Director: Alfred Hitchcock | Producer: Alfred Hitchcock | Screenplay: Joseph Stefano | Cinematographer: John L. Russell | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1960 Running Time: 109 min.
Principal Cast: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Janet Leigh
One of the most talked about movies of its day was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and nearly fifty years later, film lovers still discuss it. While initially receiving mixed reviews, it is now considered one of Hitchcock’s best films and is highly praised as a work of cinematic art. The film is based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. which is based loosely on the case of convicted Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein. Like Gein, Bloch’s protagonist Norman Bates, is a solitary murderer in an isolated rural location, has a deceased domineering mother, and has sealed off one room in his house as a shrine to his mother.
The book was brought to director Alfred Hitchcock’s attention by his production assistant Peggy Robertson, who had read a positive review of the Bloch novel. Hitchcock would later say “I think the thing that appealed to me [about the book] and made me decide to do the picture was the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue,” The director had also wanted to make a radical departure from the big budget widescreen color thrillers he had recently turned out, such as Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), and felt that Bloch’s novel was the ideal subject matter. He bid on the rights anonymously, (assuming more money would have been demanded if it was known Hitchcock was interested), and got them for $9,000. It was only after the deal was finalized that Bloch learned the identity of the his mystery buyer.
His bosses at Paramount were stunned when Hitchcock decided his next project would be Psycho. They were expecting him to complete No Bail for the Judge starring Audrey Hepburn, which had been scrapped when the actress became pregnant and had to bow out. Paramount did not want to produce the film and flatly refused finance it, telling him their sound stages were occupied or booked even though production was known to be in a slump. Realizing that the studio expected the film to fail miserably at the box office, Hitchcock countered with the offer to finance the film personally through his own Shamley Productions and to film it at Universal if only Paramount would distribute it. He also deferred his usual director’s fee of $250,000 for a 60% ownership of the film negative (he ended up making millions of dollars from his gamble due to the films success); this offer was finally accepted.
To keep costs down and because he was most comfortable around them, Hitchcock used most of his crew from his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, such as the cinematographer, set designer, and script supervisor. He hired Bernard Herrmann as music composer, and George Tomasini as editor, both of whom were regular collaborators. In all, his crew cost $62,000. Even the sets were relatively cheap, with the sinister Bates house costing a mere $15,000 to build (the steeple was actually salvaged from a house used in 1950‘s Harvey)
James Cavanaugh, who had written for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, wrote the original screenplay but Hitchcock rejected it, saying that the story dragged and read like a television short horror story. To replace him, Hitchcock reluctantly agreed to meet with writer Joseph Stefano, who had worked on only one film before. Stefano later said that he won Hitchcock’s approval by making the first forty five minutes of the film about Marion and beginning the screenplay with the scene between Marion and Sam (the book begins with a conversation between Norman and his mother). While the final screenplay is relatively faithful to the novel, there are a few notable adaptations such as the character of Norman Bates. In the book, he is middle aged and more overtly unstable and unsympathetic. Stefano eliminated Bates’ drinking, changed why Bates’ “became” Mother (in the novel he does so in a drunken stupor). The novel is more violent than the film; for instance, Crane is beheaded in the shower, as opposed to being stabbed to death. Minor alterations included changing the location of Arbogast’s death which was moved from the foyer to the stairwell, changing the name of the female protagonist from Mary Crane to Marion Crane, and the down playing of the novel’s budding romance between Sam and Lila as Hitchcock preferred to focus the audience’s attention on the solution to the mystery.
Stefano and Hitchcock deliberately layered in certain risqué elements as a ruse to divert the censors from more crucial concerns like the action that takes place in the bedroom in the beginning and the shower murder. The censors reviewed the script and censored the “unimportant” extra material and Hitchcock managed to sneak in his “important” material.
Because he was working with a low budget, Hitchcock did not want to use top marquee names with the exception of Janet Leigh and he hired her because he knew audiences would be shocked to see a star of her stature killed off early in the movie. Modern sources indicate that Eva Marie Saint, Piper Laurie, Hope Lange, Shirley Jones and Lana Turner were also considered for the role of Marion. Despite only wanting to use one well known star in the film, the rest of the cast were hardly unknowns. Anthony Perkins was a fast rising young actor with a number of important pictures to his credit prior to Psycho including Friendly Persuasion . He was paid $40,000 for his work, almost twice what Janet Leigh received and coincidentally the same sum that Marion Crane steals in the story. While the success of Psycho jump-started Perkins’s career, he would soon began to suffer from typecasting. When asked later whether he would have still taken the role knowing that he would be typecast afterward, Perkins replied with a definite “yes.”
One major issue Hitchcock faced was keeping the plot twists and ending a secret. There is a rumor that after getting the rights for the book, he bought up as many copies of the novel as he could to keep the ending a secret. One the first day of shooting all members of the cast and crew had to raise their right hands and promise not to divulge one word of the story. Hitchcock also withheld the ending part of the script from his cast until he needed to shoot it. He tried to mislead moviegoers and newspaper reporters about Mrs. Bates’s true identity, by leaking stories that he was considering such stars as Helen Hayes and Judith Anderson for the part. While this was obviously a ruse, apparently several actresses wrote to Hitchcock requesting auditions. He even had a canvas chair with “Mrs. Bates” written on the back prominently placed and displayed on the set throughout shooting. Norman’s mother was voiced by Paul Jasmin, Virginia Gregg, and Jeanette Nolan. The three voices were thoroughly mixed, with the exception of the last speech, which used only Gregg’s.
Psycho was shot with budget of $806,947.55, with principal photography beginning on November 11, 1959 and ending on February 1, 1960. Nearly the whole film was shot with 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras which closely mimics normal human vision, and helped to further involve the audience. The first scene to be shot was the one in which Marion, asleep in her car, is awakened by a highway patrolman. Except the scenes of Marion fleeing Phoenix which were filmed on backroads in Southern California, Psycho was produced on the backlot at Universal Studios. Hitchcock and cinematographer John Russell regularly used two cameras to get most of the shots, rather than resetting to get different angles (a common television practice which was rare for feature films).
One of the best known scenes in cinema history and the film’s pivotal scene is the murder of Janet Leigh’s character in the shower and there are numerous myths and legends surrounding its filming. The “shower scene” was shot from December 17 to December 23, 1959, runs 3 minutes and features 77 different camera angles. The set was built so that any of the walls could be removed, which would allow the camera to get in close from every angle. Originally audiences were to see only the knife wielding hand of the murderer but Hitchcock suggested to Saul Bass, who was storyboarding the sequence, a number of angles which would capture screenwriter Stefano’s description of “an impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film.” Interestingly, at the end of the shower scene, the first few seconds of the camera pull back from Leigh’s face is in fact a freeze frame. Hitchcock was required to do this because, while viewing the rushes, his wife noticed the pulse in Leigh’s neck throbbing.
During filming, Janet Leigh wore thin moleskin to cover the most intimate parts of her body in the shower and to help keep her comfortable, Hitchcock kept a closed set. Contrary to a widely told tale, Hitchcock did not arrange for the water to suddenly go ice cold during the scene to elicit an effective scream from Janet Leigh. Leigh said that the crew took great care to keep the water warm, and filming the scene took an entire week. The tale appears to have started with Universal tour guides, who were making up an interesting story to tell tourists as they passed the “Psycho” house on the Universal backlot tour.
An essential ingredient to Psycho’s success which must be mentioned is Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score. Hitchcock himself would later admit that at least a third of the movie’s impact depended on the music. Herrmann used the low music budget to his advantage by writing for a string orchestra rather than a full symphonic ensemble,(Hitchcock’s had originally requested a jazz score) also thinking that the single tone color of an all-string soundtrack would reflect the black-and-white cinematography of the film.
The music of the “shower scene” is also the subject of rumors: that Herrmann had used electronic means, (including amplified bird screeches)to create the musics shocking effect. In actuality the effect was achieved, only with violins in a “screeching, stabbing sound-motion of extraordinary viciousness” and the only electronic amplification used was the placing of the microphones close to the instruments. Interestingly, Hitchcock originally wanted the shower scene to play with no music but in post production, while the director was out of town, Herrmann composed the famous theme and showed the scene with music to Hitchcock upon his return. Hitchcock later admitted his original notion was an “improper suggestion.” Herrmann received no awards or nominations for composing one of the most famous and influential scores in film history but Hitchcock acknowledged the importance of his score by giving Herrmann the second most prominent billing in the credits, (right before his own directing credit) and doubling the composer’s initial salary.
In promoting the film, Hitchcock used some very inventive methods. In the summer of 1960 he ran a radio ad mocking the tradition of sponsors using “Brand X” to describe their competitors’ products. In the ad, Hitchcock’s voice said he wanted to compare his new movie with “Brand X”. Then, there is the sound of a horse neighing and walking with Hitchcock’s voice saying simply “Brand X is a western.” “Now for my picture”, followed by a loud scream. Another part of publicity campaign prior to release of the film, was a lengthy coming attractions trailer (filmed in several languages) of Hitchcock taking the audience on a seemingly lighthearted tour of the house and motel and ending with Hitchcock pulling open a shower curtain to reveal a close up of a woman screaming. (Incidentally, the actress is not Janet Leigh, who was unavailable but Vera Miles wearing a wig)
Hitchcock strictly mandated that no one arriving after the start of each showing of “Psycho” would be admitted into the theater until the beginning of the next showing as the film’s advertising deceived audiences into thinking that Janet Leigh was its star, and anyone arriving after her murder would wonder where she was. Newspaper advertisements cleverly piqued audience curiosity with statements such as:
You MUST see “Psycho” from the very beginning. No one not even the President of the United States, not the theater manager’s brother, not even the Queen of England (God bless her) will be allowed into the theater after the beginning of each showing of “Psycho”. This is to allow you to enjoy “Psycho” more. By the way, after you see the film, please do not give away the ending. It’s the only one we have.
Psycho premiered in New York on June 16, 1960 and although critical reception was decidedly mixed, the movie was a box office sensation. Produced for only about $800,000, it earned more than ten times that on its initial release ($14 million by many accounts). Psycho received Academy Award nominations for Supporting Actress (Janet Leigh), Art Direction, Set Decoration, and Cinematography and it would be Alfred Hitchcock’s last Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Psycho has been voted the seventh scariest film of all time by Entertainment Weekly and in 1992, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected to be preserved by The Library of Congress in the National Film Registry.
Some Interesting Trivia (Shower Scene):
To achieve the effect of the water coming out of the shower head and streaming down past the camera on all sides, Hitchcock had a huge shower head made to order and shot with his camera very close to it.
Chocolate syrup was used for the blood swirling down the drain. Some audience members swore the scene was in color and that they saw red blood.
The sound that the knife makes during the scene is actually the sound of a knife stabbing a casaba melon.
Perkins was not on the set during the filming of the shower scene. Instead he was in New York rehearsing a play he would open after Psycho was completed.
More Interesting Trivia:
Although Hitchcock rarely allowed improvisation on his sets, Anthony Perkins and Martin Balsam, were encouraged to interact spontaneously during their scene on the porch.
During filming, this movie was referred to as “Production 9401” or “Wimpy”.
The look of the Bates Motel was modeled on Edward Hopper’s painting The House by The Railroad.
Throughout filming, Hitchcock created and hid various versions of the “Mother corpse” prop in Leigh’s dressing room closet. Leigh took the joke well, and she wondered whether it was done to keep her on edge and thus more in character or to judge which corpse would be scarier for the audience.
Hitchcock can be spotted in his expected gag cameo in Psycho outside Marion’s office, wearing an oversized Stetson.
Marion’s white 1957 Ford sedan is the same car (owned by Universal) that the Cleaver family drove on Leave It to Beaver.
On set, Alfred Hitchcock would always refer to Anthony Perkins as “Master Bates”.
After the film’s release Hitchcock received an angry letter from the father of a girl who refused to have a bath after seeing Les diaboliques and now refused to shower after seeing this film. He sent a note back simply saying, “Send her to the dry cleaners.” Similarly, to the end of her life, Janet Leigh would only take baths.
According to Hitchcock, when Psycho was shown in Thailand, they did not dub it or use subtitles. “They shut off the sound and a man stands somewhere near the screen and interprets all the roles, using different voices,”
The original Bates Motel and Psycho House set buildings are still standing at Universal Studios in Universal City near Hollywood and are a regular attraction on the studio’s tour
For Further Reading:
Leigh, Janet with Christopher Nickens. Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. Harmony Press, 1995.
Rebello, Stephen (1990). Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Marion Boyars.
Smith, Joseph W., III. The Psycho File: A Comprehensive Guide to Hitchcock’s Classic Shocker. McFarland, 2009.
Truffaut, François; Helen Scott (1967). Hitchcock (Revised ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.
The Making of Psycho, 1997 documentary directed by Laurent Bouzereau, Universal Studios Home Video, available on selected Psycho DVD release