One of my all time favorite films turns sixty years old today. Psycho is a masterwork of cinematic genius, and I aim to celebrate it’s birthday with a handful of articles. One will look at the Psycho franchise as a whole, one will examine the film’s trailer and this one, will take a look at some of the behind the scenes stories of this classic Hitchcock flick.
Back in 1959, writer Robert Bloch penned one of the greatest thrillers ever written, Psycho. Okay, so the book wasn’t a huge hit at first, but it soon became one after some fella called Alfred made a movie based on the book, and that film went on to be one of the most loved pictures ever. A masterclass of suspense and ground breaking film-making. But before I do look at how the film was made, I just want to take a quick glance at Robert Bloch’s novel.
As I write this, I’ve recently finished re-reading Psycho and it’s sequel (more on those in my other article). The book isn’t a long one, you could easily make your way through it in one sitting. Plus if you know the film, there’s hardly any surprises outside of some slightly different narrative ideas and a character name change. The ending is the same and the plots of both book and film are virtually identical.
A quick synopsis for and those not in the know. Psycho tells the story of motel owner, Norman Bates and his taut, strained relationship with his overbearing and controlling mother, Norma. When young and beautiful woman, Mary Crane stops off for the night in Bates Motel, Norman becomes fascinated by the female… to the ire of Norma. While Mary hides a few secrets of her own, they’re nothing compared to Norman’s. Mary’s stay at Bates Motel kick-starts a series of events that slowly reveals Norman and Norma’s checkered history as Norman’s darkest secrets are brought to light.
I really do enjoy reading Psycho. As I said, it’s a quick read and a very enjoyable one too. But there is a misconception I quickly want to cover. It has been said that Psycho is based on the real life crimes of the infamous Ed Gein. It’s one if those long running tales attached to both the book and film… but it’s not strictly true. See, Robert Bloch didn’t even know of the whole Ed Gein case while he was writing his book. You have to remember that were talking about the mid-late 50s and communication back then wasn’t like today. There certainly wasn’t the internet to spread news in an instant, there was radio and TV of course, but even then, news reports were nothing like today and didn’t really make it out of their own towns, cites and countries, unless it was a major worldwide event. Unless something had happened in the town you were living in, then you didn’t really hear about it until much later, if at all. Bloch lived around forty miles away from where Gein had committed his crimes and was eventually arrested in 1957, by which time, Bloch had already pretty much finished writing his book. It wasn’t until he had finally finished writing Psycho when he heard about the Gein case for the first time.
So where does this rumor that Psycho was based on Ed Gein come from? Well from Robert Bloch himself, though not intentionally. See, after Bloch had finished his book and learned about Gein, he then threw in a very quick reference to the whole affair at the end of Psycho.
That’s it, that’s the only mention or reference to Ed Gein in the entire book. So people assumed the whole book was based on the Gein case, when the truth is that Psycho had already been written by the time Robert Bloch heard about Gein’s crimes.
And now that’s out of the way, I can now yak on about how one of my favourite films, Psycho was made. Before I do crack on, I’m going to offer one of my usual SPOILER warnings right here. Yes, I know the film is sixty years old now and pretty much anyone who has seen a movie ever knows the ending to Psycho. But I’m a firm believer that a SPOILER is still a SPOILER no matter how old or famous.
So anyway, Robert Bloch’s novel wasn’t a huge success at all, not at first anyway. It sold okay and was seen as a quick, disposable, pulp fiction read that people would forget about not long after reading it… and it was just that for the most part. However, Peggy Robertson, assistant to famed and respected TV & film director, Alfred Hitchcock, read a positive review of the book and suggested that Hitch should read Psycho himself, he did and loved it, so much so that he secured the film rights to the book soon after. I mean, the book was first published in April of 1959 and Hitchcock began shooting the film in November of the same year. That’s how fast the turn-around was on this thing. Hitchcock even asked Robertson to buy up all or as many copies of the book as she could find so people wouldn’t have the ending of his film spoiled for them.
Taking his pitch for the movie to Paramount Pictures, Hitchcock was soon shot down. He’d had a bit of a bad run the last couple of years and despite his past successes, Paramount didn’t have faith that Hitchcock could produce a hit film, he’d recently lost the studio a fair bit of cash over two aborted films, Flamingo Feather and No Bail for the Judge. Plus there was the fact that he was sixty years old in 1959 when he wanted to make the film. It’s kind if hard to think about it now, but when he was trying to make Psycho, Hitchcock was thought of as a has-been, past his prime as many industry insiders believed. Yet, Alfred Hitchcock was so sure he could make a great film from this pulp fiction novel that he offered Paramount a deal they really couldn’t refuse. He waived his usual $250,000 director’s fee, which was a huge sum back in 1959, around $2.2 million by 2020. Not only that, he said he would fund the film shoot himself and asked that Paramount only distribute the picture when finished. From a money point of view, Paramount had nothing to lose.
Obviously, not being paid $250,000 to direct and having to fund the production himself left Hitchcock with a major issue, money. Making films wasn’t cheap, there’s the pay for all the cast and crew, writers, equipment, music, catering, locations, sets to build and everything else. The budget for Psycho was said to be around $807,000 ($7.1 million in 2020), which was a huge chunk of cash in 1959, especially when Hitch himself wasn’t even being paid. Hitchcock put up his house as collateral to help raise money for the flick. He was putting a hell of a lot on the line, his career as a director was already a bit shaky and now his very home was at risk too. If Psycho as a film flopped, his career was certainly over and Alfred Hitchcock, along with his wife, Alma, would be homeless. It was a completely mad deal to make, but we all go a little mad sometimes.
To keep costs low, Hitchcock used his cheaper TV crew instead of a film crew and chose to shoot the film in black & white, all of which were lower cost options over how other films were being made back then. So he had the production under control, but there was another problem. The sound stages at Paramount Pictures were fully booked with other films being made, he may have had a plan to get the movie made cheaper than usual, but Hitchcock had nowhere to actually film it. That’s when Universal Pictures stepped in and offered their sound stages for the production. Ever wonder why a film distributed by Paramount had an attraction at the rival Universal Studios theme park? Now you know.
So (almost) everything was set. Hitchcock had his crew, he had a studio to film in but he was still missing some pretty big pieces. He didn’t have any actors signed on for the roles and nor did he have a script, just the Robert Bloch book. As the man himself once said…
“To make a great film you need three things. The script, the script and the script.”
– Alfred Hitchcock
First things first, Hitchcock needed a screenplay to show to potential actors to fill the roles. Sticking to his idea of using his TV show crew, Hitchcock gave the job to James P. Cavanagh, who was a writer on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents show. All told, the screenplay was terrible, Hitchcock felt it didn’t read like a movie but more like an episode of his show. It lacked the depth of character he was looking for and had none of the slow burn of tension and suspense he craved. Cavanagh’s screenplay was too short, to shallow, too TV episode-like… well he was a TV show writer after all. Enter Joseph Stefano, a young man with only one movie script under his belt at the time, the perfect writer for Hitchcock. Stefano may have lacked movie screenplay writing experience, but he had a little, plus the fact he was young and inexperienced meant he was cheap. Given the finance situation of the whole film, Hitchcock had to be frugal.
Joseph Stefano’s adaption of Bloch’s novel was exactly what Hitchcock was looking for. Faithful to the source material, but still bringing new ideas to the table. Both Hitchcock and Stefano worked on tidying up the screenplay, adapting it to fit more with Alfred Hitchcock’s vision. First was changing Norman. In the book, Norman is a middle-aged, over-weight drunken pervert that you feel very little sympathy for. Hitchcock already had an actor in mind to play that part, Anthony Perkins, who was far removed from Norman of the book. Young, good looking, charming and erudite, everything Robert Bloch’s Norman Bates wasn’t. So gone were Norman’s more disgusting traits to be replaced with Perkins’ boyish good looks and charm. The opening was to change too. The book begins by introducing the reader to Norman and his mother, Norma from page one. Hitchcock thought it would be better to leave the introduction of Norman until much later in the picture and until after his leading lady had been introduced.
Plus there was the fact that Hitchcock also wanted Marion (Mary in the book) Crane’s back story to be expanded too. In the book, Mary’s story only really takes up two of the book’s seventeen chapters. In the film though, Marion is ‘seemingly’ the main focus… for good reason too. Hitchcock knew he had a film with a great twist ending, but he wanted to pull the rug from under the viewer before that ending, as to give them a double surprise. He and Joseph Stefano worked on the idea of making Marion the star of the film, put the focus in her and her backstory, then when the now infamous shower scene happened, the audience would be shocked that they just killed off the leading lady. The focus of the film could then turn fully onto Norman, who up to this point in the film, was pretty much a secondary character. It was one of the biggest shocks in cinema history and to help pull off the shock, Hitchcock needed a big name.
See, Psycho’s cast are or were relatively unknown at the time. Even Norman Bates himself, Anthony Perkins, wasn’t exactly a big movie star then, yeah he’d been in a few films but he was known more for his stage work. But Janet Leigh was huge. By the time filming on Psycho began in November, 1959, Leigh had already appeared in over thirty films. And it wasn’t just the acting that made her famous back then, she was also very well known for her marriage to big screen superstar actor, Tony Curtis too, they were Hollywood royalty. Leigh could’ve easily been counted among other big name female movie stars back then. With her name and face on the movie posters, it was a surefire way to make people believe they were going to see a Janet Leigh film… and how they were shocked at around forty-six minutes into the film when the leading lady decided to take a shower and was brutally killed off with a kitchen knife. It’s one of the greatest surprises in cinematic history.
So Hitchcock had his two main characters cast, filling out other roles were Vera Miles as Lila Crane, Marion’s sister. John Gavin as Sam Loomis, Marion’s lover and Martin Balsam as the private investigator, Milton Arbogast. The core cast where now in place as other minor roles were also filled out. But there was one bit of casting that Alfred Hitchcock had a lot of fun with, Norma Bates, Norman’s mother. Now I know what you are thinking as you read this… but yes, Hitchcock wanted to cast someone in the role of mother… kind of. This of course was what Hitch was great at, leading people down the garden path. Hitchcock put word out in the industry that he was on the look out for an older woman to play Norma Bates. He even mentioned two actresses by name for the role, Judith Anderson and Helen Hayes. But it was all a ruse to keep people unaware of the film’s finale. Alfred Hitchcock even had a cast chair made up for Mrs Bates with that name printed on the back too, he then had all the cast have their picture taken in that chair for publicity shots… all the cast except for Anthony Perkins.
So everything was now in place and shooting for Psycho began on the 11th of November, 1959 at Universal Studios, California… well most of it was, a few establishing/location shots aside. The house and motel from the film still stand on the back-lot tour at Universal Studios, California too.
The shoot was a relativity easy one with very few issues. Beginning on the 11th of November, 1959, and finishing on the 1st of February, 1960, so it was a pretty short shoot really. All through filming, Hitchcock would place various mother corpse props hidden around the set for the cast to find, just to test how scared they were and how loud they screamed.
Perhaps the most famous scene in the film was the pivotal shower one. As simple as it looked, it was one of the hardest in the film to shoot. All in all, that one scene lasts a little over three minutes from start to end, yet it contains a total of seventy-seven different camera angles, over fifty separate cuts and took a whole week to film… for one three minute scene. It’s the fast edits and the multiple camera angles that gives the scene it’s sense of madness and frantic pace as the knife stabs and slashes. Plus the fact Hitch chose to shoot with fifty millimetre lenses on thirty-five millimetre cameras gave the scene and overall film a specific feel, similar to that of human vision. This meant the audience felt closer to the action and characters, especially when someone is being brutally stabbed in the shower, that helped to make the audience feel uneasy.
There has been some debate over just who was in the shower for the stabbing itself. Janet Leigh had always said she was the girl in the shower for the whole scene, she stated a s much the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. But the book The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower contradicts this by stating that a body double was used named Marli Renfro, who was actually in the shower for all the body shots that didn’t involve Leigh’s face. This is a claim back up by Hitchcock himself too. But then, Rita Riggs who was in charge of wardrobe on the film has said that it was Leigh in the shower the whole time. There seems to be a lot of confusion over just who was in the shower to be honest… not that it really matters as the scene is perfection on film regardless of whoever was playing the role at the time.
There there is another matter worth looking at. It has been said that in order to get Janet Leigh to scream just right, Hitch insisted on using ice-cold water for the scene. Bearing in mind that the whole shower scene was shot over a week in late December too, it would’ve been chilly (for California anyway) already. But Leigh has shot this down herself. According to her, Hitchcock used hot water to keep her as comfortable as possible and that everyone there for the shoot were extremely professional and helpful to her needs. Do I really need to bring up the fact that Hitchcock used chocolate sauce for the blood in this scene? Surely that’s a tit-bit famous enough already?
Then there is one of the biggest myths of the most famous scene to look at too. According to Saul Bass, who designed the opening credits to Psycho and other Hitchcock films, and also drew up the storyboards for many of Hitch’s movies. According to him, he directed the shower scene and not Hitchcock. It’s one of those movie rumors that’s been going on for years. Yet despite Bass’ claims, he seems to be outnumbered by everyone else on the film.
“Absolutely not! I have emphatically said this in any interview I’ve ever given. I’ve said it to his face in front of other people. I was in that shower for seven days, and believe me, Alfred Hitchcock was right next to his camera for every one of those seventy-odd shots.”
– Janet Leigh
“There is not a shot in that movie that I didn’t roll the camera for. And I can tell you I never rolled the camera for Mr. Bass.”
– Hilton A. Green (assistant director)
Then anyone who knows anything about Hitchcock and his methods, his perfectionism. Anyone would tell you that there would be no way that he would let anyone direct one of his scenes, especially one so important to the plot of the film and it’s impact, it’s reason for existing, it’s surprise factor. Basically, it seems that Saul Bass was talking utter shit.
Then of course, one can’t talk about Psycho’s shower scene and not mention ‘that’ music from legendary composer, Bernard Herrmann. I think perhaps what’s the most interesting thing about the now iconic music is the fact that Hitchcock never wanted it. His original vision for the shower scene was for it to be untouched by any music, he wanted the scene to speak for itself. Just the sound of the running water and Marion’s screams as the knife stabbed away at her flesh… a sound effect done by stabbing melons, a casaba melon if you really want to know. Still, Herrmann wanted to do something for that scene and asked Hitch if he could. They made a deal, if Hitchcock didn’t like the music, then they would discard it with no hard feelings. After a few days, Bernard Herrmann had his music written and record and played if for Hitchcock over footage of the shower scene. Hitch loved it and insisted it be used.
Everything about the shower scene is amazing, the music, the directing, the acting… everything. I’d quite happily argue that it’s the greatest movie scene ever caught on film.
Psycho met with quite a fair bit of controversy when it was released in 1960. Things that seem very tame by today’s standards, but back then? There were issues that caused the censors to become inflamed due to the then Motion Picture Production Code, mostly due to it’s use of sexuality and violence. The now seemingly innocent opening scene of Marion and her lover, Sam caused a lot of upset. Firstly, Marion and Sam were not married, and showing them just lying in bed together was a serious taboo in 1960. Plus there was the fact that Marion was shown in her bra too. Quick aside, have you noticed that in the film, before Marion takes the money and runs away, she’s wearing a white bra, but after the theft, she’s seen in a black bra? Subtle. Other issues where the fact the film’s main plot was revealed to be about a man dressing as a woman. The censors even got upset about the fact the word ‘ transvestite’ is used in the finale to describe Norman.
Perhaps one of the silliest arguments Hitchcock had over censorship was the fact he dared to show a toilet in the movie… and have it be flushed too. Seriously, Psycho was the first American film to show a flushing toilet. Hitch got around being able to show the toilet being flushed by ensuring it was part of the plot. He had Marion tear up her calculations she made to return the money, and dispose of them in the toilet to then flush it. This meant he couldn’t cut the scene as no one would know what Marion was up to or why she decided to return the money and come clean. Then there was also an issue with the shower scene. When Hitch showed the film to the censorship board, several of them said they saw Janet Leigh’s naked breast in at least one shot. If showing a flushing toilet was an issue, you can bet anything that showing nudity was also one. Still, Hitchcock insisted there was no such shot in the film, his argument fell on deaf ears and he was ordered to cut the offending breast from the scene. So he did… kind of. Hitch went away with his film, just held onto it for a few days and cut absolutely nothing from it. He then took the exact same cut of the film back to the very same censorship board and resubmitted it for approval. The same people re-watched it and this time, none of them saw the offending breast. Despite the fact Hitch cut nothing from the film, he just let the board think he did. Just for the record, no Janet Leigh’s naked breast is not in Psycho, nor was it ever. It’s just that the censorship board saw it in their mind’s eye. The film was passed for general release with no more problems.
I do want to look into perhaps one of my favorite things about the release of Psycho, it’s strict ‘no late admission’ policy. Back then, the way films were shown at the cinema was very different from today. Now, you wouldn’t think about just buying a ticket and walking into a film at any point. These days you buy your ticket and sit down before the film starts to watch the picture from begining to end. Well that’s not how things worked back then. Cinemas would show a film all day long, this was also before multiple screens too, so one cinema would show one film and another would show a different film. So anyway, the cinema would screen a film, which would be book-ended with a newsreel, a small feature, a short serial or even a cartoon. Then the film and it’s bookend would be shown all through the day on a continual loop, no real start or end. You could buy a ticket and just walk in whenever you wanted. Twenty minutes in, the middle of a film, the start, the end, wherever. You could buy a ticket and just sit in the cinema all day watching and re-watching the same show over and over if you liked. Have you ever heard of the phrase “this is where we came in”? Well it originates with cinema back then. Someone would walk in to watch a film, say at the mid point, watch until the end and then just sit there and watch the start of the film they had missed by walking in at the mid point. Say “this is where we came in” and then leave, now having seen all the film… all be it out of sequence.
Well anyway, Hitchcock instilled a firm rule of not allowing anyone in to the cinema once Psycho had begun. He did this to not spoil the film’s twist ending, as if you walked in to watch Psycho ten minutes from the end, you’d have no idea what was going on. But there was also the fact he didn’t want to ruin his ace up his sleeve. Janet Leigh being killed off. Remember, Leigh was the big draw, the reason people would’ve gone to see the film in the first place. So if anyone who wanted to watch the latest Janet Leigh film walked in after the shower scene, they’d have no idea that Hitchcock just killed off his leading lady and would’ve ruined one of the biggest shocks in cinema history. So no one was allowed in after the film had begun, breaking cinema tradition back then.
Hitch ensured cinema managers stuck to this rule of not letting anyone in after Psycho had started personally by attending every single screening and telling people they were not allowed in. Okay, so he may not have traveled the world attending every single screening, be he had cardboard cutouts of himself made with his personal statement made very clear on them. All done in that Hitchcock dry humor.
“We won’t allow you to cheat yourself! You must see Psycho from beginning to end to enjoy it fully. Therefore, do not expect to be admitted into the theatre after the start of each performance of the picture. We say no one – and we mean no one – not even the manager’s brother, the President of the United States, or the Queen of England (God bless her)!”
– Alfred Hitchcock
There were a few variants of this idea but they all pretty much said the same thing. No one was to be admitted entrance to see Psycho one it had begun. There were the previously mentioned cardboard cutouts of Hitch himself. There were also posters and other standees all saying pretty much the same thing. I suppose you could say that Alfred Hitchcock created the idea of watching a film from the start that we all take for granted these days.
Originally, cinema managers hated the idea as they felt they would lose money if people couldn’t come and go as they pleased, but they soon changed their tune when Psycho opened and queues built up around the block for hours of people eager to see the picture.
Given the fact that it was Alfred Hitchcock that funded the film himself, this gave him a certain freedom when it came to promotion. No studio could interfere with his plans, because it was his money, his movie. Aside from the ‘no admittance’ thing, Hitch had a lot of fun with the promotion of Psycho. First, he forbid either Janet Leigh or Anthony Perkins to do any interviews for TV, radio, papers, etc, as to not give away the twists. No one could talk about the film in interviews except for Hitch himself. He also didn’t allow critics to see advance/private screenings of the film for reviews and made them go to normal viewings with the public… which the critics hated doing… which was probably why the initial critic reviews for the film were not good. Plus, Hitch created what is quite simply, the greatest movie teaser trailer ever. I’ll have more to say about this trailer later as a nice little bonus article.
The film was a huge hit, despite early reviews claiming it was not very good and lacked that Hitchcock quality. But the general public loved it. The success of the film helped push sales of the book and in turn, the book helped to get people into the cinema to see the film. Psycho even got a re-release into cinemas in 1965.. and 69… and more recently in 2015. Psycho has, of course, gone on to be cinematic gold. One of the all time greatest ever films. It’s a film that can be analysed for so many reasons. From it’s masterful film-making ideas and concepts, to it’s deeper themes, motifs and psychoanalytic interpretations. Psycho is a masterpiece and despite all that Alfred Hitchcock had going against him at the time, he made his finest work ever and silenced his critics.
Perfection in cinematic form and a film that I don’t think that will ever be bettered, because while there are some amazing visionary and creative directors working today, none of them are Alfred Hitchcock.
“I know we’re only human, we do go in for these various emotions, call them negative emotions, but when all these are removed and you can look forward and the road is clear ahead, and now you’re going to create something. I think that’s as happy as I’ll ever want to be.”
– Alfred Hitchcock