Becomes Hitchcock’s Most Famous Film

Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock defied Hollywood thinking and anticipated industry trends by making the low-budget shocker Psycho, the film that became his most popular.

Summary of Event

The popularity of North by Northwest
North by Northwest (Hitchcock)
Cinema;stylistic innovation (1959) affords a good example of Alfred Hitchcock’s remark “style is self-plagiarism.” A big moneymaker, North by Northwest also conforms to a Hitchcock formula that goes back to his British thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935): the innocent-man story structured with a double-chase plot. Hitchcock had Americanized the formula of the falsely accused protagonist pursuing the real culprit while being chased by the police in Saboteur (1942), though Foreign Correspondent (1940) and To Catch a Thief (1955) also employ aspects of the same design. Viewers can instantly recognize these films as Hitchcockian, but the works are also, as the director himself knew, self-imitative. Psycho (Hitchcock)
Thrillers (cinema)
[kw]Psycho Becomes Hitchcock’s Most Famous Film (June 16, 1960)
[kw]Hitchcock’s Most Famous Film, Psycho Becomes (June 16, 1960)[Hitchcocks]
[kw]Film, Psycho Becomes Hitchcock’s Most Famous (June 16, 1960)
Psycho (Hitchcock)
Thrillers (cinema)
[g]North America;June 16, 1960: Psycho Becomes Hitchcock’s Most Famous Film[06540]
[g]United States;June 16, 1960: Psycho Becomes Hitchcock’s Most Famous Film[06540]
[c]Motion pictures and video;June 16, 1960: Psycho Becomes Hitchcock’s Most Famous Film[06540]
Hitchcock, Alfred
Stefano, Joseph
Bloch, Robert
Herrmann, Bernard
Perkins, Anthony
Leigh, Janet
Miles, Vera
Gavin, John
Bass, Saul

Hitchcock’s search for new ideas was motivated by the box office as well as by the need for originality. As shrewd a businessman as an artist, Hitchcock still remembered the disappointment of Vertigo
Vertigo (Hitchcock) (1958), a daring psychological film that deemphasized plot and became a commercial failure. While ticket buyers enjoyed Hitchcock’s return to familiar material in North by Northwest, the director sought something new but not too risky.

Hitchcock had also noticed the recent, surprising success of some low-budget horror films. Hammer Film Productions released one of the first of these, Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein
Curse of Frankenstein, The (Fisher) (1957), a technicolor retelling of Mary Shelley’s novel starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Working for Allied Artists and Columbia, director William Castle Castle, William combined shoestring budgets with publicity gimmicks to bring in audiences. In promoting The House on Haunted Hill
House on Haunted Hill, The (Castle) (1958), for example, Castle requested that exhibitors run a skeleton on wires over the audience’s heads (a process he called “Emergo”); for Castle’s Macabre
Macabre (Castle) (1958), ushers handed out policies insuring the audience in the event of death by fright; and for The Tingler
Tingler, The (Castle) (1959), selected seats in the theater were wired to administer added jolts to viewers. More respectable, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique
Diabolique (Clouzot) (1955), a black-and-white French thriller about a husband who is murdered by his wife and mistress, played to big audiences in America and won acclaim for its frightening murder-in-a-bathtub scene.

Hitchcock knew of these trends when his assistant Peggy Robertson called his attention to a review of Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho (1959). Bloch’s book fictionalized the ghastly murders committed by a real-life Wisconsin recluse named Ed Gein Gein, Ed . In the novel, fortyish, alcoholic Norman Bates runs a seedy motel and quarrels with his hectoring, possessive mother. By funneling much of the action through Norman’s consciousness, Bloch misdirects the reader and sets up a surprise ending: The brutal murders that appeared to be the work of Norman’s mother (such as the shower stabbing of motel guest Mary Crane) have really been committed by Norman, who has preserved his dead mother’s body for years and who has psychologically merged with her personality. Attracted by the element of Gothic horror and by the surprise murder of the heroine early in the narrative, Hitchcock purchased the film rights to Bloch’s novel for nine thousand dollars.

The development of the property into a workable film treatment encountered obstacles. Paramount Pictures, the studio at which Hitchcock had most of his success in the 1950’s, did not want to finance a film about necrophilia. Hitchcock decided to underwrite the film himself, to shoot it on the Universal-International lot using the crew from his television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and to have Paramount publicize and distribute the film. Hitchcock retained 60 percent ownership of the picture, a move that earned him $2.5 million in only the first four months after the film’s opening on June 16, 1960. His financing of the film cost him only $800,000.

A first screenplay by writer James Cavanagh struck the wrong note by developing a love story between Mary Crane’s sister and Mary’s boyfriend as they investigate Mary’s disappearance. Joseph Stefano met with Hitchcock in numerous story conferences to block out a narrative structure and to write a second screenplay. Stefano’s idea was to begin the film with Marion (her name was changed from Mary) and her lover Sam. The opening scene of two partly clad lovers in a rented room would immediately announce the film’s audaciousness. Hitchcock wanted Anthony Perkins to play Norman Bates, a casting choice that made the character more boyish and vulnerable. Stefano worked on the dialogue, while Hitchcock concentrated on the technical challenges posed by the visual set pieces of the shower murder and the killing of the detective Arbogast.

As filming neared, Hitchcock’s personal financing made him unwilling to use expensive “name” stars. Janet Leigh, the most famous performer in the film, agreed to play Marion. John Gavin (Sam Loomis), Vera Miles (Lila), and Martin Balsam Balsam, Martin (Arbogast) completed the principal cast. The shooting of the film proceeded from November 11, 1959, until February 1, 1960. Oddly, the censors asked for only slight alterations. Arguing that the knife used in the shower murder is never shown to touch the victim’s body (and, of course, declining to point out that the scene actually creates its violence through the staccato editing and shriek of violins), Hitchcock slipped the entire scene past the censors. Hitchcock decided on most of the deletions himself to tighten the running time of the film, which finally came to 109 minutes. He made cuts in dialogue and shortened a later scene that showed Sam’s sense of loss for Marion. Joseph Stefano objected strongly to such changes and blamed the negative reaction that Vertigo had received for making Hitchcock reluctant to explore character deeply.

To publicize the film, Hitchcock may have reverted to the gimmicks of William Castle. He stipulated that no preview showings would be held, a decision intended to protect the secrecy of the surprise ending. The move angered many critics, however, who had to watch the film with regular audiences and who gave the film mixed or negative reviews. In another attempt to keep word of mouth from revealing the ending, Hitchcock concluded the preview trailer for Psycho with the warning that no one would be seated after the film had started. The publicity kit for theater owners even suggested ways to enforce this policy: the use of Pinkerton detectives, large lobby clocks, and audio speakers playing a tape of Hitchcock consoling impatient ticket buyers in line.


The growth of film as a field of casual and classroom study Cinema;academic study of in many ways accompanied the increased attention Alfred Hitchcock received as his career progressed. The first book about Hitchcock’s films was written by Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol in 1957; it gave serious attention to technique and theme, in particular the theme of the transfer of guilt. The popularity of Psycho boosted Hitchcock’s already considerable fame and fueled more critical attention. French filmmaker François Truffaut Truffaut, François asked Hitchcock in 1962 if he would answer some five hundred questions about his career; a transcription of those fifty hours of conversation was published in 1966. Added critical scrutiny of Hitchcock and of film in general indirectly gave rise to film programs at universities. Cause and effect become tangled, but as a generalization it may be said that, just as nineteenth century university courses in William Shakespeare developed into the field of literary studies, critical attention to the films of Hitchcock did much to create film studies as a discipline.

Other influences of Psycho were less felicitous. Though William Castle’s early films had shown Hitchcock the way, Castle and others now followed the trail of Psycho’s popularity. Castle’s first Psycho imitation was Homicidal
Homicidal (Castle) (1961), a black-and-white film based on a real-life case and featuring an old house, transvestitism, and a gimmick (a “fright break” just before the resolution to permit frightened viewers to leave the theater). More films followed by Castle and others: Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Castle’s Straight-Jacket (1964), which was made from a script by Robert Bloch, Silvio Narizzano’s British production Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), and Aldrich’s Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965). During this period, Hitchcock, again trying to avoid repetition, struck out in a new direction and made The Birds
Birds, The (Hitchcock) (1963), the first of a genre that would be called “disaster movies.” The string of exploitation films also continued (with series such as the Friday the Thirteenth and Nightmare on Elm Street films), creating a profitable if dubious genre known as “splatter movies.”

The rise of more explicit horror and violence in films also had an effect on eroding the production code Hays Code
Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 that had been the industry’s self-censoring system since the 1930’s. The popularity of Psycho illustrates well how filmmakers were beginning to realize that the filmgoing public actually consisted of a number of smaller audiences with different tastes. Films from the classical period of the 1930’s and 1940’s traditionally targeted a mass audience, but motion pictures such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and Baby Doll (1956), all directed by Elia Kazan Kazan, Elia , clearly sought out a more select audience of adult viewers. The films’ mature subjects and naturalistic style in time loosened other restraints. More sexual permissiveness appeared in Lolita (1962), The Pawnbroker (1965), and The Graduate (1967). In 1968, the motion-picture industry abandoned the production code entirely in favor of a rating system that classified films according to their content.

Practically all of these influences were unintentional on the part of the filmmaker, who was using his talent to craft a cinematic style that would arouse emotion. Hitchcock’s comments on Psycho emphasize his concern with style and can almost be taken as a credo for formalist filmmakers: “I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this. It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.” Indeed, in Psycho, Hitchcock experimented with minimization of music to place emphasis on natural sounds to heighten the horror, such as when the shrieking violins mimicked the violence of the murder scene. Later, in The Birds, Hitchcock dispensed altogether with music, another bold step by the innovative director. Psycho (Hitchcock)
Thrillers (cinema)

Further Reading

  • Anobile, Richard J., ed. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” New York: Avon Books, 1974. Presents a photographic reproduction of the film in more than 1,300 frame enlargements, with the complete dialogue printed below the accompanying shots. Although the book does not indicate camera pans, voice inflections, and the presence of music, it is useful for examining the visual design and editing of the film.
  • Deutelbaum, Marshall, and Leland Poague, eds. A Hitchcock Reader. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1986. Designed as a text for college courses on Hitchcock, this collection of essays is intended for film devotees as well as for students. Each topical grouping has its own introduction; the fifth unit, “A Psycho Dossier,” collects three essays and includes a bibliography.
  • Durgnat, Raymond. A Long Hard Look at “Psycho.” London: British Film Institute, 2002. An ambitious publication, this book engages in a close reading of Psycho designed to show just how complex, sophisticated, and masterful a work of cinematic art it is, while simultaneously attempting to reinvent the discipline of film studies in the process. An important book for Hitchcock fans and film scholars alike. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Kendrick, Walter. The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991. A lively survey of the history of horror as entertainment. Kendrick theorizes that the more society attempts to distance death, the more prominently horror appears in popular culture. His final two chapters are devoted to film horror, Psycho, and its formative influence on “splatter” films.
  • Kolker, Robert, ed. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Compilation of essays on Psycho designed both to illuminate the film itself and to serve as tools for teaching cinematic analysis in general. Bibliographic references.
  • Naremore, James. Filmguide to “Psycho.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. Short (eighty-seven-page) but thoughtful companion to the film. Chapter of analysis provides a running commentary on the film, with many worthwhile insights on Hitchcock’s visual artistry and skill at story construction.
  • Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho.” New York: Dembner Books, 1990. Drawing on interviews with Hitchcock and others as well as on the director’s private papers, this is the most thorough and authoritative book on the creation of the film. Especially informative and useful on the two screenplays for the project and on the filming of the murder scenes.
  • Rothman, William. Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. A detailed, scene-by-scene (sometimes shot-by-shot) analysis of five Hitchcock films, The Lodger (1927), Murder! (1930), The Thirty-nine Steps (1935), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and Psycho, with hundreds of frame enlargements. Rothman’s discerning insights, free from academic jargon, may be appreciated by general readers, film students, and scholars.
  • Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. 2d ed. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Valuable for the breadth of its film-by-film approach. Virtually a complete rewrite of the 1976 edition, with revised judgments based on Spoto’s experience teaching the films and the research for his controversial 1983 Hitchcock biography.
  • Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. Rev. ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. A transcript of fifty hours of conversation with Hitchcock on his films through Torn Curtain (1966). Truffaut updated the book with comments about various tributes and honors for Hitchcock from 1966 to 1979. Includes some interviews not in the first edition.

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