CALLERI: As ‘Psycho’ turns 60, my mom’s description of initial audience reaction

Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh star in Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated thriller, “Psycho.”

One of the greatest lines of dialogue in any motion picture can be heard in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” when Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates tells Janet Leigh as “Marion Crane that “a boy’s best friend is his mother.” Talk about presaging what’s to come. Wow.

Before the arrival of Hitchcock’s 1960 psychological masterpiece, few, if any, people would have thought that an important star was in danger of being killed in the early part of a major motion picture.

“Psycho” premiered in New York City on June 16, 1960 and then had premieres in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia on June 22. It didn’t open in the rest of the U.S. until Sept. 8, which means that a lot of film fanatics kept a very big secret. Today, that secret would almost certainly have been spilled in countless social media posts.

Hitchcock, making the most of a brilliant advertising campaign, warned that no one, not even American President Dwight D. Eisenhower or Queen Elizabeth II of England, would be admitted to a cinema once the picture had begun. The rule was ironclad, utterly unbreakable, and completely binding with theater owners. No spoilers for Hitchcock.

To write that the director’s black and white thriller changed filmmaking forever would be an understatement. The success of “Psycho” affected movie budgeting – it was shot with a less expensive crew that had adapted to the fast pace of shooting television shows – and it rewrote the rulebook for the content and making of horror films.

“Psycho,” with a screenplay by Joseph Stefano, unnerved a moviegoing public that was used to a certain civility in the films they saw. The slightest hint of female nudity turned some people apoplectic, and the repeated slashing of a character with a butcher’s knife would have shaken audiences to their core. Yes, there was tense action, mild violence, images of war, and classic fright alongside the comedy, music, and romance during decades of features, but this was different.

Hitchcock himself was a superstar, not only because of his well-made mysteries and adventures, but also because he was in American living rooms every week for 10 years introducing his television show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Folks trusted the director to deliver a well-made twist and an occasional comedic touch of turmoil.

In 1960, he pulled the rug out from under audiences. There are three shocking set-pieces in “Psycho,” one in the Bates Motel, and two in the Bates family’s house – the brutality in the upstairs hallway and the mind-boggling jolt in the basement. Audiences weren’t used to having this kind of mayhem and madness thrust upon them from an important director and major studio. Absolutely no one was prepared for what they were seeing on the screen.

Why would they have been? Hitchcock, who rose to serious fame in the 1930s in the United Kingdom, had cemented that fame in the U.S. in the 1940s with a number of enjoyable suspense films, including “Foreign Correspondent, “Shadow Of A Doubt,” and “Notorious.” He had an avid following.

In the 1950s, he directed a string of colorful popular entertainments with glamorous movie stars, including “Rear Window,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (a remake of his own 1934 British thriller), “To Catch A Thief,” “Vertigo,” and “North By Northwest.” The latter adventure set the template for every spy film that has followed it.

For a richly detailed exploration of how “Psycho” got produced, read Stephen Rebello’s superb “Alfred Hitchcock And The Making Of Psycho.” For a report on what audiences experienced while watching “Psycho” when it was first released, listen to my own mother.

My mom, Geraldine Calleri, loved going to the movies, and she enjoyed seeing Hitchcock’s films. You couldn’t have found a more appreciative audience. In the autumn of 1960, she went to the Paramount Theatre at 612 Main St. in downtown Buffalo with some of her friends to see “Psycho.” The Paramount had a single giant screen and 3,024 seats, including a balcony.

When I was in college studying English and Film (I even wrote a paper on Hitchcock), I would often ask my mother to describe the experience of seeing “Psycho.” Unlike today, audiences were used to seeing black and white films and no one was surprised that the feature wasn’t in color. What shattered them was the first murder. 3,024 people in the sold-out theater went ballistic.

My mother said that when the Bates Motel’s shower curtain was pulled back and the first flash of the knife appeared, the audience erupted. Pandemonium ensued. There were screams the like of which she had never heard, and these screams were competing with the “screams” from the violins playing throughout the scene. Some people fled the theater. Most recoiled in their seats. Everyone was yelling. There was a total state of shock.

The noise level stayed high. Now halfway through the movie, all bets were off. The supercharged bedlam at the Paramount continued throughout the swamp sequence and even into the next major dialogue scene.

Great filmmaking rarely gets better than this.

You can celebrate the 60th anniversary of “Psycho” by seeing it at the Screening Room at the Boulevard Mall in Amherst this weekend. Enter from the parking lot on Alberta Drive. Shows are Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 5 and 7:30 p.m. Advance booking is recommended.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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