Sixty years ago today, master storyteller and director Alfred Hitchcock unleashed upon the nation – nay, the entire globe – an irrational yet inescapable fear of going even remotely near a shower, let alone actually taking one, courtesy of his signature calling card, Psycho. In short, Mr. Hitchcock did for incandescent fiberglass and shower head nozzles what Steven Spielberg would later go on and later do for swimming in the ocean in his film, Jaws: Create an entirely irrational yet potent fear of the so-called normal and familiar. Not bad for an hour and forty nine minute running time.
For those Rip Van Winkle’s that may have missed this black and white terror masterpiece, Psycho (based on the novel by Robert Bloch) is the story about a secretary – the sublime Janet Leigh – who gets caught up in a wee bit of office embezzlement. Leigh’s Marion Crane absconds with 40,000 greenbacks and hits the open road, en route to her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). The drive is long and arduous, punctuated by a nosey police officer, a pushy used car salesman and sheets of torrential rain. Finally, just when she can barely keep her eyes open, Marion comes across an off-the highway nondescript lodging going by the name of the Bates Motel. Sensing a relief from the pounding storm and her own growing doubts about her actions, Marion decides to pull over at the motel and get a good night sleep. After all, what could possibly go wrong with this sane and levelheaded decision? Well, a lot, as any self-respecting film fan or a gentleman named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) could tell you.
In our desensitized times where it seems as if we’ve grown increasingly numb by the minute to worldwide horrors as piped into the comforts of our domicile’s by 24/7 news channels, it’s almost impossible to overstate just what a seismic impact Hitchcock’s paean to hot showers and corn syrup had on popular culture when it dropped like a ten ton atom bomb on an unsuspecting populace that, up to this point, had largely been weaned on the cinematic virtues of Gidget and The Shaggy Dog. John Q. Public ate the movie up and lined up for blocks just to get a chance to catch the movie everyone was talking about and the Hollywood publicity machine – in its undisputed prime – made a big publicity campaign over not allowing anyone into the theater after the film had begun, lest all of the film’s big surprises were revealed to the poor saps who had not yet been fortunate enough to snag a coveted ticket. Of course, in 2020, we have such spoiler-ific technological marvels as Facebook and Twitter to ruin things for us, vice’s that even the most canny studio boss of the early 1960s would not have known how to keep a lid on.
Psycho went on to directly inspire (sang to the tune of Twelve Days of Christmas): Three sequels, one almost shot for shot color remake and a respected television show which served as a prequel to the original story. That’s a lot of fake blood and celluloid under the bridge, Ladies and Germs.
Also inspired by Hitchcock’s magnum opus was the slasher genre, which kicked off in fine and creative fashion with John Carpenter’s original Halloween. Carpenter was such a student of the film that he cast future Scream Queen – and daughter of Psycho star Janet Leigh –Jamie Lee Curtis as The Final Girl in the film, along with naming the Donald Pleasance character in his movie – Sam Loomis – after John Gavin’s character in Psycho. Psycho beget Halloween which in turn beget a whole passel of wayward slasher flicks such as the never-ending Friday the 13th franchise and even director Adrienne Lynn’s Fatal Attraction.
As for myself, I was late to the Psycho party, not discovering the movie until a late night showing on pay television when I was in high school. What I remember about that first viewing all of these years later is not the infamous shower scene which has almost hijacked in public consciousness every scene that comes before and after it, so popular and enduring has that moment rightfully become. Rather, what stuck with me as an impressionable teen and has sat with me wonderfully uneasily all these years later is the buildup to that dreaded orgy of water and blood: Bernard Herrmann’s score of impending doom, both subtle and jarring, superlative craftsman acting from everyone from Leigh to Twilight Zone alums John Anderson and Martin Balsam and those glorious and moody driving shots with poor Marion Crane on the run not only from the law, but also from her own moral sense of right and wrong. These and a million and one other quiet, unsettling little moments are the fiber and DNA of every nightmare I’ve ever had since that first late night viewing. Somehow, I can’t think of a better testament to the enduring power of Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic masterpiece.
Happy 60th anniversary, Psycho.