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Film Friday: "Psycho" (1960)

Since Janet Leigh's birthday was on Monday, this week on "Film Friday" I am bringing you her most iconic film, for which she received her only Academy Award nomination.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho (1960) tells the story of a Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a real estate secretary from Phoenix, Arizona who is tired of having to sneak away during lunch breaks to meet her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), the owner of a hardware store in California. One afternoon, her boss, George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), asks her to take $40,000 in cash to the bank for deposit. Instead of going to the bank, however, Marion decides to steal the money and leave for California to start a new life with Sam. Trading her car for one with California plates to elude the police, Marion takes a wrong turn during a rainstorm and ends up at a desolate motel, where the young proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), invites her to dinner after she checks in.

During dinner, the peculiar Norman tells Marion about his hobby of taxidermy and his life with his domineering mother, Norma, who "isn't quite herself these days." Returning to her room, Marion decides to go back to Phoenix and return the money she has stolen. She prepares to take a shower, unaware that Norman is spying on her from a peephole, and as she is showering, a female figure suddenly appears and kills her with a butcher knife. Norman discovers Marion's dead body and, believing his mother to be responsible for the murder, meticulously cleans up the crime scene, putting Marion and her possessions (including the money) into her car and sinking it in a swamp near the motel. A week later, Marion's sister, Lila (Vera Miles), arrives at Sam's store in Fairvale to tell him that Marion has disappeared. At the same time, a private detective named Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) arrives at the store and informs them that Marion is wanted for theft. Promising Lila that he will find her sister, Arbogast searches the area where Marion was last seen. He eventually comes across the Bates Motel and interrogates a nervous Norman, who lets slip his mother's impressions of Marion. Arbogast calls Lila and Sam to tell them his findings and is killed by Mrs. Bates soon afterwards. When Lila and Sam do not hear from Arbogast again, they go to the local sheriff, Al Chambers (John McIntire), who informs them that Norma Bates had been dead for ten years, following the murder-suicide of her and her lover. If that is true, then who killed Marion and Arbogast?

Norman Bates: You know what I think? I think that we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.

In November 1957, a man named Ed Gein was arrested in his hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin for murdering two women after brutally torturing them. When the police searched his house, they discovered that Gein had turned the skulls of his victims into bowls and used their skin and other body parts to make seat covers, lamp shades and even clothing. Psychiatrists examining him theorized that he was trying to make a "woman suit" to wear so he could pretend to be his dead mother, whom neighbors described as a puritan who dominated her son. At the trial, Gein was found to be legally insane and sent to a mental hospital, where he would die of cancer in 1984. At the of Gein's arrest, author Robert Bloch was living 35 miles (56 kilometers) away from Plainfield and felt inspired by the killer's story and psychotic personality to write a novel called Psycho, published in 1959 by Simon & Schuster. In later years, Bloch commented that it was the situation rather than Gein himself that inspired him to write Psycho. He explained: "The real-life murderer was not the role model for my character Norman Bates. Ed Gein didn't own or operate a motel. Ed Gein didn't kill anyone in the shower. Ed Gein wasn't into taxidermy. Ed Gein didn't stuff his mother, keep her body in the house, dress in a drag outfit, or adopt an alternative personality. These were the functions and characteristics of Norman Bates, and Norman Bates didn't exist until I made him up."

Peggy Robertson, Alfred Hitchcock's long-time personal assistant, mentioned Psycho to the British director after reading editor Anthony Boucher's positive review of the novel. Hitchcock, who was seeking new material to recover from two aborted productions with Paramount Pictures  his employer since Rear Window (1954) was so fascinated by the book's subject that he immediately decided to make it into a film, acquiring the rights for $9,000. The studio executive, however, refused to finance the project, considering the content too lurid for a mainstream picture. In response, Hitchcock offered to make Psycho with his own money and film it in black and white at MCA's Revue Studios on the Universal Pictures lot the same location where the episodes of the weekly series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965) were made. He would even use his regular television crew, including including cameraman John L. Russell and assistant director Hilton A. Green. Paramount's only task would be to market and distribute the film. Feeling that they had nothing to lose, the studio bosses finally gave Psycho their approval.

Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins on the set
Initially, the script was assigned to James P. Cavanaugh, author of some episodes of Hitchcock's series, but his final work did not convince the director. To replace him, Hitchcock reluctantly agreed to meet with Joseph Stefano, who had only one screenwriting credit to his name, Martin Ritt's romantic drama The Black Orchid (1958). According to Stefano, he won Hitchcock's approval by refocusing the first part of the film on Marion Crane with her embezzlement and shocking shower-stabbing murder at the Bates Motel and beginning the screenplay with a scene between her and her lover Sam Loomis (the novel starts with a conversation between Norman Bates and his mother). Regarding his work on the film, Stefano later commented, "I think doing the screenplay for Psycho has done me more harm than good. Through the years it has made it very difficult for me to get some of the other kinds of pictures that I would have liked to have gone on to."

From the beginning, both Hitchcock and Stefano agreed that the character of Norman Bates originally a fat, middle-aged drunkard should be made more sympathetic. Consequently, Hitchcock turned Norman into an attractive yet vulnerable young man by assigning the role to Anthony Perkins, the only son of stage and film actor Osgood Perkins. Stefano, who had recently seen the 27-year-old actor in the successful Broadway drama Look Homeward, Angel, wholeheartedly agreed with Hitchcock's choice. A life member of the famed Actors Studio, Perkins made his screen debut in George Cukor's The Actress (1953), before receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his second film, William Wyler's Civil War drama Friendly Persuasion (1956). Since he owned one last picture to Paramount to fulfill his contractual obligations, Perkins accepted a mere $40,000 salary to star in Psycho. Coincidentally, that is the same amount of money that Marion steals in the story.

Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh
Perkins was very enthusiastic about playing Norman Bates, convinced that it would be an important career move for him. In fact, he was so involved in the role that he kept inventing new traits to add to Norman's personality, such as having him nibble on Halloween candy throughout the film. Perhaps the reason why Perkins felt so strongly connected to Norman Bates was because he saw something of himself in the character. In Psycho, Norman tells Marion that his mother had to raise him all by herself after his father died when he was five and how "it must have been quite a strain for her." Similarly, Perkins was his parents' only child and was raised by his mother alone after suffering the loss of his father at age five. On the set, Hitchcock would always refer to Perkins as "Master Bates."

He had an incredible grasp on Norman Bates and the situation that he was in. I think Tony Perkins must have known what was like to be trapped. In some way, somehow, he knew what trapped meant, just as I did, and while we didn't talk about that aspect of it, I was clear to me, early on, that he was becoming Norman Bates. As a matter of fact, I think he had a hard time shedding Norman Bates after Psycho.
(Joseph Stefano)

For the role of Mary Crane whose name was changed to Marion to avoid conflict with an actual Mary Crane found listed in the Phoenix telephone directory Hitchock wanted an actress whom no one would expect to see killed halfway through the film. Although many leading ladies were discussed for the part, including Eva Marie Saint, Martha Hyer, Hope Lange, Piper Laurie, Shirley Jones and Lana Turner, Janet Leigh was reportedly the first and only one to receive a specific offer from the director. Leigh, who had met Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville socially, was so thrilled by the opportunity that she read the Bloch's novel in one day. Hitchcock gave Leigh free rein to do whatever she wished with the role of Marion and promised to help her every step of the way, so long as she did not interfere with the timing of his camera. Slowly, she started to create the character in her mind, giving Marion a personal dimension by inventing a complete backstory for her, including what kind of girl she had been in high school and what her favorite colors were.

Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh filming
the shower murder sequence
One out of three weeks Leigh spent on the set of Psycho was devoted to the filming of the pivotal shower murder scene, entirely shot by Hitchcock based on storyboards prepared by graphic artist Saul Bass, who also designed the film's opening credits. To avoid problems with both Paramount and the Hollywood censors, wardrobe supervisor Helen Colvig conceived a flesh-colored bikini made of moleskin  a soft, almost felt-like fabric on the outside, with adhesive on the inside  to cover the most intimate parts of Leigh's body. Hitchcock also hired professional model Marli Renfro to use for shots in which Leigh's breasts and behind would be glimpsed. 

The shower scene, originally written only to show the knife-wielding hand of the murderer, required 78 shot set-ups and was filmed in a set where all the walls could be removed to allow the camera to get in close from every angle. Though the audience never actually sees the blade penetrating Leigh's body, the scene leaves the on-screen impression that it does by featuring the sound of a knife entering flesh, cleverly created by plunging a knife into a casaba melon. The blood that we next see spiraling down the bathtub drain is really dark chocolate syrup, which showed up better on black and white film and it had a more realistic density than the regular stage blood used at the time. This three-minute sequence would eventually become one of the most iconic moments in film history.

Marion had decided to go back to Phoenix, come clean, and take the consequence, so when she stepped into the bathtub it was if she were stepping into the baptismal waters. The spray beating down on her was purifying the corruption from her mind, purging the evil from her soul. She was like a virgin again, tranquil, at peace.
(Janet Leigh about her character in Psycho) 

Vera Miles, John Gavin and Anthony Perkins
For the role of Marion's sister, Lila Crane, Hitchcock considered Felicia Farr, Carolyn Jones, Caroline Kurney and Eleanor Parker, before finally deciding on Vera Miles, who was under contract to the director and still owned him one film. Miles had previously worked with Hitchcock in the noir The Wrong Man (1956) and was supposed to have been the female lead opposite James Stewart in Vertigo (1958), but had to withdraw before filming commenced due to pregnancy. Making Psycho was not a happy experience for Miles, who felt that Hitchcock was punish her by giving her an unflattering wardrobe that made her look matronly, despite the fact that it was created by the prestigious costume designer Edith Head.

To play Sam Loomis, Marion's lover, Hitchcock wanted to cast either Stuart Whitman, Brian Keith, Cliff Robertson or Rod Taylor, but Universal insisted that he hired instead John Gavin, whom they had under contract at the time. A veteran of the Korean War, Gavin made his acting debut in the Western Raw Edge (1956) and had recently achieved widespread recognition in two Douglas Sirk pictures: A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), based on the World War II novel by German author Erich Maria Remarque; and Imitation of Life (1959), a remake of John M. Stahl's 1934 film of the same name. Hitchcock disliked Gavin as an actor and almost lost his patience with him while filming the opening scene in Psycho. The director felt that the sequence  which features a bare-chested Gavin and a bra-wearing Leigh in a rather steamy encounter was not passionate enough and that the 28-year-old actor was not as sexually aroused as he should have been. Finally, Hitchcock asked Leigh to "do something" and she eventually managed to get Gavin "hot and bothered" like the director wanted. Still, Hitchcock was displeased with Gavin's performance in Psycho, referring to him as "the stiff" throughout production.

John Gavin and Janet Leigh
Filming on Psycho took place between November 11, 1959 and February 1, 1960. Before shooting began, Hitchcock sent Green to Phoenix to scout locations and capture an aerial shot of the city that slowly zoomed into the hotel window of Marion and Sam. Ultimately, the helicopter shots proved too shaky and had to be spliced with pre-existing footage from the studio. In one street scene shot in downton Phoenix, Christmas locations were discovered to be visible; rather than send a team back to re-shoot the footage, Hitchcock simply added a graphic to the opening scene marking the date as "Friday, December the Eleventh." Green also took photos of a prepared list of 140 locations for later reconstruction in the studio. These included many real estate offices and homes such as those belonging to Marion and her sister. The look of the Bates house was modeled of Edward Hopper's 1925 painting The House by the Railroad, a fanciful portrait of the Second Empire Victorian home at 18 Conger Avenue in Haverstraw, New York.

After the editing process was completed, Hitchcock was so dissatisfied with the final result that he seriously considered cutting the film down to one hour and release it as an episode of his television series. Before re-editing the picture, however, he showed it to composer Bernard Herrmann, his loyal collaborator in seven films from The Trouble With Harry (1955) to Marnie (1964). Although Hitchcock had insisted on making Psycho with inexpensive actors, a short filming schedule and television shooting methods, he wanted no one but Herrmann to write the score. Initially refusing to work for a reduced fee due to the production's low budget, Herrmann eventually agreed to do it since he had "an idea of what one could do with the film." Using the money restrictions to his advantage and ignoring Hicthcock's request to leave the shower murder sequence completely silent, Herrmann wrote the score using only the string section of an orchestra, as a way to reflect "the stark black and white quality of the picture." When Herrmann played the shower scene cue for Hitchcock, the director realized he had made an "improper suggestion." In the end, the screeching violin sounds the audience hears when Marion Crane is stabbed to death became "probably the most famous (and most imitated) cue in film music."

The New York premiere of Psycho
Once Herrmann's creeping score infused Psycho with the magic Hitchcock felt that it was initially lacking, the director abandoned the idea of turning the film into a television episode and prepared it for a theatrical release in mid-June 1960. To avoid spoiling the surprise factor the picture had been known as "Production #9401 since the beginning Hitchcock disclosed to the media only basic information regarding Psycho's plot. He even forbade Leigh and Perkins to make the usual radio, television and print interviews for fear of their revealing any major details about the storyline. Furthermore, no critic was allowed to see the film before its opening and theater managers were strictly instructed to let "no one... BUT NO ONE... be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance of Psycho." 

Upon its premiere at the DeMille and Baronet Theatres in New York on June 16, 1960, Psycho received generally mixed review from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "You better have a pretty strong stomach and be prepared for a couple of grisly shocks [...] There is not an abundance of subtlety or the lately familiar Hitchcock bent toward significant and colorful scenery in this obviously low-budget job." Although Crowther considered the ending to be "quite flat," he still thought that "the acting is fair. Mr. Perkins and Miss Leigh perform with verve, and Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam do well enough in other roles." For their part, Variety commented, "The Psycho diagnosis, commercially, is this: an unusual, good entertainment, indelibly Hitchcock, and on the right kind of box-office beam. The campaign backing is fitting and potent. The edict against seating customers after opening curtain [...] if respected may add to the intrigue. All adds up to success. [...] Perkins gives a remarkably effective in-a-dream kind of performance as the possessed young man. Others play it straight, with equal competence."

Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins
Despite the lukewarm reviews, Psycho was an instant success among audiences, breaking box-office records all over the world. Because of its small budget, Psycho also became the most profitable film of the year and the biggest moneymaker of Hitchcock's carrer. At the 33rd Academy Awards held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in California in April 1961, the film was nominated for Best Director (Hitchcock's last nomination in this category), Best Supporting Actress (Janet Leigh), Best Cinematography (Black and White) and Best Art Direction (Black and White). Hitchcock lost for the Oscar to Billy Wilder for The Apartment (1960), while Leigh lost to Shirley Jones for her performance in Elmer Gantry (1960). Both Leigh and Perkins became firmly associated with Psycho in subsequent decades. In fact, Perkins never did shed Norman Bates, reprising his role in the sequels Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986)  which he also directed and Psycho IV (1994).

In later years, Hitchcock said of Psycho: "My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on audiences, and I consider that very important. I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion [...] 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."

The creation of Psycho inspired Stephen Rebello to write the non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, published by St. Martin's Griffin in April 1990. The book in turn served as the basis of the film Hitchcock (2012), which centers on the relationship between the director and his wife Alma during the making of Psycho. Directed by Sacha Gervasi, the picture stars Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, Helen Mirren as Alma, Scarlett Johanson as Janet Leigh, James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins, Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, Josh Yeo as John Gavin and Ralph Macchio as Joseph Stefano. Hitchcock received mixed reviews from critics, although Mirren was much praised for her performance, received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress Drama.

Alfred Hitchcock: Filming Our Fears by Gene Adair (2002) | Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith (2002) | Janet Leigh: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (2013) | The Making of 'Psycho' (1999) | IMDb | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. It's going to be showing in select theaters through TCM on Sept. 20 and 23. I really want to go see it on the big screen.

    1. That's awesome! I wish I could see it on the big screen as well, but unfortunately I don't live in the US. :(


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