Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho

(Publisher’s Note: Originally published in November of 2013)

Marion Crane flushes the toilet (the first time in cinematic history), then proceeds to close the door, take her robe off, and step into the shower. What follows is perhaps the most famous sequence in all of film. The water drips on Marion as a shadowy figure appears behind her on the opposite side of the shower curtain. The curtain flies open and violins screech the all-too-familiar music as a knife comes plunging into a screaming Marion from every conceivable angle. With her last bit of strength, she clutches the curtain, tearing it down and falls into the bathtub with her blood flowing steadily down the drain. Who could forget this incredibly-shot masterpiece in the 1960 thriller, Psycho?

How about the scene in The Birds, when Mrs. Hayworth tells her students they’re going to have a fire drill and they must go outside as quickly and quietly as possible? The children comply, but an unimaginably large murder of crows awaits them on the school’s jungle gym. The children, Mrs. Hayworth, and the film’s protagonist Melanie Daniels run for their lives as these vicious birds bite, claw, and dive until everyone is covered with blood and terror.

Everyone can vividly remember Cary Grant being chased in a cornfield by a “harmless” spray plane in North by Northwest. We hang on the edge of our seats when Jimmy Stewart sits helplessly in the dark, as his neighbor comes to confront him in Rear Window. We play back the incredible murder scheme that unfolds in Strangers on a Train. Yes, we all have our favorites, from Rope, to Rebecca, Notorious or Dial M for Murder. Every one of these movies could only have been done by the master of suspense; the one and only Alfred Hitchcock. During the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, Hitchcock created a body of work that wowed and terrified audiences, influenced future filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, and launched him to the top of almost every “Best Director of All Time” list. And there’s no better holiday to enjoy Hitchcock than Halloween.

This year, I enjoyed a few scary movies in the weeks leading up to the spookiest, most fun-filled holiday. So I popped in The Birds to start things off; then North by Northwest; and finally, Rear Window. And it occurred to me that there are no monsters in Hitchcock movies; no paranormal forces trying to harm the leading “Hitchcock blondes”. No, there is only suspense. North by Northwest could have just as easily been a James Bond movie (probably the best one, at that). Rebecca is considered a gothic melodrama, instead of a thriller. So I came to the conclusion that a Hitchcock movie is acceptable to watch any time of year, not just at Halloween — unlike so many other horror movie classics that bombard TV in the month of October. But then I got to thinking, “Sure, a Hitchcock movie could be watched anytime. But could Hitchcock himself be an acceptable filmmaker at any other historical time?”

Hitch began directing short films in the mid-1920s, and slowly rose in fame during the ’30s with flicks like 1932′s Number 17 and 1938′s The Lady Vanishes. When he began making American films, the Oscar-winning drama Rebecca being his first, the legendary director became a household name for many years to come. Hitch was in the business before the dawn of sound or color, so he had the time to perfect his craft during the early days of motion pictures. By the late-’40s, he seemingly released a hit every year that had murders, police detectives, damsels in distress, rich plots with unforgettable characters, and heart racing chases. He hit the height of his career when he turned to horror, and directed the frightening classics Psycho and The Birds in the early ’60s. Hitchcock never eclipsed that success afterwards, ending his long career with forgotten thrillers like 1969′s Topaz, and Family Plot in 1976. He died in 1980, four years after his last film.

So as I reviewed his stunning masterpieces, one after another, I began to realize that Hitchcock would never have made a new film anyways. And that’s probably a good thing for us, and Alfred. Hitch simply couldn’t exist after the New Hollywood movement. Because after younger directors like William Friedkin, Brian De Palma, and Robert Altman moved in, Hollywood films changed completely. Grittier stories about the antihero graced our screens with more blood, sex, nudity, and swearing than ever before. With the destruction of the old studio system that Hitchcock had worked under, the shocking qualities of New Hollywood were made possible due to smaller budgets and personally-financed productions.

Once the 1980s came to a close, technology caught up with most filmmakers visions. So instead of planes, knives, and scary music — audiences were now frightened by dinosaurs, Sith lords, aliens, and very-realistic monsters. Today, it is almost an expectation that the thrills we experience in a movie are provided by some sort of never-before-seen creature or place that only CGI and computer programs can create.

So if Psycho had been made by Hitchcock 20 or 30 years later, there would be quite a difference. We would probably see Marion Crane fully nude in the shower. We would also probably see her fully hacked into pieces by her killer, with a disgusting amount of fake blood and body parts flying everywhere. How about The Birds? Instead of 100 birds sitting on a jungle gym, we would likely see a million computer-generated crows completely covering the town, and giving the residents almost no chance to hide — or be seen for that matter.

Every Hitchcock film would be different if it were made today. The double entendres between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint would be significantly dirtier. The famous fall in Vertigo would be a little less cheesy, and a little bloodier. Every movie would be different. But then, a Hitchcock movie would simply not be a Hitchcock movie.

What made Hitchcock such an incredible and inspiring director was his skill at getting around the censors and existing technology. You never see a sex scene in one of his films, or hear a character say the “F” word, because in those days you simply couldn’t — not if you wanted your film to be mainstream. Today, these things are so common, and rarely shock us or get much of a reaction. Hitch simply implied everything, so as to keep the censors happy, and thus get his film out to the public.

Computers and green screens were out of the question. The birds in The Birds had to be real, or be puppets. It was the genius shot choices that Hitch made to get the audience frightened, and not give away the technology behind the scenes. And what about violence? Basically, every Hitchcock movie is violent. But we never really see a whole lot of blood or disgusting shots, do we? That’s because of the way the film industry was back then. Again, it’s second nature to us all now. But Hitch had to fight to keep the Psycho shower scene in the film, by making the whole picture black and white so it didn’t look as graphic. In fact, he often stated that most of what we see in that scene is from our own imaginations. And that is what makes a great director: the ability to fool you, to make you think, and jump, and scream with masterful shots — rather than horrific images.

So we can be glad Hitch made his films when he did. It was simple road blocks that forced him to get creative and show his ideas in a different way. I know a whole generation of filmmakers are grateful. No one can make a movie nowadays without owing some sort of thanks to Alfred Hitchcock and the many classic scenes, characters, and film techniques he brought to life.

He probably wouldn’t be considered as incredible of a filmmaker if he worked the same way today. But his movies can still be watched any time of the year, no matter what kind of thrill or entertainment you seek. The scariest thing of all though, is the fact that the Hitchcock style has steadily disappeared from mainstream film over the years. And there’s no telling what kinds of suspense movies await us to watch and enjoy on future Halloweens.