onto his wall and that began a lifelong obsession. “By God, the redhead had something,” he writes in The Girl in Alfred Hitchock’s Shower. “Whatever it was got under my skin.” Graysmith grew up to become the San Francisco cartoonist who tracked the Zodiac Killer, and was played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac. But he never lost his crush on Renfro—in the book he keeps describing her body, especially her breasts, with a detail that verges on creepy.

Graysmith’s book presents a maze of mistaken identities and mirror images. In 2001, a man was convicted of murder in the 1988 rape and strangling of Myra Davis, who was identified as Leigh’s Psycho body double, a.k.a. Marli Renfro. Body Double, Don Lasseter’s 2002 book about the murder, again named Renfro as the victim. But Graysmith discovers that Davis, the murdered woman, was actually Leigh’s stand-in (a role used for lighting cues), and that Renfro was living in seclusion in the Mojave Desert, unaware she was presumed dead.

Double identity goes to the heart of Psycho’s story, and to the beguiling riddle of Norman Bates. With Leigh’s character eliminated so early, it’s Perkins who has to carry the movie with his nervous boy-next-door charm and a frisson of gayness. The actor’s mercurial performance still stands out as a marvel of naturalism amid the work of his more mannered co-stars. (Leigh’s gaze is mesmerizing, but she barely blinks all the time she’s onscreen.) Perkins was Psycho’s fatal attraction, paving the way for generations of sympathetic psychopaths, from Hannibal Lecter to Dexter.

Psycho tapped into “an authentic American paranoia,” concludes Thomson, who suggests Hitchcock’s ultimate coup was to seduce his audience with the voyeuristic thrill of seeing its own dark side mirrored onscreen. As Bates suggests, “We all go a little mad sometimes.”

Hitchcock scared us to death with cinematic sleight of hand: a peekaboo shower montage, the sound of a knife stabbing a melon, a few lashings of chocolate sauce to serve as black-and-white gore. But as Thomson points out, “the real measure of the breakthrough that had occurred—in the name of pure cinema—is in the bloodletting, sadism and slaughter that are now taken for granted. In terms of the cruelties we no longer notice, we are another species.”