Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘Psycho’ (1960)
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
There are very few films that are unquestionably considered cinematic classics. Productions that transcend genre and connect with all audiences. Some of these movies are beloved; others are infamous, and a rare few are considered both. Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho (1960) is one of these rare gems. But what happens when an unassailable classic becomes a franchise? Well, let’s check into the Bates Motel and find out about with original Psycho (1960), shall we?
Director Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) is still considered one of the greatest filmmakers ever. So acclaimed was he for his technical and stylistic skills as a director that he became a household name and known among moviegoers as “The Master of Suspense.” In the 1950s, Hitchcock endeared himself to audiences by becoming as much a personality as he was a director. Unlike most makers of motion pictures, he not only cameoed in his films but was an upfront promoter of his pictures.
At this point in his career, Hitch was at the peak of his powers. He had success on the big screen with his feature films and on the small screen with the anthology TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), which he also hosted. So logically, the director chose this time to leverage all his success to do something completely different. Up to this point, as the sobriquet “The Master of Suspense” suggests, he was known for making movies in the thriller genre. While all this was good, he wanted to do something different — a horror film.
Not that Hitchcock knew that horror was the genre he was headed into at the time. On the contrary, Psycho fell into the director’s lap. Like most films at the time, Psycho is based on a novel of the same name. This particular book was written by Robert Bloch (1917-1994) and published by Simon & Schuster in April, 1959. (A mere year-and-a-half before the feature film adaptation in review would be released.) Frankly, I found the source material that is Bloch’s novel to be nothing more than a decent, pulpy pot-boiler very loosely inspired by the homicidal and cannibalistic exploits of Ed Gein (1906-1984). Moreover, Gein’s very dysfunctional relationship with his mother served as a spark for the author’s creativity.
Nevertheless, this source material was ripe to be made into a movie. One person who knew this was Hitchcock’s assistant, Peggy Robertson (1916-1988), who suggested he read the novel after seeing a positive review in The New York Times. The director took his assistant’s advice and did just that. Upon finishing Bloch’s book, the proverbial Master of Suspense knew he needed to tread into horror. Thus Hitchcock purchased the film rights from the author for $9,000. Once he secured the rights, Hitchcock had every copy of the book bought so no potential readers could discover the ending for themselves before seeing the film.
Surprisingly though, Psycho was not an easy sell. Despite being synonymous with Universal Pictures now, Psycho was initially owned by Paramount Pictures, with whom Hitchcock was under contract at the time. When Hitchcock presented Paramount with the idea of adapting the novel, the studio immediately scoffed at the idea as they found the source material distasteful. So, to grease the wheels, Hitchcock agreed to work on a small production budget of $800,000. Beyond that, Hitchcock offered to help keep costs low by deferring his salary in favor of taking 60% of the film’s box-office returns.
Convinced that Psycho would be a mild success at best, Paramount happily agreed to let the picture be made under these conditions. The director knew he could make the budget work by utilizing much of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents production unit, who were already familiar with his working style and could work fast. Furthermore, the decision was made to shoot the film in black-and-white to cut costs — a choice that is the most beneficial to the film overall as the cinematography only adds to the atmosphere of the horror/film-noir genre mashup Hitch ultimately produced.
But before he could make the picture, Hitchcock needed a screenplay. The first person to take a crack at adapting Bloch’s novel was a staff writer for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, James P. Cavanagh (1922-1971). Hitchcock felt, though, that Cavanagh’s draft dragged and read more like an episode of horror television. After which, I assume all of that screenplay was tossed out as Cavanaugh receives no credit on the finished film.
The man to end up with the writing credit, Joseph Stefano (1922-2006), was another writer with only one feature film screenplay credit under his belt after penning The Black Orchid (1958). Even still, he was chosen to take over adaptation duties. Years later, in interviews, Stefano revealed that he was in therapy while writing the screenplay. Fittingly, many of his therapy sessions were focused on issues the screenwriter had with his mother and their complicated relationship. These real-life circumstances helped him tap into the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother. Whatever Stefano’s inspiration or collaborative effort with his director, there’s no question that his solely-credited screenplay for Psycho is not only faithful to the source material, but elevates it immensely.
See, it’s not that Bloch’s novel is terrible; on the contrary, it’s a very readable pot-boiler filled with pulp. As such, the book is elementary, as are its characters. All of these are interesting enough to move the novel’s swift plot along to conclude with its unique twist. The suspense of where the story could be going keeps the reader invested as opposed to the somewhat flat characters who populate the novel. The most interesting character in the story is Norman, as you might imagine. However, unlike the version of the character we see on screen, the literary Norman Bates is very different: angry, alcoholic, not likable, and a little too creepy. Stefano brings a wealth of depth and realism to the characters.
Of course, Stefano nor Hitchcock can take all the credit. The movie’s cast genuinely brings its characters to life.
The film follows Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who absconds with $40,000 from her employer’s wealthy client. Following her crime, Marion immediately heads off to deliver the albeit unethical news to her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin), who lives several hours away, that they can finally live the life they want together. But after hours on the road filled with anxiety, fatigue, and a tinge of guilt, the Phoenix, Arizona-based secretary decides to stop during a downpour at a remote lodging — the Bates Motel.
The motel offers “twelve cabins, twelve vacancies” and has certainly seen better days. But, despite being in the middle of nowhere, the motel is pretty close to Fairvale, California, where Sam lives. Thus, it will do for the night. Upon checking in, Marion quickly becomes acquainted with the proprietor of this out-of-the-way establishment, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The young man is undoubtedly awkward, but very kind to his guest, offering her the utmost hospitality. And, mind you, Norman is a consummate host despite the extreme disapproval of his domineering mother, Mrs. Norma Bates (played by an uncredited Virginia Gregg). Unfortunately, what should have been a refreshing overnight stay for Marion unexpectedly evolves into a violent mystery in which Sam, the heroine’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), and private investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) all become entangled!
Hitchcock was indeed able to put this story on film as quickly as he had intended. Production took place from November 11 1959 to February 1, 1960; one whole week of which was devoted to staging and shooting the infamous shower scene. You wouldn’t know it, though, considering the scene’s climax only lasts forty-five seconds and consists of seventy-eight pieces of film. While production was as smooth as anyone could have hoped, it was the post-production process on Psycho that gave its director pause.
Upon seeing the first rough cut of the film, Hitchcock was thoroughly convinced his little horror movie was a failure. So much so that the director was dangerously close to cutting the film into a two-part episode for the anthology TV series he hosted. The concession that would have at least been fitting since much of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents crew worked on the film. Thankfully, though, Hitchcock’s entire outlook on Psycho changed once he heard the score by his longtime composer, Bernard Hermann (1911-1975).
Prior to the score, Hitchcock thought the film fell flat. After Hermann’s compositions were laid in, the director was adamant that “thirty-three percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” As an example, despite his director’s insistence on silence during the shower scene, Hermann scored it anyway, which leads to the sequence being as effective as it is. Hitch was so pleased that he doubled Hermann’s salary.
Psycho‘s score was also my first exposure to Herman’s music, and I couldn’t agree more with Hitchcock about its effectiveness. Nor can I think of a better introduction to the composer, who became one of my favorites after hearing this score. In fact, I listened to this film’s soundtrack and some of Hermann’s other scores while writing what you’re reading now.
Psycho had quite the marketing hype behind it — and it paid off. The film received a wide theatrical release in the U.S. on September 8, 1960. Regional releases in major U.S. cities and London preceded this wide release. Until the late 1970s, movies were generally released through regional roll-outs domestically and possibly given a nationwide release if successful enough. Following its domestic release, Psycho then went on to be released in international territories, and was a hit with audiences everywhere, as it simultaneously traumatized and entertained. Psycho grossed over $32 million in the film’s first run alone, equivalent to nearly $325 million today! So, Hitchcock agreeing to get paid on the back end was a prosperous move for him.
Even with the pages of background information in this column, much more has been written about the legendary development and production of Psycho if you’re interested in diving deeper. There was even a biopic film about this topic entitled Hitchcock that was released in 2012. Interestingly, though, I don’t recall that film touching on why the legacy of Psycho has remained as strong as it has. In my opinion, much of why this Psycho perseveres is due to Universal Pictures. If you recall, I mentioned that Psycho was originally owned and distributed by Paramount, a studio that does not and never has had any love for the horror genre.
However, thanks to the contract negotiated with Paramount by Hitchcock’s agent, the rights to the film, along with Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and The Birds (1963), reverted to Hitchcock eight years after their initial theatrical exhibitions. Following Hitchcock’s death, the rights to the works mentioned above were transferred to his daughter, Patricia Hitchcock (1928-2021), who then sold them to Universal Studios for a reported $6 million. Knowing they had acquired a golden calf of a catalog in conjunction with their working relationship with the director near the end of his career, Universal became Hitchcock’s home and would forever be associated with the Master of Suspense.
A large part of this association was also due to the fact the studio integrated both Psycho and Hitchcock into their theme parks, which most notably feature sets from Psycho, including the house at Universal Studios, Hollywood, and replicas of them at Universal Studios, Orlando. Of course, this also came with merchandising the film, particularly with items that could adorn one’s bathroom.
As we all know, re-releasing titles, particularly on home video, is just as important to movie studios as ancillary merchandise. Universal did this when they released a series of VHS’ dubbed The Alfred Hitchcock Collection in 1999. These tapes went on to sell well for years, which is how I finally came to see Psycho a couple of years after it was released as part of this collection. Being a lifelong movie buff, I’d heard of Psycho, but I wasn’t allowed to see most modern horror movies of the time. I could see the old genre classics, though, and I watched most of them with my paternal grandparents. Both appreciated my love of movies and were very good about ensuring I saw and was educated on older films.
So, of course, they introduced me to Hitchcock through Psycho, for which I’ll be forever thankful. It remains the director’s most famous film. It’s also unquestionably his most accessible — a necessary ingredient for younger generations less accustomed to the pacing and filmmaking style of earlier eras. Unlike most of Hitch’s filmography, Psycho moves swiftly, just like the novel on which it’s based. Thus, making it much easier for a twelve-year-old to watch. I admittedly found the pacing of most Hitchcock movies I watched at that age, after Psycho, challenging.
When my grandparents saw Psycho in its original theatrical run, it was notorious. It remained so, which is precisely why they asked my parents permission to show me the movie before they went out and rented the tape from the now infamously defunct Blockbuster Video (1985-2014). They also wanted the O.K. to show me an R-rated movie as Psycho had been re-certified R by the MPA (thus, making Psycho one of my earliest R-rated viewings). My grandparents thought I could appreciate the film, but I don’t think they could’ve predicted how I would love it as much as I did on my first watch with them or how I still do now. And by introducing me to Psycho, they also introduced me to the subgenre of film noir.
To this day, I don’t remember anything about the environment around me while I was watching Psycho because I was completely drawn into it from the first tracking shot into that cheap, by-the-hour hotel. In rewatching the film for this column, I realized why Psycho had that effect on me and, presumably, the majority of its audience. Hitchcock was notorious for being more of a technical, camera-based director than an actor’s director. Harnessing his camera, Hitch makes us, the viewers, into voyeurs who will witness these lurid events unfold. In that way, the audience member becomes like Norman Bates himself. Think about it; the movie begins with us seeing the pillow talk after an afternoon tryst. It can’t get much more voyeuristic than that.
From there, the sense of voyeurism deepens as we watch the plot unfold and its characters — played by actors (most of whom are) so flawless in their performances that I forget they are indeed actors — develop. Perhaps it’s because Psycho was my first introduction to any of this cast, but I felt like I was a fly on a motel wall, watching real people. This cast gets plenty of credit, but I think most of them are almost as responsible for Psycho‘s success as its director or screenwriter. In particular, Perkins and Leigh imbue their respective characters with a complex humanity that gives me a myriad of feelings for what they each do. I can’t wholly blame Marion for her unethical choices. Nor can I avoid having a small amount of empathy for Norman and the maternal abuse he must have endured.
Miles also delivers a solid performance, as does Balsam. Frankly, the only weak member of this cast is Gavin. Leigh received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as Marion Crane. The same cannot be said of Gavin as Sam Loomis. Hitchcock was very unsatisfied with Gavin, as he found the actor stiff and, well, he was right about that. Gavin’s delivery is simply a masculine stereotype and nothing more. Hitchcock could certainly direct his actors, but he also notoriously thought of them as “cattle.” Thus, the performances in Psycho are even more impressive. What’s a real shame is that Perkins was not also nominated for his performance as Norman Bates.
For all the praise I’ve heaped on Psycho, it’s not quite perfect. Like many other films, the third act spins its wheels a bit. After all, the discovery is imminent, even if we will indeed be surprised by exactly what Lyla and Sam discover. It could have just been sped up a bit. Furthermore, even by the standards of 1960, I wonder if the concluding exposition needed to spell it out quite so much. Even still, though, that exposition is just as classic as anything else in in this film.
When it comes down to it, Psycho is just as much of a film-noir as it is a horror movie. And it remains the perfect introduction to Hitchcock, which is precisely why I’ve shown it to many first-timers. Perhaps this is why, for better or worse, Psycho essentially defined the careers of everyone involved from that point forward. Hitchcock became synonymous with horror, despite this film and The Birds being the only horror movies he ever made. Although, it’s worth noting that he was offered the director’s chair for Rosemary’s Baby (1968) but declined.
It took a while for both Perkins and Leigh not to feel the shadow of Psycho over their respective careers, but they eventually both came around to being proud of it. That said, Perkins always had his reservations about never shaking Norman. I doubt Psycho would have even been considered for franchising if Hitchcock had lived into the ’80s. I’m not sure it should, either, so I’m interested to see if my feelings change as we go through this franchise. Nevertheless, Psycho (1960) is a Franchise Expansion based on its endearing impacts on the genre and pop culture. Following the filmmaker’s death in 1980, though, Universal decided Psycho and Norman Bates needed to live in what was the horror boom of the decade to come!
Psycho (1960) is available on all home video formats and can be streamed on Peacock.
Next time, I’ll return for a stay at the Bates Motel nearly 25 years later with Psycho II (1983)!