Psycho • The Mother of Modern American Cinema

Greenscreening Series #27

March 10, 2023

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This Time on Greenscreening

Psycho (1960) directed by Alfred Hitchcock



Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) embezzles $40,000 from her employer's client, goes on the run and checks into a remote motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a young man under the domination of his mother. She little realises the consequences of checking into the Bates Motel. One of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements, Psycho combines suspense, Gothic horror, dark humour and rich ironies to dazzling effect. Leigh and Perkins turn in pitch-perfect performances, while Bernard Herrmann’s score is memorably eloquent and atmospheric. -BFI

Find Psycho via Reelgood

Why Psycho?

There are few scenes quite as famous - or which have been studied as closely - as the shower scene in Psycho. It is a technical marvel, utilizing over 60 camera setups and 52 cuts in just 45 seconds. It transforms Psycho from a compelling girl-on-the-run drama into a new style of horror film. It required Hitchcock to adopt a unique marketing style for the film that dramatically changed moviegoing. If Psycho is, as many scholars argue, the film that anticipated the Hollywood Renaissance of the late 1960s and 1970s, then the Renaissance began with the shower.

The shower scene is one of the finest achievements in filmmaking, full stop.

We'll avoid spoilers, because if somehow anyone hasn't yet seen the film or heard the spoilers, Psycho's twists are incredibly good.

There's so much to write about this film. Entire books and feature-length documentaries have been created about the shower scene alone. Psycho a rich text that holds up to multiple viewings. In college, it was part of three or four curricula. Watching it with Tiffany will be at least my 10th or 12th time seeing it. So I'll try to be brief and let ChatGPT do most of the work.

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock was at the height of his powers as a filmmaker. He had a string of massive box office and critical hits during the 1950s. He had an Emmy-winning television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which made his silhouette a household icon. He was as big a star as a filmmaker could be; his name appeared as large or even bigger than his lead actors.

So in 1960, he could do whatever he wanted. And strangely, he wanted to make a horror film.

Consider, in the 1950s, this is what horror looked like:


*Creature from the Black Lagoon*

In short, external threats. Horror films were mostly metaphors for nuclear annihilation, or environmental catastrophe, or alien invasion. But Hitchcock wanted to make a new kind of horror film. He didn't look externally, but instead went to a rural California roadside motel, just a short road trip away from Phoenix, and into a young man's relationship with his domineering mother. For Hitchcock, horror could be lurking anywhere (everywhere?).

Hitchcock was looking for a way to separate himself from other directors working in suspense. Nobody was willing to venture into certain topics; sure, Fritz Lang had made M about a serial killer, but that was 1930s Germany. With the Production Code Administration, films could only be so dark. Hollywood couldn't take too many risks, especially with the industry slumping in the 1950s.

Psycho was based on a 1959 novel by Robert Bloch, which was loosely based on the story of serial killer Ed Gein. Hitchcock's assistant gave him a copy of the novel, and he was hooked.

Paramount was not hooked. The studio bosses were sure the film wouldn't get Code approval, and even if it did, were skeptical audiences would tolerate it. Hitchcock was passionate about the project, though, and pressed on with a fraction of his usual budget, and filmed Psycho with his television crew and shot the film in black and white. This was a far departure from his previous films' expansive widescreen Technicolor look and feel.

The black and white had an added benefit: there's no way the Production Code Administration would have allowed that much red blood.

Hitchcock also got around censors using the age-old Hollywood strategy of cramming in objectionable material to "get away with murder." The film opens with Marion Crane in her bra, in bed with her lover during a lunchtime rendezvous. Hitchcock used this scene as a bargaining chip; he agreed to reshoot the scene more chastely in exchange for keeping the shower scene intact, only to have the censors forget about the opening scene altogether.


Psycho revolutionized film marketing by creating an aura of mystery and urgency. The trailer showed Hitchcock himself leading the audience on a tour of the film’s sets and locations, offering only basic details about the film by alluding to the terrible things that happened in its various locations. The music is fairly whimsical. And the trailer is over six minutes long. I highly recommend watching it - it's one of the great trailers ever created.

You can watch the Psycho trailer on YouTube.

Additionally, Hitchcock employed a strict no-late-admission policy for the film, which added to the sense of urgency and exclusivity around seeing the film. For audiences who were still used to trickling in and staying for a while, this was almost unheard of outside the roadshow presentations of films like Gone with the Wind or The Ten Commandments. Hitchcock supplied theaters with records to play in the lead-up to the film, with background music and a voice that occasionally announced how much time was remaining until the show.


The film is both narratively and technically brilliant.

The story sets off in an entirely different direction from where it ends up. The first half hour of the film sets up a "woman-on-the-run" plot, as Marion hatches a plot to steal money from one of her employer's clients so she and her lover, Sam, can run off together and get married. Even though she's broken the law, she's a sympathetic character and we're rooting for her. We watch as she eludes a suspicious policeman and eventually lands at the Bates Motel. This is nearly half an hour into the film, where we meet the innkeeper, Norman Bates.


Then the film dramatically changes. A few scenes later, the shower scene literally tears the film in two. It is probably the biggest twist in film history (sorry "Luke, I am your father"). It's why Hitchcock insisted that people show up on time.

The shower scene takes place at a weird point in the film - roughly 47 minutes into a 110 minute film. It's not quite the midpoint, but it's not early enough to be the end of Act I. Structurally, it's a huge risk, and a departure from the traditional Hollywood screenplay structure. The effect is unsettling; you're not entirely sure what's coming after that. Is the film playing by any rules?

From that point on, the film is really without a center. Hitchcock messes around with identification and alienation. Who are we actually rooting for throughout the film, and why? As the film continues into darker and darker territory, it continues to deliver suspense, but also interrogates the viewer. Isn't this what we came to see? Why? Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut that in Psycho, he was directing the audience.


There's too much technical brilliance in the film to share in this email. Beyond the shower scene, the film is worth close study. Most of the techniques we've discussed throughout the series - chiaroscuro lighting, flashbacks, montage editing, deep focus photography - are deployed in service of this story, probably as seamlessly as any film we've discussed. Pay close attention to the visual motifs used throughout - eyes, mirrors, birds, windows, cars. Pay close attention to what is repeated in the film: repeated shots and repeated dialogue set in a new context. There are strange camera angles that seem to come out of left field, which give the film an added dread.

And Bernard Hermann's score is justifiably iconic. Even if you've not yet seen the film, you know the music, especially the violins during the shower scene. Hitchcock later said that "33-percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music." Which is made all the more interesting by the fact that according to legend, Hitchcock originally didn't want any music during the shower scene. It's hard to subsequent iconic scores, like Jaws or Halloween without the Psycho score, particularly the shower scene, blazing the trail.


As mentioned before, Psycho might be where the Hollywood Renaissance movement of the 1960s and 1970s officially began. The film’s unconventional narrative structure, graphic violence, and exploration of taboo themes paved the way for the more daring and experimental films that emerged from the next generation of filmmakers. Psycho demonstrated that audiences were ready for more challenging and subversive films.

Finally, Psycho ushered in a new era of horror. It took a while to really see its influence, but a new generation was inspired and created a horror renaissance in the 1970s. You can see the influence of Psycho in films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1979), and Friday the 13th (1980), among others.


Psycho is one of the most studied films in history. The blend of mass entertainment, technical brilliance, and thematic depth make it one of the greatest Hollywood achievements. It has become a staple of film school curricula and part of both the horror canon and classic Hollywood canon.

Perhaps the strangest legacy - and closest study - was Gus Van Sant's 1998 shot for shot remake of Psycho, with Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates and Anne Heche has Marion Crane. Van Sant modified only a handful of details, most notably shooting in color.

The 2022 Sight and Sound Critics Poll listed Psycho as the 31st greatest film ever made, tied with Fellini's 8 1/2 and just ahead of Pather Panchali, City Lights, M (sorry Eric), Some Like it Hot, Rear Window, and our next film, Breathless.

What to Watch For

  • The Shower Scene. Many of the techniques and themes we’ve discussed in this series collide in the shower scene: Soviet montage, German expressionism, chiaroscuro lighting, voyeurism and the male gaze, violence, the Production Code and censorship. I highly recommend rewatching the scene a few times to focus on seeing what's actually there, vs. what's implied by the images you see, and the effect of cutting. Hitchcock avoided censorship by showing the PCA what was actually contained in the individual shots.

  • Mirrors and reflective surfaces are a recurring motif throughout the film. They signify dual nature and the hidden layers beneath the surface.

  • Birds are important metaphors in the film. Among other references, Marion's last name is Crane, and Norman's hobby is stuffing birds. What do you think is going on here?

  • There are two iconic shots of eyes, one included in this essay and one I’m not going to spoil.

Learn More About Psycho

Roger Ebert with an excellent essay on the film

10 things you (probably) never knew about the shower scene in Psycho by Oliver Lunn for the British Film Institute

78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene - a feature-length documentary about cinema's most famous scene

Make Your Inbox More Cinematic

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