PSYCHO: Hitchcock and the Politique Des Auteurs

U.S.A., 1960. 109 min. Shamley Productions. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire; Music: Bernard Herrmann; Cinematography: John L. Russell; Produced by: Alfred Hitchcock; Written by: Robert Bloch and Joseph Stefano; Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

The steamy shower, the shadow behind the shower curtain, the raised, knife-wielding hand, that shrieking soundtrack and a screaming Janet Leigh have not only become legend in film, but also legend in parody. The scene has become so recognizable in modern times that when it is parodied I can sense young people nodding their heads in recognition even when they have no idea about its origins.

Alfred Hitchcock was born in 1899 in London, at the dawn of cinema. He was 26 when he directed his first film. His first “Hitchcockian” film, however, did not come until 1927 when The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was released. With strangled blondes and young men falsely accused of crimes, it was a precursor to many of themes and images with Hitchcock would be associated. By the time he was 30, he was on to his 10th film, Blackmail, one of the first sound films out of Britain. At the age of 30, he had moved to the United States and was working for acclaimed über-producer David O. Selznick. The Hitchcock style had been established and was now being fine-tuned.

Hitchcock referred to Psycho—as well Dial M for Murder—as films made for his “Peeping Tom” audiences. Audiences who felt as though they were watching something they should not be watching,  who were secretly enjoying the immoral behavior of the characters before them and hoping that the character would get away with his crime. In the classic Hitchcock film prior to Psycho, there was usually the straight, honest chap who is wrongfully accused. Not so, in Psycho. It provides us with the thrill of rooting for the dark side before Hitchcock pushes our curiosity over the edge. Then we crave resolution.

Psycho was the turning point in Hitchcock’s career. It was the moment, it is believed, when Hitchcock suddenly became self-aware. Until Psycho, Hitchcock was considered a skilled filmmaker who made films with broad appeal, phenomenal commercial success, and little critical appeal. All of this changed around the year 1960, when a group of critics and filmmakers in France, lead by Francois Truffaut, were developing the auteur theory, which privileged the director as the central creative force of a film. In their search for a poster-child to fit their theory, they found Alfred Hitchcock, a director with a clear cinematic style, to be a perfect fit. You could show any film enthusiast a scene from a certain kind of film and they would say it was in Hitchcock’s style. Not in the style of the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the producer, or the actors. If there was one internationally popular film director in the 1950s who fit the auteur theory, it was Hitchcock.

The French experiment was a grand success. Truffaut recorded several lengthy interviews with Hitchcock regarding the intricacies of each of his films, their symbolism and motivations, with are gathered in the 300 page long Hitchcock/Truffaut. Suddenly the elite critics of the world sat up and took notice. Post-Psycho, every Hitchcock scene was viewed with awe and searched for hidden symbolism. The ascent of auteurism, and concurrently Hitchcock, spawned an era when the director was king—an era that continues today. Prior to Psycho, the director was one of the players, usually second fiddle to the producer. After the auteur theory and Hitchcock’s critical acclaim became legend, the director rose to the top of the pecking order and multiple super-directors emerged in the 1960s.

The French experiment was also, in many ways, a grand failure, and its failures were also Hitchcock’s. The last two decades of Hitchcock’s career did not match up to the auteur hype. While technically sound and, in parts, critically acclaimed his subsequent films have not had the same lasting power as his early ones.  His five films preceding Psycho were The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo and North by Northwest. His five films after Psycho were The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz and Frenzy. Whether the auteur theory had truly gone to his head or not, the sun had clearly set on Hitchcock. In the words of screenwriter William Goldman, Hitchcock had become encased in praise and had himself become the man who knew too much.

The auteur theory later faced an ironic twist—the careers of many of the French directors who championed it in the 1950s and 1960s made dramatic shifts away from the basic tenets of the theory. Godard started relinquishing control of his films and Truffaut is also believed to have embraced many of the ideas he had previously rejected during his years at Cahiers du Cinema.

Hitchcock produced Psycho himself with a TV crew and a budget of $800,000. The film went on to make $15 million and was one of his most profitable. As he told Truffaut, before Truffaut allegedly muddled his head, “that’s what I’d like you to do—a picture that would gross millions of dollars throughout the world! [..] You have to design your film just as Shakespeare did his plays—for an audience.” Of course, even for a film as individual as Psycho, the auteur theory rings untrue. The film is nothing without Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, without the masterful John Russell behind the camera and especially without the screeching strings of Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock was the ringleader.

He died in the spring of 1980, as old as the cinema and as one of its greatest filmmakers. Alfred Hitchcock was simultaneously prolific (58 movies in 38 years), popular, commercially successful, and critically acclaimed, a feat that few have matched in a century of film.

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Devanshu Mehta Written by: