The Day That Nana And I Went 'Psycho'

Actress Janet Leigh in the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic thriller "Psycho." (YouTube)
Actress Janet Leigh in the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic thriller "Psycho." (YouTube)

It’s not unusual to have warm and fuzzy feelings for Grandma. Like many, mine brought a sense of calmness into what was an often chaotic family atmosphere. When I refer to other family members it’s often by their first names, but Etta Siegel will always be Nana.

Along with the French toast and fried matzoh, there was always a genuine curiosity about whatever I was up to, including my love of the movies, which she often took me to, including one transformative summer day in 1960 when she took her 13-year-old grandson downtown to the movies to see the hot new film of the day — cue the thrusting and screaming Bernard Herrmann strings — “Psycho.”

It’s hard in the age of the megaplex to imagine a time when you had to venture into Downtown Boston to see a first-run movie, but that’s the way it was back then, when it was actually an event for kids to go to a first-run film.

So as the Boston Pops gets ready to accompany the film at Symphony Hall Oct. 29 and 31, I’ve been thinking of my introduction not only to Hitchcock’s great film, but to a world beyond my pre-adolescent imagination.

Nana Etta Siegel in 1969 and the author, Ed Siegel, at his bar mitzvah in 1960. (Courtesy)
Nana Etta Siegel in 1969 and the author, Ed Siegel, at his bar mitzvah in 1960. (Courtesy)

If there’s an afterlife, she might still be feeling guilty about that introduction, but don’t you go blaming Nana. Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t fully himself in 1960. He was a great filmmaker, to be sure, and one who wasn’t afraid to go deeper into the psyche than others, but he was still one who played by the rules. There were “goodies and baddies” and Hollywood endings everywhere. There was an air of lightness to his ‘50s movies like “To Catch a Thief” and “The Trouble with Harry.” Even the darker “Strangers on a Train” tacked on a romantic ending that isn’t close to Patricia Highsmith’s novel.

A few words about Nana and me. My brother and sister and I were, in a word, brats. Nana was the only local relative who could get us to behave. While my mother’s side of the family seemed to be in a perpetual contest to see who could yell the loudest, Nana, my father’s stepmother, was Zen Judaism personified. While we talked back to my mother and her relatives as if our lives depended on it — actually, they kinda did — we would no more talk back to Nana than root against the Red Sox. “Well, Eddie, if you do what your mother says then we can play a game. How would that be?”

That would be just great, Nana.

So off we went in June 1960, on the Green Line from her family manse in Roxbury to the Paramount Theatre, a place where I would later spend a good deal of time, thanks to its revival and, ultimately, its stewardship by ArtsEmerson. But just to be inside one of these glorious old theaters back then was a different kind of nirvana, one in which the buttered popcorn, the movie stills and posters, the shorts and previews, all added up to a level of excitement, heightened by the fact that Hitchcock had declared in what seemed like the gimmickry of the time, that no one would be admitted to the theater once the film began.

The Paramount Theatre, pictured in 1960. (Pinterest)
The Paramount Theatre, pictured in 1960. (Pinterest)

I can remember any number of life-changing arts events in my life -- the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the first time I heard “Like a Rolling Stone,” Abdullah Ibrahim and his big band at the deCordova Museum, Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood, Michelangelo’s “David” in Florence.

Does “Psycho” belong in that category? Well, first of all, there was a different kind of “transformation” to go through, beginning with the opening frames. At 13, I had never seen a woman in a bra in a movie before, never mind one who was actually having sex. I was in love with Janet Leigh! (Cue the therapists.)

I don’t know how Nana was reacting to the opening scene as I was totally focused on what was on the screen. After that, the tension of Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, stealing the money and taking off were anxiety-provoking in themselves, before arriving at the Bates Motel, a place that would become synonymous with a new American Gothic.

Would she actually fall in love with this strange Tony Perkins character with the strange taxidermist hobby and the even stranger mother? How is all this going to be resolved. Well, Janet Leigh is the leading lady so what could possibly go wrong, eh Nana?

Alfred Hitchcock pictured in Hollywood in 1964. (AP)
Alfred Hitchcock pictured in Hollywood in 1964. (AP)

Need I say more.

At the end of the movie I remember a grim-faced grandmother saying, “Well, that isn’t what I expected.” Nor did anyone else in America.

It has been said that the Kennedy assassination was the day that America lost its innocence, the day that we realized how bad things could go and what a violent, often malevolent, country we live in. But I think it was “Psycho” that began to change perceptions — that made us realize that there are no Hollywood endings to our stories, that leading ladies can die and that seemingly normal people are nuts. As Martin Scorsese said, it certainly changed how movies are made.

As for Hitchcock, he certainly bears some responsibility for the eroticization of violence in the movies — he boasted how sexual Marion Crane’s murder was — though he was certainly not the first filmmaker to conflate sex and violence.

Still, “Psycho” is a great movie not just for its amazing craftsmanship, but for how it woke us up from the Eisenhower-era stupor and how it made us see both the movies and the world with fresh, more realistic eyes, how it took us directly from the ‘50s to the ‘60s. That’s all in hindsight, now. I wish I could remember what Nana and I said about the movie — she would usually ask me to describe my favorite parts of the film, but somehow I don’t think she did that with this one. “So, Eddie, which was your favorite stabbing?”

In any event, I have much to be thankful to Nana for, but it brings a Norman Bates smile to my face that amid all the calm and sense of safety she brought into my life, I’m equally grateful for the new world she opened up when she and I went a little “Psycho” together.

The Boston Pops will perform the “Psycho” soundtrack in sync with the film Oct. 29 and 31 at Symphony Hall.


Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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