June 17, 2010

Five Ways Psycho Changed Cinema


A Revolutionary Film

Alfred Hitchcock's landmark Psycho had its New York premiere 50 years ago today. A half-century after Marion Crane first pulled in to the Bates Motel, NewsFeed takes a look at the five ways it changed cinema. (Warning: Spoilers galore!)

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

1. Killing off the Main Character Halfway Through

The first act of Psycho is deliberate red herring by Hitchcock. We initially follow Marion Crane (played by glamorous movie star Janet Leigh) as she steals $40,000 from her employer and skips town, ending up at a run-down motel for the night. As Roger Ebert notes, "This is a completely adequate setup for a two-hour Hitchcock plot. It never for a moment feels like material manufactured to mislead us." But it is: After attempting to destroy evidence of her crime, Marion takes the most famous shower in screen history.

"You know that the public always likes to be one jump ahead of the story; they like to feel they know what's coming next," Hitchcock explained to Francois Truffaut. "So you deliberately play upon this fact to control their thoughts. The more we go into the details of the girl's journey, the more the audience becomes absorbed in her flight. ... It's rather unusual to kill the star in the first third of the film. ... I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ."

2. Keeping Plot Twists "Secret"

Psycho actually has two famous surprises: The death of Marion Crane, and the reveal that Norman Bates is actually the murderer. In order to keep the twists secret, Hitchcock made the cast and crew take a vow of silence about the film's plot, and withheld crucial script pages from them until the last minute. An ad campaign for the film implored the audience to not give away the surprises, a buzz-building move employed by thrillers ever since.

Hitchcock's need to control to the viewing experience also led to another innovation: For the first time, audience members were forbidden from entering the theater after the film had started.

3. Quick 'Cutting'

3. Quick 'Cutting'

The shower scene in Psycho never actually shows most of things we think we see. (Except for two split-seconds, the knife never even touches flesh.) But through a series of quick edits -- over 90 cuts in a span of 45 seconds -- Hitchcock is able to suggest the illusion of graphic violence. Whenever an aging action star magically kicks butt in a series of quick shots, he should give thanks to Hitch.

4. Empathy with a Murderer

As Norman Bates cleans up evidence of Marion's murder, Hitchcock seamless switches protagonists, subtly transferring audience sympathy towards Norman Bates. As he told Truffaut, "[T]he picture makes the viewer constantly switch loyalties. At the beginning he hopes that Janet Leigh won't be caught. The murder is very shocking, but as soon as [Anthony] Perkins wipes away the traces of the killing, we begin to side with him, to hope that he won't be found out. ... When Perkins is looking at the car sinking in the pond, even though he's burying a body, when the car stops sinking for a moment, the public is thinking, 'I hope it goes all the way down!' It's a natural instinct."

Though at this point the audience doesn't know Norman is the murderer, the audience's sympathy for him continues through the end of the picture, when Hitchcock trots out a psychological expert to explain the Freudian underpinnings for Norman's psychosis. This is perhaps the only negative part of Psycho's enduring legacy; In the 50 years since, the villain with a pat psychological explanation for his evil-doing has become an easy cliche.

5. The Flushing Toilet

In a more earthy milestone, Psycho was the first film to show a toilet onscreen. Including it was the idea of screenwriter Joseph Stephano: "I thought if I could begin to unhinge audiences by showing a toilet flushing -- we all suffer from peccadillos from toilet procedures -- they'd be so out of it by the time of the shower murder, it would be an absolute killer." Hitchcock loved the idea but worried it would be censored, so Stephano made it integral to the plot: Marion adds up the money on a piece of paper, the disposes the evidence by flushing it down the toilet. It's easy to overlook, but the sheer act of Hitchcock bringing the camera into the bathroom -- where we are at are most private and most vulnerable -- accounts for a great deal of why Psycho is still unsettling today. (Check out our Toy Story 3 preview)