Film Historian: 'Psycho' Altered Ideas On Censorship

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The 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was this past week. The film was groundbreaking in many ways —including having been the first to show a toilet on-camera. Host Melissa Block talks with David Thomson, film critic and author of The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.


Fifty years ago this week, unwitting moviegoers found themselves in a motel bathroom, taking a shower with Janet Leigh. Then, the unthinkable.

(Soundbite of film, "Psycho")

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of screaming)

BLOCK: Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," starring Leigh and Anthony Perkins as the tortured Norman Bates, slashed its way into film history. The shower scene was, of course, terrifying in 1960, and it still is. But 45 seconds do not a classic make.

Esteemed film historian David Thomson has devoted his latest book to explaining why "Psycho" still matters. It's titled "The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder." David Thomson, welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID THOMSON (Film Critic; Author, "The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder"): Thank you.

BLOCK: Now, Alfred Hitchcock could not get Paramount Studios to greenlight this movie. Why not?

Mr. THOMSON: Well, Paramount were an old-fashioned studio, and they were afraid of this material. They looked at the script and the story, and they thought serial killers are not really enormously attractive to the public. This is violent. This is nasty. It's just got an unpleasant feeling.

BLOCK: You have this great line in your book, you say that sex and violence were ready to break out, and censorship crumpled like an old lady's parasol. The orgy had arrived.

Mr. THOMSON: Well, you know, it's 50 years ago, and the cinema was a very different form. It was very controlled. There were certain things you could not show. You could not show a toilet. Everybody, most days of the week, uses a toilet, even in America, and yet it was something you could not show on a film because it was thought to be offensive.

And Hitchcock said, well, this is silly. And he got away with it. Now, that's a fairly minor detail because the film is really much more known for its violence, and for the sort of way in which sexuality and voyeurism is tied into the violence.

And in hindsight, it's clear that "Psycho" was a film that indicated the end of the code, the end of formal censorship. By the end of the 1960s, you could do and show nearly anything in a film.

BLOCK: Well, apart from that iconic shower scene, what else was it in "Psycho" that Hitchcock was doing, that hadn't been done before?

Mr. THOMSON: Well, there's a lot of stuff. For instance, he presents you with a very appealing, attractive, young woman, Janet Leigh. He makes her the center of the film for 40 minutes. So you identify with her. You feel for her. And then he jerks her off the screen. He pulls her off the screen. You're left stranded with the film, and you say to yourself: Who do I attach myself to?

And the only available person is this rather odd young man who will prove to have been her killer. So that was something.

BLOCK: I do need to confess to you that I have never seen "Psycho." I was watching it right before we started this conversation, but I have been avoiding it because I was worried that I would never take a shower again if I did.

Mr. THOMSON: Well, I think that's understandable. And I think Hitchcock knew that just like a very dangerous ride at a fairground, this is a movie that frightens you or entices you - and probably does both.

I mean, Janet Leigh said she never took a shower again. I interviewed her once in her home, and I sort of arched my eyebrow, maybe, when she said that, and she said: Do you want to see my bathroom?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMSON: Well, who's going to turn down Janet Leigh's bathroom? And she showed it to me, and there was no shower in there. So I believe her.

I think that the experience of it was a deep and profound thing, and I think it did have an effect on her. And I'm bound to say, I think it's a film that had an effect on bathroom behavior in general.

BLOCK: Well, David Thomson, thank you for talking with us.

Mr. THOMSON: My pleasure.

BLOCK: David Thomson's book is "The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder." "Psycho" was released 50 years ago this week.

OK, well, I need to go watch the other 90 minutes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMSON: I hope you'll be OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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