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Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Thursday, 1 April 2010 12:59 UK

How Psycho changed cinema

Janet Leigh

By Stephen Robb
BBC News

It's 50 years since Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was unleashed on a soon-to-be-terrified world. Even if you've never seen the film you've probably been exposed to its extensive influence.

Alfred Hitchcock had made his name as the "master of suspense" with brilliant, glossy thrillers like Rear Window and North by Northwest, but Psycho was altogether different - the like of which most cinema-goers had never seen.

With its shocking bursts of violence and provocative sexual explicitness, Psycho tested the strict censorship boundaries of the day as well as audiences' mettle - and it gave Hitchcock the biggest hit of his career.

Awakened to the box office potential of violence and sex, mainstream filmmakers followed suit. Here is how Psycho changed cinema:


The 45-second shower murder in Psycho is possibly the most famous scene in cinema history.

David Thomson, author of The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, has said it still ranks "legitimately among the most violent scenes ever shot for an American film". According to the book Story of the Scene, by Roger Clarke, it "changed cinema forever".

For the film's first three-quarters of an hour the audience has followed Janet Leigh's Marion Crane, building engagement with the film's supposed central character.

Then in an electrifyingly brutal scene, as Marion readies herself for bed with a shower in the decrepit Bates Motel, she is hacked to death by a barely-glimpsed old woman.

Janet Leigh in Psycho (courtesy of Universal Pictures International)
Most of the film was shot quickly with a crew from television, but the 70-plus shots for this 45-second scene took a week to film
To get the scene past the censors Hitchcock claimed the knife never touched the victim, but studies have since suggested it does
Chocolate sauce was used for blood, and the hand holding the knife in some shots is Hitchcock's
Janet Leigh said she avoided taking showers for the rest of her life after filming Psycho
Source: Story of the Scene by Roger Clarke

"They [audiences] had never seen anything quite like it before - the total shock of killing off a lead character a third of the way in, and just the complete feeling of disorientation," says Michael Brooke, Screenonline curator at the British Film Institute.

Psycho was filmed in black and white - unusual for Hitchcock by that stage of his career - partly to cut costs, but also to manage the graphicness of this scene. Hitchcock knew he would not get shots of red blood splattering the wall and floor past the censors of the time.

"The shower scene in colour in 1960 would have just been unshowable," says Mr Brooke.

Psycho "opened the floodgates" for screen violence, says Mr Brooke, paving the way for the slow-motion bloodshed of Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch in the late 60s, up to today's torture porn of Hostel and the Saw films.

Though "watching the film, you think it's a lot more graphically violent than it actually is".

It is a mark of the shift in levels of violence in cinema that Psycho, given an adults-only "X" certificate in the UK in 1960, now carries a relatively tame "15" rating.

Psycho's influence on 50 years of cinema
Genre Bonnie & Clyde (1967) Jaws (1975) Halloween (1978) Fatal Attraction (1987) Scream (1996)
Violence dot white dot white dot white dot white dot white
Sex dot blue
'Slasher' film dot white dot white
Killer/villain's point of view dot blue dot blue dot blue
Humour dot white dot white
Use of music dot blue dot blue


Arguably the film's most appealing character is Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, the awkward, softly-spoken young man resignedly running the declining family motel and caring for his abusive, invalid mother.

After Leigh's slaughter, the film switches to Bates' point of view and the audience is invited to sympathise with his agonising dilemma over concealing his mother's horrific crime.

"There is that scene just after the shower murder when the car is sinking into the swamp and it pauses momentarily," says Mr Brooke, "and in a weird kind of way you almost want it to carry on sinking. You don't want him to be discovered even though he is covering up this hideous murder."

Anthony Perkins in Psycho (courtesy of Universal Pictures International)
Mummy's boy - Bates' character was meant to draw viewers' sympathy

The effect was to toy with audiences' sympathies in a way mainstream thrillers hadn't done before.

Psycho is considered the first modern horror film and credited with launching the "slasher" sub-genre. But Paul Duncan, author of The Pocket Essential Alfred Hitchcock, argues its greatest legacy is the shifting point of view that became a common device of the slashers.

Most of Hitchcock's peers worked in the "third person", positioning their camera as a detached, neutral observer of the film's events, says Mr Duncan, whereas Hitchcock's "first person" camera allied his audience inescapably to key characters.

"That, I think, is probably the most copied aspect of Hitchcock's movies," he says.

John Carpenter's 1978 film Halloween, whose considerable debt to Psycho is emphasised by the presence of Leigh's daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in the lead role, is a "very good example of point of view camera being used brilliantly", he adds.

Don't give away the ending - it's the only one we have!
Psycho promotional slogan

Having switched the film's point of view to Norman, Hitchcock has manoeuvred his audience exactly where he wants them for the film's shattering, shock twist.

"With all the information you are given you believe him to be innocent, and you identify with his crisis," says Mr Duncan.


The film opens on the skyline of Phoenix, Arizona, on a hot December day, the camera panning lazily across the rooftops before casually zooming in through a window to a hotel room where - unmistakably - an underwear-clad Leigh and shirtless John Gavin have made love moments earlier.

Psycho poster (courtesy of BFI)
To keep secret the film's final twist, Psycho was not screened for critics or cinema-owners before release
Unusually for the time, cast and crew had been made to sign non-disclosure agreements preventing them speaking about the film
No-one was allowed into the cinema once the film had started - enforced by uniformed guards, this was an extraordinary measure in an era when people were used to coming and going during theatres' continuous programmes

These first moments are almost a statement of intent from Hitchcock. "He was quite deliberately testing the waters as far as the censors were concerned with the film," says Mr Brooke.

"It took what had previously been only suggestive sexual undercurrents and made them absolutely upfront."

At that time most US studio films were constrained by the puritanical Production Code, which dated from the 1930s and restricted depictions of sex, drug use, drinking, offensive language and anything else that could "lower the moral standards of those who see it".

When he was unable to secure financing for Psycho from studios fearful of the film's potential for controversy, prompting him to put up 60% of a scaled-down budget of less than $1m himself, the director found himself with an opportunity to work outside the restrictions of the studio system and deliver an exploitation film Hitchcock-style.

The overt sexuality of the film's sightings of Leigh in her underwear, the shocking violence - even a shot of a flushing toilet - were radical in commercial cinema at the time.

And while there had usually been varying amounts of humour in Hitchcock's films, it had never before been combined with such dark, violent material as in Psycho. Today, that pioneering blend of shocks and laughs is notably evident in the films of Quentin Tarantino.


The violins wailing away during Psycho's shower murder scene have achieved the status of cultural shorthand - denoting imminent violent insanity.

Their importance to the impact of that terrifying scene is emphasised by the fact that at pre-release screenings of a cut of the film before the music was added, many viewers reacted with mild indifference.

"It was only with the second version, with the music added, that people just leapt out of their seats - especially when the shrieking violins started," says Mr Brooke.

The most memorable part of Bernard Herrmann's score has now been imitated to the point of being "one of the all-time aural cliches", he adds.

Alfred Hitchock
The great director - Hitchcock put much of his own money into the film

But the entire soundtrack is integral to the mood of the film, from the blast of strings over the opening credits onwards, says Mr Brooke.

Its influence can particularly be seen in films that use music to evoke a sense of menace and heighten sudden shocks, such as Jaws.

This is not the only way in which Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster, in turn massively influential itself, bears the influence of Psycho, says Mr Brooke.

"When they made Jaws, one of the stated aims was they wanted to make America's beaches as empty as American motel showers were when Psycho came out."

Psycho is re-released in the UK on 2 April. A season of films - entitled Psycho: A Classic in Context - runs at the BFI Southbank, central London, throughout April.

Below is a selection of your comments

In 1961 I was an usher at the Paramont Theater in Salem, MA and my job was to hold the crowd back for the last 15 minutes of the movie "Psycho" and we could not tell them anything about the ending.
Paul Duggan, Salem, Massachusetts

While I have to say Psycho is a true cinema classic and really stands the test of time, I have to mention Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, released in May 1960, it dealt with all the subjects detailed in the article on Psycho, only in more detail and more substance, from the scene in a seedy room with soft porn models, one of whom can only be photographed from one side because of a terrible scar on one side of her face, to the actual "psycho" of the piece filming his victims as they die a horrible death. In all honesty the film is a much better affair then Psycho, poor Michael Powell who was an innovative and brilliant film maker was ruined by this picture as the critics and censors did everything but publicly flog him because of it, a short three months later Psycho is released to great public acclaim and is now hailed as a classic of the genre. Before you watch Psycho again, and lets face it most people have seen it at least once, try a viewing of Peeping Tom, you might be pleasantly surprised, and both directors were English, makes you wonder where they get their ideas from.
The Wolfman, London

I had the pleasure of viewing Psycho when I was teenager. Personal terror ensued. Couldn't take a shower for months afterward. To this day I am affected by Hitchcock's work. I have clear shower glass.
Candi Johnston, Hayden Lake, Idaho USA

I'll never forget the first time I saw this film in the cinema in the late 60's as a teenager with a group of friends at the Ionic cinema, Golders Green in London, sadly now a Sainsbury's supermarket! Psycho was a truly terrifying experience at the time, claustrophobic and spooky. You knew you were about to see something scary but nothing prepared you for the impact of the shower scene and the ending. It's a wonderful and unforgettable feeling when around 750 people all scream at the same time. Good for the heart or a heart attack, you decide!
Roger Bull, London England

Psycho will forever be a classic. And I definitely think people can still get a shock and enjoy it today. I am only 20, yet I am a huge Hitchcock fan and this is definitely one of his best. Every horror film after this owes him a great debt.
Hana Wilson, Liverpool

I was 10 when Psycho was released. I still think about the shower scene whenever I shower. Jaws use of music was also masterful. I have a niece who plugs her ears every time anyone hums the "shark music". I didn't pick up on how sexy Psycho was until I became an adult. Hitchcock was a genius. Psycho pushed every envelope and started a revolution in cinema. I, however, cannot watch the current slasher movies. The violence is too graphic. I prefer the style of the masters.
Cheryl Seelbach, Columbus, OH

The composer Bernard Herrmann said that Hitchcock originally didn't want any music in Psycho at all. Herrmann had a score in mind, and so he invited Hitch to a viewing of the shower scene. First they ran it silent; then they ran it with Herrmann's score - after which Hitchcock was sold!
Robert Day, Coventry, UK

Pyscho is an incredibly tame film. It does not shock, and looks rather tame now. Far more grounding-breaking and worthy of these accolades is the "Exorcist".
Maxwell Allen, London

What a fantastic film! Although not as gruesome or violent as most of the horror films we see today it still hits you in all the right places and leaves you wanting more. Most the horror films I have seen lately leave me wanting the door!
Alison Murray, Bedfordshire

Seeing the film for the first time many years ago, I found the most frightening scene to be the slow close-up on Martin Balsam (the investigator) as he talks in the telephone booth. This was pure suspense - you quite simply didn't know what was going to happen. Would Balsam survive the call? Was anyone going to leap out and attack him? Trying to anticipate the violence was for me nerve-racking. This demonstrated to me the skill of Hitchcock.
Paul T Horgan, Bracknell, UK

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