The Directors’ Chair: Psycho

The Directors’ Chair: Psycho (1960)

Some directors specialize in comedy, others in suspense. Still others delve in horror, romance or westerns. There are directors known for many films and some known only for one. Directors can put their stamp all over their films, while others get the heck out of the way. Let’s face it, we can use a fancy schmancy phrase like “auteur theory” but let’s get down to brass tacks ~ the Director is the Captain of the Ship. She (or he) guides the actor, the action, the tone…and us. They’re responsible for getting us there. In my new little corner of the Classic Movie Hub, I’d like to (metaphorically) sit in The Directors’ Chair and look at the works of some great directors. Before I start, let me first thank Annmarie and Kellee for inviting me to join their roster of writers here at ‘the Hub.’ I’m in such good company.

When I think of classic films, I think of Hawks-Hitchcock-Huston / Wyler- Wilder-Wellman / Lang-Lean-Lewton / Sirk-Stevens-Sturges. I’ll look at this alliterative bunch and many many more and hopefully my series has a healthy mix of personal favorites and directors whose work YOU…MUST… SEE. I’ll start now with my absolute favorite director. He is British. He cut his teeth in Silents. His filmography is unmatched and unequalled in success, popularity and masterpieces. He is the most famous director in Hollywood history. He is a master filmmaker. He IS the Master of Suspense. Of course, I’m speaking of Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock’s visual style lends itself to story telling and he mastered the art of filmmaking in a suspenseful way. He takes hold of a theme: family, courtroom, infidelity, voyeurism, mistaken identity and a bunch of other etceteras, and pretzels these themes until you scream. I can only think professional jealousy due to his popularity with the public prevented Hitchcock from winning a well-deserved Academy Award for direction in any one of several movies. In a career filled with masterpieces, what do you call the masterpiece of masterpieces. I call it…PSYCHO.


Psycho eye
The male gaze…

Hitchcock throws everything including the kitchen sink (…and the bathroom shower) into creating this unsettling, unnerving and unseen before 1960 journey into the macabre. (You can make your own case for “Peeping Tom” released in England the month before.)

Psycho John Gavin and Janet Leigh
Afternoon delight
Psycho Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh
The welcoming committee

Hitchcock twists and turns the plot with a magician’s flair for distraction. In the film, Janet Leigh is having an affair with John Gavin. Though he’s in considerable debt due to alimony payments and paying off his father’s debts, Leigh still wants to marry him. She impulsively steals $40,000 from her employer to go meet her lover. She checks into a motel late one night and after talking to the young proprietor Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, she has a change of heart and decides to go back home and face the music.

Anthony Perkins Psycho a grisly discovery
A grisly discovery

She never makes it out of the motel.

Hitchcock does the unthinkable with this film, changing the entire trajectory of the movie in one fell swoop. For all that goes on in Psycho it is a small and quiet film. There’s not a cacophony of sound. There’s not a ‘cast of thousands.’

John Gavin, Vera Miles, Lurene, Tuttle and John McIntire
Gavin, Miles, Tuttle and McIntire
Martin Balsam as Ar-bo-gast in Psycho
Martin Balsam as Ar-bo-gast
"I can handle a sick old woman" Vera Miles Psycho
“I can handle a sick old woman”

It’s peopled with great character actors including Martin Balsam, Simon Oakland, John Anderson, John McIntire and my favorite, Lurene Tuttle (“…Periwinkle blue”) all shown to good effect. Characters get more than they bargain for when they run into young Norman Bates. Vera Miles is especially strong as the no-nonsense, determined woman who wants answers about her missing sister. I sometimes think about Anthony Perkins reading this script for the first time. What a hat trick by Hitchcock to simultaneously cement and entomb Perkins’ place in movie history.

The cherry on top of all of Psycho is Bernard Hermann’s absolutely brilliant score. Crisp, sharp, stabbing staccato notes. To quote Hermann from the soundtrack album: The Great Movie Thrillers: Music Composed by Bernard Hermann for Motion Pictures by Alfred Hitchcock where he conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra:

“In using only strings, I felt I was able to complement the black and white photography of the film with a black and white sound. I believe this is the only time in films that a purely string orchestra has been used.”

So effective is Hermann’s music with or without the movie, purely listening to the score alone will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end with melancholy and dread.

“Then who’s that woman buried out in Greenlawn Cemetery?”

You can find the answer in Psycho.


— Theresa Brown for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Theresa’s Directors’ Chair articles here.

Theresa Brown is a native New Yorker, a Capricorn and a biker chick (rider as well as passenger). When she’s not on her motorcycle, you can find her on her couch blogging about classic films for CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Classic films are her passion. You can find her on Twitter at @CineMava.

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11 Responses to The Directors’ Chair: Psycho

  1. Bud Callahan says:

    What a good article about a great Classic, but as many times that I’ve seen the film, I don’t remember it being revealed that She was having an illicit affair! I’ll have to watch it again. Anyway, I look forward to your future posts!

    • Hi Bud ~

      I made a mistake writing that Marion was having an illicit affair. I hope to correct that error. Thank you for reading, and enjoying my thoughts. Appreciate it.

  2. Lesley says:

    Hey, congratulations on the new series, Theresa!

    Great opening entry. I look forward to following the future ones…

  3. Carol says:

    I love this movie. It is so scary and let’s face it, the shower scene must be the top rated murder scene of all times. The way Hitchcock’s camera has you the viewer watching from the vantage point of the action. You are the voyeur in this movie-watching experience as much as Norman. I remember the Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles character —and the office crew from the first scene but damn—your good, picking these names out for us to relish (“character actors including Simon Oakland, John Anderson, John McIntire and my favorite, Lurene Tuttle”). Anthony Perkins seemed just made for the role of Norman Bates! CANNOT BELIEVE HITCH NEVER WON AN OSCAR!!!! I really enjoyed your information regarding the music—I can hear it playing as Balsam walks up those stairs, as Leigh holds on to the shower curtain. Question: Do you think the Corona-virus was what killed the mother? Gotta go, there’s a fly in the house.

    • Hey…thanks for reading. “Psycho” is one of my favorite films and it is terrifying; probably because people and situations look very normal until they’re…NOT normal. Stars are good but character actors are the foundation a lot of times. Hermann’s music is killer ( pardon the pun! ) I went to Lincoln Center just to hear a concert of Hermann’s music from Hitchcock films.

      L0L0L! Carol…awmigarsh!! Coronavirus? Hitchcock didn’t make a film scarier than this current Federal Administration is handling our pandemic.

  4. Toni Ruberto says:

    Congrats on the new column, Theresa. Great first entry – love that you wrote about the music, too. Looking forward to reading more from The Directors Chair!

  5. Erik Andersson says:

    You’ve succeeded in making me want to rewatch a movie I feel like I’ve seen lots of times but never really gave it the time it deserved. Looking forward to reading more!

    • Erik I appreciate your taking the time to check out my little nook here at the CMH. What a way to start…with a movie EVERYBODY knows. Ha!! But if I get folks to re-check the movie ~ Eureka!!

      When you have time…nothing pressing…nothing on your mind…grab a drink, some chips…turn off the lights and check out “PSYCHO” again. It’s an incredible movie. But you already know that. Thanks again for stopping by. Hope to see you next month. 🙂

  6. Pingback: The Directors’ Chair: Rear Window | Classic Movie Hub Blog

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