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Psycho (1960)

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Creepy.

That’s the only way to describe Anthony Perkins‘ career-defining performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), one of the films that hastened the end of the Hays/Breen production code, and introduced modern horror to the screen.

There were two theatrical sequels, a TV movie (Psycho IV: The Beginning [1980]) and a modern remake in 1998 by Gus Van Sant. None of them approached the power of the low-budget, black and white original. With Hitchcock’s striking ominous visuals, coupled with Bernard Herrmann’s propulsive score, the film was a solid box-office and critical hit. If anything, the film’s reputation has grown since its initial release.

Psycho had a curious genesis: Hitchcock was under contract to Paramount Studios for his theatrical films, but was also contracted to Universal Studios for his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, an anthology series of mysteries, each running roughly 30 minutes, which debuted in 1955 (the show expanded to an hour in 1962, and ended its run in 1965).

Hitchcock usually confined his input on the series to helping to select the stories for dramatization, lending his name and image to the project, and also providing a series of delightfully droll introductions and postscripts to each teleplay, which he personally delivered in his usual laconic style.

The episodes themselves were directed by such old hands as John Brahm and Robert Florey, and were shot in two to three days at most, with a Universal TV crew working at maximum efficiency in serviceable black and white. Very occasionally, however, Hitchcock would direct an episode of the series, and when he did, the speed and professionalism of the Universal crews astounded him.

Ordinarily bored by the filmmaking process — the actual shooting seemed almost an afterthought to his exquisitely detailed storyboards — Hitchcock found himself caught up again in the excitement of actually shooting a movie.

Having known for some time that his 1950s big budget suspense film strategy was fast falling out of favor, Hitchcock cast around for some fresh material, and found it in Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho. Using an intermediary to keep the cost down, Hitchcock bought the rights to the novel, and pitched the project to Paramount.

But Paramount found the material too exotic, offbeat, and problematic, and refused to finance the film. After much negotiation, Hitchcock struck a deal to shoot the film at Universal in black and white, using his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew, funding the budget of $806,947 entirely with his own money, and also deferring his standard director’s fee of $250,000 in return for a 60% ownership of the film’s negative. Still unconvinced that the finished film would click, Paramount nevertheless acquiesced, and agreed to release the finished film.

Hitchcock shot Psycho on a very tight schedule, starting on November 11, 1959, and wrapping on February 1, 1960. When Psycho opened, it broke the box-office record of all of Hitchcock’s previous features, and signaled the beginning of the end for traditional Hollywood censorship, with its sinuous synthesis of sex, violence, and hitherto uncharted psychiatric territory — at least in a major Hollywood film.

Viewers wanted something fresh, and Psycho provided precisely that — the shock of the new. The film became an instant classic, and remains so today; the Psycho house and the Bates Motel sets still stand at Universal Studios, and remain a potent attraction for visiting tourists.

With the success of the film, Tony Perkins was forever typed by the film as hotel owner Norman Bates; though he continually tried to break free of the mold, Perkins eventually became so identified with the character that Universal let him direct, and star in, Psycho 3 (1986).

More than half a century old, Psycho still has the power to shock, to surprise, to enthrall the viewer. And yet, despite the film’s classic status, too few people have actually seen it.

Every fall, I teach an Introduction to Film History class at UNL, and last year, as Halloween approached, I decided to run Psycho as an appropriate offering for the season. I initially assumed that everyone knew the main thrust of the film, and the plot twist, but moments before class, I suddenly thought “wait a minute. I’ll bet half the people here have never even seen the film, much less heard of it.”

A quick show of hands determined this to be the case, and so I simply said,”OK, here’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and we’ll talk about it after the screening. Anything I tell you now would only spoil it for you, so let’s just run it.” Afterwards, we did indeed discuss the film in great detail, and it really holds up; a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

So if you haven’t seen Psycho, get the DVD now and treat yourself.

We’ll talk about it afterwards, OK?

The Skull

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Patrick Wymark and Peter Cushing contemplate The Skull

Those who are in the mood for an atmospheric and intelligent horror film could do much worse than checking out The Skull, a 1965 horror film directed by Freddie Francis from a script by Robert Bloch, based on his short story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Recently released in an immaculate DVD in both regular and Blu-ray formats, in its original Techniscope / Technicolor aspect ratio, and boasting a cast that includes Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green and Jill Bennett, with music by avant-garde symphonic composer Elisabeth Lutyens, The Skull is perhaps Francis’ masterpiece as a director, and if you haven’t seen it — well, what are you waiting for?

Those who are looking for gore will be disappointed, but those who can appreciate an intelligent and superbly photographed film — the last 30 minutes are absolutely wordless, consisting only of a series of ever more ominous images as the skull takes possession of those who would trifle with it — recall the best of Val Lewton’s 1940s films, and remain as arresting and evocative as when they were first presented on the screen. Francis also photographed numerous films for other directors, including David Lynch’s Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story – this is the work of a master craftsman, who won two Academy Awards for his cinematography on Sons and Lovers and Glory. As a director, his work is hard-edged, brutal, and always stylish.

Here’s the trailer for the film – now get the DVD before they’re all gone.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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