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Excerpt: Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, by Stephen Rebello

In 1960, Hollywood was abuzz with gossip about Pyscho's shower scene—including one rumor that Hitchcock didn't even film it himself.



Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho

By Stephen Rebello

Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho

By Stephen Rebello

As is often the case with classic movie scenes, the precise details of the shooting of the shower sequence have been obscured by time, selective memory, ego, the haze of legend, and controversy. According to various versions, Anthony Perkins was or was not involved in the filming. Other stories insist that Janet Leigh did or did not shoot the sequence in the nude. The shower sequence has been credited to many—from a special film crew imported either from Japan or Germany, to graphic designer Saul Bass entirely. Indeed, during the mid-seventies and continuing today, Bass has startled many by asserting his own auteurship of the sequence.

That Hitchcock was parsimonious at doling out credit to others is well established. In his published conversations with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock observed of the contributions of Bass, “He did only one scene, but I didn’t use his montage. He was supposed to do the titles, but since he was interested in the picture, I let him lay out the sequence of the detective going up the stairs, just before he is stabbed.” Hitchcock went on to detail how he was forced to reshoot the Bass scenes. Never in public did Hitchcock acknowledge the involvement of Saul Bass in the shower scene.

Bass, in London to promote his debut feature film, Phase Four, in 1973, startled many with revelations about Psycho that appeared in the London Sunday Times. A reporter for that paper wrote: “He [Bass] was invited by Alfred Hitchcock to design the notorious shower-bath in Psycho and wound up directing that too.” Reproductions of the Bass storyboards illustrated the piece and the graphic designer was quoted as saying of Hitchcock, “The man’s a genius. But why should a genius get away with being so greedy?” According to the Sunday Times, Bass went on to say, “When the film came out everyone went wild about the shower-bath murder which I’d done, almost literally shot by shot, from my storyboard. And then Hitchcock had second thoughts.”

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Over the years, the statements of authorship by Bass, amplified and elaborated for other publications, have been accepted without question by some. In Halliwell’s Film and Video Guide, an encyclopedic volume of film titles with critical comment, author Leslie Halliwell describes Psycho as a “Curious shocker devised by Hitchcock as a tease and received by most critics as an unpleasant horror piece in which the main scene, the shower stabbing, was allegedly directed not by Hitchcock but by Saul Bass.” Halliwell, hardly a Hitchcock enthusiast, further cites the directorial credit for Psycho as “Alfred Hitchcock (and Saul Bass).”

A Variety piece dated June 3, 1981, quotes Bass as having detailed the circumstances of how he came to direct the shower sequence. “I showed it [the test footage shot with the IMO newsreel camera] to Hitch and he very graciously said, you do it. He was on the set. It was really a very generous gesture. It was a thrill for me.” Today, Bass, who is internationally known for corporate logos and documentary films, calls the quotes from the London Sunday Times, and others of a derogatory nature toward Hitchcock, “totally inaccurate.” He details the circumstances of the shooting of the scene by saying, “It came time to shoot it and he benignly waved me on. And that was how it came about.”

From a vantage point of thirty years later, Bass observed: “I’ve directed a feature. It is hell. So complex, wearing, time-consuming. If anybody can help you, you want it. If somebody can relieve you of something, you’re grateful. That was the spirit in which [Hitchcock] asked me to lift certain things, to concentrate on things he couldn’t pay attention to while he was doing everything else.”

  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

From the standpoint of many crew members, any confusion as to who directed the scene is groundless. “I was on that set every second,” asserted script supervisor Marshall Schlom. “Nobody directs Mr. Hitchcock’s pictures but Mr. Hitchcock. The set was four ‘wild’ walls and so tiny, basically no more than the six-foot tub, he could barely get a camera in there. It was a closed set, with a guard at the locked door. There were no visitors. The woman who was Janet Leigh’s body, the ‘sunbather’ or ‘nudist,’ as Mr. Hitchcock called her, paraded around—which was all new to us. We actually photographed bits and pieces. I don’t ever recall seeing a storyboard as we know them today.”

Wardrobe supervisor Rita Riggs vividly recalled the shooting and the storyboards. As with other crew members, she verified that the shooting was postponed twice: once when Janet Leigh had a headcold and another when the star had her period. “I was involved daily because it was such a critical sequence,” Riggs said. “It was shot on a tiny set, with screens all around it. Everyone was extremely protective and tried to treat Janet with as much consideration as possible. The storyboards for that sequence were unbelievable, but Mr. Hitchcock absolutely shot it himself. We shot frame by frame from the storyboards because each of us had to look at them to know exactly what the camera would see. Janet, who was a terrific sport and a wonderful professional throughout, was never nude. After she and I had to get the moleskin contraption glued-on and trimmed, then she’d get into the shower only to have the water wash off the moleskin. As a filmmaker, Mr. Hitchcock got impatient several times and would say, ‘Oh, come now, we’ve all seen more than that at the beach.’ But Janet Leigh was right. As a major star and a beautiful woman with children, why should she expose her whole body? This is a devastating business. People talk.”

The wardrobe supervisor admitted that technical bugaboos in shooting the shower scene vexed the usually unflappable director. “Mr. Hitchcock sometimes walked away because he became so exasperated by three hours of running water, nudity, and wipe-offs [of the moleskin covering]. He may have turned over a brief shot or two to an assistant. I remember him sitting there twiddling his thumbs clockwise or, when particularly exasperated, counterclockwise. I also remember him not trying to generate any giggles to break the tension. Instead, he did a lot of pontificating, which was something he did often to cover his shyness.”

Janet Leigh recalls the shooting as if it had been yesterday. “Hitch was very clear about what he wanted from me in the shower scene. He said he wanted me to be sure to show that I was not just getting the dirt off, not an I’m-gonna-wash-that-man-right-out-of-my-hair kind of thing, but cleansing the evil Marion had done and being ready to pay her dues. The shower was a baptism, a taking away of the torment from her mind. Marion became a virgin again. He wanted the audience to feel her peacefulness, her kind of rebirth, so that the moment of intrusion is even more shocking and tragic.”

As Leigh detailed the shooting of the scene, she emphasized, “Saul Bass was there for the shooting, but he never directed me. Absolutely not. Saul Bass is brilliant, but he couldn’t have done the drawings had Mr. Hitchcock not discussed with him what he wanted to get. And you couldn’t have filmed the drawings. Why does there always have to be a controversy? When something turns out as well as this [scene] did and has brought attention to all the people involved, you would think that would be a happy memory.”

“He wanted the audience to feel her peacefulness, her kind of rebirth, so that the moment of intrusion is even more shocking and tragic.”

Since the shower murder sequence did not require the services of Anthony Perkins, Hitchcock released him to attend rehearsals in New York for Greenwillow, a Frank Loesser-written Broadway musical for which the actor was preparing for a March 8, 1960 opening night.. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano roared with laughter as he recalled Hitchcock’s discreetly confiding to him that Perkins, whom he thought ‘excessively shy around women,’ should be spared any unnecessary embarrassment or discomfort. “It just wouldn’t be very nice,” the director told his screenwriter. Thirty years later, Perkins, on learning of the qualms of his director, observed: “That was sweet of him. Typical of his generosity. Whether imaginary or based on fantasy, still it was awful nice of him to have the idea. I said, ‘Look, I’ve got to take some of these rehearsals,’ and, through special graciousness on Hitchcock’s part, he said, ‘Go ahead, we don’t need you for this.’ You have only to see the film to see that the silhouette coming in that door has as little resemblance to me as any silhouette could.”

Perkins has heard and read the claim of Saul Bass. “To set up shot by shot and to shoot it are two different worlds apart. He [Bass] may have drawn it shot by shot, but he wasn’t on the set. Now, I wasn’t either, but that’s what Hilton [Green] tells me. Now, the [rumors about it having been shot by a] foreign crew? That’s crazy. There were no foreign crews in those days coming into Hollywood. Put that one in the circular file. It’s a really a good line—shred it.”

Assistant director Hilton Green characterizes any question of authorship of the scene “ridiculous.” “I read [the Bass claim] somewhere,” asserted Green. “That really upsets me. That’s absolutely ridiculous. Mr. Hitchcock was there every second of the time, I won’t even say ‘minute.’ I will face Saul Bass in person and say I don’t know where he came up with that notion that he was there and directed it. Saul Bass might have visited the set once or twice. He did the titles. I share billing with Saul Bass in the credits. But Mr. Hitchcock directed the picture—and that’s including the shower scene.”

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“I know he shot it,” screenwriter Stefano recalled. “Because one of my favorite memories of the whole experience was of Alfred Hitchcock standing there talking seriously about camera angles with a naked model.” On-set wardrobe supervisor Rita Riggs elaborated about stand-in Marli Renfro and her director: “Because of makeup, of course, the model could not wear even a robe. But she became so comfortable, I recall her sitting quite nude except for this crazy little patch we always put over the pubic hair, talking with Mr. Hitchcock. I watched Mr. Hitchcock, the model, and the crew one morning standing around having coffee and doughnuts and thought: ‘This is surreal.’” When the director placed Renfro in position for her setups, he coolly toted the tape measure from camera to the double’s shoulder, while John Russell noted the distance. “I found it no different,” quipped Hitchcock, “than if she had been wearing a floor-length Hawaiian muumuu.”

For novelist Robert Bloch, the Hitchcock-Bass controversy smacks of the question as to whether it was his original novel or the screenplay by Joseph Stefano that “made” the movie. Bloch, now a veteran of thirty years of dealing with the collaborative art of moviemaking, observed: “Out here, everybody is willing to take bows for success and run like hell from failure. I’ve heard all the stories about people other than Hitchcock being involved, but there’s no corroboration that would lead me to accept it.”

Hitchcock rarely described to his interviewers the shooting of the scene except in the glossiest of terms. “It took us seven days to shoot that scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage,” the director told Francois Truffaut. “I used a … a naked model who stood in for Janet Leigh. We only showed Miss Leigh’s hands, shoulders, and head. All the rest was the stand-in. Naturally, the knife never touched the body; it was all done in the montage. I shot some of it in slow motion so as to cover the breasts. The slow shots were not accelerated later on because they were inserted in the montage so as to give an impression of normal speed.”

  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

To writers Ian Cameron and V. F. Perkins, Hitchcock said, “I did photograph a nude girl all the way through. In other words I covered in the shooting every aspect of the killing. Actually some of it was shot in slow motion. I had the camera slow and the girl moving slowly so that I could measure out the movements and the covering of the awkward parts of the body, the arm movement, gesture and so forth.”

Makeup man Jack Barron shrugs off any question as to the authority or ownership of a Hitchcock set piece: “Hitchcock had such a casual way with directing, it was like he wasn’t doing anything. Maybe he’d sit there slumped over, but those eyes never missed anything. To me, he wasn’t a director’s director. I’m not an actor and I don’t know how much he’d impart to them, but they’d shoot, he’d say, ‘Fine,’ and that was that.”

As to the controversy about who directed the shower scene, Saul Bass observed: “The interesting question is, So why did I get the credit ‘Special Visual Consultant’? Not for the titles. It has to be something more. A great artist makes a film and has a young man come in and do a few things [on it]. And wouldn’t you know it, when the film gets reviewed, it’s those damn sequences that this kid worked on. It’s a little upsetting. But the truth of the matter is, it was and is Hitch’s film. It’s all his, no matter what I did.”

To simulate the blood Hitchcock required for the shower scene, Jack Barron and Robert Dawn brought their exacting nothing-less-than-state-of-the-art materials. Barron chuckled as he recollected: “Shasta had just come out with chocolate syrup in a plastic squeeze bottle. This was before the days of the ‘plastic explosion,’ so it was pretty revolutionary. Up to that time in films, we were using Hershey’s, but you could do a lot more with a squeeze bottle.”

Hitchcock also told several interviewers that he had his makeup and special effects men devise a blood-spurting rubber torso prop that went unused. It makes a good anecdote, but—since Hitchcock preferred understatement and often boasted about never intending to show the blade of the knife puncturing flesh—only an anecdote. Certainly no surviving member of the crew recalled such a prop. “It wasn’t his way of doing things,” asserts Jack Barron. “He tended to show things after the fact, blood going down the drain and such, not the precise spot where the blood spurted from the body.” But when the film was released, sharp-eyed audience-members swore that they saw the knife blade pierce a naked midsection just south of the navel. The frame-by-frame blowup book on Psycho by Richard Anobile published in 1974 validated their claim.

Advocates of the contention that someone other than Hitchcock actually directed the shower scene point to this alleged discrepancy as one of several that point the finger toward Bass or, at least, away from Hitchcock. Janet Leigh, who admitted that hers is definitely the midsection in question, revealed: “No one but Hitchcock directed me in the shower scene. Hitch used a retractable knife. In fact, he held the knife himself because he knew exactly where he wanted that to be for his camera. But his editing brilliance made you sure you saw something else, right?”

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Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho

By Stephen Rebello

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Featured photo of Alfred Hitchcock courtesy of Alchetron; all Psycho images courtesy of Alchetron 

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