Going Psycho Over Aspect Ratios

The recent release of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho on blu-ray disc in the UK and its impending blu-ray release in the US this fall have stirred up a bit of controversy in some quarters. It has nothing to do with the film’s content, which caused a bit of a stir when it was released, but in how you view that content.

Some folks feel that since Hitchcock shot the film using a 1.37:1 aspect ratio for composition that must have been the way that the director meant for it to be exhibited. And that the recent/upcoming blu-ray release of the film in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, which would coincidentally fill up s standard high-definition widescreen television, is nothing less than a travesty and “visual vandalism.”

The lightening rod for this dustup is internet journalist Jeffrey Wells. No stranger to stirring the controversy cauldron, Welles wrote an impassioned article for his Hollywood-Elsewhere blog back in June decrying the blu-ray’s announced aspect ratio as nothing less than an insidious plot to rewrite the history of theatrical presentation of films of the late 50s/early 60s by proponents of the high-definition home video format.

OK, maybe he is being slightly hyperbolic when he stated that, but he does emphatically state –

The Psycho norm was never intended to be 1.78 to 1 (i.e., the widescreen aspect ratio for high-def video). For the most part Hitchcock expected his film to be shown within ratios of 1.66 to 1 (moderate rectangle) or 1.37 to 1 (next door to a perfect box).

Wednesday, Wells brought up the topic again, this time calling the release “rape” and “precisely the same thing as taking a razor blade and slicing off the tops and bottoms of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ in the Louvre.”

The thing is, though, is that Wells is absolutely and completely wrong on this.

True, no one so far has been able to produce a quote where the director gives his final say so on the matter. What we can do, is look to the film itself for vital clues as to Hitchcock’s mindset.

While Hitchcock obviously shot the film to protect the entire 1.37:1 image, – i.e., there are no lights or boom mics dropping into the picture from the top of the frame – there is more than enough evidence to support the fact that he intended the film to be seen at the wider ratio. The film’s opening credits were hard matted at 1.78:1 as were portions of the film’s infamous shower scene. That, to me, speaks volumes about Hitchcock’s intentions. There is the additional support of notation of the 1.78:1 aspect ratio on paperwork to the film developing lab at Pathe and the fact that storyboards for the shower sequence are also in the widescreen ratio.

But I think that through producing Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the director was probably far more cognizant of fact that any widescreen composed film of his would be subject to the indignities of pan and scan for the 1.33:1 television screen. Rather than let viewers loose picture information on either the right or the left of the television image, he chose to give them more by expanding the frame vertically. Filming in 1.37:1 allowed for that, with the option to have the film presented in theaters at a different aspect ratio remained through the ability of projectionists able to use plates to mask the image to the desired size.

In the days before letterboxing, this was probably the most elegant solution.

Wells argument sits predominantly on the crux of his aesthetic judgment of how the 1.37:1 version looks compared to the 1.78:1 version. He states in the comments of his June post that the “the somewhat higher, boxier framings are far more elegant, inclusive, well-balanced — they provide agreeable breathing space to the characters and compositions.”

That may be true, but the film isn’t about comfortable characters. It’s a Hitchcock film, and the means a continual ratcheting up of tension in both the film’s characters and its audience. Rewatching Psycho this morning, I was struck again how Hitchcock builds the tension through the first third of the picture as Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) first steals the $40,000 from her job and then goes on the run. As she drives, she imagines the voices of her boss and co-workers discovering her crime and their reaction. After she trades in her car for another vehicle, all the while being observed by a policeman, she imagines a conversation between the cop and the car lot salesman in which they find her actions suspicious. By the time she reaches the Bates Motel, Marion is a bundle of nerves, paranoia is starting to nibble away at her. Opening up the picture frame to all her “breathing space” will only dissipate the mood Hitchcock is trying to build.

(I have a similar critique about the Special Edition of Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back. When George Lucas went back and digitally messed about with the movie in the late 90s, he added numerous windows to Bespin’s Cloud City. The end result dilutes much of the sense of claustrophobic urgency to the scenes of Lando, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO racing to save Han from Boba Fett.)

Welles is certainly welcome to his opinion. Aesthetics and beauty are in the eye of the beholder, after all. But that very subjective nature also means that it can’t be taken for fact. But arguing that something is correct simply because you like it that way will get you bounced off of a junior high school debate team. It’s certainly no way to prove your point in the grown up world.

And all of Welles’ verbal screaming and stamping of feet will not change that.

(Aspect ratio comparisons found at Hitchcock Wiki Forums.)

Avatar für Rich Drees
About Rich Drees 7034 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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August 28, 2010 1:06 am

The boards are actually less widescreen than even 1.66:1.

August 29, 2010 11:21 am

Leave the freakin’ aspect alone. Leave these movies alone! All you managed to do with this article is convince me that we can no longer determine what Alfred Hitchcock, or any other dead filmmaker that didn’t leave instructions, truly meant by filming in this aspect. So stop trying. You people simply do not have a very good track record with this. Twenty years ago we had to suffer through pan and scan VHS and ‘colorized’ bastardizations of black and white classics, all to appease those who suffer from letterbox-itis and monochromophobia. Ten years ago, the DVD distributors again provided what… Read more »

September 7, 2011 12:29 am

1.85. 1.37. Is it hard to recognize that a film can, and often, exists in more than one aspect ratio? There are many examples of filmmakers whom knew this was something with which they had to contend, and planned for tv and theatrical presentations, John Landis, William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick. And yes, ultimately the film should be recognized for its theatrical presentation as much as for a 1.33 NTSC standard screen, but then again we should leo recognize these filmmakers knew a thing or two about planning and contingencies. In any case, it shouldn’t also go overlooked that yes, perhaps… Read more »

May 1, 2012 1:41 pm

I prefer “Psycho” in conventional almost square screen size, rather than watching
40,000 dollar bills on the cover of the bed which is somehow recognized.
In adding I prefer “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in theatrical release screen size,too. I demand “Don’t crop 4 sides, please” If Hitchcock intended wide-screen presentation, he could have chosen VistaVision at that time.

May 17, 2013 6:50 pm

Sorry guys, but there IS one document on the subject which should clear the air on this one. The ORIGINAL DEAL MEMO signed by Hitchcock with Paramount dated June 5, 1959. Item 5 of this one page memo states: 5. The picture will be in black and white and may not be made in the so-called Cinemascope process. In other words, Paramount SPECIFICALLY EXCLUDED widescreen. Item 3 of the agreement states: 3. Production cost of the picture (on which no limit is set in the agreement) will be financed from funds furnished by Producer. Paramount will pay Producer a sum… Read more »

December 25, 2015 4:14 pm
Reply to  EPluribusUnum

CinemaScope was a specific process. Just because one process is excluded down’s mean ALL widescreen processes were excluded. The budget of $800,000 wouldn’t have even allowed for CinemaScope anyway. Learn the terminology first before rushing to post.

Doug Nix
Doug Nix
December 7, 2013 1:17 pm

I just bought the movie in standard dvd format. The cover said anamorphic 178:1 aspect, which I wrongly assumed was how the film was shot.
Im very disappointed in this cropped version. It’s just nothing more than pan and scan only verically rather than horizontaly.
Another stupid idea because people want their tv screen filled up even if it means ruining a classic film.

Bruce Lawton
Bruce Lawton
August 13, 2014 8:53 pm

This issue recently came up with a film that my great-grandfather – ASC cinematographer, Don Malkames – photographed: THE BURGLAR. The son of the producer of THE BURGLAR noticed that MoMA in NYC was running a new print from Sony that was hard-matted for 1.85:1 and wanted my take – which follows: This aspect ratio issue you’ve brought up is a rather large pet peeve of mine. There appears to be a current movement by the studios to treat anything and everything shot in flat format from 1953 on as “widescreen” and thus – across the board – matte-crop ALL… Read more »

Bruce Lawton
Bruce Lawton
August 13, 2014 9:10 pm

A knowledgeable colleague of mine (who wishes to remain nameless on this issue) also chimed in – prompted over the ratio issue over THE BURGLAR – as follows: In 50 years, we will all have research from trade magazines that says that all showings were digital by 2012. That isn’t true, because not everyone has and/or can switch over. The magazines tout it and with a strong cutoff date. Yet there are half a dozen theaters here in my area still running film, and I’m in a big city. SHANE was shown at 1.66 and was CLEARLY composed for 1.37.… Read more »

Marion Bates
Marion Bates
March 8, 2015 8:59 am

Psycho was neither shot in 1.37 nor in 1.78. It was shot and released in 1.85 aspect ratio (american widescreen):

Research is easy: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054215/technical?ref_=tt_en_spec

It was definitely shown in 1.33 on TV :)

Remark: There was a vast variaty of widescreen techniques available at the time: http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/

Thank you.

Bill Keys
Bill Keys
April 18, 2015 4:57 pm

Having followed this discussion in the last few days, and enjoying the blogging, when I went to our local DVD store (which has excellent used DVDs) to buy a copy of PSYCHO because the only copy I have is a VHS. I taught the film for a good 17 years to high school students in my Film Study class, where we examined all aspects of filmmaking, etc., so I know the film well. When I brougnt the new purchase home, I discovered that the new “widescreen” format was nothing more than letter boxing at both the top and bottom, therefore… Read more »

David Williams
David Williams
September 18, 2015 1:56 pm

“Psycho was neither shot in 1.37 nor in 1.78. It was shot and released in 1.85 aspect ratio (american widescreen):

Research is easy: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054215/technical?ref_=tt_en_spec

I love IMDB for information as much as the next guy, but it cannot be cited as a definitive source for this issue.


[…] is more rectangular matching the more recent release of the film, there is an interesting article here on the discussion of Psycho’s aspect ratio, however it’s a bit more in depth than i […]

Douglas Monce
Douglas Monce
October 27, 2019 4:17 am

Hitchcock was fully aware that in 1960 there would have been virtually no first run theaters equipped to show a film at 1.37:1. By that time they had all converted to widescreen. The film was shot for a crop of up to 1.85:1, just like all of Hitchcock’s other films from Dial “M” for Murder on. It was protected at for 1:37:1 because the film was something of a risk. He was financing the it himself, and he wanted to be able to sell it to TV if it was not a hit in theaters. Hitchcock didn’t care for the… Read more »