Psycho the film that gave us three of the most famous minutes in cinematic history turns 50 this week. Janet Leigh’s shower scene utilizing 77 different camera angles and 50 editing cuts - and of course those screeching violins - shocked the world when it was released on 16th June 1960.
That wasn’t all that was shocking. The opening scene of an unmarried couple in the same bed was taboo. Worse still the showing and flushing of a toilet had not been done in movies before and got the censors all in a lather.
Unexpected plot twists were uncommon up until then. Certainly killing off a movies biggest ‘name’ star (Leigh) before the end of the first act was ground breaking. To a lesser extent having a sympathetic ‘bad guy’ character in Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) was also a departure for a movie industry used to plots and characters almost as black and white as its cinematography.
Despite becoming one of the most famous and influential films ever made, in its beginnings it was the film no one wanted made. Paramount Pictures were not keen and it only went ahead after Alfred Hitchcock waived most of his director’s fee for a percentage of the negative ownership and agreed to produce it himself. Lead actress Janet Leigh did it for $25,000 (a quarter of her normal fee) and Anthony Perkins only cost $40,000.
The Psycho film project began when one of Hitchcock’s production assistants Peggy Robertson read a new pulp crime novel of the same name by Robert Bloch (loosely based on gruesome murderer Ed Gein) and recommended it to Hitchcock. He liked it and bought the movie rights through a third party for $9000. Unhappy with the efforts of his regular script writers he took a gamble in hiring Joseph Stefano to write what was only his second film script.
Hitchcock’s own Production Company – Shamley Productions took it on and he used most of the crew from his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents to shoot it, treating it almost like another episode in the series. Shooting it in black and white also kept costs down although the jury is still out if this was a cost issue or deliberately done for cinematic effect.
Despite all the hurdles Psycho was released on 16th June 1960. Hitchcock always daring to be different did not use his stars for pre-promotion; instead fronting a series of quirky adverts himself. Even the traditional critics showing prior to release was canned in the interests of secrecy and the reviewers had to line up with the rest of the movie goers.
Reviews were mixed but the public loved it and it became a worldwide hit. Hollywood ever happy to ride an unexpected wave of success nominated it for four Academy Awards and it was positively re-reviewed by many critics in the light of its success.
From a miserly production budget of $806,947 Psycho went on to gross over $32,000,000 and spawned several (post-Hitchcock) sequels. But it is its impact on popular culture and contribution to the evolution of cinema that is its most enduring legacy.
Happy 50th Birthday Psycho!!
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