×

Secrecy Surrounding 1960’s ‘Psycho’ Went Off Without a Hitch

When Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” opened on June 16, 1960, the subject matter was shocking. By today’s standards, the most shocking thing about the film was its distribution — a slow rollout that lasted for months, even though Paramount and Hitchcock wanted to maintain secrecy. When Robert Bloch’s novel was published in 1959, Hitchcock bought all copies to keep the plot twists under wraps. Similarly, studio execs and theater owners were given no details about the film.

“Psycho” opened on two Manhattan screens and in three other cities June 22. It bowed on 20 L.A. screens in August. These days, when viewers tweet film details during the first screening, months of secrecy would be unthinkable. But in 1960, most people cooperated. Hitchcock insisted no one be allowed to enter the theater after the movie started. His goal was to maintain suspense, but it became a marketing hook — and eventually became standard behavior for moviegoers.

In those days, moviegoers arrived at the theater whenever they wanted. If the movie was in progress, they would sit down and watch, then stick around for the next showing, to see what they’d missed.

Hitchcock wanted to prevent that. With “Psycho,” Anthony Perkins was top-billed, but Janet Leigh was the biggest star in the film. Hitchcock didn’t want audiences to enter during the second half and wonder “Where’s Janet Leigh?” the whole time. So he inaugurated the idea that audiences had to attend from the start of the film, which he said at a press conference was a “daring presentation policy.”

Bloch’s novel was inspired by Ed Gein, a real-life Wisconsin murderer in the 1950s, and details of his killings were too grisly to depict. The screenplay by Joseph Stefano made some major changes from Bloch’s book, including the expansion of Leigh’s character. Hitchcock wouldn’t give a script to Paramount execs, partly so they wouldn’t blab, and partly for fear they’d interfere with the touchy subject matter. Paramount reluctantly agreed to ask no questions, OK’ing a budget of $800,000.

The master of suspense,” as he was called, enlisted frequent collaborators like editor George Thomasini and composer Bernard Herrmann. For the cinematography, he signed John L. Russell, a veteran of his TV series who knew how to work quickly and cheaply.

To keep Par execs away, he filmed “Psycho” on the Universal lot, where his TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was based. (Film buffs are sometimes confused why the Universal Studios Tours takes people past the “Psycho” house and the Bates motel, though it was a Paramount film.)

The filmmaker’s secrecy paid off for him personally. In exchange for his unusual methods, Hitchcock gave up his usual salary — but got a huge backend deal. At the end of 1960, Variety estimated he would personally earn $6 million, stating that it was a showbiz record. That converts to about $50 million in current numbers.

At the end of 1960, Variety estimated that the film had earned $9 million in domestic rentals — that’s the portion of the box office that’s returned to the studio — and would probably earn that much overseas as well.

The film spawned three sequels, a 1998 Gus Van Sant remake, and A&E’s prequel TV series “The Bates Motel,” which just concluded after five seasons.

Popular on Variety

More Vintage

  • Makoto Iwamatsu The Sand Pebbles

    How Mako Helped Pave Way for Asian American Actors in 1965 With L.A. Theater Group

    The historic Golden Globe best actress win for Asian American actor Awkwafina reminds us of the pioneering work of creative trailblazers of Asian descent who preceded her. That list dates back to 1936 with Indian-Maori-European actor Merle Oberon’s Oscar nomination for 1935’s “The Dark Angel,” and includes such distinguished artists as Ken Watanabe, in Clint [...]

  • Katy Jurado High Noon

    Katy Jurado's Globe Win for 1952's 'High Noon' Was a Golden Moment for Diversity

    Long before the push for diversity and inclusion, Hollywood had a few Latin/Hispanic stars who made a big impact. One was Katy Jurado, the first Latina actress to win a Golden Globe (for 1952’s “High Noon”) and the first nominated for an Oscar (1954’s “Broken Lance”). She was born Jan. 16, 1924, in Mexico, and [...]

  • Willem Dafoe The Lighthouse

    Willem Dafoe on Early Film Roles, Working With Robert Eggers on 'The Lighthouse'

    A four-time Academy Award nominee, Willem Dafoe developed his cinematic charisma — seen in films like “The Florida Project” and “At Eternity’s Gate” — in his early career in theater. After studying drama at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Dafoe moved to New York in 1976 and joined what would eventually become The Wooster Group. His [...]

  • Scarface Movie

    Looking Back at 'Scarface' and How It Became a Cinematic Classic

    “Scarface,” which opened Dec. 9, 1983, made money at the box office but wasn’t immediately profitable. However, in the 36 years since, the film has been embraced as a classic. The project started as a 1930 pulp novel by Armitage Trail, inspired by gangster Al Capone, whose nickname was Scarface. On April 6, 1982, Variety [...]

  • Irwin Winkler

    'Irishman' Producer Irwin Winkler on De Niro, Scorsese and Early Days as an Agent

    Irwin Winkler has been producing films for parts of six decades. His latest is “The Irishman,” which reunites him with frequent collaborators Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (“Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “New York, New York”) as well as Al Pacino (“Revolution”). Winkler was first mentioned in Variety on Dec. 24, 1958, when he was an [...]

  • Jonathan Pryce

    Jonathan Pryce on Early Roles, Reading Reviews and Advice He Got From Lee Strasberg

    Jonathan Pryce, who has done memorable work for 40-plus years, hits a career high in “The Two Popes,” a complex look at Francis, played by Pryce, and Benedict, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Though Pryce has played well-known figures before, such as Juan Perón in the 1996 “Evita,” he was hesitant to take on Pope Francis [...]

  • Sesame Street PBS

    'Sesame Street' Was First Brought to You by the Letters PBS 50 Years Ago

    “Sesame Street” bowed 50 years ago, on Nov. 10, 1969, one week after the launch of PBS. A month later, Variety reporter Les Brown gushed, “It may be just the show to put public television on the ratings map.”  He was right. “Sesame Street” drew 1.9 million households — especially impressive since it was seen [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content