From the playful North by Northwest to the probing Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s work was crisp, kaleidoscopic and cut with a singular dedication to his craft that was the workings of a true artist. And yet, if he could only claim one film as his masterpiece, then Psycho would be the one, especially considering the way it shaped the genre of Freudian thrillers.
The film starts off as a family-friendly comedy and ends with a serial killer talking to the remnants of a mother that lingers on within him. Startlingly original, the feature inspired a host of copycat efforts, and a collection of sequels that vary in their quality from the mediocre to the moribund. As is the nature of Hollywood, the film was re-packaged as a plodding Gus van Sant thriller in the 1990s, featuring a desperately miscast Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates.
Vaughn holds none of the pathos found in Anthony Perkins portrayal, but to his credit, Vaughn’s performance is memorable in the way Anne Heche’s isn’t. Heche was tasked with bringing Marion Crane back to life, decades after Janet Leigh’s incarnation was cut to pieces within the vicinity of her private dorm. It didn’t help that this entry lacked the inimitable style, finesse and ice-cold tension of the original. There were no red herrings or sleight of hand: if there was a creaking floorboard, a victim ended up dead thirty seconds later.
Thankfully, Hitchcock’s work revels in suspense, and he even presented a teaser trailer outlining what grisly events occurred away from the public eye. The trailer opens with Hitchcock pegged outside a motel, informing viewers that although it may seem innocent, the place is now “the scene of a crime”.
Bringing viewers into a “sinister looking” house, ushering them to stairs where a “murder” took place. Clearly repulsed by the actions, the director wanders into a bedroom, exhibiting the lush beauty of the bedroom that stands in contrast to the rustic-aesthete of the motel. Stopping himself at key junctures – he twice interrupts himself before giving away key information about the film – Hitchcock lets the location do the talking for the majority of the clip, before opening a shower curtain to a naked woman, screaming for her life.
We’re long past the point of spoiling the film, you’ve had 62 years to watch it now, and the segment clearly shows Crane just as she’s about to be stabbed by Bates. Interestingly, the woman isn’t Janet Leigh, but Vera Miles, who played another role in the film. Hitchcock asked Miles to don a blond wig for the trailer, as Leigh was unavailable to film this particular segment. Indeed, the director took on the majority of promotional duties, as he didn’t trust Leigh and Perkins enough to keep quiet about the plot.
If you thought people spoiling movies was a new thing, think again. The director refused to give any private screenings and insisted that journalists watch the film with the general public. Inspired by Les Diabolique, Hitchcock also insisted that cinemas prohibit latecomers from watching the film. It was a daring move, but one that has been repeated by film promoters over the years. Secrecy hung over the film. The violence drew cinemagoers to it. And bolstered by this energy, Hitchcock informed audiences he intended it as a “dark comedy”. Whatever makes you laugh, I guess.
Sidenote: The music in the trailer is distinctive, precisely because it uses the score from another Hitchcock feature. The film trailer is bolstered by cues from The Trouble with Harry, a bouncy family-oriented comedy that had virtually nothing to do with the more adult-tinted flavours of Psycho. But the moment Crane turns around, the strings kick in and that theme enters. Suddenly, we’ve jumped from a bouncy comedy, albeit laced with tinges of sinister undercurrents, headfirst into a drama where death awaits those who seek to console themselves in the safe nest of their own shower.
In many ways, the trailer encapsulates the subversive nature of the film itself. It starts off as a pleasant picture about a woman yearning for escape, before taking a weird side-turn as the lady in question is murdered. It turns from gothic horror into slasher territory, until the film closes on Bates, transforming into the woman who has always looked out for him; his mother.
The film is bold, daring, brave, and while it might not be gender-progressive, it does hold a committed performance from Leigh. The picture punches along, hitting each and every beat in its way, and when the jokes appear, they are wickedly funny. Psycho is Hitchcock’s masterpiece, and this punchy film trailer only adds to the commitment he held for his crusade.