It was 50 years ago this week, Alfred Hitchcock taught the world to shriek. Sunday morning June 16, 1960, Psycho opened at two midtown Manhattan theaters, with crowds already lined up on Broadway.
Was it the insolently blunt title? Hitchcock’s hilarious first-person trailer (“and here we have the b-a-a-ah-th room”)? The unprecedented print ads featuring a Hollywood star (voluptuous Janet Leigh) in a slip and brassiere? The well-publicized absence of press previews? The radio spots promising, “no one… but no one… will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance”? According to film historian Steven Rebello, “ticket holders standing in line grilled the patrons who poured out of the theater, laughing, outraged, shaken.” Asking about the ending they were told, “You gotta see it for yourself!”
To have been among the fortunate few who did see Psycho cold in late June 1960 — a tense month that followed the Soviet downing of an American U-2 spy plane, the ensuing collapse of the Eisenhower-Khrushchev disarmament summit, continued Red Chinese shelling the off-shore islands Quemoy and Matsui, anti-US riots in Japan, and the expulsion of Cuban diplomats — was a once in a lifetime experience. The critic William Pechter described the unique atmosphere of excited dread, spectators united before the screen in fearful anticipation.
Nor did the movie disappoint. Motion picture protocol tradition was upended by a cluster of movies appearing in the early ’60s — Peeping Tom, Breathless, L’avventura, Yojimbo, 8½, The Manchurian Candidate, Flaming Creatures, Scorpio Rising — but nothing in American movies prepared anyone for the spectacle of a psychotic momma’s boy (played by then teenage idol Anthony Perkins) who lived in a haunted mansion along with the preserved cadaver of the woman he murdered 12 years before.
Based on a novel inspired by the case of the Wisconsin cannibal-necrophiliac Ed Gein, Psycho not only relocated horror from faraway Transylvania to the heart of the American family but was shockingly ironic from beginning to end. 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.
Even Hitchcock was startled by the violent response, although Psycho epitomized his theory of directing. A few years later he would tell Francois Truffaut that “the audience is like a giant organ… At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react that way. And some day we won’t even have to make a movie — there’ll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we’ll just press different buttons and they’ll go ooooh and aaah.” Thus implanted, Psycho would be Hitchcock’s greatest commercial hit and, by some estimates, the most profitable black-and-white movie since The Birth of a Nation.
Village Voice film critic Jonas Mekas was off that summer shooting a movie. A succession of friends and colleagues held down his column: film historian Herman G. Weinberg, experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, and a marginally employed, 32-year-old cinephile named Andrew Sarris. Making his first appearance in the Voice, Sarris made the most of it. He gave Psycho its first all-out rave and tweaked Deren to declare Hitchcock “the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today.” Sarris advised “discerning filmgoers” to see Psycho no less than three times (first for “the sheer terror of the experience,” again for the “macabre comedy,” and finally for the movie’s “hidden meanings”). Irate readers flooded the Voice with letters and Sarris began one of the most distinguished careers in American film criticism, remaining at the paper for another 28 years.
Here, in its entirety, is Sarris’s review:
The Movie Journal
by Andrew Sarris
[Mr. Sarris, a film critic for Film Culture and other magazines here and in Europe, is one of those who have been asked by Jonas Mekas to contribute to this department in the absence of Mr. Mekas to shoot a film of his own.–Ed.]
For many years American and British critics have been mourning the “old” Alfred Hitchcock who used to make neat, unpretentious British thrillers before he was corrupted by Hollywood’s garish technical facility. Oh, for the days of “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The Lady Vanishes!” Meanwhile in Paris the wild
young men on Cahiers du Cinema, particularly Claude Chabrol, were proclaiming the gospel that Hitchcock’s later American movies stamped him as one of the screen’s major artists.
A close inspection of “PSYCHO” indicates not only that the French have been right all along, but that Hitchcock is the most-daring avant-garde film-maker in America today.
Besides making previous horror films look like variations of “Pollyanna,” “Psycho” is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain. What once seemed like impurities in his patented cut-and-chase technique now give “Psycho” and the rest of Hollywood Hitchcock a personal flavor and intellectual penetration which his British classics lack.
No Longer Cheats
For one thing, Hitchcock no longer cheats his endings. Where the mystery of “Diabolique,” for example, is explained in the most popular after-all-this-is-just-a-movie-and-we’ve-been-taken manner, the solution of “Psycho” is more ghoulish than the antecedent horror which includes the grisliest murder scenes ever filmed. Although
Hitchcock continually teases his conglomerate audience, he never fails to deliver on his most ominous portents. Such divergent American institutions as motherhood and motels, will never seem quite the same again, and only Hitchcock could give a soft-spoken State Trooper the visually sinister overtones of a dehumanized machine patrolling a
Despite its huge grosses, “Psycho” makes fewer concessions to popular tastes than an allegedly daring film like “Private Property.” “Psycho” takes its audience wherever its director wants to go, while “Private Property” stays a little ahead of the audience until catching-up finale worthy of Albert Zugsmith.
Forced to Respond
In its treatment of outrageous perversion as a parody of an orderly social existence, “Psycho” has a certain affinity to a modern theatre piece like “The Connection” in which the audience is forced to respond to its own hypocrisy in making the conventional moral distinctions
“Psycho” should be seen at least three times by any discerning film-goer, the first time for the sheer terror of the experience, and on this occasion I fully agree with Hitchcock that only a congenital spoilsport would reveal the plot; the second time for the macabre comedy inherent in the conception of the film; and the third for all the hidden meanings and symbols lurking beneath the surface of the first American movie since “Touch of Evil” to stand in the same creative rank as the great European films.
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