In the documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene multiple talking heads from Guillermo del Toro to Elijah Wood iterate how Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was a game-changer: in terms of horror tropes, in terms of movie music, in terms of what could be shown on screen, in terms of how filmmakers could play with narrative expectations and so on. But maybe one of its boldest moves was to dictate when people could and should enter a movie theatre to watch a film. Peter Bogdanovich talks about attending the first press screening of Psycho: “As you went in Hitchcock’s voice was blaring on loudspeakers saying ‘Nobody will be allowed in after the picture starts and please don’t reveal the ending.’”
From the dawn of cinema, up through the 1950s, audiences would apparently come and go as they pleased, often entering a film half way through. It seems absurd now to have to state the obvious but for Hitchcock it was essential that audiences watch Psycho from the beginning. (As Hitchcock explained it in an interview “The reason was because the leading lady Janet Leigh was killed off a third of the way through and I didn’t want people whispering to each other ‘When is Janet Leigh coming on?’”). And so these exhortative lobby posters were printed in tandem with the regular A-style theatrical posters which focused on Janet Leigh in her underwear. As Walter Murch says: “It changed the way films are exhibited.” But it also changed the way that Hitchcock movies were promoted.
It’s not that Psycho was the first Hitchcock movie that required audience attention from the get go—it goes without saying that every movie should be watched from the beginning—but the fact is that in 1960 Alfred Hitchcock was the only filmmaker in the world to have the recognition value and the clout to make such an extraordinary demand. Of course as well as putting paid to the Janet Leigh whisperers, the whole thing was really a marketing gimmick: making audiences wonder what they might miss at the beginning of the film is a way of making them want to see the film at all. And the severity of the request (“Any spurious attempts to enter by side doors, fire escapes or ventilating shafts will be met by force”) is obviously tongue-in-cheek.
The press book for the film came with a special bulletin on “The Care and Handling of Psycho” which stressed the unusual but potentially boffo policy: “We cannot over-emphasize the proved efficiency of these ads in selling tickets and enhancing the importance of Psycho.” But it wasn’t just the no-entry policy that was a game-changing promotional master-stroke, it was the use of Hitchcock himself as the star of his own campaigns.
By the mid-’50s Hitchcock had been directing films for over 30 years and was already a very successful name-above-the-title filmmaker. He even had a strong recognition factor from his cameo appearances in nearly all of his films and some of his trailers. But in 1955 a television series took that to a whole new level. With Alfred Hitchcock Presents (later renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), Hitchcock really became a household name (and face). The show ran for a decade and Hitchcock not only appeared in the opening credits (walking in silhouette into a simple line-drawing caricature—drawn by Hitchcock himself—of his rotund profile) but introduced and concluded every episode in person even though he only directed a handful of episodes himself.
In today’s parlance, Hitchcock became a meme. And so, five years into the run of the series, it made sense to use the portly, avuncular “master of suspense” in the marketing of Psycho, especially since the film didn’t have the kind of A-list stars (the James Stewarts, Grace Kellys and Cary Grants) that Hitchcock had been working with throughout the 1950s. Hitchcock, in fact, was by then a bigger star than his actors.
After Psycho, which had been his greatest commercial success to date, it became almost de rigueur to use Hitchcock’s distinctive face and body in his posters. His 1951 Strangers on a Train was re-released in 1961 with this campaign.
And that same year his masterpiece Vertigo was re-released, three years after its original outing, abandoning most of its iconic Saul Bass campaign for a photo montage beneath a looming Hitchcock noggin and again with the instruction that “You should see it from the beginning!”
His 1954 Rear Window was re-released in 1962 with a similarly exhortative, auteur-led poster campaign.
And when The Birds, his first new film after Psycho, was released the following year, even the A-style poster campaign featured a full-bodied Hitchcock and two quotes from him:
The Italian Birds poster from 1963—one of my favorites—more fully integrates Hitchcock into the action.
That same year a number of 1950s Hitchcock classics were re-released in double-bills with Hitch-centric campaigns.
Maybe in a bid for greater seriousness, the US posters for his next film Marnie (1964) did not picture the director though his name could hardly have been less prominent.
And on the UK poster his image once again dwarfed his stars. A twist was added to the see-it-from-the-beginning command (“No-one, not even MR. HITCHCOCK allowed in during the last 10 minutes!”) which perhaps indicates that Psycho had failed to change the audiences laissez-faire viewing habits or again may have just been a savvy marketing gimmick.
The Italian, German and French distributors of Marnie went full-Hitchcock:
For Torn Curtain, two years later, Hitch’s image was once again back on his American one sheets, albeit smaller than his stars.
But the much larger 6-sheet and 24 sheet posters for the film were all Hitchcock.
And the Italian distributor merged the two.
That same year, 1966, North by Northwest (the film Hitchcock had made right before Psycho) was re-released with a 2-Hitchcock campaign: inserting the director’s profile into the climactic Mount Rushmore setting as well as in the corner of the poster declaring “so we brought it back.”
Sometime after Torn Curtain (1966) but before Topaz (1969) (since Topaz doesn’t appear in the chronological stack of film scripts), a number of Hitchcock films were re-released in France using this interchangeable poster campaign:
For Topaz (1969) Hitchcock’s presence was a little more subdued, playing second fiddle to an exploding book.
Frenzy (1972) was only the second film post-Psycho not to feature the director’s image on the US campaign, though as with Marnie, his name was as prominent as could be.
For his final film, Family Plot (1976) his disembodied head (“There’s no body in the family plot”) is enshrined in a paperweight and the poster has a new exhortation: “You must see it twice!”
In 1983, when Universal re-released five of Hitchcock’s classics three years after his death, the poster campaigns in the US and the UK were all about the director; the films themselves, and their stars, were secondary.
To backtrack a bit, as far as I know Psycho marked the first time that Hitchcock’s image appeared in a poster campaign in the US, but he had appeared in a couple of British campaigns in the 1950s, like this circa-1953 re-release quad for Suspicion (1941).
And this brilliant 1958 re-release quad for Strangers on a Train (1951) with art by Tom Beauvais.
Hitchcock may have been pictured in international campaigns prior to that but other countries did not have the equivalent of the National Screen Service which required all posters to have a number indicating the year of release (see the “76/94” on the Family Plot one sheet above which indicates that it was the 94th release of 1976) so it’s hard to tell exactly when many of those posters were issued. I assume most of them are post-1955, post-TV celebrity re-releases and I present the following as my favorite international Hitchcock-led re-release posters.
An Argentinian Jamaica Inn (1939):
A French Foreign Correspondent (1940):
A Danish Suspicion (1941):
And an Italian Suspicion (1941):
A French Rope (1948) by the great Roger Soubie:
A French I Confess (1953):
A Belgian Dial M for Murder (1954):
And an Italian Dial M for Murder (1954) by Giuliano Nistri:
A wonderful French Rear Window (1954) also by Roger Soubie:
A German Rear Window (1954) by Rolf Goetze which may be my favorite of all:
An Italian The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956):
And a British North by Northwest (1959):
If anyone knows the dates of any of these international posters, or if you know of Hitchcock posters featuring Hitchcock’s image that pre-date Psycho I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Many thanks to Heritage Auctions for the wealth of material.