To the Cleaners


In many respects, even more than the derivative Star Wars movies, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the most famous movie ever made.

“Hitchcock liked to boast about playing the emotions of audiences as though they were notes on an organ, but when he first read Psycho he must have recognized his own inner music surging through him. It was The Lodger as the landlord of a motel, it was a phantasmagoria with a scary mansion, stairwell, and dark basement,  it was a peeping Tom and a screaming Jane, it was the world’s worst bathroom nightmare, mingling nudity and blood, it was a plunging knife in the muscled grip of a man dressed, bizarrely as his own mother. It is no exaggeration to say that Hitchcock had been waiting for Psycho – working up to it – all his life.”

Patrick Mulligan- Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light

I first saw the film well after the fact, taped late one night on VHS in my early teens. The next day a friend and I snuck into the TV room to watch, but alas, I had cheated, and read the full synopsis on Cinemania 95, an archaic precursor to Wikipedia that came on CD Rom. Still, voyeuristically, I watched my friend’s reactions, from Janet Leigh’s black up lift bra, to the spooky house on the hill, to Norman Bates lifting up the picture to peep as she undressed to shower.

When the inevitable attack arrived, having little effect on me (other than I thought it looked fake) my friend was genuinely terrified. My overwhelming emotion upon first viewing of the film? Envy. I had had no great epiphany, the master had not been able to play me like an organ as much as I had wanted him to.

That’s not of course my final judgement on the movie, just the jealous reaction of a 12 year old who knew the ending so lost the thrill of suspense.

I later went to Universal Studios and went on the back-lot tour, and, as a more reflective and older teenager, I noted that the film had been inspired by the Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, who had by now become a fun fair ride. The 1978 Texas Chainsaw Massacre was also inspired by the case, and is less an homage to Psycho as a hyper kinetic remake.

Every horror movie post 1960, except for Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), which wrecked the great director’s name and career, lends itself in some way to Hitchcock’s classic. From the trash cheapo shockers of the sixties to the more sophisticated seventies horrors like Halloween, which even references Bernard Herrman’s iconic, discordant score, to the more vicious 70s and 80s video nasties of De Palma, Argento, Fulci and a whole host of others.

The original author Robert Bloch was stiffed through, on what turned into Hitchcock’s greatest money spinner. The novel was secretly optioned for $9000 and Bloch never saw a penny of the gross.

To protect the twist that Norman Bates was his mother, Hitchcock came up with a gimmick that had security guards outside the front of cinemas across America.

Don’t give away the ending, signs read in the foyer and Hitchcock drily intoned on the trailers: it’s the only one we have!

Part of the reason for the Freudian undertones to Psycho may be due to screenwriter Joseph Stefano undergoing Freudian analysis at the time he was working on the script (on a weekly basis by the director who never paid his writers or his cast more than he ever needed to. If Actors were cattle, writers were less).

Some years after the success of Psycho, Hitch received a worried letter from a man whose wife, after seeing French horror movie Les Diaboliques, would no longer take a bath, and after seeing Psycho, would no longer shower.

“What should I do?” the man asked.

Hitchcock considered this.

“Send her to the cleaners,” he said.

Follow Andrew Moody  on Twitter @Voguishfiction