More surprising is the fact that this still unnerving horror classic was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker who never relied upon shock values until this film. Here Hitchcock indulged in nudity, bloodbaths, necrophilia, transvestism, schizophrenia, and a host of other taboos and got away with it, simply because he was Hitchcock. The great director clouded his intent and motives by reportedly stating that the entire film was nothing more than one huge joke. No one laughed. Instead they cringed in their seats, waiting for the next assault on their senses.
The violence and bloodletting of PSYCHO may look tame to those who have grown up on Jason and Freddy Krueger, but no one had ever seen anything like it in 1960. Inspired by the life of the demented, cannibalistic Wisconsin killer Ed Gein (whose heinous acts would also inspire THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, 1974 and DERANGED, 1974), PSYCHO is probably Hitchcock’s most gruesome and dark film. Its importance to its genre cannot be overestimated. PSYCHO’s enduring influence comes not only from the Norman Bates character (who has since been reincarnated in a staggering variety of forms), but also from the psychological themes Hitchcock develops. Enhancing the sustained fright of this film are an excellent cast, from which the director coaxes extraordinary performances, and Bernard Herrmann’s chilling score.
Especially effective is the composer’s so-called “murder music,” high-pitched screeching sounds that flash across the viewer’s consciousness as quickly as the killer’s deadly knife. Bernard Herrmann achieved this effect by having a group of violinists frantically saw the same notes over and over again. Hitchcock really shocked Paramount when he demanded that he be allowed to film the sleazy, sensational novel that Robert Bloch based on the Gein killings. Bloch’s subject matter and characters were a great departure from the sophisticated homicide and refined characters usually found in Hitchcock’s films, but the filmmaker kept after the studio’s front office until the executives relented. He was told, however, that he would have to shoot the film on an extremely limited budgetno more than $800,000. Surprisingly, Hitchcock accepted the budget restrictions and went ahead with the film, utilizing television technical people, who were less expensive than standard Hollywood crews.
Moreover, the director, realizing that Paramount expected this to be his first box-office failure, proposed that he finance the film with his own money in return for 60 percent of the profits. Relieved that its own coffers were secure, Paramount agreed to act as the film’s distributor. But even Hitchcock’s close associates refused to believe that he was making a wise decision. His longtime associate producer, Joan Harrison, refused to take points in this film, opting for a direct salary, telling him “You’re on your own on this one, Hitch. ” After rejecting writer James Cavanaugh’s adaptation of the Bloch novel, Hitchcock, at the urging of MCA, met briefly with writer Joseph Stefano, who had only one screenplay credit, THE BLACK ORCHID (1959), a less-than-inspiring film starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn.
Although he had expressed doubts about Stefano (who would later go on to produce “The Outer Limits” for television), Hitchcock changed his mind after meeting the writer and gave him the green light. When Stefano told Hitchcock that he could not work up much sympathy for a peeping Tom killer in his forties (the age of the murderer in Bloch’s novel), the director proposed using a much younger character and even suggested to the writer that Perkins get the lead role. When Hitchcock began production on PSYCHO, he was told that he would have to use the facilities at Revue Studios, the television division of Universal Studios, which Paramount had rented for the making of the film. Although he was unable to use his erstwhile cinematographer, Robert Burks, Hitchcock managed to convince Paramount that his special editor, George Tomasini, should be included in the production.
The director’s penchant for detail was in full force here. He insisted that Stefano and others scout motels along Route 99 to learn how they operated, who stopped at them, and who ran them. The Bates Motel was then put together on the Universal back lot and was definitely on the seedy side, with a scaled-down The mansion cost only $15,000 to construct and technicians cannibalized several other stock buildings on the lot to keep the costs down, throwing onto the structure a tower that had been part of the Dowd home in HARVEY (1950). Perkins, then only twenty-seven, was hired without the actor even reading the script. The rising young performer owed Paramount one film under his contract and was taken aboard both because Hitchcock thought him right for the role of Norman Bates and because he would cost little. The role of the female lead was a problem.
Hitchcock was reputedly interested in using Shirley Jones, but her salary would have been too high. Instead, he selected Leigh, who was more of a starlet than a star at the time, although this part would change that. The name of the first victim in the novel is Mary Crane, but when Hitchcock’s researchers found that a real Mary Crane lived in Phoenixwhere the film beginsLeigh’s character’s name was changed to Marion to avoid lawsuits. Leigh received a copy of the Bloch novel before shooting began, but the director wrote a note to her pointing out that the female victim, who is almost incidental in the novel, would have much more importance in the film. Actually Leigh is on screen for only forty-five minutes before she is slashed to pieces. Leigh’s relatively rapid departure forces viewers to switch the focus of their attention to Perkins.
Hitchcock is able to achieve this transference of audience sympathy by showing Perkins’s Norman to be sensitive and oddly compelling, leading viewers to believe that his unseen mother is the culprit. To protect the murderous mother’s real identity, Hitchcock announced to the press that he was “considering” Helen Hayes or Judith Anderson to play the role. This attempt to set up viewers for the surprise ending (an atypical finish for a film by a director who always avoided surprise endings) backfired somewhat when Hitchcock was deluged with wires and letters from actresses asking to be considered for the role of the mother. Originally, the concept for the horrific cadaver was nothing more than a large plastic doll with glass eyes; however, Hitchcock was quick to alter this approach, substituting a sunken-faced, ossified corpse of his own design.
He used that cadaver for one of the many offbeat pranks he pulled on Leigh, which the actress took so well that she quickly became one of Hitchcock’s favorite performers. Once the corpse was created, Hitchcock had it placed in Leigh’s dressing room so that when she entered and turned on the light the corpse sat grinning at her, causing the actress to let out piercing screams louder and more frightening than her shrieks in the shower scene. The film’s male lead, Gavin (who would later become the U. S. Ambassador to Mexico), makes considerably less of an impression on viewers than the shower scene.
Never Hitchcock’s top choice for the impoverished lover turned amateur detective, Gavin, a contract player at Universal (the studio that was renting its facilities to the production), was practically forced on Paramount. Indeed, Hitchcock wanted anybody but Gavin for the role and considered Stuart Whitman, Tom Tryon, Brian Keith, Cliff Robertson, Tom Laughlin, Jack Lord, Robert Loggia (who would have a part in PSYCHO II, 1983), and Rod Taylor (who would star in Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, 1963. ) In the end, Hitchcock gave in to pressure from Universal and gave Gavin the less than pivotal role, saying lamely, “I guess he’ll be all right. ” The shower scene.
When it came to that famous shower scene, Hitchcock not only approved of every little detail in the scenefrom toilet to shower nozzlebut he demonstrated every move the killer and victim were to make. The director even showed Perkins exactly how he was to wrap the body in the shower curtain. Ironically, Perkins was not present for the filming of Leigh’s murder. He later commented: “Not many people know this, but I was in New York rehearsing for a play when the shower scene was filmed in Hollywood. It is rather strange to go through life being identified with this sequence knowing that it was my double. Actually the first time I saw PSYCHO and that shower scene was at the studio.
I found it really scary. I was just as frightened as anybody else. Working on the picture, though, was one of the happiest filming experiences of my life. We had fun making itnever realizing the impact it would have. ” It was Hitchcock who specifically ordered this murder shown as a brutal thing, scribbling in his own hand for shot 116: “The slashing.
An impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film. ” This filmic slaying is long, terrifying, and gory. Through lightning cuts between Leigh and closeups of the knife striking her body (she is stabbed at least a dozen times) and seemingly piercing her flesh, Hitchcock depictsfor the first time in film historythe bloody realities of violent murder. Reportedly, a fast motion reverse shot was used to give the impression that the knife actually enters Leigh’s abdomen. Another of the inventive techniques Hitchcock employs in this legendary scene is the way in which he shows the spray coming directly out of the shower nozzle.
Jets of water encompass the camera without ever hitting the lens, as if Leigh is looking directly into the nozzle. To achieve this effect, Hitchcock ordered a huge shower nozzle made, then moved his camera in for a closeup. Even though the film was shot on a frenzied schedule of a little over a month, Hitchcock took a full week to shoot the shower scene, directing it from a tower above the set, employing a single cameraman. He had abandoned the use of Technicolor, so as not to make the film more gory than it already was, and washed chocolate sauce down the drain as if it were Leigh’s blood.
A makeup man walked onto the set and looked about and then asked Hitchcock: “My dear boy, it will have so much more impact in black and white. ” Although a stand-in was used for the shots of Leigh’s corpse wrapped in the plastic curtain on the bathroom floor, Leigh performed the rest of the shower scene herself, though she was concerned about displaying her bosom, even before a few technicians in a closed set. She and aides researched various transparent garments worn by strippers but did not come up with anything that would work. A technician finally came up with an answer, flesh-colored moleskin.
But during shooting hot water from the shower undermined this solution. “I felt something strange happening around my breasts,” Leigh later said. “The steam from the hot water had melted the adhesive on the moleskin and I sensed the napped cotton fabric peeling away from my skin. What to do?To spoil the so far successful shot and be modest? Or get it over with and be immodest. I opted for immodestythat was the printed take, and no one noticed my bareness before I could cover it up.
I think!” (Janet Leigh, There Really Was a Hollywood. ) Because he owned so much of the film, Hitchcock turned promotion minded with PSYCHO, devising the entire publicity campaign for his gruesome masterpiece. He insisted that no moviegoer be seated during the showing of the film. He also demanded that even the critics see the film with the audiences from the beginning, which alienated many a reviewer (leading some critics to label the director’s work as “cruel,” “sadistic,” and even “pornographic”). The director’s response was to say that he had fun with the film. In an interview with French director Franois Truffaut, Hitchcock stated that “it was rather exciting to use the camera to deceive the audiencesThe game with the audience was fascinating.
I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them like an organ I didn’t start off to make an important movie. I thought I could have fun with this subject and this situation My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audience I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with PSYCHO we most definitely achieved this.
It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film. That’s why I take pride in the fact that PSYCHO, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that belongs to filmmakers. ” This was no news to Hitchcock’s fans. In a 1947 press conference the great director laid out his philosophy of the mystery-horror genre: “I am to provide the public with beneficial shocks.
Civilization has become so protective that we’re no longer able to get our goose bumps instinctively. The only way to remove the numbness and revive our moral equilibrium is to use artificial means to bring about the shock. The best way to achieve that, it seems to me, is through a movie. ” PSYCHO provided shocks heard around the world and became an instant smash, breaking all box-office records in its initial release. Hitchcock had a horselaugh on the Paramount executives who wanted no part of PSYCHO from the beginning. The film became one of Paramount’s largest grossing pictures and it made Hitchcock not only a master of the modern horror film but also fabulously wealthy.
He had outwitted everyonethe industry, the audience, and the critics.