Made on a tight budget financed by the director himself, Psycho (1960) was a major box office hit that ushered in a new genre of film and ranked high as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. Starring Janet Leigh as the ill-fated Marion Crane and Anthony Perkins as cross-dressing serial killer Norman Bates, Psycho has been the subject of endless fascination and speculation for over five decades.
Much has been said about Psycho over the years, but nothing in the film has garnered more attention than the infamous shower scene, where Marion Crane is killed a third of the way through. The killing off of the film’s star threw audiences for a loop, to say the least, and helped make Psycho one of the most terrorizing films ever made.
Desperate to help her divorced boyfriend, Sam (John Gavin), secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from a client of her real estate employer and high tails it out of Phoenix with hopes of starting a new life in California. After a long car trip inundated by rain and paranoia, Marion decides to spend the night at the isolated Bates Motel.
Inside the motel, Marion meets shy proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who tells her that she’s his first guest in weeks while regaling her with stories about his mysterious Mother. Norman invites Marion to supper, where she overhears him arguing with Mother about his attraction to her. Marion agitates Norman with her suggestion that he institutionalize her and goes back to her room.
Deciding to return to Phoenix and face the consequences, Marion calculates how she will pay back the money and flushes her notes down the toilet before undressing for a shower. What follows is the famed shower scene, one of the most iconic sequences in cinema history. As Marion washes away her sins and is reborn, Mother enters the bathroom, rips back the shower curtain and repeatedly stabs her to death.
Hitchcock’s masterful filming of this scene cannot be overstated. Using two cameras, multiple close-ups, over 50 cuts and a good deal of chocolate syrup, he crafted in just three minutes one of the most terrifyingly realistic murder scenes ever shot on film – made all the more frightening by Bernard Herrmann’s screechy score. By killing Marion a third of the way through, Hitchcock expertly kept his audience off balance and anxious, wondering who will be killed next.
Meanwhile, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) hires private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) to track down Marion and recover the stolen money. They eventual trace her footsteps to the Bates Motel, where they question Norman and are refused conference with Mother. Arbogast suffers the same fate as Marion when Mother slashes his face, causing a fall down the stairs, and stabs him to death.
After Norman hides Mother in the basement, Lila and Sam learn from a local sheriff that Mrs. Bates had been killed ten years ago in a murder-suicide. Suspicions aroused, they check into the motel posing as a couple and start searching for clues. In Marion’s room, they find the scraps of paper she tried to flush in the toilet, leading Lila and Sam to conclude Norman killed her for the money.
With Sam distracting Norman, Lila discovers the mummified corpse of Mother in the basement. Now wearing a dress and a wig, Norman tries to kill Lila, only to be stopped by Sam. Norman is arrested and placed in psychiatric care, while Lila and Sam learn about his codependent relationship with Mother that lead to jealousy, murder and his split personality.
The Cast of ‘Psycho’
Anthony Perkins was a star on the rise following an Oscar nomination for his second film, Friendly Persuasion (1958). He took a reduced salary to play Norman Bates, which paid off since the film propelled him to international stardom. But Perkins was unfortunately typecast and later starred in a trio of sequels that suffered from diminishing quality.
Janet Leigh was already a proven star and was Hitchcock’s first choice to play Marion Crane. Like Perkins, Leigh accepted a reduced salary and became closely associated with the role for the rest of her career. In fact, she received threatening letters and calls for the rest of her life, and once felt frightened enough to contact the FBI.
The making of Psycho has been the topic of endless fascination thanks to Hitchcock’s mammoth struggle to finance the film. It all started with Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name which was loosely based on the gruesome murders of convicted serial killer, Ed Gein. Bloch drew several similarities between the real life Gein and his fictional Norman Bates; both were solitary killers, had domineering mothers whom they sealed off in their homes, and were cross-dressers.
Under contract at Paramount, Hitchcock was forced to abandon production on No Bail for the Judge when star Audrey Hepburn became pregnant. Looking for fresh material instead of yet another thriller, Hitchcock adapting Bloch’ book, only to be denied his usual budget by Paramount, which felt the material was too violent and sexual to be filmed.
Following negotiations and counter offers, Hitchcock eventually decided to finance the film himself while moving production to Universal Studios in exchange for Paramount to distribute. He also waves his director’s fee and demanded a significant share of ownership of the film negative. Paramount agreed, but remained skeptical that the movie would be a success.
Made on a budget of less than $1 million, Psycho was shot in the vein of his popular television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with the director utilizing the show’s crew to make his film. Eschewing the more gruesome details of Bloch’s novel, Hitchcock and inexperienced screenwriter Joseph Stefano crafted a script that kept the book’s themes of voyeurism, psychosis, incest and death.
Having financed Psycho with his own money, Hitchcock had much to gain or lose, depending on the box office outcome. That might explain why he uncharacteristically shot retakes of several scenes, including Leigh’s infamous murder in the shower, in order to get everything just right. Even then, Hitchcock almost made the fatal mistake of including a shot of Leigh breathing ever so slightly when she was supposed to be dead. Wife and collaborator Alma Reville caught the blooper before the movie was released.
During filming, Hitchcock employed numerous tricks to full engage his audience. By using extreme close-ups, point-of-view shots, and camera lenses to mimic human vision, Hitchcock drew moviegoers closer into the film, thus ramping up their fright and tension.
Despite his epic struggle to make the film – which later became the subject of the film Hitchcock (2012), starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren – Hitchcock crafted a major box office hit that later ranked as one of his best films. Because he owned a significant portion of the film, Hitchcock walked away from Psycho a wealthy man.
The Bottom Line
In making Psycho, Hitchcock broke all the rule regarding what was acceptable in terms of onscreen violence and sexuality, and in effect ushered in a new genre of horror movie later called the slasher film. The movie caused a great deal of controversy at the time, but Hitchcock’s drive to make it his way paid off in a big way. Only a director of his stature could have made a film like Psycho at the time. Anyone else might have wilted under studio pressure to tone down the content and in turn direct a lesser film.
‘Psycho’ at a GlanceYear: 1960
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Running Time: 109 mins.
Studio: Paramount Pictures