Psycho (1960 film)  

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"The harsh screeching violins by composer Bernard Herrmann featured in the shower murder scene of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is one of the most recognizable pieces of film score to date."--Sholem Stein

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Psycho is a 1960 suspense/horror film by film director 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 American 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 harsh 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.



Psycho is a prime example of the type of film that appeared in the United States during the 1960s after the erosion of the Production Code. It was unprecedented in its depiction of sexuality and violence, right from the opening scene in which Sam and Marion are shown as lovers sharing the same bed, with Marion in a bra. In the Production Code standards of that time, unmarried couples shown in the same bed would be taboo.

According to the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the censors in charge of enforcing the Production Code wrangled with Hitchcock because some of them insisted they could see one of Leigh's breasts. Hitchcock held onto the print for several days, left it untouched, and resubmitted it for approval. Each of the censors reversed their positions: those who had previously seen the breast now did not, and those who had not, now did. They passed the film after the director removed one shot that showed the buttocks of Leigh's stand-in. The board was also upset by the racy opening, so Hitchcock said that if they let him keep the shower scene he would re-shoot the opening with them on the set. Since they did not show up for the re-shoot, the opening stayed.

Another cause of concern for the censors was that Marion was shown flushing a toilet, with its contents (torn-up note paper) fully visible. No flushing toilet had appeared in mainstream film and television in the U.S. at that time.

Internationally, Hitchcock was forced to make minor changes to the film, mostly to the shower scene. In Britain and New Zealand the shot of Norman washing blood from his hands was objected to and in Singapore, though the shower scene was left untouched, the murder of Arbogast and a shot of Mother's corpse were removed.

The most controversial move was Hitchcock's "no late admission" policy for the film, which was unusual for the time. It was not entirely original as Clouzot had done the same in France for Les Diaboliques. Hitchcock thought that if people entered the theater late and never saw the star actress Janet Leigh, they would feel cheated. At first theater owners opposed the idea, claiming that they would lose business. However, after the first day, the owners enjoyed long lines of people waiting to see the film.

Psychoanalytic interpretation

Psycho has been called "the first psychoanalytical thriller." The sex and violence in the film were unlike anything previously seen in a mainstream film. "[T]he 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, since 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 finally, 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.


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.

The shower scene

scene (film), The 100 Scariest Movie Moments

The murder of Janet 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 to December 23, 1959, and features 77 different camera angles. The scene runs 3 minutes and includes 50 cuts. Most of the shots are 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 it would have been 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".

In order 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 is reputed to have been Bosco 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 Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Leigh stated she was in the scene the entire time and Hitchcock only used a stand-in 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 contradicts this, identifying Marli Renfro as Leigh's body double for some of the shower scene's shots.

A popular myth emerged that in order for Leigh's scream in the shower to sound realistic ice-cold water was used. Leigh denied this on numerous occasions, saying the crew was very accommodating supplying hot water throughout the week-long shoot. All of the screams are Leigh's.

Another myth holds Hitchcock only told Leigh to stand in the shower and she had no idea her character was going to be murdered, causing an authentic reaction.

Another concerns Saul Bass, the graphic designer who created many of the title sequences of Hitchcock's films and storyboarded some of Psycho's scenes, claiming he had 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 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."

However, 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 of Psycho in his book Hitchcock at Work, 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 down, 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's research also notes that Hitchcock shot the scene with two cameras: one a BNC Mitchell, the other a handheld camera called an Éclair 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, Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville, spotted a blooper in one of the last screenings 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 acclimatization 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 may have been 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".

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.

In April 2013, the scene was voted the best bathroom scene of any film in history, with scenes from Trainspotting and There's Something About Mary coming second and third.

In popular culture

Psycho has become one of the most recognizable films in cinema history, and is arguably Hitchcock's most well-known film. The iconic shower scene is frequently spoofed, given homage to and referenced in popular culture, complete with the violin screeching sound effects. The Simpsons in particular has spoofed the film on numerous occasions, while Principal Skinner's relationship with his mother is reminiscent of Norman Bates's.

  • The 1978 horror classic Halloween, starring Janet Leigh's daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, also features a character named Sam Loomis and a knife-wielding criminal. The 1998 sequel Halloween H20: 20 Years Later features more references to Psycho and even a cameo appearance by Janet Leigh herself.
  • The 1977 Mel Brooks movie High Anxiety features a shot-for-shot parody of the shower scene, with a bellhop delivering a newspaper rather than brandishing a knife, and newspaper ink instead of blood in the drain.
  • In the Direct-to-video animated film Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation, the characters Fowlmouth and Shirley the Loon go to a movie called "Skunknophobia" which features the main theme of Psycho by Bernard Herman.
  • That '70s Show's Halloween special "Too Old to Trick or Treat, Too Young To Die" parodies a number of films from Hitchcock's oeuvre, including a scene in which Kelso and Laurie mimic the shower scene from Psycho using red raspberry shampoo.
  • From 1995, Dargaud has published a series of Franco-Belgian graphic novels entitled Pin-Up, aimed mainly at adults, written by Yann Le Pennetier and drawn by Philippe Berthet. The series describes the adventures of Dottie Partington, who gets involved with a variety of people, and events both factual and fictional. An adventure set in 1960 has her staying over at the Bates Motel. Dottie, who at this stage looks a little like Marion Crane, takes a shower and is spied on by Norman. Fortunately Mrs Bates is still alive, catches him in the act and orders him to stop peeping and get back to his taxidermy. "Are you trying to drive me crazy?" she bellows. When Norman later attempts to stuff the pet skunk of Dottie's troubled step-son, the young boy punches him on the nose, leaving him bleeding and calling for his mother.
  • In the 2003 Pixar film Finding Nemo, Bernard Hermann's famous murder scene score is used when Darla, the dentist's niece, makes an entrance.
  • During the 72nd Academy Awards, one of the opening spoofs features Billy Crystal showering. A figure sneaks up behind him and rips the curtain open... revealing Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey's character from American Beauty), asking why Crystal is using his bathroom. Crystal nervously asks if this is the beginning of the movie (where Lester masturbates in the shower) to which Lester happily responds, "You bet", as he raises an industrial size bottle of lotion into the air like a knife. The shower music cues up as Crystal screams and they cut to the next spoof.
  • In the Rockewell song "Somebody's Watching Me" the lyrics state that he's afraid of showers because they remind him of "Psycho too much".

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