Peter Bradshaw peeks at the strange legacy of Hitchcock’s famous film

Fifty years ago, all America was convulsed by a low-budget, violent movie in black and white, featuring a motel bathroom with shockingly visible flushing lavatory and a grisly murder scene of unparalleled ingenuity and cinematic flair: Psycho. Nowadays, such a film would be expected to come from a young hotshot, but this was directed by the 61-year-old Alfred Hitchcock, a figure known for elegance and high production values and as the star of a popular TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but also as someone beginning a gentle career decline. Instead, Psycho sensationally jolted Hitchcock’s reputation up to a higher level, and as the owner of a profit-percentage in the film, he became staggeringly wealthy as few studio directors could ever dream of being.

The career of fellow Englishman Michael Powell had been destroyed by his own transgressive chiller, Peeping Tom, made the year before, but Hitchcock was the toast of every town. A promotional campaign centring on his reputation for disarmingly droll black comedy, combined with the stunning fact of the film’s commercial success, neutralised any outrage from the beginning. That murder scene in the shower, the masterpiece-within-a-masterpiece – a dizzying succession of images whose explicitly violent effect was created chiefly by the shrieking violin-stabs of Bernard Herrmann’s score – took Hitchcock fully seven days to film out of a 30-day shooting schedule. It was a 45-second sequence of 70 camera setups plus one “lost” image: an overhead shot showing Janet Leigh’s naked buttocks, withdrawn lest it upset the censor. All this lived on in America’s intimate dreams and nightmares, and accelerated American popular culture into its modern age of permissiveness and exploitation.

David Thomson intuits the secret afterlife of Psycho in the American mind, in a short book which is like an inspired, bravura jazz solo. Robert Graysmith, the author whose books on the Zodiac serial killer were themselves made into a movie, composes some strange, pungent, but anti-climactic reportage, footnoting the film’s occult traces in two unknown lives: those of Henry Adolph “Sunny” Busch Jr, the real-life “Psycho” serial-killer reportedly inspired by the movie to murder (although he saw the film halfway through his murderous spree) and Marli Renfro, the naked body-double for Leigh in the shower scene, who was never credited, disappeared into obscurity, and who was herself, incredibly, assumed to have been murdered by a serial killer in 1988 – until Graysmith tracked her down and uncovered the truth.

Thomson attempts to place himself inside the fabric of Psycho, floating in its pin-sharp monochrome nightmare, living through its narrative and the narrative of its cultural impact in a sort of subjective real time. Shrewdly, he places it alongside Truman Capote’s 1966 true-crime study In Cold Blood, as a work which shows that America’s hinterlands are not the places of provincial decency quaintly imagined by popular culture, but unpoliced worlds of melancholy and menace. Who are all these lonely men? Good ol’ boys? Momma’s boys? Thomson playfully asks us to imagine that dutiful son Elvis Presley in the Tony Perkins role: a disquietingly plausible cine-fantasy and the kind of brilliant flourish that only Thomson could conjure.

Hitchcock was of course adored by Truffaut and the new French generation, and Thomson suggests that the provocative, endlessly deconstructible shower scene ignited the discipline of film studies itself. (When I was at Cambridge in the 80s, Colin MacCabe and Stephen Heath were agitating for film to be critically understood, and the gaunt Edwardian villa which housed the English Faculty was known as the “Bates Motel”.) Thomson is interestingly tough on the unreal, regressive quality of Hitchcock’s work: he has a list of films which have inherited the Psycho gene, among them Nic Roeg’s masterly Don’t Look Now.

Graysmith’s book is an oddity: a shaggy-dog story of great incidental interest, but a let-down in its final moments. He intercuts between the seedy, nasty life of the killer “Sonny” Busch, and the upbeat, cheerful world of Renfro: pinup model, nudist and Vegas dancer who, after the Psycho gig, found herself, in a career-move of perfect irony, taking a small part in the young Francis Ford Coppola’s wacky sex comedy about a sad-sack voyeur: The Peeper. Naturally, the reader expects Busch to make an attack on Renfro, or for there to be some sort of contact. Instead, Graysmith reveals that in 2001, an entirely different man, one Kenneth Dean Hunt, was arrested for a string of murders including the 1988 slaying of Myra Davis, a model who was a stand-in for the initial camera tests that Saul Bass and Hitchcock carried out for the shower scene. Media reports assumed that Myra Davis and Marli Renfro were one and the same. Graysmith knew they could not be – he tracked Renfro down through the internet, and the resulting interviews formed the basis of this book. Exasperatingly, Graysmith tells us precisely nothing about Hunt and Davis. Perhaps the book should have been all about them.

For all its problems, Graysmith’s book does at least offer something usually absent from any discussion of Psycho: a female presence and a woman’s perspective. This is a movie popularly supposed to be about the male gaze, and these are very male critical accounts. The subtitle of Thomson’s book is “How Alfred Hitchcock taught America to love murder” – an alternative could have been “How Hitchcock legitimised the spectacle of violence against women”. Perhaps what is most needed for its 50th anniversary is a new feminist reading of Psycho.

Peter Bradshaw’s Dr Sweet and His Daughter is published by Picador. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds