‘Psycho,’ Hitchcock’s masterpiece, stunned moviegoers 60 years ago today

“Psycho,” the 1960 cinematic classic suspense-thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, caught audiences off guard with the shocking murder of its main character less than halfway through the film.

When actress Janet Leigh watched herself in the scene, where a knife-wielding silhouette surprises her character in the shower from behind, Leigh said it was so terrifying that she stopped taking showers altogether and would lock all the doors and windows to her home whenever she did.

When actress Janet Leigh finally saw herself in the terrifying scene, where a  knife-wielding shadow figure surprises her in the shower from behind, she said she stopped taking showers altogether, and would  lock all the doors and windows to her home whenever she did.

Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Credit: Paramount Pictures

To be sure, the violins screeching in the background probably didn’t help.

Hitchcock’s masterpiece, released 60 years ago Tuesday (June 16), ushered in the new era of the slasher film genre and inspired a new generation of filmmakers who continue to reprise the trademark edge-of-your-seat style.

Today, the film is one of the most recognizable and iconic in cinematic history.

An unusual thriller for its time, "Psycho" took many chances that were considered taboo for American audiences in 1960, including on-screen sexuality and the extreme violence of a shower scene that appeared all too real.

Hitchcock, posthumously known as “The Master of Suspense,” once noted the extreme challenges he faced to film the indelible moment, saying he also had to overcome Hollywood censors who also didn’t even want the filmmaker to show a flushing toilet in the film, let alone a nude woman.

“As you know, you could not take the camera and just show a nude woman, it had to be done impressionistically,” the director said in a 1964 interview with FilMagicians magazine. “So, it was done with little pieces of film, the head, the feet, the hand, etc. In that scene there were 78 pieces of film in about 45 seconds.”

Shrieking violins, melons

There are many other elements that make the film historic, especially the ominous and undulating score by American composer Bernard Herrmann, who relied solely on the string section of the orchestra to create the film's iconic music.

The violins soar to an intense shrieking during the infamous shower scene. Hitchock later revealed that he had wanted to film the moment with no music at all but later admitted Herrmann helped intensify the film’s most dramatic scene. It was so good he even gave the composer a raise.

Hitchcock had us all fooled. Chocolate syrup was used for blood, but because the film was shot in black-and-white you couldn’t tell.

The realistic sound of the knife entering flesh was created by plunging the knife into a casaba melon.

There was even a rumor that Hitchcock threw ice water on Leigh to make her screams more realistic, but Leigh would later deny that story.

Were they crazy?

The movie didn’t initially receive the acclaim it is known for today.

In 1960, many critics panned the film in a barrage of negative reviews, calling it "low-budget," "a blot on an honorable career," and "plainly a gimmick movie," according to Wikipedia. One reviewer for the British weekly The Observer said she walked out in the middle of it.

But a handful of reviewers recognized the film's genius for its departure from the norms of early filmmaking — and especially took note of the performance of Anthony Perkins, who plays Norman Bates, an insane motel proprietor, the most memorable role of his career.

Audiences ‘fainted’

Outside of critical circles, the film was an instant hit, sparking a sensation among shocked and captivated moviegoers around the world.

According to historic accounts, long lines formed outside theaters as people awaited the next show, breaking box office records. Hitchcock ultimately made more than $15 million off the film, according to reports.

Ten years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the film, The Village Voice wrote:

"Audiences responded as though trapped on a roller coaster through the spook house, with a convulsive mixture of screams and laughter. People bolted for the doors and fainted in their seats. The mayhem caused one New York theater to call the cops and others to call for censorship. For a few weeks, Psycho upstaged the presidential campaign. A decade and a half before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, teenagers turned the showings into rituals — returning with their friends again and again."

Who wrote ‘Psycho’?

The story for the film "Psycho" was faithfully adapted from the novel of the same name by author Robert Bloch.

As with Hitchcock, Bloch was also departing from his norm. Beforehand, he wrote mostly horror-fiction with a supernatural spin. He even wrote an episode for the original “Star Trek” series. But “Psycho” was his first real foray into psychoanalysis.

His sixth novel, “Psycho,” was published in 1959, which explored the psychological phenomenon of multiple personality disorder.

In his 1993 book "Building the Bates Motel," Bloch revealed that he got the idea for his main character, Norman Bates, from the real-life serial killer Ed Gein. Rather than writing about Gein's crimes, however, Bloch was intrigued by the story of a mass murderer living a normal life in a small, unsuspecting town.

“Thus the real-life murderer was not the role model for my character Norman Bates. Ed Gein didn’t own or operate a motel. Ed Gein didn’t kill anyone in the shower. Ed Gein wasn’t into taxidermy. Ed Gein didn’t stuff his mother, keep her body in the house, dress in a drag outfit, or adopt an alternative personality. These were the functions and characteristics of Norman Bates, and Norman Bates didn't exist until I made him up. Out of my own imagination, I add, which is probably the reason so few offer to take showers with me.”

The film’s legacy

The film was so successful that it was reissued to theaters in 1965.

Even after 60 years, the film still holds up today.

The film later became an American horror franchise, with the sequels “Psycho II,” “Psycho III,” “Bates Motel,” “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” and a color remake of the original in 1998.

“Psycho” came late in Hitchcock’s career and was his 53rd directorial effort, falling between “North by Northwest” (1959) and “The Birds” (1963).

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards but received none. Hitchcock also never won an Oscar.

Spoiler alert — the film’s plot

On a Friday in December, Marion Crane, a secretary for a real estate executive in Phoenix, is on a lunch rendezvous with her boyfriend, Sam, played by John Gavin, at a nearby hotel in town. Sam reveals he’s in bad debt and that’s preventing him from marrying his true love, Marion.

After she returns to work, a loudmouthed and inebriated client at the office begins flirting with her and flaunts a stack of hundred dollar bills, which he is using to buy a new home. Luring the man to the office for another drink, Marion’s boss instructs her to deposit the $40,000 cash at the bank instead of leaving it in the office safe over the weekend.

Marion leaves early for the day, but instead of going directly to the bank to deposit the money, she goes home and packs a suitcase and heads to Fairvale, California, to see Sam.

Along the way, day becomes night and Marion, now dozing at the wheel, pulls over to the side of the highway to rest.

— — —

The plot thickens the next morning when Marion is awakened by a state trooper tapping at her car window.

Finding her whereabouts suspicious, the officer checks her license and plates but ultimately lets her go when nothing turns up.

As Marion pulls off, the officer follows close behind for a few miles.

Marion watches nervously in the rear view and breathes a deep sigh of relief when the trooper’s car finally veers off the exit.

She next stops in the next small town off the highway, where she pulls into a car dealership and quickly tells a salesman that she would like to trade her car for another, if that’s possible.

By now, the officer has parked across the street to continue observing the woman’s movements. Noting her urgency and her unwillingness to take a test drive, the salesman agrees to let her take the new vehicle for $700 plus the trade-in.

To conceal the large amount of money, she readies the $700 for the car in the ladies room. After completing the transaction, and with the officer now standing with the salesman, Marion hits the gas pedal so hard that she forgets her luggage in the other car. Luckily she hears the salesman’s pleas for her to stop before pulling out of the lot.

Back on the highway, Marion continues her getaway. Voices in her head reveal she is worried that her boss has already discovered that she stole the money.

— — —

Caught in a blinding rainstorm, Marion pulls into a dimly lit motel off an old highway to shelter for the night.

The flickering sign out front says Bates Motel.

Up the hill from the quiet motel is a dark and decrepit Victorian Gothic style home with a light in the window.

The eccentric inn keeper named Norman Bates, runs down from the house to meet his unexpected guest.

During the check-in, he sparks up some small talk and invites her to have dinner. She agrees. He puts Marion in Cabin One, which is next door to the motel office, and they agree to meet later in the evening.

Now in her room, Marion folds the rest of the money inside a newspaper. From a window in her hotel room, she overhears Bates in the distance, arguing with his mother inside the old house.

— — —

After Bates and Marion sit down in the motel parlor together, Bates reveals his passion for taxidermy and the strained relationship with his mother, who is mentally ill.

“She isn’t quite herself today,” he explains.

"We all go a little mad sometimes,"  Norman Bates says with a mercurial grin that makes the hair on your neck stand up. 

As Bates continues to tell Marion about his frustrations with his mother, Marion expresses some of her own maternal sympathies toward Bates.

But then the conversation takes a dark turn when Marion asks Bates if he has ever considered putting his mother inside a mental institution.

Bates’ mood suddenly shifts, and Marion immediately apologizes.

“I didn’t mean to sound uncaring ... It seems she’s hurting you.”

Bates replies: “I don’t hate her. I hate what she’s become. It’s not as if she was a maniac, or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes.”

And after a short pause he says, “We all go a little mad sometimes” with a mercurial grin that makes the hair on your neck stand up.

— — —

Bates asks her name again before leaving, and she says Miss Crane, but when Bates checks the register, he finds she signed herself in as Marie Samuels.

Going back into the office next door, Bates spies on Marion through a peep hole in the wall and watches as she undresses.

After this he returns to the house, where he appears to contemplate his next move.

Back at the motel, Marion, feeling guilty for absconding and moved by Bates’ story, decides to return the money and repay what she spent on the car.

That’s the moment she stepped into the shower, and more so into cinematic immortality.

Analysts of the film say the scene symbolized Marion's washing “away her guilt.”

While in the shower, the mysterious shadow figure emerges through the bathroom door and approaches with a knife, unseen by the victim. The terrifying phantom yanks the curtain back, stabs the woman to death and flees the scene.

And the audience is stuck with a whodunit.

Bates, discovering a trail of blood at the house, returns moments later to find Marion’s body in the shower with the water still running.

Appalled, he fetches a mop and bucket and cleans up the crime scene.

He gathers up the woman’s personal belongings, wraps the body in the shower curtain and puts everything in the trunk of the car.

Checking the room one last time, he finally sees the newspaper on the nightstand and grabs that, too, but never realizes the money inside.

He throws it in the trunk, too, puts the car in neutral and rolls it into a swamp near the motel.

— — —

Next, Marion’s sister Lila shows up at Sam’s job in Fairvale to find out where she is.

At the same time a pushy private investigator named Arbogast, played by Martin Balsam, also arrives there to investigate the missing forty grand.

“Someone always sees a girl with forty thousand dollars,” he says.

The shrewd Arbogast next shows up at the motel and encounters Bates, who initially lies about the woman ever being there.

Checking the register, however, the insistent Arbogast finds the alias Marie Samuels, which matches Marion’s handwriting. Confronting Bates, he admits that Marion was there, but claimed she left uneventfully the next morning. After Bates implies Marion met his mother, Arbogast asks to speak with her, but Bates refuses.

Nervous and stammering, Bates cuts the interview short, but Arbogast’s suspicions are aroused. He phones Sam and Lila to check in, and informs them he will return to the motel tomorrow to talk to Bates one more time.

The next morning Arbogast arrives.

After poking through the office and not seeing Bates, he decides to walk up the steps to the old house and goes inside to snoop around.

Upon reaching the top of a steep staircase, Arbogast is attacked by the same figure from the earlier murder, who suddenly emerges from the bedroom. Slashed, Arbogast tumbles backward to the bottom of the steps, where the figure pounces and raises the weapon for the coup de grace.

— — —

Back in Fairvale, Sam decides to go check out at the motel on his own after never hearing back from Arbogast.

He arrives the same evening and calls out for Arbogast, who’s no longer there.

Within earshot, a sullen Bates is standing in the darkness at the lake, where he has now presumably disposed of Arbogast’s body.

Sam and Lila team back up again and turn to the local sheriff for help. The sheriff happens to know Bates’ history, and he shockingly reveals that Bates’ mother died 10 years earlier in a murder-suicide. He phones Bates and questions him briefly, but see no real signs for worry.

Back at the house, though, Bates senses danger.

He can be heard behind closed doors arguing with his mother and then he’s seen carrying her from the upstairs bedroom down to the fruit cellar.

— — —

Desperate for answers, Sam and Lila go to the motel themselves to get to the bottom of things.

While there, Sam distracts Bates at the motel long enough for Lila to make it inside the old house. Snooping around, she calls out to Mrs. Bates, but the house is eerily quiet. At one point Lila is startled by her own reflection in a bedroom mirror.

Back at the motel, Sam’s questioning is getting under the skin of Bates, who soon realizes the ruse and knocks Sam unconscious. Noting that Lila is nowhere to be seen, Bates rushes up the stairs to the house to find her.

Lila sees the approaching Bates from an opening in the curtains, and she takes refuge in the fruit cellar. There, she comes upon the mummified corpse of Bates’ mother sitting upright in a rocking chair.

Lila belts out a blood-curdling scream just as Bates appears behind her dressed in his mother’s clothes and a wig, and raising the knife. Sam, having regained consciousness, appears just in the nick of time, grabbing Bates from behind and wrestling him to the ground.

A psychologist later explains Bates’ double personality disorder to a courtroom desperately trying to understand the man’s state of mind.

The film ends with the indelible image of Bates looking up at the camera with a peculiar smirk while sitting in a jail cell. His mother’s voice echoes in his mind, blaming him solely for the murders.