The cinematic masterpiece that is Psycho is sixty years old today and I’ve been having a bit of a multi-article celebration. From looking at some of the behind the scene stories and the making of Psycho, to exploring the entire franchise from 1959 – 2017. Right here, I am going to look at the original teaser trailer that Alfred Hitchcock made for his film and try to explain why I feel it’s the greatest movie trailer ever made. SPOILERS ahead!
I love a good movie trailer, ones that whet the appetite just the right amount and get you interested in a movie. Sadly, those seem to not exist anymore as trailers these days are much more bombastic and often give away major plot points… sometimes even the ending to the film you have not yet seen. A truly great movie trailer is extremely hard to find these days. I don’t know, but I feel that the people who edit trailers these days have no restraint, no class, no sense of suspense. But there was one man who had all of those traits in spades, Alfred Hitchcock.
Given the fact that Hitch secured complete control when it came to making Psycho, it meant he also had full control over it’s advertising and promotion. When Hitchcock is in full control of something, that’s when you get the absolute best results. See the trailer for Psycho as an example. See, Hitch didn’t want to just use clips from the movie to give the audience an idea and a taste of the picture. He wanted to create something different, something unique… so unique that the trailer for Psycho doesn’t even show a single second, a single frame of the actual film at all.
What Alfred Hitchcock created with his Psycho trailer was a mini, six minute movie in itself. A short film that told you exactly what the film was about, but showed you absolutely nothing in the process. Not only that, the trailer starred the man himself, Mr Hitchcock and it is drenched in his trademark dry, black and macabre humour. You know what? Just watch it yourselves before I explain it’s genius…
See, now that’s how you pull off a teaser trailer. With Hitchcock presenting this tour of the wonderfully iconic house and even the infamous Bates Motel itself, as if the events from the film were factual. As if Hitch is fronting a documentary based on the murders. It all kicks off with that bouncy, light music that sets the audience at ease from the off. It’s misdirection like the music that makes this trailer really work. Then he begins to talk about the ‘sinister’ house and the ‘most dire, horrible events’ that took place in it. That bouncy music is gone as Hitch begins to unravel his tale of murder and things quickly take a turn for the worst… but not before Hitch throws in some of his humor about the sale of the house, again, just to ease the viewer. He really enjoys playing with us as he hints at a mysterious woman seen in the window.
Then yes, it’s that happy, upbeat music again. The flip-flopping from one extreme to the other, from happy to death really begins to get under the skin. His little look back at the audience just to check that we are following him into the house, it’s a look of reassurance and mischief… something is going on here. Hitch then goes on the talk about the second murder at the top of the stairs and goes into very specific detail too. He lets the audience know the killer was female, the way he doesn’t mention who the victim was is wonderful subterfuge. He then goes on the describe… or try to describe how contorted and twisted the body was after it tumbled down the stairs. Hitchcock uses his hands to try and convey how badly the body was damaged, he’s just told you about one of the biggest scenes in the film, but not said anything of any real detail. It’s really masterful work, brilliant use of body language and wording that still does not give anything major away. You just know something seriously bad happened on those stairs.
Before going into the woman’s bedroom, Hitch regales you in another misleading descriptive, telling you just what the woman was like as if she was still alive. He’s telling you who the killer is, but without telling you who the killer is. Then it’s into her room, the killer we now know who carried out the two murders. He begins to point out several clues, one in particular being the wardrobe. Hitch opens the wardrobe, but does not show you wants inside. Instead, he just offers you the viewer a very disapproving look as that chirpy music kicks in again. So the woman’s clothing is a clue. Hitch then leaves ‘her’ room, stops off for one of his dry humor jabs about the bathroom and then points out the son’s room. However, we don’t get to see inside. Hitchcock tells us that the son preferred the parlor behind the office in the motel and that’s where he takes us next.
Hitch then goes on the tell us how sorry you have to feel for the son, how he was driven to extremes… he almost let’s the cat out the bag before entering the parlor. Giving a brief tour of the room, Hitchcock tells us about the son’s hobby of taxidermy and even says that a very important scene occurred in that very room. He’s just about the reveal exactly what, but he gets distracted by a framed picture on the wall. And this is where he teases his most. He stops at the picture, points at it and tell us that it has ‘great significance, because…’, Hitchcock then stops himself from telling us just how important the picture is and takes us to cabin number 1 instead.
Pausing yet again to deliver that dry ‘the bathroom’ line again, he goes in. Commenting on how it’s been cleaned up of all the blood. He also tells us that a very important clue was found in the toilet. Then it’s onto the grand finale. Hitchcock describes the murder, telling us how the killer crept into the room, how the shower drowned out any sound. He then pauses and looks at the shower, grabs the shower curtain and yanks it aside. We the audience are then greeted by a screaming Vera Miles.
The reason I love this trailer so much it that it works as a trailer should. It gives you a little taste of the film, all without giving too much away. Despite Alfred Hitchcock telling you about the murders, telling you about the killer, telling you about the son… he still tells you nothing. He takes you on this wondrous tour of the site of two grisly killings, describes them and yet, he still spoils nothing from the film. There isn’t a single frame from the movie in the trailer either. The use of Vera Miles in the shower at the end is a great shock as it gives the trailer it’s punctuation, but still keeps the big surprise that Janet Leigh is the one who is killed in the shower in the actual film.
You can watch this trailer before the film and it works as a great prologue that sets up the film beautifully. Then watch it after the film and you can see just how much Hitchcock was playing with the audience and how much he enjoyed it too. His little hints, those close misses of just what happened in the house and motel are genius. Hitchcock’s careful use of words, his body language, his hand movements, his gestures and his dead pan humour are what make this so damn enjoyable to watch.
“Luck is everything. My good luck in life was to be a really frightened person. I’m fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn’t make a good suspense film.”
– Alfred Hitchcock