Mother! Oh God! Mother!
- ‘Psycho’ in the Shower: The History of Cinema’s Most Famous Scene by Philip Skerry
Continuum, 316 pp, £12.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 8264 2769 4
‘This is where we came in’ is one of those idioms, like ‘dialling’ a phone number, which has long since become unhooked from its original practice, but lives on in speech habits like a ghost that has forgotten the why of its haunting duties. The phrase is used now to indicate a tiresome, repetitive argument, a rant, a bore. But throughout my childhood in the 1950s and into the 1970s, it retained its full meaning: it was time to leave the cinema – although, exceptionally, you might decide to stay and see the movie all over again – because you’d seen the whole programme through. It seems very extraordinary now, and I don’t know how anyone of my generation or older ever came to respect cinema as an art form, but back then almost everyone wandered into the movies whenever they happened to get there, or had finished their supper or lunch, and then left when they recognised the scene at which they’d arrived. Often, one person was more attentive than the other, and a nudge was involved: ‘This is where we came in.’ People popped up and down in their seats and shuffled along the rows, coming and going all though the B-movie, the advertisements, the newsreel and the main feature. No one dreamed of starting a novel on page 72, or dropping into the Old Vic mid-Hamlet (though perhaps music hall worked the same way; was that the origin of the movie habit?), and not even the smallest child would let anyone get away with starting their bedtime story halfway through, but the flicks were looped, both on the projector and in our minds. You went in, saw the end, and after you’d watched the beginning and a bit of the middle you figured out how and why it had happened that way. In the introduction to Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson claims that postmodernism proper dates from the later 1960s, but let me tell you that the dismantling of narrative was rampant in cinemas up and down the country for decades before that. Maybe, after all, it was an interesting way of learning about story structure, but even so, how odd that no one thought it a strange way to proceed.
I don’t think cinemas universally stopped continuous showings and went over to discrete programme times until the mid or even late 1970s, but the first time it happened in America and the UK was at the first screenings of Psycho in 1960. It wasn’t an entirely original idea: when Les Diaboliques went on show in France five years before, its director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, insisted on separate showings. Not unlike Les Diaboliques (which was quite as disturbing) in several ways, Psycho was a black and white, low-budget horror movie which for cheapness – in both senses – was filmed by a television crew, while being directed by the A-listed Alfred Hitchcock, by then responsible for huge and glossy Hollywood hits like Rebecca, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. He was at the end of his contract with Universal, who were either not taken with the subject or disappointed by Hitchcock’s projected style for the film, so he produced it with his own company, Shamley, and filmed it at the Universal lot. In lieu of a big budget and Hollywood marketing campaign, Hitchcock, a showman and entrepreneur as much as a directorial genius, came up with the brilliant PR wheeze (or remembered Clouzot’s) of refusing paying customers entrance to Psycho once the movie had started. For the first time people had to queue for tickets and wait in line until the previous showing had finished, which had the added advantage that they watched the previous audience come out, shivering and giggling. It was novel enough for the press to film the queues. To the resistant cinema-managers, Hitchcock said that this revolution in movie habits was necessary because having seen Janet Leigh’s starry name on the awning, people who arrived halfway through the movie would spend the rest of the film wondering where she was. I remember it clearly, although I wasn’t old enough to get in to see the X-rated Psycho when it came out. In the foyer of the nearby cinema, a slightly smaller than life cardboard Hitchcock (famous now for his personal introductions of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on the television: ‘Good Evening’) held a notice explaining that no one, but no one, was to be let in after the film started, ‘not even the president of the United States … not even the queen of England, God bless her’. If nothing else, Psycho was directly implicated in a completely new way to go to the cinema. It invented the concept of being late.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.