The master of suspense, the macabre…and marketing?
...because when Alfred Hitchcock decided to make "Psycho," people told him he was, well, crazy. Yet the film essentially created the modern thriller and now ranks among Hitchcock’s most important works. It also proved to be a shrewd business deal for Hitchcock, as the lack of studio interest in the project allowed him to pocket most of the film’s profits. Most of all, "Psycho" shows Hitchcock at his most visceral, turning the camera into a voyeuristic mirror and frightening a whole generation of moviegoers away from showers.
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Hithcock used "Psycho’s" famous opening shot to establish the theme of voyeurism, one of his favorite topics. As the camera pans across a city skyline and enters through the window of a cheap hotel room, we instantly know the film is taking us somewhere we shouldn’t be. From Norman Bates peering through a crack in the wall to the silhouette of Mrs. Bates in the window, the film deliberately draws the viewer’s attention towards private spaces. The arrangement of these images also creates what Hitchcock referred to as “pure cinema,” referring to film’s power as a visual storytelling medium. Yet for Hitchcock, the cinema and voyeurism were intimately linked, as any director worth his salt should make the audience desire to see more. As Hitchcock himself said: "You gradually build up the psychological situation, piece by piece, using the camera to emphasize first on detail, then another. The point is to draw the audience right inside the situation instead of leaving them to watch it from the outside, from a distance. And you do this only by breaking the action up into details and cutting from one to the other, so that each detail is forced to turn on the attention of the audience and reveals its psychological meaning. If you played the whole scene straight through, and simply made a photographic record of it with the camera always in one position, you would lose your power over the audience."
In addition to creating the thriller, "Psycho" also led to the culture of spoiler alerts. While "Psycho" came about just as Hollywood was rethinking its production codes, there were still a lot of unwritten rules about storytelling. From both the marketing and first act of "Psycho," audiences believed that Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane was the main character. If you knew anything about Hitchcock, this made sense – he loved his blondes as leading ladies. Hitchcock and designer Saul Bass famously spent an arduous amount of time editing the horrific shower scene. While the invasive on-screen murder certainly scared audiences, the notion that the supposed heroine of the film wasn’t coming back caused a shock to expectations. While this is still true today – (cough) “Game of Thrones” (cough) – back then it was even more the case, as movies were considered a social engagement. Hitchcock constantly considered his audience’s preconceptions and reactions when making a film. Theaters weren’t allowed to admit anyone after the show started, and actually addressed the audience in a taped recording to not ruin the film by giving away critical plot details. Or as Hitchcock put it much more eloquently: "I must apologize for inconveniencing you in this way. However, this queuing up and standing about is good for you. It will make you appreciate the seats inside. It will also make you appreciate 'Psycho.' You see, 'Psycho' is most enjoyable when viewed beginning at the beginning and proceeding to the end. I realize this is a revolutionary concept but we have discovered that 'Psycho' is unlike most motion pictures and does not improve when run backwards."
Even before William Goldman famously said it, nobody knows anything in Hollywood. When Hitchcock approached studios to make "Psycho," they saw it as pulp and immediately passed. Yet this was Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, asking to make a relatively low budget horror film! Paramount, the eventual distributor of "Psycho," agreed to do the film after a proposal by agent Lou Wasserman that Hitchcock would direct the movie for free with a very low budget. At the time, Hitchcock was five years into his television production of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and offered to use his Shamley Productions crew to shoot the movie. To further lighten Paramount’s load and spare the studio possible embarrassment in the case of a flow, they also shot at Universal on cheap sets. However, the catch to this deal was that Paramount owned 40 percent of the film, while Hitchcock held the remaining share. At that point in his already prolific career, Hitchcock had never stood to gain personally from his film’s profits. When "Psycho" became a phenomenal success, Hitchcock ended up with more than the studio. For makers, there’s a hidden advantage when no one is interested in your work: it’s easier to own a stake in it. Two decades later, a young director named George Lucas signed a similar deal with Fox on a low budget sci-fi film called "Star Wars."
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