Tuesday August 10, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Psycho
On this Day:
In 1960, the Los Angeles premiere of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh occured. However, slash the idea that this was the first screaming, I mean, screening of the movie.
The film was originally released on June 16, 1960 at the DeMille Theatre and the Baronet Theatre in New York City. It was the first film sold in the US on the basis that no one would be admitted to the theater after the film had started. The following week, the film opened at the Paramount Theatre, Boston; the Woods Theatre, Chicago and the Arcadia Theatre, Philadelphia. After 9 weeks of release at the DeMille and the Baronet, the film was released in neighborhood New York theaters, the first time a film had played on Broadway and the neighborhood theaters simultaneously.
Psycho is a 1960 American psychological horror thriller film produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The screenplay, written by Joseph Stefano, was based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. The film stars Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin and Martin Balsam. The plot centers on an encounter between on-the-run Marion Crane (Leigh) and shy motel proprietor Norman Bates (Perkins) and its aftermath, in which a private investigator (Balsam), Marion’s lover Sam Loomis (Gavin) and her sister Lila (Miles) investigate the cause of her disappearance.
Psycho was seen as a departure from Hitchcock’s previous film North by Northwest, as it was filmed on a lower budget in black-and-white by the crew of his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The film was initially considered controversial and received mixed reviews, but audience interest and outstanding box-office returns prompted a major critical re-evaluation. Psycho was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh and Best Director for Hitchcock.
Psycho is now considered one of Hitchcock’s best films, and is arguably his most famous work. It has been praised as a major work of cinematic art by international film critics and scholars due to its slick direction, tense atmosphere, impressive camerawork, a memorable score and iconic performances. Often ranked among the greatest films of all time, it set a new level of acceptability for violence, deviant behavior and sexuality in American films, and is widely considered to be the earliest example of the slasher film genre.
After Hitchcock’s death in 1980, Universal Pictures produced follow-ups: three sequels, a remake, a made-for-television spin-off, and a prequel television series set in the 2010s. In 1992, the Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The murder of Leigh’s character in the shower is the film’s pivotal scene and one of the best-known in all of cinema. As such, it spawned numerous myths and legends. It was shot from December 17–23, 1959, after Leigh had twice postponed the filming, firstly for a cold and then her period. The finished scene runs some three minutes, and its flurry of action and edits has produced contradictory attempts to count its parts. Hitchcock himself contributed to this pattern, telling Truffaut that “there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage”, and maintaining to other interviewers that there were “seventy-eight pieces of film”. The 2017 documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, by director Alexandre O. Philippe, latches onto this last figure for the production’s tagline, ’78 Shots & 52 Cuts That Changed Cinema Forever’. But in his careful description of the shower scene, film scholar Philip J. Skerry counted only 60 separate shots, with a table breaking down the middle 34 by type, camera position, angle, movement, focus, POV, and subject. Absent an alternative tabulation, it seems safest to accept 60 as the number of shots in Psycho’s shower scene. Many are close-ups, including extreme close-ups, except for medium shots in the shower directly before and directly after the murder. The combination of the close shots with their short duration makes the sequence feel more subjective than if the images were presented alone or in a wider angle, an example of the technique Hitchcock described as “transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience”.
To capture the straight-on shot of the shower head, the camera had to be equipped with a long lens. The inner holes on the shower head were blocked and the camera placed a sufficient distance away so that the water, while appearing to be aimed directly at the lens, actually went around and past it.
The soundtrack of screeching violins, violas, and cellos was an original all-strings piece by composer Bernard Herrmann titled “The Murder”. Hitchcock originally intended to have no music for the sequence (and all motel scenes), but Herrmann insisted he try his composition. Afterward, Hitchcock agreed it vastly intensified the scene, and nearly doubled Herrmann’s salary. The blood in the scene was Hershey’s chocolate syrup, which shows up better on black-and-white film, and has more realistic density than stage blood. The sound of the knife entering flesh was created by plunging a knife into a casaba melon.
There are varying accounts whether Leigh was in the shower the entire time or a body double was used for some parts of the murder sequence and its aftermath. In an interview with Roger Ebert and, in the book by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Leigh stated she appeared in the scene the entire time and Hitchcock used a stand-in only for the sequence in which Norman wraps Marion’s body in a shower curtain and places it in the trunk of her car. The 2010 book The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower by Robert Graysmith and the documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene contradicts this, identifying Marli Renfro as Leigh’s body double for some of the shower scene’s shots. Graysmith also stated that Hitchcock later acknowledged Renfro’s participation in the scene. Rita Riggs, who was in charge of the wardrobe, claims it was Leigh in the shower the entire time, explaining that Leigh did not wish to be nude and so she devised strategic items including pasties, moleskin, and bodystockings, to be pasted on Leigh for the scene. Riggs and Leigh went through strip tease magazines that showed all the different costumes, but none of them worked because they all had tassels on them.
As you know, you could not take the camera and just show a nude woman, it had to be done impressionistically. So, it was done with little pieces of film, the head, the feet, the hand, etc. In that scene there were 78 pieces of film in about 45 seconds.
— Alfred Hitchcock, FilMagicians, Alfred Hitchcock interview on Psycho (1964), retrieved December 9, 2018
A popular myth emerged that ice-cold water was used in the shower scene to make Leigh’s scream realistic. Leigh denied this on numerous occasions, saying the crew was accommodating, using hot water throughout the week-long shoot. All of the screams are Leigh’s. Another myth was that graphic designer Saul Bass directed the shower scene. This was refuted by several figures associated with the film, including Leigh, who stated: “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.” Hilton A. Green, the assistant director, also refutes Bass’ claim: “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.” Roger Ebert, a longtime admirer of Hitchcock’s work, summarily dismissed the rumor, stating, “It seems unlikely that a perfectionist with an ego like Hitchcock’s would let someone else direct such a scene.”
Commentators such as Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn have argued in favor of Bass’ contribution to the scene in his capacity as visual consultant and storyboard artist. Along with designing the opening credits, Bass is termed “Pictorial Consultant” in the credits. When interviewing Hitchcock in 1967, François Truffaut asked about the extent of Bass’ contribution, to which Hitchcock replied that in addition to the titles, Bass had provided storyboards for the Arbogast murder (which he claimed to have rejected), but made no mention of Bass providing storyboards for the shower scene.
According to Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock At Work, Bass’ first claim to have directed the scene was in 1970, when he provided a magazine with 48 drawings used as storyboards as proof of his contribution. Krohn’s analysis of the production, while refuting Bass’ claims for directing the scene, notes that these storyboards did introduce key aspects of the final scene—most notably, the fact that the killer appears as a silhouette, and details such as the close-ups of the slashing knife, Leigh’s desperate outstretched arm, the shower curtain being torn off its hooks, and the transition from the hole of the drainage pipe to Marion Crane’s dead eyes. Krohn notes that this final transition is highly reminiscent of the iris titles that Bass created for Vertigo. Krohn also notes that Hitchcock shot the scene with two cameras: one a BNC Mitchell, the other a handheld French Éclair camera which Orson Welles had used in Touch of Evil (1958). In order to create an ideal montage for the greatest emotional impact on the audience, Hitchcock shot a lot of footage of this scene which he trimmed down in the editing room. He even brought a Moviola on the set to gauge the footage required. The final sequence, which his editor George Tomasini worked on with Hitchcock’s advice, however did not go far beyond the basic structural elements set up by Bass’ storyboards.
According to Donald Spoto in The Dark Side of Genius and to Stephen Rebello in Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” Hitchcock’s wife and trusted collaborator, Alma Reville, spotted a blooper in one of the last edits of Psycho before its official release: after Marion was supposedly dead, one could see her blink. According to Patricia Hitchcock, talking in Laurent Bouzereau’s “making of” documentary, Alma spotted that Leigh’s character appeared to take a breath. In either case, the postmortem activity was edited out and was never seen by audiences. Although Marion’s eyes should be dilated after her death, the contact lenses necessary for this effect would have required six weeks of acclimation to wear them, so Hitchcock decided to forgo them.
It is often claimed that, despite its graphic nature, the shower scene never once shows a knife puncturing flesh. However, a frame by frame analysis of the sequence shows one shot in which the knife appears to penetrate Leigh’s abdomen, but the effect was created by lighting and reverse motion. Leigh herself was so affected by this scene when she saw it, that she no longer took showers unless she absolutely had to; she would lock all the doors and windows and would leave the bathroom and shower door open. She never realized until she first watched the film “how vulnerable and defenseless one is”.
Before production, Leigh and Hitchcock fully discussed what the scene meant:
Marion had decided to go back to Phoenix, come clean, and take the consequence, so when she stepped into the bathtub it was as 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.
Film theorist Robin Wood also discusses how the shower washes “away her guilt”. He comments upon the “alienation effect” of killing off the “apparent center of the film” with which spectators had identified. The scene was the subject of Alexandre O. Philippe’s 2017 documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, the title of which references the putative number of cuts and set-ups, respectively, that Hitchcock used to shoot it.
Initial reviews of the film were mixed. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “There is not an abundance of subtlety or the lately familiar Hitchcock bent toward significant and colorful scenery in this obviously low-budget job.” Crowther called the “slow buildups to sudden shocks” reliably melodramatic but contested Hitchcock’s psychological points, reminiscent of Krafft-Ebing’s studies, as less effective. While the film did not conclude satisfactorily for the critic, he commended the cast’s performances as “fair”. British critic C. A. Lejeune was so offended that she not only walked out before the end but permanently resigned her post as film critic for The Observer. Other negative reviews stated, “a blot on an honorable career”, “plainly a gimmick movie”, and “merely one of those television shows padded out to two hours.” The Catholic Legion of Decency gave the film a B rating, meaning “morally objectionable in part”.
Critics from the New York Daily News, New York Daily Mirror, and Village Voice were positive: writing: “Anthony Perkins’ performance is the best of his career … Janet Leigh has never been better”, “played out beautifully”, and “first American movie since Touch of Evil to stand in the same creative rank as the great European films”, respectively. A mixed review from the New York Herald Tribune’s review stated, “… rather difficult to be amused at the forms insanity may take … keeps your attention like a snake-charmer.” The film ranked 9th on Cahiers du Cinéma’s Top 10 Films of the Year List in 1960.
Mainstream audiences enjoyed the film, with lines stretching outside of theaters as people had to wait for the next showing. This, along with box office numbers, led to a reconsideration of the film by critics, and it eventually received a large amount of praise.
In its opening week it grossed $46,500 at the DeMille and a record $19,500 at the Baronet. Following its expansion the following week, it grossed $143,000 from 5 theaters and ranked second at the US box office. It remains the most commercially successful film in Hitchcock’s career.
In the United Kingdom, the film broke attendance records at the London Plaza Cinema, but nearly all British film critics gave it poor reviews, questioning Hitchcock’s taste and judgment and calling it his worst film ever. Reasons cited for this were the lack of preview screenings; the fact that they had to turn up at a set time as they wouldn’t be admitted after the film had started; their dislike of the gimmicky promotion; and Hitchcock’s expatriate status. Critics later reassessed the film more positively. Time magazine switched its opinion from “Hitchcock bears down too heavily in this one” to “superlative” and “masterly”, and Bosley Crowther put it on his Top Ten list of 1960. Psycho was criticized for causing other filmmakers to show gory content; three years later, Blood Feast, considered to be the first “splatter film”, was released. Inspired by Psycho, Hammer Film Productions launched a series of mystery thrillers including The Nanny (1965) starring Bette Davis and William Castle’s Homicidal (1961) was followed by a slew of more than thirteen other splatter films.
It broke box-office records in Japan and the rest of Asia, France, Britain, South America, the United States, and Canada, and was a moderate success in Australia for a brief period. Hitchcock personally earned in excess of $15 million from Psycho. He then swapped his rights to Psycho and his TV anthology for 150,000 shares of MCA, making him the third largest shareholder in MCA Inc., and his own boss at Universal, in theory; however, this did not stop them from interfering with his later films. Psycho was one of Hitchcock’s most profitable films, earning $32 million worldwide.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Psycho has an approval rating of 96% based on 103 reviews, with an average score of 9.20/10. The site’s critical consensus reads: “Infamous for its shower scene, but immortal for its contribution to the horror genre. Because Psycho was filmed with tact, grace, and art, Hitchcock didn’t just create modern horror, he validated it.” On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 97 out of 100 based on 17 critics, indicating “universal acclaim”. In his 1998 review of Psycho film critic Roger Ebert summarised the film’s enduring appeal, writing:
What makes “Psycho” immortal, when so many films are already half-forgotten as we leave the theater, is that it connects directly with our fears: Our fears that we might impulsively commit a crime, our fears of the police, our fears of becoming the victim of a madman, and of course our fears of disappointing our mothers.
Psycho has been called “the first psychoanalytical thriller.” The sex and violence in the film were unlike anything previously seen in a mainstream film. “The shower scene is both feared and desired,” wrote French film critic Serge Kaganski. “Hitchcock may be scaring his female viewers out of their wits, but he is turning his male viewers into potential rapists because Janet Leigh has been turning men on ever since she appeared in her brassiere in the first scene.”
In his documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek remarks that Norman Bates’ mansion has three floors, paralleling the three levels of the human mind that are postulated by Freudian psychoanalysis: the top floor would be the superego, where Bates’ mother lives; the ground floor is then Bates’ ego, where he functions as an apparently normal human being; and the basement would be Bates’ id. Žižek interprets Bates’ moving his mother’s corpse from top floor to basement as a symbol for the deep connection that psychoanalysis posits between superego and id.
Psycho has become one of the most recognizable films in cinema history, and is arguably Hitchcock’s best known film. In his novel, Bloch used an uncommon plot structure: he repeatedly introduced sympathetic protagonists, then killed them off. This played on his reader’s expectations of traditional plots, leaving them uncertain and anxious. Hitchcock recognized the effect this approach could have on audiences, and utilized it in his adaptation, killing off Leigh’s character at the end of the first act. This daring plot device, coupled with the fact that the character was played by the biggest box-office name in the film, was a shocking turn of events in 1960.
The shower scene has become a pop culture touchstone and is often regarded as one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history, as well as the most suspenseful scene ever filmed. Its effectiveness is often credited to the use of startling editing techniques borrowed from the Soviet montage filmmakers, and to the iconic screeching violins in Bernard Herrmann’s musical score. In 2000, The Guardian ranked the shower scene at No. 2 on their list of “The top 10 film moments”. The scene has been frequently parodied and referenced in popular culture, complete with the violin screeching sound effects (see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among many others). 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, a documentary on its production by Alexandre O. Philippe, was released on October 13, 2017, including interviews with and analysis by Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Bret Easton Ellis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Karyn Kusama, Eli Roth, Oz Perkins, Leigh Whannell, Walter Murch, Danny Elfman, Elijah Wood, Richard Stanley, and Neil Marshall.
Psycho is considered by some to be the first film in the slasher film genre, though some critics and film historians point to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a lesser-known film with similar themes of voyeurism and sexualized violence, whose release happened to precede Psycho’s by a few months. However, due to Peeping Tom’s critical drubbing at the time and short lifespan at the box office, Psycho was the more widely known and influential film.
Psycho has been referenced in other films numerous times: examples include the 1974 musical horror film Phantom of the Paradise; the 1978 horror film Halloween (which starred Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh’s daughter, and Donald Pleasence’s character was named “Sam Loomis”); the 1977 Mel Brooks tribute to many of Hitchcock’s thrillers, High Anxiety; the 1980 Fade to Black; the 1980 Dressed to Kill; and Wes Craven’s 1996 horror satire Scream. Bernard Herrmann’s opening theme has been sampled by rapper Busta Rhymes on his song “Gimme Some More” (1998). Manuel Muñoz’s 2011 novel What You See in the Dark includes a sub-plot that fictionalizes elements of the filming of Psycho, referring to Hitchcock and Leigh only as “The Director” and “The Actress”. In the comic book stories of Jonni Future, the house inherited by the title character is patterned after the Bates Motel.
The film boosted Perkins’ career, but he soon began to suffer from typecasting. When Perkins was asked whether he would have still taken the role knowing that he would be typecast afterwards, he said “yes”. As Perkins was in New York working on a Broadway stage show when the shower sequence was filmed, actresses Anne Dore and Margo Epper stepped in as his body doubles for that scene. Until her death in 2004, Leigh received strange and sometimes threatening calls, letters, and even tapes detailing what the caller would like to do to Marion Crane. One letter was so “grotesque” that she passed it to the FBI. Two agents visited Leigh and told her the culprits had been located and that she should notify the FBI if she received any more letters of that type.
Leigh said, “no other murder mystery in the history of the movies has inspired such merchandising.” A number of items emblazoned with Bates Motel, stills, lobby cards, and highly valuable posters are available for purchase. In 1992, it was adapted scene-for-scene into three comic books by the Innovative Corporation (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
How does Norman Bates get to the Bates Motel? He takes the psycho path…
Second, a Song:
Here is the iconic shower scene from Psycho. I hope you, ahhhh, enjoy this…
Thought for the Day:
“Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky