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Sunday, February 25, 2007




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?

8 Comments:

Blogger East Side said...

Even when I was a kid, I got the the vibe that the network was looking for an excuse not show "Psycho" and used the Percy murder to give itself an out.

I'm guessing that the quote from "Time" magazine -- "stomach churning horror" -- wasn't meant as praise by the critic.

4:23 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I didn't see Psycho until the '65 reissue, so I can't speak for how audiences responded when it was brand new, but it's always been my understanding (based on reliable testimony) that they were pretty blown away. I seem to recall an interview with Hitchcock (my memory is that it was in Truffaut's book, but I could be wrong) in which he said that the see-it-from-the-beginning rule wasn't set for the stated reason ("it's so shocking!"), but specifically so that audiences would get used to the idea that the movie was about Janet Leigh and the forty grand. Hitch, unless I dreamed it, said that audiences (then, anyhow) always assume that nothing will happen to the star -- at least not until the end. Rip! Stab! Slash! So much for that idea; anything goes now. For the movie to yank the rug out from under the audience, they had to see it from the beginning.

I doubt if audiences paid much attention to the billing (though Psycho may well be the movie that changed all that). Janet was the face they recognized, therefore she must be the star. (This dynamic of audience inattention isn't entirely gone, either; notice how director Bryan Singer carefully and clearly gave away the ending of The Usual Suspects in the first sixty seconds -- confident, I'm sure, that no one would really be paying attention for the first ten minutes.)

And yes, too bad about Tony Perkins; Psycho really did ruin his career. I saw him on the old Dick Cavett show, ruefully musing on the shower scene: "The most famous scene in my career, and I was not present when it was shot."

4:37 PM  
Anonymous sam kujava said...

I worked in local television in the 1970's and '80's, so your
memories of chainsaw editing of
feature films to accomodate time
slots and frequent commercial interruptions ring all too true.
Nobody gave much thought about the
simple wrongness of it; it was just
the way things were done then.
I spent my childhood watching Saturday afternoon tv matinees and
stayed up to watch late night film
fests, because if you wanted to see these classic movies, that was
the only way you could! Then.
After a career in local tv, I avoided such fare like the plague.
One Thanksgiving night I stayed up
after the family went to bed. My
own station was showing SINGING IN
THE RAIN! Hoorah!
The print they aired was in black
and white! I thought my tv set had
gone bad, but the ads were in color.
I called the station manager and
he told me that the b&w print was
cheaper. They saved a few lousy
bucks. I was over and done with
local tv's movie offerings after that.
Thank God for TCM and DVD deluxe
sets and unedited movies and all the rest. For film buffs, NOW is
the Golden Age!

6:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Sam --- Love hearing from people who were in the trenches of local television. Do call again!

Jim and East Side --- Always great hearing from you. You keep these comment sections lively!

6:40 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Psycho was shown at my high school in the late Sixties. I didn't see it, though I did see The Birds at school. What is strange is that the MPAA rated Psycho with the M rating, and later, for the DVD release rated the film R which makes no sense.

9:54 AM  
Blogger operator_99 said...

Nicely done - many images I have not seen before and of accompanying text was a great read.

6:11 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lucas said...

I don't think the shock of Janet Leigh's murder has anything to do with her being a big star, though she clearly was the best known actor in the film at the time -- its only star of any duration. I think the shock had more to do with her being the film's principal focus for its first 44 minutes; the idea of "What? The heroine's dead? What now?" It would still be a daring thing to do today, for a director to suddenly eliminate the focus of the story being told onscreen.

1:42 PM  
Blogger mhdantholz said...

"Were audiences really that stunned to see Janet Leigh killed off 44 minutes into the picture? ... Was anyone among first-run audiences in 1960 that can address this?"

We ***laughed at*** PSYCHO in '60---it's a lumpy stew that runs out of gas half-way through;You *know* Tony Perkins has some connection to the female figure doing the chopping, but it all falls apart when he appears at the top of the cellar stairs in that dress, squawking "Norman Bates ! Norman Bates!", grotesque grimace as the wig falls off and dress splits open. Puh-lease !!!
The wind-up is a MESS---the psychiatrist[Simon Oakland] TALKS and TALKS and TALKS, begging the question: Aren't movies supposed to MOVE ???
We were already exposed to Hammer, Anglo and Bava---.for us, PSYCHO was a *dud*
PSYCHO didn't ascend to the "pantheon" until the rise of the "auteur theory", another rotten French import, *hawk-ptoo*, like Marxist-inspired "identity" politics.

QUESTION:Name the last French movie YOU saw, recently, that had a major release ?
Name a leading French movie star.
starting to get it yet ??
So why then are "film buffs" parroting outdated 1950s Frog commie opinions today ?

11:34 PM  

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