Psycho Study Guide

In 1957, mystery novelist Robert Bloch was inspired to write Psycho after studying the grisly details of the crimes committed by serial killer Ed Gein, who notoriously slaughtered nearly 40 women over 10 years. Simon and Schuster published Bloch's novel in 1959, and while some readers and critics denounced Bloch's graphic depiction of violence, the shocking mystery sold well. Bloch's agent, who had sent out advance copies to various movie studios, received an offer from MCA for the film rights. New to the movie business, Bloch agreed to sell the rights for $10,000, out of which large percentages went to his agent and to Simon and Schuster. After netting only $5,000 (without any bonus or profit participation), Bloch learned that the rights to his novel had been bought by none other than Alfred Hitchcock, Hollywood's "Master of Suspense."

Hitchcock was at the height of his career in the late 1950s. He had enjoyed a recent string of successes with projects like Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. However, he had always been very careful not to fall into a creative rut and, for his 47th feature film, he was ready to try something new. To this end, Hitchcock's assistants and trusted collaborators combed through more than 2,000 submissions looking for his next project - and that turned out to be Psycho. Hitchcock would later say, "I think the thing that appealed to me [about Psycho] was the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue" (Rebello 19). After optioning Bloch's novel, Hitchcock was so intent on keeping the twist ending a secret that he commanded one of his employees to purchase as many copies of Psycho as possible so as to prevent readers from discovering it.

At the time, Hitchcock was under contract at Paramount, and Psycho would be the last of the 5 films he was committed to make for the studio. Paramount executives were not nearly as thrilled with the idea of adapting Psycho as Hitchcock was, but Hitchcock was relentless. On his side was Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal, who was eager to ensnare Hitchcock for his own studio. Wasserman suggested that Hitchcock shoot the film at Universal, and the nervous Paramount executives were only too happy to comply.

Nevertheless, Paramount's trepidation about the project's subject matter meant that Hitchcock would not have the funds to woo movie stars like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant; additionally, the budget would not allow for shooting in Technicolor. Undeterred, Hitchcock started exploring ways to make Psycho for as little money as possible. He hired the crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents... television series, eschewing his usual Hollywood team, and deferred his directors' fee ($250,000) in exchange for 60% ownership of the negative. Eventually, the budget for Psycho hovered around the $800,000 mark.

Once the initial deals were in place, Hitchcock started looking for a screenwriter. He hired James P. Cavanaugh, who specialized in macabre comedy for television. Once Hitchcock felt as though he had gotten everything there was to get out of Cavanaugh, though, he moved on to Joseph Stefano, who had previously been working as a lyricist and a composer before turning his efforts to screenplays.

After Hitchcock had a script in hand, pre-production on Psycho began in October 1959. Hitchcock assembled his cast (Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, Vera Miles as Lila Crane, and John Gavin as Sam Loomis) and started shooting on November 11, 1959. The director demanded a closed set, revealing only what was necessary to his cast and crew and insisting on complete silence from all of them. The shoot started out on a somewhat rocky note, as Hitchcock's television crew wasn't used to his grand camera movements and technically demanding feats. Nevertheless, they had to move quickly due to budget restrictions, so Hitchcock plowed through nearly 18 setups a day in order to make his compressed schedule (41 days).

Meanwhile, Hitchcock had already worked out a marketing strategy to maximize the effectiveness of Psycho's unprecedented plot twists. He would not let the stills photographer develop his own shots. Instead, he released only vague photographs from the set in order to mislead studio publicists and the press. He made sure to keep a personalized directors' chair for "Mrs. Bates" throughout the shoot so as to preserve the core of the mystery. Hitchcock's tactics worked; eventually, thousands of people gathered daily outside the Universal sound stage where Psycho was being shot. It became necessary to install guards outside, but the tabloid photos of them only fueled the rumor mill more. Production ended on February 1, 1960.

Once the post-production process was complete, Hitchcock refused to allow for any screenings or previews for critics because he was afraid that people would give away Psycho's ending. For the film's wide release, he crafted an elaborate set of procedures for exhibitors to follow in order to maximize the audience's experience; the ad campaign reminded viewers that "No one... BUT NO ONE... will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance of Psycho" (Rebello 149). Hitchcock subsequently made watching Psycho into an event - a concept that lives on today in the form of 3-D releases and IMAX screenings. However, Hitchcock wasn't simply angling for profits; his plan for marketing Psycho was part of his unspoken pledge to his audiences that if he promised a great surprise, he was absolutely going to deliver one. Hitchcock's goal was for every single viewer to experience his films exactly as he intended.

Psycho was released in the United States on September 8, 1960. It received "middling-to-hostile reaction" from New York City critics upon its opening (Rebello 160), which could potentially have been fueled by Hitchcock's ban on preview screenings. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called Psycho "a blot on an honorable career." Regardless, the public embraced the film wholeheartedly. In New York City, audiences started lining up at theaters early in the morning and continued to do so until the last show of the day had sold out. Stories circulated about viewers fainting and shrieking in the aisles. The Paramount executives were gobsmacked and, once they realized that Psycho was going to be an enormous hit, started funneling more money into advertising it. Critics even changed their tune; Crowther eventually reversed his initial opinion on the film and wound up putting Psycho on his "Top Ten" list for 1960.

Ultimately, Psycho ended up being the most commercially successful film of Alfred Hitchcock's career; it made almost $15 million during its initial theatrical run. It reminded the audiences and studios that even at 60, Hitchcock was not to be underestimated. Even today, critic Nigel Andrews rightfully calls the film "a milestone, a masterpiece, a cultural artifact for eternity. Its fascination is worldwide and inexhaustible."