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
Director: John Carpenter | Producer: Debra Hill, John Carpenter, Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad | Screenplay: Debra Hill and John Carpenter | Cinematographer: Dean Cundey | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1978| Running Time: 91 min.
Principal Cast: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers
When writing about horror films, no list is complete without John Carpenter’s 1978 independent horror film Halloween. The film has been credited as the first in a long line of slasher films (which were inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) but unlike many of its imitators, Halloween contains little graphic violence and gore.
Much of the credit for the concept which would become Halloween, must go to its producer Irwin Yablans. He had the concept for a horror film about a psychotic killer that stalked babysitters. As Yablans would say in an interview with Fangoria magazine, “I was thinking [of] what would make sense in the horror genre, and what I wanted to do was make a picture that had the same impact as The Exorcist.” After viewing Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Yablans sought out its director John Carpenter to write and direct the film. Carpenter and his then-girlfriend Debra Hill began drafting a story originally titled The Babysitter Murders, but, as Carpenter told Entertainment Weekly, Yablans suggested setting the movie on Halloween night and naming it Halloween instead.
Many script details were drawn from Carpenter and screenwriter/producer Hill’s adolescence and early careers. The fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois was derived from Haddonfield, New Jersey, where Hill grew up, and most of the street names were taken from Carpenter’s hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Hill wrote most of the dialog for the female characters, while Carpenter concentrated on Dr Loomis’s speeches. Character names came from both personal and professional sources such as the character of Laurie Strode, (who was according to Hill, named after John Carpenter’s first girlfriend) and the character of Michael Myers who was named after the European distributor of Carpenter’s previous film, Assault on Precinct 13. Carpenter paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock with two characters’ names: Tommy Doyle is named after Lt. Det. Thomas J. Doyle from 1954’s Rear Window, and Dr. Loomis’ name was taken from Sam Loomis, the boyfriend of Marion Crane in 1960’s Psycho.
Syrian American film producer Moustapha Akkad fronted the $320,000 for the film’s budget, considered low at the time (Carpenter’s previous film, Assault on Precinct 13, had an estimated budget of $100,000). While Akkad was worried over the tight, four-week schedule, and Carpenter’s limited experience as a filmmaker, he told Fangoria, “Two things made me decide. One, Carpenter told me the story verbally and in a suspenseful way, almost frame for frame. Second, he told me he didn’t want to take any fees, and that showed he had confidence in the project”. Carpenter received $10,000 for directing, writing, and composing the music, retaining rights to 10 percent of the film’s profits. Carpenter would spend half of his budget on the Panavison cameras so the film would have a 2:35:1 scope and as a result struggled to stretch the remaining funds.
When it came to casting, Carpenter first approached Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to play the Sam Loomis role but both turned him down. Lee later said it was the biggest mistake he had ever made in his career. Veteran English actor Donald Pleasence eventually took the part. Pleasence would later confess to John Carpenter that the main reason he took the part was because his daughter Angela loved Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Due to the tight budget, he was paid $20,000 for 5 days work, however the total duration of his scenes is just over 18 minutes. Carpenter was initially quite intimidated by the actor, of whom he was a big fan and who was easily the oldest and most experienced person on set but by the end of filming the two became great friends.
For the lead role of Laurie Strode, Anne Lockhart, the daughter of June Lockhart from Lassie, was John Carpenter’s first choice. However, Lockhart had commitments to several other film and television projects. In an interview, Carpenter admits that “Jamie Lee wasn’t the first choice for Laurie. I had no idea who she was. She was 19 and in a TV show at the time, but I didn’t watch TV.” It was of learning that Jamie Lee was the daughter of Psycho actress Janet Leigh, that helped her land the part for as Hill said later “I knew casting Jamie Lee would be great publicity for the film because her mother was in Psycho.” Halloween would be Curtis’ feature film debut and launched her career as a “scream queen” horror star. She was paid a reported $8,000 for her efforts. Another relatively unknown actress, Nancy Kyes, who had previously starred in Assault on Precinct 13, was cast as Laurie’s friend Annie Brackett.
The part of Lynda was written specifically for P.J. Soles after Carpenter saw her performance in Carrie. Since Soles was dating Dennis Quaid at the time of filming, both Carpenter and Hill wanted to cast him in the role of Lynda’s boyfriend Bob. Unfortunately, Quaid was busy working on another project and John Michael Graham was cast in the role instead.
The film was shot over 21 days in April of 1978 in southern California and since it was set in Illinois in late October, the crew had to buy paper leaves from a decorator, paint them in the desired autumn colors, and scatter them in the filming locations. To save money, the leaves were collected and reused after each scene was filmed. However, as Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter note on the DVD audio commentary, the trees are quite full and green and even some palm trees can be seen, despite that in Illinois in October, the leaves would probably be mostly gone and there would be no palm trees. Due to the time of year, crew members also had a difficult time finding pumpkins.
The “Myers” house was actually an abandoned house owned by a church. However, since the house had to look ordinary (and furnished) for the early scenes with the young Michael Myers, almost the whole cast and crew worked together to clean the place, move in furniture, put up wallpaper, and set up running water and electricity, and then take it all out when they were through.
Since there was no money for a costume department, all of the actors wore their own clothes. Jamie Lee Curtis went to J.C. Penney and spent less than a hundred dollars on Laurie Strode’s wardrobe.
As the film was shot out of sequence, John Carpenter created a fear meter so that Jamie Lee Curtis would know what level of terror she should be exhibiting. Curtis was so disappointed with her performance that she became convinced she would be fired after only the first day of filming. When her phone rang that night and it was John Carpenter on the phone, Curtis was certain it was the end of her movie career. Instead, Carpenter called to congratulate her and tell her he was very happy with the way things had gone.
The trademark mask worn by Michael Myers is the work of Tommy Lee Wallace, who served as the film’s production designer, art director, location scout and co-editor. The filmmakers originally approached Don Post Studios (the famous California mask making company) about custom making an original mask for use in the film with points in the movie as payment but they were turned down. Wallace ended up purchasing a $1.98 Star Trek William Shatner mask, widening the eye holes and spray-painting the flesh a bluish white; turning it into the iconic mask audiences know today. As Carpenter later recalled, “the script… said Michael Myers’s mask had ‘the pale features of a human face’ and it truly was spooky looking. It didn’t look anything like William Shatner after Tommy got through with it.” For years, Shatner had no idea his likeness was used for this film and only found out during an interview when someone mentioned his mask was being used. He has since stated that he is honored by this gesture.
Carpenter and Hill have stated many times over the years that they did not consciously set out to depict virginity as a way of defeating a rampaging killer. The reason the horny teens all die is simply that they’re so preoccupied with getting laid they don’t notice there’s a killer at large. Laurie Strode, on the other hand, spends a lot of time on her own and is therefore more alert.
The television rights to Halloween were sold to NBC for $4 million in 1980 and the film appeared on television for the first time in October 1981.To fill the two-hour time slot, extra scenes had to be added and Carpenter filmed these during the production of Halloween II against his better judgment. The network version had a different climax: when Dr. Loomis shoots Michael Myers in the end you can only hear the shots from outside the house while in the theatrical version you can see how he shoots him. Also, the network version replaces 12 minutes of violent footage with less gory scenes.
From a budget of $320,000 the film went on to gross $47 million at the US box office. In 2008 takings that would be the equivalent of $150 million, making Halloween one of the most successful independent films of all time. The influence of Halloween on later films is obvious as many of its techniques and plot elements have become standard slasher film fare. Halloween ranked #68 on the American Film Institute 2001 TV program 100 Years…100 Thrills and #14 on Bravo’s The 100 Scariest Movie Moments (2004). In 2006, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”
Some Interesting Trivia:
Originally, Nick Castle (who played the Shape/Michael Myers) was on set just to watch the movie be filmed. It was at the suggestion of John Carpenter that he took up the role.
Of the female leads (all the girls are supposed to be in high school), only Jamie Lee Curtis was actually a teenager at the time of shooting.
Nancy Kyes is credited in the film as Nancy Loomis.
The voice of Paul, Annie’s boyfriend was none other than director John Carpenter.
Local families dressed their children in Halloween costumes for trick-or-treat scenes.
In the film the kids watch the opening of The Thing From Another World (1951) on TV. Carpenter would later re-make this film himself in 1982 as The Thing (1982).
Originally the script had Dr. Loomis having a surprised reaction to the disappearance of Michael Myers’s body from the lawn at the end of the film. Donald Pleasence suggested his character’s reaction should instead be an “I knew this would happen” look on his face. They shot it both ways and ended up using Pleasance’s idea.
P.J. Soles went to a screening of the movie after it was released, sitting in the 4th row of a regular audience. She was very amused, when during her nude scene and line of “see anything you like?” a male audience member in front yelled out “hell yes I do!” unaware she was right behind him.
For Further Reading:
Adam Rockoff, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978–1986 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2002),
Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest, documentary on Divimax 25th Anniversary Edition DVD of Halloween (1978; Troy, Mich.: Anchor Bay, 2003)
Irwin Yablans, Fangoria interview, quoted at HalloweenMovies.com
Entertainment Weekly interview with John Carpenter, quoted at HalloweenMovies.com
“It’s Halloween, everyone’s entitled to one good scare.” The classic line from John Carpenter’s Halloween sums up how many feel during this month. At Halloween, movies are a fine method to use to get in the mood for the holiday and to have as background noise while carving jack-o’-lanterns or having a Halloween party.
Since it is just around the creepy corner, I have decided to write about a host of shiver-inducing fright films throughout the month leading up to Halloween. Each entry will give a background about the making of the film and how some of those iconic scenes came to being (the Psycho shower scene is a little less scary when you know it took a week to film and has 77 different camera angles) so those Halloween fanatics, who like me can’t stomach a slasher flick in which a deranged and masked killer does away with an entire team of camp counselors in just under two hour, will still be able to appreciate these thrilling, sometimes gory and always scary films.
Enjoy and Happy Halloween!
An interesting bit of Halloween trivia: The carving of jack-o’-lanterns comes from custom of carving turnips into lanterns as a way of remembering the souls held in purgatory during the Celtic festival of Samhain. The turnip has traditionally been used in Ireland and Scotland at Halloween, but immigrants to North America used the native pumpkin, which was both readily available and much larger – making them easier to carve than turnips. The American pumpkin carving tradition was not specifically associated with Halloween until the mid-to-late 19th century.
Director: Joshua Logan | Producer: Fred Kohlmar | Screenplay: Daniel Taradash | Cinematographer: James Wong Howe | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1955 | Running Time: 113 or 115 min.
Principal Cast: William Holden, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Arthur O’Connell, Rosalind Russell
In 1953, Picnic was a critically successful play on Broadway, where it won a Pulitzer Prize for playwright William Inge and a Tony for director Joshua Logan. Both Paramount and 20th Century-Fox studios expressed interest in turning the play into a film, but concerns were raised about putting the play’s frank sexual content on screen. Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn purchased the play in September 1953 for between $300,000 and $400,000. After submitting a script to the PCA (Production Code Administration) in November 1954, the studio was cautioned to cut all suggestion that characters Hal and Madge had improper relations after the picnic. The finished film keeps whether Madge and Hal had slept together somewhat ambiguous.
Hoping to re-capture the play’s critical and popular success, Cohn asked the play’s director Joshua Logan, who had worked in Hollywood in the ’30s as a dialogue director, to undertake his first solo directing assignment. Logan brought some radical cast changes to the production, asking only original cast members Arthur O’Connell, Reta Shaw, and Elizabeth Wilson to recreate their characters in the film. One of the casting changes was for the flashy supporting role of Rosemary. Logan wanted to cast his friend Rosalind Russell,but was afraid she’d balk at taking the lesser role, however when he called her and asked, “Would you like to do Pic …?” she said yes before he could finish the sentence.
For the lead role of Madge, Janice Rule who had originated the role on stage, was screen tested repeatedly, but apparently her beauty and sex appeal couldn’t be captured on film. Columbia head Cohn wanted the studio’s resident blonde bombshell, Kim Novak, for the role, but though noted for her beauty, she was considered somewhat deficient in the acting department. Some stories state that she was forced on Logan but the director would later say that after a number of tests, he decided she would be perfect.
When veteran actor William Holden was cast as the sex-charged drifter Hal Carter, some critics felt that the then 37-year-old actor was not young enough for the role (or for the characters sexual shenanigans). He would prove them wrong, and his performance would establish him as a major sex symbol.
Holden was at the end of his Columbia contract when he signed to play Hal. He only owed the studio one more film and had to settle for a paltry$30,000 fee under his contract (his going rate as a free-lance actor was$250,000 per picture). Nonetheless, he was happy to finish his contract with such a prestigious project. Holden did have an issue at the requirement that he strip to the waist for several scenes, complaining, “I’m too damned old and too conservative to do a striptease.”
The other issue for Holden was having to dance during the film’s “Moonglow” scene. After being forced to dance with Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, he went on a three-day drunk to handle the ordeal. This time Holden demanded stunt pay and Columbia wrote him a check for $8,000. To help ease him into the idea, Logan had choreographer Miriam Nelson take Holden to the local roadhouses, where he could get drunk while dancing to the jukeboxes. It didn’t appear to help for when Logan, as he later wrote, finally got some footage, “They [Holden and Novak] bobbed about awkwardly like grade-schoolers.” The problem was eventually solved by cinematographer James Wong Howe having the lights and camera do the dancing. The camera was placed on a dolly that allowed it to circle the stars while also swaying up and down and 50 small, brightly colored spotlights were set-up so that the smallest movements changed the colors on the stars. The resulting scene would go on to become an iconographic film moment.
Harkening back to the world of theater, Logan insisted on two weeks of rehearsals (costing of $20,000 a day) and to maintain authenticity filmed in several Kansas towns, stating “It’s gotta look like Kansas and it will if I have to kill every last one of ya!,” From the start, Novak felt insecure around the high-voltage cast, causing her to be withdrawn and moody. Holden, too, was insecure, worried that he would look too old next to the 22 year-old actress. As a result, they barely spoke on the set. Logan’s frustrations with her mounted throughout filming and at one point, in order to get her to show some emotion onscreen, he reportedly punched her in the stomach.
Filming was interrupted almost daily by hailstorms and “wailing” tornado warnings and the cast and crew were “half-consumed” by “carnivorous” bugs. Several of the actors suffered injuries, for example, Holden suffered a leg gash on a railroad signal light, Novak was stung on the hip by a bee, and Rosalind Russell was “bruised from earlobe to toenail during a wild gambol across a suspension bridge.” A local 70-year-old “spinster” saw her film debut canceled when she broke both legs and several ribs during a fall down an embankment.
Picnic was one of the year’s top box-office attractions earning an estimated $6.3 million. The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Arthur O’Connell), Best Direction and Best Music and the award for Best Art Direction and Best Editing. It would make stars out of Kim Novak and William Holden and is still sometimes cited as a richly detailed snapshot of life in the American Midwest during the 1950s.
William Holden had to shave his chest as it was considered too risque for those times.
Kim Novak appeared in the film as a redhead, a departure from her signature platinum blonde style.
The role of Hal Carter’s room-mate on Broadway had been played by Paul Newman in his Broadway debut; the film part was given to Cliff Robertson as Newman was just starting his rise to stardom at Warner Bros.
The climactic picnic scenes had to be shot on a soundstage due to rainstorms.
Columbia Pictures wanted to promote Rosalind Russell for an Academy Award nomination, but the actress refused to be placed in the “best supporting” category. Many felt she would have won had she cooperated.
In 1957, a marketing investigator, James Vicary, announced that for six weeks he had included subliminal messages in showings of the movie “Picnic.” The messages supposedly said: “Eat Popcorn, Drink Coca-Cola.” According to Vicary, the sales of this products increased from 18 to 57%. Even though his experiment led him to fame, Vicary never gave details of how he realized the experiment; and admitted in a later interview that everything was just a marketing trick.
The last shot is often thought to be the first use of a helicopter shot in a feature movie. It was filmed by Haskell Wexler, James Wong Howe’s assistant. Despite its legend, this was NOT the first movie to feature a helicopter shot. They Live by Night (1949) was an early, if not the very first, film to use it.
For Further Reading:
Variety film review; December 7, 1955, page 8.
Director: Orson Welles| Producer: Orson Welles, Richard Wilson and William Castle| Screenplay: Orson Welles | Cinematographer: Charles Lawton Jr.| Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1948 | Running Time: 86-87 min.
Principal Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders
By 1946, Orson Welles had found he was no longer welcome in Hollywood. The once-promising director had made and released two unsuccessful films in succession: Citizen Kane (1941, a film that was nearly destroyed for its thinly disguised depiction of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). As a result Welles was considered unbankable by studio heads. Welles would not return to Hollywood filmmaking until 1947’s The Lady from Shanghai.
Before becoming a filmmaker Orson Welles had carved out a considerable reputation for himself in theatrical and radio productions. By the age of eighteen he was a successful actor at the Gate Theatre in Ireland and a year later, he made his Broadway debut as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. Welles’ collaborations with director/producer John Houseman (including the staging of an all-black ‘voodoo’ Macbeth), led the two to form their own repertory company, the Mercury Theatre.
Welles was soon directing the Mercury players in weekly, hour-long radio dramas for CBS. He exploited radio’s intimacy to heighten the sense of narrative immediacy. One especially infamous production being his notorious Halloween 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds (1898). This production used concocted news bulletins and eyewitness accounts that were so seemingly authentic in their reportage of hostile Martians landing in New Jersey that a panic ensued among unsuspecting listeners. Soon after this innovative media success, RKO brought Welles to Hollywood to produce, direct, write and act in two films. The studio paid him $225,000 plus total creative freedom and a percentage of the profits. This deal was the most generous offer a Hollywood studio had ever made to a largely untested filmmaker. His first film, Citizen Kane, described today as the most stunning debut in the history of film, fared poorly at the box office. When his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons was also a commercial failure Welles found himself dismissed from his contract with RKO.
After leaving Hollywood, Welles returned to the theater world, a move that eventually led him from New York back to California. In 1946 while working on a stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, he ran out of money. To obtain the necessary funding to finish the project Welles put in a call to Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn, and offered to write and direct a picture for $50,000. As Welles told the story the conversation went:
I called Harry Cohn [head of Columbia Studios] in Hollywood and I said, ‘I have a great story for you if you could send me $50,000 by telegram in one hour. I’ll sign a contract to make it.’ ‘What story?’ Cohn said. I was calling from a pay phone, and next to it was a display of paperbacks and I gave him the title of one of them, Lady from Shanghai. I said, ‘Buy the novel and I’ll make the film.’ An hour later, we got the money.”
While Cohn did agree, he stipulated that he would only send the money if Welles would direct the movie free of charge. Although the funds were not enough to save the stage production (which closed after a very short run), Welles soon found himself at the helm of The Lady from Shanghai. Reportedly, when Welles finally read the book he thought it was horrible. He then set about writing the adaptation in three days.
As experimental and groundbreaking as Kane, Welles conceived a vision of the film as “something off-center, queer, strange.” He cast himself in the male lead and brought in some of his colleagues from the Mercury Theater for the other roles–most notably his casting of Everett Sloane as the crippled, shifty lawyer Arthur Bannister. The part of femme fatale Elsa Bannister was originally intended for French actress Barbara Laage (who had yet to make her first film appearance) however, Cohn stepped in and decreed the lead would go to Rita Hayworth, Columbia’s biggest star. Welles and Hayworth, who had married in 1943, were officially separated at the time and Hayworth agreed to play the role as an attempt to reconcile their marriage. Though her plan worked temporarily, ultimately the two divorced before the film was finally released.
The first thing Welles did at the start of production was to order Hayworth’s trademark long, luscious red hair bobbed and dyed blonde, an act that did not impress his bosses at Columbia. who were hoping the appeal of Hayworth’s star image, which had been carefully built up in films such as Gilda (1946) would bring people to the theatre. Harry Cohn was later quoted:””The six people who saw what Orson Welles did to Rita wanted to kill him, but they had to get behind me in line.”
The Mexico shoot was plagued by a number of problems, many of them detailed by producer William Castle in his diary. During the day, the temperature was usually blisteringly hot, and at least once, Hayworth collapsed from the heat. At night, millions of poisonous insects swarmed around the arc lights, often blotting them out. Some scenes were filmed close to a crocodile-infested river and the rock from which Hayworth’s character dives into the ocean had to be scraped to remove poisonous barnacles. A substantial delay in shooting occurred when Welles was bitten and his eye swollen shut to almost three times its normal size.
Shooting was also delayed whenever Errol Flynn, who owned the yacht on which much of the action takes place. disappeared for extended lengths of time. He skippered the yacht in between takes, and his contract stipulated the yacht could not be used unless he was present.
The initial rough cut of the film ran approximately 155 minutes. After testing poorly with preview audiences, editor Viola Lawrence was brought in to cut out over an hour of footage, bringing the film to its current length of 87 minutes. While Welles was unhappy with many of the cuts (more specifically those Lawrence made to the Chinese opera and Funhouse sequences), he objected even more strongly to the studio’s choices for score and sound design.
For many years The Lady from Shanghai was considered one of Welles’ greatest failures. However, contemporary audiences and scholars alike agree that the film is a well-acted and stylish example of the film noir in which the performances of Hayworth, Sloane and Anders in particular stand out. The film’s visually striking deep-focus and chiaroscuro cinematography along with a number of other offbeat touches characterize The Lady From Shanghai as a film that only an immensely talented and innovative director like Welles could have produced.
Some Interesting Trivia:
Errol Flynn can also be seen in the background in one scene outside a cantina. Apparently when an assistant cameraman, suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack, the often-drunk Flynn tried to put him into a duffel bag, and Welles had to immediately send someone ashore to alert authorities before Flynn could bury the man at sea.
The color used to dye Rita Hayworth’s hair was called “topaz blonde”
Orson Welles was very displeased with the score put together by the studio appointed composer. In particular, the final mirror scene was supposed to be unscored – to create the sense of terror.
The film has often been interpreted as a commentary on the doomed marriage between Hayworth and Welles.
Near the end of shooting, Orson Welles told Columbia executives that he wanted a complete set repainted on a Saturday for shooting on Monday. After Columbia exec Jack Fier refused (stating union rules and the expense of calling in a crew of painters to work on a weekend) Welles and several friends broke into the paint department that Saturday and repainted the set themselves. When they were finished they hung a banner on the set that read “The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fier Himself”. On Monday, when the union painters arrived at work and saw that the set had been repainted by someone else, they refused to work and threatened to stay on strike until a union crew was paid triple time for the work that had been done. To placate the union, Fier agreed to pay them what they wanted but put the cost on Welles’ personal bill. In addition, he had the union painters paint a banner saying “All’s Well That Ends Welles”.
For Further Reading:
Welles, Orson and Peter Bogdanovich. This Is Orson Welles. Ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum. Da Capo Press, 1998.
Telotte, J. P. “Narration, Desire, and a Lady from Shanghai.” South Atlantic Review, 49.1. Jan. 1984. 56-71.
Director: Anthony Mann | Producer: Aaron Rosenberg | Editor: Edward Curtiss| Screenplay: Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase| Story: Stuart N. Lake | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1950 | Running Time: 92 min.
Principal Cast: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Stephan McNally, Millard Mitchell, Rock Hudson, Anthony Curtis
The Western has long been a staple of Hollywood storytelling with films involving cowboys and Indians going back it’s earliest days however by the mid-1940s, its popularity had apparently past. 1950’s Winchester ’73 would renew interest in the Western with its new way of looking at the genre, and as a result usher in the beginning of the modern western.
The first of several classic collaborations between actor James Stewart and director Anthony Mann, the film both summarized the Western genre up to that point and managed to reenergize it at the same time. It’s episodic story-line, developed by Mann, working with writer Borden Chase, incorporated many of the stock situations and characters that had become well known in westerns up to that time including a shoot-out, a runaway carriage, a poker game, a bank robbery, and Indians attacking a cavalry. The difference in the film comes from the addition of a new level of inner psychology to the characters.
The story that would evolve into Winchester ’73 had been floating around Universal as a project for several years in the late 1940s. Originally attached to direct the film was Fritz Lang who was famous for westerns like The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941). The project got its star, James Stewart, as the result of a two-picture agreement that had been made with Universal, in which the actor would be given a percentage of the film’s profits, rather than being paid his regular salary or a flat fee. It was a deal ultimately proved lucrative for Stewart as some modern sources estimate that he received $500,000 as a result of the box-office success of Winchester ’73.
After Lang backed out, it was Stewart who suggested that Mann direct the picture after seeing his work on the M-G-M film, Devil’s Doorway (1950). The move would begin a successful Stewart and Mann partnership as the two would go on to work together on a total eight films. One of the first things that Mann did upon taking over was to bring in screenwriter Borden Chase to re-write the existing screenplay by Robert L. Richards. Chase had just had a great success co-writing the screenplay to Howard Hawks’ classic western Red River (1948).
Stewart, Mann and Chase were very conscious of the fact that Stewart’s character, McAdam, was a clear break from the sort of hero the actor was previously associated with, especially in comparison with his previous westerns like Destry Rides Again (1939) which had been released a decade earlier. In Winchester ’73 Stewart plays a morally ambiguous hero that is driven by revenge to the point of psychosis. The audience is introduced to the new type of hero in the moment that McAdam confronts Dan Duryea’s character in a saloon, smashing his face down onto the bar. The scene helped to silence earlier ridiculing from the press at the idea of James Stewart, the “thin man,” playing a tough westerner. Chase was later quoted:
When the picture was given a sneak preview, there had even been some titters in the audience at seeing Stewart’s name in the opening titles of a western. But once he smashed Duryea in that bar, there would be no more snickering.
Shelley Winters was worried upon finding out that both she and Stewart thought that their best-photographed side was their left side, but she found that Stewart would yield in their close-ups. As she later said,
A couple of Left Profiles don’t make for a convincing love scene when the two of them are staring off in the same direction. Since he was the star… I knew who’d be told to turn right. I couldn’t have been more wrong. One morning Tony Mann came to me and said that Jimmy wanted me to be shot from the left because he knew that the whole thing was making me anxious. Naturally, Jimmy never said a word to me directly.
While she gave an excellent performance in the film, Winters evidently didn’t think much of the role, later commenting:
Here you’ve got all these men… running around to get their hands on this goddam rifle instead of going after a beautiful blonde like me. What does that tell you about the values of that picture? If I hadn’t been in it, would anybody have noticed?
The film received almost universal praise, in particular for Stewart’s performance and the new “maturity” in his acting style. In 1952, Stewart was named the winner of the third annual Reno Silver Spurs award as best Western actor of 1951 for his performance in the film. The film was also named best Western film with Anthony Mann being named best Western director. Mann himself later said that the film: “…was one of my biggest successes. And it’s also my favorite western. The gun which passed from hand to hand allowed me to embrace a whole epoch, a whole atmosphere. I really believe that it contains all the ingredients of the western, and that it summarizes them.”
Winchester ’73 changed the way audiences saw the Western as it forced them to confront the idea of the noble hero of the west, as a man besieged by personal problems, violent and even psychotic, an idea that became increasingly prevalent in American film from Winchester ’73 onward.
Some Interesting Trivia:
In the famous scene where James Stewart shoots a bullet through the washer with the postage stamp…that is not Hollywood magic. The shot is performed successfully by renowned marksman Herb Parsons.
Winchester ’73 was the last film which Tony Curtis was billing as “Anthony Curtis.” Beginning with his next film, Kansas Raiders (1950), his billing became the Tony Curtis most audiences know him as.
The horse used by James Stewart in the film was named Pie and by the end of filming he had became very fond of the horse but when he tried to purchase him, the company that supplied the horse refused to sell him. Still Pie was available to Stewart for every western he made for the next twenty years.
For Further Reading:
Dewey, Donald. James Stewart: A Biography. Atlanta, Ga.: Time Warner Publications. 1996.
Horton, Robert. “Mann & Stewart: Two Rode Together.” Film Comment. March 1990; 26(2), 40-47.
How you ever wondered how a certain scene in your favorite movie was filmed? Or who else may have been in the running to play the lead? If you enjoy film history, gossip and are one of those who actually watches the commentaries on your DVD – this is the blog for you.
As a lover of all film (although I do have a tough time with the scary ones) I have always been interested in the behind the scenes stories – and now I hope to share those I find with others. The idea came from film historian, William K. Everson who was famous for handing out extensive program notes prior to his screenings. These notes, often about rare films have been preserved by NYC. They are well worth a read and can be found here:
There will be no reviews or opinions (at least I will try to keep my thoughts on whether the film is good or bad to myself) but instead just trivia, funny stories and other anecdotes that I can find about a particular title.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or by commenting on this blog.