Ad Space – Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Psycho

You are now entering Ad Space, a realm of commercials, brought before us so we might examine how they work, and discuss why we both love and hate them so. So it is written …

The Product:
1960 thriller film, Psycho

The Promotion:

The Pitch:
C’mon, who’s gonna doubt Ol’ Hitch at this point?

Hey all, so I originally planned to do this Ad Space last week, on Halloween. Celebrating the spookiest day of the year with a trailer for one of the most infamously frightening movies? It would have been absolutely great! But, the day before Halloween, I started binge watching Dan Vs. on Tubi and … well, just forgot about it. Whoops!

It may be a week late, but this ad still doesn’t disappoint. It is certainly the most unusual movie trailer I’ve ever seen. Eschewing footage of the actual movie, it just has the director wander around sets, describing random incidents from the film, but usually getting tongue tied or squeamish before they can tell us much of anything. This is accompanied by a musical score that occasionally takes on an ominous tune, appropriate for the thriller film being advertised … but half the time switches to a light, bouncy tune that wouldn’t be out of place at a circus.

And this goes on for over six minutes!

It sounds like it should be an absolute trainwreck, the sort of movie trailer you might get from someone who has never seen a movie trailer, or even heard one described … yet it’s widely regarded as one of the best movie trailers ever made.

Of course, there’s really no one but Alfred Hitchcock who could have pulled this off. By 1960, Hitchcock had already directed Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Their reputation as a master of suspense was firmly established, so if Hitch comes on screen to tell you their latest picture is particularly frightening and intense, that carries some weight.

But more than that, this trailer came out while Alfred Hitchcock Presents was still airing. For those unaware, that was an anthology TV show, hosted by Hitchcock, that presented a different tale of crime/mystery/suspense each week. And while the stories presented in each episode were tense, serious affairs, they were bookended by segments where Hitchcock would talk directly to the audience, in their signature not-cut-out-for-public-speaking style, and make plenty of jokes about the story you were about to see/had just seen.

Yes, this trailer is basically an extended version of how Alfred Hitchcock Presents would begin an episode, something audiences of the time would be well aware of. The trailer might be a little awkward and goofy, but people knew that would not at all reflect the tone of and competence behind the motion picture itself.

So with viewers already convinced that Psycho would be a well-made suspense thriller, you can see how many of the seemingly poor choices made in this trailer actually serve to build up mystery and intrigue. The way Hitchcock never describes the plot of the film, only a bunch of incidents with no context, and the way they’ll start describing something, only to abruptly stop themselves, seemingly too squeamish to continue: it all serves to build intrigue. What (audiences must wonder) is the story behind all this? What could be so disturbing that Alfred Hitchcock can’t bring themself to describe it?

And, of course, after six minutes of Hitch’s endearingly bumbling delivery, it suddenly cuts to the now-famous shot of Janet Leigh screaming in the shower, their shriek piercing through whatever sense of security might have been built up. Most of the trailer might have been counting on Hitchcock’s reputation to establish their thriller bona fides, but it still knows to end on a frightening shock to the system.

So, yeah, calling this one of the best film trailers ever made? Well-deserved, in my opinion. And apparently Hitchcock felt it was a good approach, too, because a couple years later they did essentially the same thing for The Birds: