From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Psycho is a 1960 suspense/horror film directed by auteur Alfred Hitchcock from the screenplay by Joseph Stefano about a psychotic killer. It is based on the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which was in turn inspired by the crimes of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. The film depicts the encounter between a secretary, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who is in hiding after embezzling from her employer, at a motel run by the lonely Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). "The Shower Scene" has been studied, discussed, and referenced countless times in print and in film courses with debate focusing on why it is so terrifying and how it was produced, including how it passed the censors and who directed it.
The soundtrack of screeching violins, violas, and cellos was an original all-strings piece by composer Bernard Herrmann entitled "The Murder." Hitchcock originally wanted the sequence (and all motel scenes) to play without music, but Herrmann begged him to try it with the cue he had composed. Afterwards
The film is based on the novel by Robert Bloch, which was in turn based (although very loosely) on the crimes of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. Hitchcock acquired the film rights anonymously through an agent for $9,000.
Hitchcock embraced Psycho as a means to regain success and individuality in an increasingly competitive genre. He had seen many B movies churned out by William Castle such as House on Haunted Hill (1958), and by Roger Corman such as A Bucket of Blood (1959) that cleaned up at box offices despite being panned by critics. There were also a series of competing directors who had tried their hand at typical Hitchcock fare in such films as When Strangers Marry (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1946), Gaslight (1944), and so forth.
Furthermore, both Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot had adapted two books by the same authors with very different results. Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955), based on a Boileau-Narcejac novel, was critically acclaimed and financially successful, earning him the title of the "French Hitchcock", while Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), based on the Boileau-Narcejac novel D'entre les morts, had failed both critically and financially. Hitchcock was also constantly reinventing himself (he once said "Style is self-plagiarism"), so, when Peggy Robertson, a trusted production assistant, brought Psycho to his attention, he seized on it not only for its originality but also as a way to retake his mantle as an acclaimed director of suspense.
Ned Brown, Hitchcock's longtime agent, explains that Hitchcock liked the story because the focus began with Marion's dilemma then completely turned after the murder. Hitchcock himself said in an interview with François Truffaut that "I think the thing that appealed to me was the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue. That was about all."
James Cavanaugh wrote the original screenplay, but Hitchcock turned it down, saying that the story dragged and read like a TV short horror story. Hitchcock reluctantly agreed to meet with Stefano, who had worked on only one film before. Despite his newness to the industry, the meeting went well, and Stefano was hired.
The screenplay is relatively faithful to the novel, with a few notable adaptations by Hitchcock and Stefano. The book features Mary Crane, from Dallas, Texas as its heroine and protagonist. Since, at the time, a real Mary Crane existed in Phoenix, Hitchcock renamed the character Marion Crane. Stefano also changed Marion's telltale earring found in the bathroom after her death to a scrap of paper in the toilet. When developing the characters for film, Hitchcock asked Stefano why he did not like the Norman Bates character, to which Stefano replied that Norman was unsympathetic, unattractive, and a drinker. Hitchcock suggested Perkins as a sympathetic man, and Stefano agreed. Other changes Stefano made for the screenplay include the location of Arbogast's death from the foyer to the stairwell. He also changed the novel's budding romance between Sam and Lila to just a friendly relationship, and instead of using the two to explain Norman's mental condition he replaced them with a professional psychiatrist.
Paramount, whose contract guaranteed another film by Hitchcock, did not want Hitchcock to make Psycho. Paramount was expecting No Bail for the Judge starring Audrey Hepburn who became pregnant and had to bow out, leading Hitchcock to scrap the production. Their official stance was that the book was "too repulsive" and "impossible for films", and nothing but another of his star-studded mystery thrillers. They did not like "anything about it at all" and denied him his usual budget. So, Hitchcock financed the film's creation through his own Shamley Productions, shooting at Universal Studios under the Revue television unit. Hitchcock's original Bates Motel and Psycho House movie set buildings, which were constructed on the same stage as Lon Chaney Sr.'s The Phantom of the Opera, are still standing at Universal Studios in Universal City near Hollywood and are a regular attraction on the studio's tour. As a further result of cost cutting, Hitchcock chose to film Psycho in black and white, keeping the budget under $1,000,000. Other reasons for shooting in black and white were to prevent the shower scene from being too gory and that he was a fan of Les Diaboliques's use of black and white.
To keep costs down and because he was most comfortable around them, Hitchcock took most of his crew from his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including the cinematographer, set designer, script supervisor, and first assistant director. He hired regular collaborators Bernard Herrmann as music composer, George Tomasini as editor, and Saul Bass for the title design and storyboarding of the shower scene. In all, his crew cost $62,000.
Through the strength of his reputation, Hitchcock cast Leigh for a quarter of her usual fee, paying only $25,000 (in the 1967 book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock said that Leigh owed Paramount one final film on her seven-year contract which she had signed in 1953). His first choice, Leigh agreed after having only read the novel and making no inquiry into her salary. Her co-star, Anthony Perkins, agreed to $40,000. Both stars were experienced and proven box-office draws.
Paramount did distribute the film, but four years later Hitchcock sold his stock in Shamley to Universal's parent company and his next six films were made at and distributed by Universal. After another four years, Paramount sold all rights to Universal. When the film became a major hit, the Hitchcocks received a much larger share of the profit than they would have otherwise.