EXPERIMENT HITCHCOCK

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To go from the quintessential Hitchcock of  NORTH BY NORTHWEST to the shock/horror of PSYCHO must have been quite a surprise to filmgoers of 1960. The two films couldnt be more different.

The fact is that film fans, with a few exceptions, knew what to expect from an Alfred Hitchcock film – thrills, romance, spies, stunning visuals, witty dialogue and big stars.

 

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Cary Grant,Eva Maire Saint.NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

So you wonder what left field Psycho came from. Murder and madness without the usual light touch. Pure horror.

It is said that Hitchcock was aware of changing audiences. A high proportion were young adults who liked low budget horror films. Also, he had become used to doing a variety of plots on his long running TV series, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. And he was now familiar with TV directors and technicians.

 

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Hitchcock bought the rights to Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho in 1959 for only $9,000. I guess that doing something completely and totally different appealed to him.

Paramount weren’t interested so Hitch put up the money and got 60% ownership of the film, with Paramount distributing it. He used his TV studio and crew .

I guess the success of North By Northwest allowed him to take a chance and boy, did it pay off. Not many directors would kill off their star (Janet Leigh) a third of the way through the picture – and in such a gruesome manner.

 

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Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau.NORTH BY NORTHWEST

The publicity machine for Psycho got into top gear, with Hitch himself preparing his audiences ( especially his older fans) for the violence and shock levels. And what a piece of genius to stop anyone being admitted for a screening after the film started.

A lot of fans were surprised and disappointed, but the younger fans went back to see it again and again. Word of mouth more than the critics sold it. It became a runaway success.

 

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I’ll be honest and say I saw Psycho once and never wanted to see it again. I could appreciate all of the great director’s skills and still not like it.

Give me North by Northwest every time!

But you have to admire him for taking such a leap of faith and showing that his unique talent could shine in whatever story  he tackled.

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12 responses »

  1. I adore all of his work from this period, although I certainly prefer NBNW to PSYCHO. I’d argue the latter isn’t that far removed from material like SHADOW OF A DOUBT, ROPE, and perhaps STRANGERS ON A TRAIN in its examination of cold, unbalanced killers.

  2. Fair enough. Though I think there’s a little more subtlety in Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie or Robert Walker’s Bruno Anthony.

    • Yes, they are different and I wouldn’t want to create the impression that there’s nothing separating any of them. Perhaps I should have worded that better and said that I can see something of a line of progression from those other characters through to Norman.

  3. I guess for me North By Northwest also signalled the end of an era – the studio system was crumbling and the production code also. And of course many of the top stars of the 30s,40s were slowing down.

    • Yeah, I can understand that position although I feel Hitch and his type of filmmaking stayed in good shape till the mid-60s, up to MARNIE for sure and even the disappointing TORN CURTAIN to some extent.

  4. Love the (newspaper?) ad that says not even the Queen of England would be allowed into the theatre after the film started. (!)

    Yes, Psycho was quite a dramatic departure from North by Northwest and, like you said, it signalled the end of an era.

    • The advertising for Psycho was amazing.
      “The queen of England” – Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales too! But,hey, England is the UK to the rest of the world!

  5. Was ‘Psycho’ a new type of thriller for a new generation of youth. North by Northwest took the thriller gene to new sophistication, to a new high. It had style, a great story, plenty of action, a great cast and above all great direction. All other thrillers of the time paled by comparison. Yet I doubt many younger people, people under 25 went to see it. The youth of the late fifties were now expecting something different. They were expecting a bit more shock, a bit more pulling back of the barriers of society. They were looking for rebel type film stars, like Marlon Brando, James Dean and films that reflected the mood of change. Along comes the master of suspense with ‘Psycho’ to show all the young directors, struggling to reach the youth culture, how it should be done. Shock, horror, but also mastery of the art form and above all style again. ‘Psycho has style because it uses the three act structure of story telling to twist our perceptions and turn them on its head. Let’s kill off our heroine at the end of the first act? You can just hear the outcry from the traditionalists, can’t you. The film has twists that surprise and shock you. Hitchcock had to fight to make it and in the end his boldness paid off. Having shook up the film business, Hitchcock struggled to find a balance between his suspense thrillers and his more horror thrillers, films like ‘Torn Curtain’ falls between the two. Other films like the ‘Birds’ likewise. You can say films like ‘Frenzy’ is a bland rehash of ‘Psycho’ and both ‘Family Plot’ and ‘Topaz’ are mediocre films something akin to his old espionage British films. In the end ‘Psycho’ broke new ground, ground that other directors would copy, such as John Carpenter, Jess Franco, John Landis and William Friedkin, The film audiences were ready for change and Alfred Hitchcock led the way, but rather like Michael Powell and his ‘Peeping Tom’, perhaps he should have left well alone and stuck to what he did best. That is of course make a superior film thriller.

  6. Sadly, I think Robert Bloch’s agent accepted a figure even lower than $9K for all A/V rights to PSYCHO from Hitchcock’s agents. He soon became Bloch’s ex-agent. Sadly also, the script by Joseph Stefano dumbs down and truncates what’s already a short, fast-paced novel…certainly chopping off the end and running that line of blather through the Simon Oakland psychiatrist’s mouth. The novel is brilliant, one of Bloch’s best. And, as Hitchcock noted in the Truffaut interview, “PSYCHO is all out of Robert Bloch’s novel.” The script isn’t quite as bad a dumbing down of the source fiction as is THE BIRDS (Du Maurier’s novella is pretty brilliant…the film not so much)…but it could’ve been a bit better.

    But everything else about PSYCHO, the direction, art direction, score and certainly the actors were fine to brilliant. Good to great editing, sound, cinematography. Shamley Productions people knew what they were about.

    Interesting that Stephen Sim suggests that neither PSYCHO nor PEEPING TOM were the best choices their directors could make…artistically, I disagree, but it is notable that PSYCHO, Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING and PEEPING TOM, all released in 1960, all got their directors into some trouble, each moreso than the last, in dealing forthrightly with mental disturbance and violence to a degree only occasionally seen, when at all, in films of their stature, from directing/producing/writing teams of their caliber.

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