Saturday, October 13, 2012

Stubs - Psycho

File:Psycho (1960).jpg

PSYCHO (1960) Starring: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin and Janet Leigh. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano. Based on the novel Psycho by Robert Bloch.  Music by Bernard Hermann.  Produced by Alfred Hitchcock Run Time: 100. Black and White US. Suspense/Horror

Last week, we looked at A Cabin in the Woods, a satire on the horror/slasher genre; this week, Psycho, the original and perhaps greatest slasher film. But to limit any analysis to the slasher aspects of the film would be a mistake, because there is much more to this film than that. This was a film that literally broke new ground and we are still living in its aftermath, as moviegoers, even if you don’t realize it.

Out of deference to the original advertising campaign, I am not going to be revealing any plot points or talk about cast. I will talk about particular scenes, but I will try not to give away too much as part of the joy of the film is to see the twists and turns. Which brings me to the first thing that Psycho changed, start times. As a modern moviegoer, we’re used to finding showings listed online or in the newspaper and we know, or should know, to get to our seats before that time, even though the movie might not actually start until after several minutes of ads and previews.

However, before Psycho, a moviegoer would do just that, go, buy a ticket and sit. Maybe the movie might have just started, or be near the end. Watch an older movie and you’ll see ushers showing people to their seats when someone enters a theater. That’s because the lights are out and the movie is playing. When Psycho came out that all changed. Because Hitchcock wanted the movie to be seen from start to twisty finish, no one would be admitted to the theater after the presentation had started. You had to know the start time and have bought a ticket before. Sound familiar? Well it was oh so new in 1960.

While the film currently bears an R rating from the MPAA, when it was first released, no such ratings existed. The ratings as we know them wouldn’t be given until 1968. At the time of Psycho’s production, the film production code, which all filmmakers in Hollywood were required to follow, was starting to crumble. Films were censored by the industry, by a precursor of the current MPAA. Scripts were reviewed and films were approved.

If you’ve ever seen Psycho, you will no doubt have seen things that weren’t shown in films before and I’m not referring to the violence, we’ll get to that. But one of the groundbreaking elements was the flushing of a toilet. While that is not scandalous it had simply never been shown in a movie up to then. And anything that had never been done before is always a controversy. Some censors had problems with it, but the flushing toilet made it through.

The word transvestite is also said in the film; another first. But again censors don’t like new things. They were concerned about the sexual meaning of the word, but when screenwriter Stefano showed them there was none, by looking the word up in the dictionary, the censors relented.

There is also a certain sexuality that had not been in films before. We see two lovers on the same bed and Janet Leigh in a bra and slip. Again, like a toilet, what’s the big deal? However, the production code forbade it. Ever wonder why there are so many twin beds in older movies? A man and a woman were not supposed to be on the same bed at the same time, let alone in a state of undress. However, Psycho shows just that. And it’s not that the censors missed it or gave a filmmaker of Hitchcock’s stature a pass. No. They wanted the scene reshot and Hitchcock was willing to oblige, offering to do so with the censors on the set. However, they never showed up and the scene stayed in the film.

Then there is nudity. Not much, really. I will mention the shower scene here. If you’ve never ever heard of the film, then stop reading this review now and go rent it, borrow it, buy it or stream it. Then come back to Trophy Unlocked and continue reading. We’ll wait for you. Otherwise, I’m going to assume that if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ve at least heard of the infamous shower scene. Are we all ready? Then let’s continue. You can’t kill a woman while she’s taking a shower, without there being nudity or at least the allusion of nudity. And for the most part what you get are allusions. The film deftly shows much, but cuts away with one exception: A blurry pair of a body double’s breasts. If you watch for them they’re there.

Again, like the toilet, the censors saw them, at least some did. Hitchcock took back the footage, but did nothing. When he resubmitted the scene for approval, apparently not every censor saw them so it passed through.

And since we’re talking about the shower scene, what about the violence? How can someone (I’m not saying who) take a knife to someone (I’m not saying who) without there being blood and gore? Yes, there is some blood and not as much as you would see today, but there is no gore. For all the violence depicted on the screen and  the terror it may have inflicted on the audience of the day, you never see the knife inflict any damage. Again, this is how a master filmmaker handles the boundaries of his day. Hitchcock pushes and twists, but he is restrained. He even avoids some of the more over the top violence that is depicted in the novel it’s based on. Being the first also means that he did not have to escalate to shock his audience. And the film is the better for it, really.

But perhaps the most powerful scene is one that has not been discussed here and one that if you’ve never seen the movie, I don’t want to give away. There was definitely a reason why Hitchcock wanted the audience to see the movie from beginning to end and then not to give away the ending to their friends. I will oblige Hitch and not say anything more about it.

Like most older films, Psycho has to be viewed as what it meant at the time of its release. This movie had an impact on filmmaking and film going. There is nothing scandalous about it now, though you should not show it to children. This is a mature film, intended for adults. But as an adult you will not see anything in Psycho that you can’t see on TV now. And in some cases, it is what’s not seen that makes the film so powerful and one worthy of watching over fifty years later.

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