More Psycho Sightings
Among questions still taboo in celebrity interviews, one has endured and, I suspect, always will. How much were you paid? There’s an impertinence factor there --- the code unwritten. You just don’t ask people what kind of money they earn. Otherwise probing journalists back off in the face of such personal inquiry. Of all the Hitchcock interviews I’ve seen or read, no one broached the topic, yet for me, it’s the most arresting of all the Master’s mysteries. We’re told of his gifts in negotiation, and of those arts he practiced, that of the deal may well have been supreme among them, as we do know Hitchcock cashed checks in the millions for his end of the Psycho pay-out. If I’d been Francois Truffaut, these would have been my avenues of interrogation, though I’ve no doubt a frosty reception, if not a security escort off the Universal lot, would have been my ultimate reward. Still, transcripts of closed door conferences between Hitchcock and super agent Lew Wasserman (shown together here) would at the least offer perspectives undreamt of by writers who never looked, and interviewers that didn’t ask. If more CPA and MBA types were into old movies, maybe one of them would gain access to those estate files, bound to be among the thickest, wherein revenues were divided and negatives reverted. Hitchcock died fantastically rich, more so than any Golden Age director I can think of (excepting possibly Billy Wilder and his art collection), and not knowing details of his business acumen represents a very large gap in our understanding of the man and his career. Commonly accepted is the notion he owned 60% of Psycho after volunteering to finance the show himself in the wake of Paramount’s refusal to back the project. Hitchcock historians can tell you all about how he filmed the shower scene, but information about his deal with Paramount has always been sketchy. In fact, I’m guessing they’re guessing about a lot of what went on with regards ownership and compensation. Has anyone examined the contract? It’s bound to exist, and must be fascinating. There were two occasions wherein Paramount realized at the least distribution fees, for in addition to handling the 1960 release, they managed a 1965 reissue, this after Hitchcock had left the company to join Universal. I’ve read he exchanged ownership of Psycho for MCA stock when he made the switch. That's supposed to have happened in 1962, so Paramount must have maintained some residual rights, at least to the extent of a single re-release from which they’d realize one more handling fee. The 1965 run of Psycho brought back 1.2 million in domestic rentals. This was the biggest grossing reissue Paramount had in the sixties, with the exception of The Ten Commandments in 1966 (8.8 million). Hitchcock participated in new ads emphasizing the now-legendary status of his five-year old thriller. The first time we wouldn’t let you in except at the beginning. Now you can come in and be shocked anytime. Publicity emphasized the shower-bath sequence and other grisly goodies, while Hitchcock’s signature appeared below warnings that Psycho is again on the loose in your fair city. For the first time, Anthony Perkins was shown in advertising holding a knife, an acknowledgement of patrons long since in the know as to the picture’s denouement.
The next major Psycho sighting was an aborted one. Yes, I remember it well, as Maurice Chevalier once sang, for this was an event long looked forward to. September 23, 1966 --- and the CBS Friday Night Movie would be Psycho, making its network television premiere (NBC had passed). Controversy was rife among affiliates. Conservative markets were aghast that CBS would broadcast such a thing. The net paid $800,000 for two runs (but to who? --- was Paramount down for any of this cash? --- I’d sure like to know). Four days before lift-off, Psycho was postponed. CBS released a statement on Monday. Out of deference to the family of Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, they would not be showing the film. An intruder entering Percy’s house during the previous weekend had murdered his daughter in her bed. The horrific crime remains to this day unsolved. I was twelve then and hadn’t read the news, so imagine my chagrin when the Friday Night Movie turned out to be Kings Go Forth! Just me and old Frank in a darkened room at my grandmother’s house, but I hadn’t gone weeks with anxious anticipation just to end up spending my evening with Sinatra (despite the 1943 Phantom Of The Opera as (partial) late show compensation). Network execs lamented an eight hundred grand loss they’d sustain in the event Psycho was cancelled altogether, while press hounds inquired as to an eventual broadcast date. It was summer 1960 all over again, with Psycho at the eye of a public relations hurricane. CBS maintained it would be shown later. Toward that end, they previewed a sanitized version in December for New York Times reporter Peggy Hudson. This viewer timed both versions of the scene in which Janet Leigh is murdered in the shower. The TV version of this grisly scene was cut by 45 seconds. The murder is still shown, but the repeated stabbings have been cut. As if to reassure readers that some vestige remained of Psycho’s impact, Hudson closed with a faint endorsement. Viewers are left with a sense of shock, but perhaps not with the sense of stark horror felt by movie audiences. CBS president William H. Tankersley was chided for his defensive attitude re the topic of rescheduling. Possibly in the spring, he said, while bristling at suggestions those nine minutes he’d cut weren’t enough. To rule out the way we’ve edited it would be to rule out any good murder mystery (huh?). By December 18, he’d surrendered to public and affiliate pressure --- a firm decision was made never to broadcast Psycho. Universal was now free to package the feature among syndicated titles for its upcoming season offering. Psycho would be a crown jewel and assured ratings-getter for local stations with nerve enough to telecast it. Our own Channel 9 out of Charlotte took the plunge in Fall of 1968. Station buyers were furnished with complete prints. The 16mm negatives weren’t cut, so local standards would dictate how much footage to trim. Again I took my place in front of the Zenith, this time at home with both parents (unfortunately) watching. WSOC began with a s-l-o-w text crawl warning of extreme adult content in the film we were about to see --- It may be well to send the children to bed. My now alerted parents let that pass, though I found myself silently cursing Hitchcock for his opening scene with Janet Leigh and John Gavin lolling about half-naked in that hotel room. Sure enough, the lights went out for me. Off to bed, for I had no business looking at such things as this.
Local censors would now have their turn at Psycho. TV stations in those days edited with hacksaws. Movies were cut by thirds, even halves, to accommodate time slots a fraction of intended length. Dollar-an-hour apprentice butchers hovered over dimly lit benches and mutilated Hitchcock’s design until little was left but the title. I finally caught Psycho when Channel 9 ran a late show repeat in 1970. Was it complete? Perhaps --- but how could I know? A subsequent primetime airing on Greenboro’s WFMY was interrupted by a jagged splice occurring just as the darkened figure approached Janet Leigh’s shower. Next thing we know, Janet’s on the floor and her killer has left the building. No stabs, no knife, not a scream --- but at least Channel 2 was spared viewer complaints, and so what if we’d been suckered into watching under false pretences? Was Hitchcock aware of such wholesale abuse? It wasn’t confined to North Carolina broadcasts. Stations everywhere were taking the safe way out and gelding Psycho for dubious benefit of standards and practices. The director was made aware, but was powerless to intervene. These weren’t exhibitors he could dictate to. See It From The Beginning was a grim joke in the face of prints shorn by entire reels so they could fit into ninety-minute slots. Ever resourceful, Hitchcock found a way of turning such carnage to his advantage for Universal’s first theatrical reissue (1969) of Psycho. See It The Way It Was Originally Made!, said new ads, Every Scene Intact! The master’s unsmiling countenance promised The Version TV Didn’t Dare Show!, and a newly introduced ratings system assigned the (now discarded) "M" designation, hopefully confining access to Mature Audiences. The reassertion of 1960’s No One Will Be Admitted To See "Psycho" Except From The Very Beginning policy was likely ignored by showmen catering to patrons at the least familiar with every bump in this show, having seen it several times at home, if not in theatres. To reissue a feature fresh out of heavy TV rotation was near unprecedented in the late sixties, but a complete Psycho still had the lure of forbidden fruit, with fans yet willing to pay an admission to get a bite (Universal realized $262,000 in domestic rentals for this 1969 reissue). Meanwhile, rental houses proudly displayed Psycho in their show windows. Paramount exercised some residual rights here, for early non-theatrical prints bore their logo, and were in fact much superior to muddy 16mm editions Universal would later generate for similar markets. This collector made many an inquiry to dealer contacts before springing for a Psycho liberated from some warehouse or depot. Does it have a Paramount logo? If not, forget it. Those pursuing legitimate rental engagements were confronted with terms in excess of what other Hitchcocks commanded. Swank wanted $125 for a day’s Psycho booking in 1979 --- $200 if you played it between October 5 and November 5 (their listing shown here). The Birds, on the other hand, could be had for $95, up to $125 around the time of All Hallows’ Eve. Universal was meanwhile tying anchors to designated "special" Psycho by placing it among barking dogs in a syndicated group known as Universal 53, where Hitchcock’s classic warded off the stench of bunkmates Angel In My Pocket, The Ballad Of Josie, and The Far Out West (adapted from episodes of Pistols n’ Petticoats). You’d think these would be specimens TV Wouldn’t Dare Show, but most were at least in color, a main criterion for station buyers during those multi-hued besotted days.
Life is much simpler now. When it’s time to watch Psycho, we go to the shelf and take down our pristine DVD. Sometimes you feel like Lewis and Clark after tenderfoots have settled in on tracks you’ve cleared. Hacking through brush to present a definitive (or at least unsullied) Psycho is just another of our Quixotic quests that seem peculiar to armchair archivists today. Are we spoiled now or what? My recent collegiate run of Psycho didn’t scratch, tear, or show lines, and Janet’s shower scene was all there. I call that progress, but what of the movie? Does it still work? Our showing did. Could that be cause there's lots more Normans loose in our culture than in 1960? Hitchcock must have anticipated all those boomerang offspring now besetting retired parents. What is Norman but another 2007 problem child reluctant to leave mother’s nest? He’s almost an identification figure for overgrown adolescents today, minus the cross-dressing and knife murders. I used to encounter one Norman after another in collecting circles (without necessarily discounting the possibility of cross-dressing and knife murders among their numbers!). Had I been Tony Perkins’ agent with a desktop crystal ball in 1960, I would have told him not to take this part. Poor guy was ruined. Did anyone ever regard him with anything other than dread suspicion from then on? Not me. When I caught Pretty Poison at the Liberty in 1968, and he came walking in as Tuesday Weld’s unbalanced paramour, it was like, Of course --- that’s what Anthony Perkins does! No wonder he finished up doing one dreadful Psycho sequel after another. He was an actor cursed. Remember how everyone used to laugh when they saw Ted Knight standing in the hallway toward the end? Not anymore. Kids today don’t know Ted Knight from Dill Pickle, and that’s good, for this was always an unwelcome distraction. And what about the rumor that George Reeves was considered for Martin Balsam’s part (obviously during early stages of pre-production)? Imagine him tumbling backward down those stairs! No worse than what did happen to George, but suppose he’d lived another year? Would we have seen him in the role of Arbogast? I’d love to examine original casting notes on the subject, if for no other reason than to see if this was fact or merely wishful myth. My favorite shot --- that record of Beethoven’s Eroica on Norman’s little phonograph. Somehow that captures his weirdness best. One last thing. Were audiences really that stunned to see Janet Leigh killed off 44 minutes into the picture? She only gets featured billing after all, usually a tip-off they’re not going to make it to the end. Was anyone among first-run audiences in 1960 that can address this?