Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror thriller Psycho caused a sensation when it opened in June about fifty years ago. There were a number of reasons for that, one of them being the fact that Psycho was seen by some as a sensational, perverse, “cheap” horror flick like those William Castle, a master at promotional gimmicks, was making in the late 1950s, e.g., The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, Macabre. It was certainly not something for the director of the Academy Award-winning Rebecca, The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window, and North by Northwest.
Others were horrified that the film’s official star, Janet Leigh, then chiefly known for her peaches-and-cream heroines, gets bumped off in brutal fashion long before the final credits begin to roll. (Leigh had taken an unusual role as well in Orson Welles’ dark drama Touch of Evil in ’58.)
“To me, it’s a fun picture,” Hitchcock later told François Truffaut. “The processes through which we take the audience, you see, it’s rather like taking them through the haunted house at the fairground or the roller coaster, you know.”
The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther disagreed with Hitchcock’s idea of “fun.”
“You had better have a pretty strong stomach and be prepared for a couple of grisly shocks when you go to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which a great many people are sure to do. For Mr. Hitchcock, an old hand at frightening people, comes at you with a club in this frankly intended bloodcurdler ….
“There is not an abundance of subtlety or the lately familiar Hitchcock bent toward significant and colorful scenery in this obviously low-budget job. With a minimum of complication, it gets off to a black-and-white start with the arrival of a fugitive girl with a stolen bankroll right at an eerie motel.”
Shot for a modest $800,000, Psycho turned into a major hit for Paramount. The horror thriller both made Anthony Perkins a star and all but typecast him for the rest of his career. Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, and Frank Albertson are some of the other cast members.
Psycho garnered a total of four Academy Award nominations. Cast against type, Leigh was one of the contenders for Best Supporting Actress. She lost to Shirley Jones – also playing against type, as a sex worker – in Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry.
Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director, but the winner that year was Billy Wilder for The Apartment, a box office success that also won Best Picture.
Psycho‘s two other Oscar nods were for Black-and-White Art Direction (Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy, George Milo) and Black-and-White Cinematography (John L. Russell). Pyscho was not nominated for George Tomasini’s film editing or for Bernard Herrmann’s score.
“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.”
Psycho poster: Paramount Pictures.