The year Alfred Hitchcock went Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock was a shrewd self-marketer with fingers in many pies.

Alfred Hitchcock was a shrewd self-marketer with fingers in many pies.

When my mother was younger, she decided to take two older aunts to a movie. When they arrived at the cinema she saw that an Alfred Hitchcock film was about to start and, thinking it would be something glamorous and fun like To Catch a Thief, bought the tickets.

The film was Psycho.

That low-budget, lurid 1960 horror film was a decided departure for the director. My mother's expectations show what a brand name he was by then.

She was a bit vague when I asked about her aunts' reaction to Psycho. Apparently they thanked her.

Well before his death in 1980 at the age of 80, Sir Alfred Hitchcock was one of the best-known people in movie history - especially for someone who was not a film star.

Hitchcock was a savvy multimedia player: his films were famous, of course, and he had justly earned the moniker The Master of Suspense.

Unusually for a director, he was well known in his own right. By 1960, he was one of the few filmmakers who could be called a household name with an established brand. As well as becoming associated with a particular kind of film, he also made cameo appearances in most of his movies, adding to his celebrity (latterly he would appear as early as possible so as not to distract audiences from the story).

He was also a shrewd self-marketer with fingers in many pies, long before the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

His long-running TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (later expanded into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), which he topped and tailed and directed some episodes of, helped cement his image and persona: the stocky, droll, Englishman with a dark and irreverent sense of humour. The theme tune, Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette, became one of those pieces of classical music with a permanent association in the popular imagination and Hitchcock's sketch of his profile also became well known.

He lent his name to a mystery magazine, short-story anthologies and the Three Investigators children's book series, easy money since they were all edited and written by others.

Although he was nominated for a few best director Oscars, he never won: perhaps suspense, like comedy, was looked down upon as being not elevated enough for major recognition by the industry.

Hitchcock had self-acknowledged restrictions - he once said, "I'm a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach."

But he managed to cover quite a range of subject matter and emotional ground, from docudrama (The Wrong Man) to black comedy (The Trouble With Harry) to Gothic romance (Rebecca)and innocent-man-on-the-run movies (North by Northwest), to name a few.

The Bates house in Psycho (1960). Picture: Paramount Pictures

The Bates house in Psycho (1960). Picture: Paramount Pictures

Even his seemingly lighter movies had their darker ideas and moments: murder, obviously, featured a lot, and the sequence in The 39 Steps where the hero seeks shelter with a crofter and his downtrodden wife is a moving vignette of unhappiness and despair. And the whole of Vertigo is a study in obsession, need and despair.

He liked pushing the envelope, with clear intimations of homosexuality in some of his films and a grisliness kept from being too explicit, in a time when dealing with the censors was a game to be played. And he enjoyed a technical challenge, like the restricted settings of Dial M For Murder and Lifeboat and Rope (where he also experimented with long takes).

Hitchcock films also delved into unhealthy psyches - think for example of the man whose niece discovers he is an infamous serial killer in Shadow of a Doubt.

And, of course, there is Psycho. Hitchcock bought the rights to Robert Bloch's book anonymously and cheaply and shot the film in black and white on a low budget with many crew members from his TV show.

His marketing included a lengthy trailer that gave away a lot and not much at all and the stipulation that audiences had to see the film from the beginning, all to build anticipation.

The film was sensational in its day, beginning with an unmarried couple in a hotel room for a lunchtime rendezvous. It even showed a flushing toilet. Many of its elements - Bernard Herrmann's score for strings, the shower scene, the big reveal - have become legendary. Audiences couldn't resist and it's a film worth multiple viewings.

In lieu of a salary Hitchcock took a 60 per cent ownership share in the film, which netted him millions.

After the awesome threesome of Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho, Hitchcock went into a decline. Some attribute this, in part, to the influence of French critics such as Francois Truffaut, who lavished praise on him and may have turned his head.

The Birds and Marnie, both starring his discovery Tippi Hedren, were somewhat cold films, albeit with impressive elements, but Topaz and Torn Curtain were disappointing.

Hitchcock had something of a return to form with Frenzy, filmed back in London, but looser censorship meant he could indulge his darker impulses, with a sadistic rape-murder scene. And his last film, Family Plot, ended his career four years before his death on a pleasant but unremarkable note.

The director was not always one to be generous about apportioning credit. Filmmaking is always a group art and he needed screenwriters, composers, and other collaborators working at their best for his films to succeed. But he was the common element.

The quality of Hitchcock's more than 50 films was overall very high. He is still a household name and his films still entertain, inspire and endure.

This story The year Hitchcock went Psycho first appeared on The Canberra Times.