Film critic and author David Thomson argues in his new book that Alfred Hitchcock's film "Psycho" marks the moment when America learned to love violence, sex and voyeurism. Thomson also says that "Psycho" marked the beginning of the end for the film censor's strict code.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Survey movies and TV today and you'll find loads of violence, sex and, especially in the realm of reality TV, voyeurism. It’s hard to say precisely how we arrived here but according to film critic and author David Thomson, one crucial step along the way was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. In 1960, Hitchcock was certainly a star, but Psycho was his first film to be a box office smash, and also one of the first mainstream films to challenge the strangulating regulations of the censors. According to Thomson, one of the main reasons Hitchcock made Psycho was to break down the code’s restrictions on how much skin and how much violence could be shown. Thomson says Hitch started pushing his luck with the very first scene.
DAVID THOMSON: It’s an insinuating, voyeuristic opening. The camera comes sort of moving in with a volition and a force of its own.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] And it almost sees a window just open a crack. And it slips in through that crack. And, of course, what does it find straightaway? Janet Leigh, her character, Marion Crane is stretched out on a bed in white underwear, John Gavin is naked to the waist, two people who seemingly have just had “sex”, if we can use that word in 1960.
JOHN GAVIN AS SAM LOOMIS: Never did eat your lunch, did you?
JANET LEIGH AS MARION CRANE: I better get back to the office. These extended lunch hours give my boss excess acid.
DAVID THOMSON: In the ten years of the '60s, you see a sort of 30-year code breaking down, and Psycho is the first great skirmish in that war, I think. And, you know, that very first scene, that was a, a moment that Hitch knew he was going to have to defend. There is a shot – you won't believe this, but you were not allowed to show a toilet flushing.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And there is a key moment in the narrative, as you will remember [LAUGHS] where a toilet has to flush [BROOKE LAUGHS], not for the reasons toilets normally flush, but there you are. And then, of course, there was the biggie. There is the immense slaughter scene in the shower, which you could still place legitimately among the most violent scenes ever shot for an American film.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's talk about it. The original script called for one clean stab.
DAVID THOMSON: [LAUGHING] Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Hitchcock obviously turned it into something much more. In fact, I think you say it took a week to film it. What was he trying to accomplish?
DAVID THOMSON: Well, he wanted a scene that made you realize every murder you'd seen in movies before had been polite and limited and restrained. And you feel as if you have been killed yourself. You feel a little bit as if you are the killer too. It’s a very complicated scene in terms of point of view. And I remember first time I saw it, the first week it opened in London there was a sense of devastation in the theater. People were moaning and murmuring, and some people were clawing their way out of the theater.
[SOUNDTRACK/MUSIC, SCREAMING] It had a power
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] But here’s the other thing about that scene. This occurs about 40 minutes into the film and it happens to the character we've been encouraged to identify with. You’re left stranded by what’s happened. You have no one to hold onto. You have no one to follow and track through the film with. And you say to yourself, if it’s done that to me, what else is it going to do to me. So people were holding onto their seats from then on. And don't forget, the Bernard Herrmann score for the film is a vital part of it. People who were on the film said right up ‘til the last moment, even to Hitch they said, I just don't know whether people are going to laugh at this or scream at it. One day Herrmann arrived, having composed his score, and he just laid the music in on some of the roughly edited scenes, and immediately everyone understood the impact of the film.
[SOUNDTRACK/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] The music turned it into the kind of operatic performance that it is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ultimately, how do you think Hitchcock won the battle against the censors?
DAVID THOMSON: Because I think he charmed the man who was the head of the censorship board.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] This was a man named Geoffrey Sherlock. And they had had run-ins before. He sort of started taking Sherlock out to lunch, and he started talking to him as if he were a friend. He explained why he was doing what he was doing, and he sort of enlisted Sherlock, not just as a censor but as a collaborator on the film. And I think he talked his way through it. And, of course, it meant that anyone with a knife, and many people would come along with cameras and knives without Hitchcock’s great skill, they were freer to do what they wanted to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Didn't he also include a shot of Janet Leigh’s rear end that he knew would get edited out?
DAVID THOMSON: Absolutely.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And this was a standard procedure. When you know you’re going to be fighting the censor, you deliberately film a couple of shots or scenes that you are prepared, at the last moment, when everyone’s slamming the table and saying they won't budge, you say, all right, I'll give you that scene [BROOKE LAUGHS] so long as I can keep the toilet flushing [BROOKE LAUGHS] or what - or whatever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'll trade you a, a rear end shot for a toilet flush.
DAVID THOMSON: Absolutely, absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he also filmed in black and white because he knew that red blood wouldn't fly.
DAVID THOMSON: And I think that’s a fascinating point. If the film were in color, and most of Hitchcock’s films before this had been in color, I don't think red blood would have been tolerated. I think that would have been too much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, if you say he paved the way for many lesser directors carrying knives -
DAVID THOMSON: [LAUGHS] Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - by, by getting this one through, he also paved the way for how a lot of movies are marketed and released today. He released it on a few hundred screens at once, a modest number now, 400 screens, but then it was unusually wide release.
DAVID THOMSON: The person most behind that was Hitchcock’s agent, Lew Wasserman, a genius in film marketing. He thought he had to make this film an immediate sensation. And, of course, that is now the pattern of film openings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was a watershed moment, when mainstream-
DAVID THOMSON: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - American culture embraced violence, fear, voyeurism, sex, all the things that have gone on to practically define [DAVID THOMSON LAUGHS] popular culture today. But I wonder [LAUGHS], were those changes inevitable or do you really think Hitchcock altered the trajectory of film and culture?
DAVID THOMSON: This film, Psycho, this single film, I would claim, opened the doors to a kind of violence and a kind of cruelty and a level of horror in films that you would have thought, and your mother would have thought, would never, ever be shown. He played a very important part. I think he was very farsighted. But I think any historian has to say that these changes were coming. After all, even if there had been no such things as the movies, the '60s is an age of sexual revolution. The '60s and '70s are the time of the Vietnam War on evening television. But in the immediate sense, in the moment, I do think a brilliant individual can make a difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You note in your book that Hitchcock smirked at mayhem [BOTH CHUCKLING] and that this is echoed through the history of film. And, and you also suggest that you’re not a big fan of that.
DAVID THOMSON: Well, I think the movies have opted to portray and carry violence more than anything else, and I think that’s a great sadness. I think that it’s a wonderful, rich medium that has so many other stories it could tell. And I do think that there is a way in which we have been encouraged to be spectators to violence who do not believe we can intervene in it; we do not have any responsibility for it. Now, this is above and beyond Hitchcock; it’s beyond any individual. But I think it has something to do with the movies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
DAVID THOMSON: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Thomson is author of The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.