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Five Things About the Making of 'Psycho' That You Won't See in 'Hitchcock'

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood November 20, 2012 at 6:11PM

I was so delighted by Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” when I saw it at AFI FEST that I promptly began reading the book upon which it’s based, Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho.’” The book is erudite and exhaustive -- I would estimate that about 20% of the fascinating film-production details contained therein make the film’s cut (ahem). Below, five things about the making of “Psycho” that you won’t find in “Hitchcock.”
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Hitchcock seated in the rascally "Mrs. Bates" chair
Hitchcock seated in the rascally "Mrs. Bates" chair

I was so delighted by Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” when I saw it at AFI FEST that I promptly began reading the book upon which it’s based, Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho.’” The book is erudite and exhaustive -- I would estimate that about 20% of the fascinating film-production details contained therein make the film’s cut (ahem). Below, five things about the making of “Psycho” that you won’t find in “Hitchcock.”

“Hitchcock” hits theaters November 23. Check out our TOH! review of the film here.

1. Bloched from the cash: “Psycho” author Robert Bloch, who based his horror novel on the Ed Gein murders unearthed in Plainfield, Wisconsin in 1957, sold the book for screen rights to the Music Corporation of America agency (MCA) for $9,000 in 1959. After percentages were taken off that lump sum for publisher Simon & Schuster, Bloch’s agent and taxes, Bloch made roughly $5,000. And then, a one-two-punch: The author discovered that his contract with Simon & Schuster included no bonus or percentage of profits in the event of a sale to Hollywood. Soon thereafter Bloch learned that “Psycho” had been bought by Alfred Hitchcock.

2. The illusion of Mrs. Bates: During casting for the film, Hitchcock teased the press by “leaking” the top two candidates to play Mrs. Bates -- Judith Anderson ("Rebecca") and Helen Hayes. This prompted an onslaught of letters and telegrams from elderly actresses and their agents to Hitchcock hoping to have a shot at the seemingly plum role. Norma Varden, who played the gibbering, upper-crust old dame nearly choked to death by Robert Walker’s Bruno Antony in “Strangers on a Train,” wired Hitch, hoping she had an in: “Will I be with you this time?” When production began, Hitchcock further had fun with the press’ notion of Mrs. Bates in an effort to keep the film’s final twist a secret. He staged seemingly impromptu press photos while on set, with a prominently-situated director’s chair with “Mrs. Bates” written on the back. Hitchcock would be photographed in that chair, along with every major cast member, from Janet Leigh to Martin Balsam (Detective Arbogast) -- every cast member, that is, except Anthony Perkins.

Janet Leigh shower scene Psycho
3. The naked truth: Among the many challenges of the famous shower sequence was the issue of suggesting Janet Leigh’s nudity without actually showing it -- and without stepping on the sensitive toes of the censorship committee. This had to be tackled by the costume department. On-set costumer Rita Riggs and Leigh spent hours looking at stripper costumes in magazines, hoping the pictures of risqué garb would provide answers. Eventually Riggs opted for flesh-colored moleskin, which she glued in tiny pieces over both of Leigh’s breasts and, as Riggs called it, “the vital part.” Because the entire sequence was storyboarded, Riggs studied ahead of time the exact portions of body that needed to be seen on screen, and trimmed the moleskin accordingly, so that it would cover Leigh’s assets but also be just out of frame. Hitchcock additionally hired dancer-model Marli Renfro to be on set, who would be Leigh’s nude “stunt double” in case shooting the actress tastefully became too precarious. Riggs recalls the surreal experience of Renfro sitting quite nude, with the exception of a small patch to cover her pubic hair, as Hitchcock discussed setups with the crew, measuring from the camera to the model’s shoulder.

4. Nice melons: Hitchcock was anxious to get the precise sound effect to accompany the stabbings in the shower murder scene. He sent prop man Robert Bone out for watermelons, and Bone smartly returned with not just a myriad of watermelons, but casabas, cantaloupes and honeydews, as he knew that backups were vital in case the watermelon proved insufficient. Hitchcock sat with his eyes closed in the sound studio as Bone did his damnedest on the melons. When the produce had been sufficiently hacked and slashed, and lay all over the demonstration table, Hitchcock opened his eyes and uttered: “Casaba.”

5. Whistler’s (and Norman’s) Mother: Hitchcock paid famed title designer Saul Bass $10,000 for thirteen half-days on the production of "Psycho" and the screen credit “Pictorial Consultant.” The storyboards submitted by Bass for such key sequences as the shower scene and Arbogast’s murder have raised issues of authorial contention (Bass claimed at various points to have directed both sequences, other cast and crew members have rebuked this). A less-known creative suggestion from Bass was for the final scene, where Norman (called “Norma” Bates) sits in the starkly white cell, his personality having been completely eclipsed by Mother’s. Bass devised an idea to compose the shot with reference to James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s 1871 painting “Whistler’s Mother.” In the painting, a woman sits in a rocking chair with a framed painting hanging behind her on a wall. As Bass imagined the scene, Norman sits wrapped in a blanket, with a prison wall vent behind him, situated just as the hanging painting is in the Whistler. However, Hitchcock exercised his sharp directorial control on this suggestion, and the painting reference was taken out of the shot.

Storyboards created by Saul Bass for the shower sequence in "Psycho"
Storyboards created by Saul Bass for the shower sequence in "Psycho"

This article is related to: Features, Hitchcock, Hitchcock, Classics


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.