hitchcock's famed psycho shower scene -- 2/16/18

Today's selection -- from The Dark Side of Genius by Donald Spoto. Though director Alfred Hitchcock was already regarded as a genius, his movie Psycho was originally panned by critics, but became an enormous commercial success and was ultimately praised by critics. The Psycho shower scene in which star Janet Leigh's character is stabbed to death has become perhaps the most famous and studied scene in movie history:

"In a matter of weeks, from late November until early January [of 1960], Hitch­cock directed Psycho at the Revue Studios, the television branch at Uni­versal Pictures that Paramount rented for him. Everything was done in utmost secrecy. The clapper-board and company designation for the film was 'Wimpy,' the better to throw everyone off the track and discour­age reading of the novel that had just appeared.

" 'I enjoyed making Psycho,' Anthony Perkins said. 'In fact, I ac­cepted the film before I'd even read the script. [Hitchcock and I] got on very well, and he let me make several changes and suggestions. It was my idea that I should eat candy throughout the film. I thought it would be more interesting if the killer were a compulsive candy-eater.' Per­kins had no part in the legendary shower sequence, however, for he was in New York that week preparing a Broadway role; Hitchcock used a stand-in for the shadowy figure of the man disguised as the old woman.

" 'From the start,' Joseph Stefano recalled, 'Hitchcock had decided to use a nude professional model for the shots in which a torso would be glimpsed, so he wouldn't have to cope with a trembling actress.' About that central sequence, which has evoked more study, elicited more comment, and generated more shot-for-shot analysis from a technical viewpoint than any other in the history of the cinema, Hitchcock always retained a cool attitude. And rightly so, for he delegated the design and the shooting of it to the brilliant artist who had created the title designs for Vertigo and North by Northwest, and who, eventually, would do so for Psycho, too. 'I'm going to get Saul Bass to do a storyboard for the shower scene,' he told Joseph Stefano when they reached this point in the script, 'so we know exactly what we're going to do.'

"For Janet Leigh, this role and this scene provided the challenge of her career.

'He sent me the book before I agreed to do the role, and he told me the small and not very interesting part of Marion Crane would be improved and made more sympathetic. And it was. By the time we were halfway through photog­raphy, everyone knew we had a good picture, but no one had any idea it was going to make history.

'He told me he hired me because I was an actress. "I'm not going to direct every nuance," he said. "But if you don't come up with what I need, I'll bring it out of you -- and if you give too much, I'll tone it down. What you do has to fit into my framework and within my camera angle." I took him quite lit­erally, and I knew my range and intention had to be for him and with him, and we related to one another very respectfully.

'The planning of the shower sequence was left up to Saul Bass, and Hitch­cock followed his storyboard precisely. Because of this, although we worked on it for almost a week, it went very professionally and very quickly. But it was, of course, very grueling to stand in a shower getting drenched for a week.'

"As it happened, Hitchcock made two important -- and personally re­vealing -- additions to Bass's designs: the quick shot of the knife en­tering the woman's abdomen (done by a fast-motion reverse shot), and the shot of blood and water running down the drain. 'It had been my idea to do it entirely as a bloodless sequence without overt violence,' according to Saul Bass, 'but he insisted on inserting those two shots.' And to the description of the brutal murder in the screenplay -- only generally stated by the writer -- Hitchcock added to shot 116: 'The slashing. An impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film.' If there is a vicious anger throughout Psycho, this is the single moment that spreads that anger before and after it.

"But it was not the brutality of this sequence that caused alarm at Paramount: it was the unprecedented shot (and sound) of a toilet being flushed. This, not the scarcely glimpsed, soft-focus nudity in the shower, was the most iconoclastic image in the picture -- more influential than Hitchcock's killing off of the leading lady almost halfway through the film. Toilet imagery, as mentioned, and allusions to bodily functions not only surfaced in Hitchcock's humor -- they also mark a recurrent, obsessive motif in his films. Everything about Psycho was bold; and in Hitchcock's mind, perhaps nothing was so bold as this explicit lavatory detail.

"The technique, the planning, George Tomasini's editing, and Bernard Herrmann 's shrieking score for strings gave the shower scene precisely the effect Hitchcock wanted. (Originally he had designed the shower murder to be accompanied only by the cries of the woman and the splashing of the water. Herrmann, however, asked Hitchcock to hear the music he had composed for it, and afterward Hitchcock had to admit that the score significantly improved the scene.)"

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Donald Spoto


The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock


Da Capo Press


Copyright 1983, 1999 by Donald Spoto


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