Alfred Hitchcock now enjoys a high and even, some would say, an exaggerated reputation among Hollywood film directors. Certainly, he is among the most influential, if only because with Psycho (1960) he created the mother, as it were, of all slasher movies. One reviewer, wishing to hint at the film’s theme without revealing the ending, remarked: “Suffice it to say that mother love has received a blow from which that sentiment may not recover.”
No other film in the genre is likely to match Psycho’s most shocking innovation: killing off the star early in the story. The gruesomeness of the famous shower scene was hardly more unsettling than this macabre trick on the audience’s expectations, far beyond anything else Hitchcock ever did, before or after.
Hitchcock once remarked to an interviewer that, when you make a movie with a big star, the audience can count on one thing: That star’s character is going to live to the end of the story. No matter how much danger he’s in, Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart can’t die. The star system almost mandates happy endings.
Hitchcock’s nature, especially his dark humor, chafed at this rule. He’d had to change the ending of Suspicion (1941), quite implausibly, because he had planned to have Grant murdering his wife, Joan Fontaine. Grant or the studio (accounts...