Psycho is, without a doubt, Alfred Hitchcock's scariest film, although perhaps not his greatest film. That honor may belong to Strangers on a Train or Vertigo, Rear Window or The Birds. Whatever your personal taste in Hitchcock movies, Psycho remains not only Hitch's most famous and influential film, but also his biggest moneymaker at the box office.
Filmed in just 30 days with a rock-bottom budget of $800,000, Psycho has, to date, taken in over $50 million at the world's box office. This figure doesn't include TV showings or video and DVD sales. Hitch himself decided to forgo his usual quarter-of-a-million-dollar salary, instead accepting a deal for 60% of the profits on Psycho. He would pocket $15 million from this shrewd move.
Perhaps no film in the history of cinema has set so many precedents and broken so much new ground. The film's star, Janet Leigh, plays Marion Crane, an average workaday office employee. (The female lead's name in the original Psycho novel by Robert Bloch was actually Mary Crane, but when it was discovered that two real-life women named Mary Crane were currently living in Phoenix, Arizona, the name Marion was chosen as a replacement.) Hitch bought the rights to Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, surreptitiously, for a paltry sum of $9,000.
Psycho was to be Hitchcock's last black and white film. The reasons for this were 1) he thought the film would be "too gory" if filmed in color, 2) he wanted it to be as inexpensive as possible, and 3) he knew so many low budget films were lousy and made a lot of money, and wanted to see how a very good black and white film would do at the box office.
Leigh took on the starring role and is the film's central character until midway through, where, to the audience's shock and astonishment, she is killed off. Never before in any film had the lead character died in the middle of the movie. In the Bloch novel, the Mary Crane character is rather minor, only appearing in two chapters.
The film's plot is based around Marion being madly in love and embezzling $40,000 for her and her boyfriend to live on. (As a sidebar, John Gavin plays Janet's lover, Sam Loomis, in the film and was the only actor whose performance the Psycho director Hitchcock disliked. Hitch was known to refer to Gavin as "the stiff.")
Marion is seen in the opening scene wearing a white bra. According to Leigh, this was to show her as "angelic." Later in the film, after Marion embezzles the money, she is seen in a black bra, as she has now done an evil act. Similarly, Marion has a white purse in the early scenes, then a black purse after the crime is committed.
Anthony Perkins is unforgettable as Norman Bates, the mother-obsessed young man who runs the Bates Motel. More than one biographer has pointed out Alfred Hitchcock's real life relationship with his own mother as being influential in Psycho. Hitch apparently had a very troubled relationship with his mom, who would force him to sit at the foot of her bed and tell her everything that had happened to him.
Perkins was paid $40,000 for his indelible performance, ironically the same amount that Marion embezzles in the film. In the Bloch novel, the Norman Bates character is fat, bald, short, and very unlikeable. It was Hitch's idea to switch Norman and make him slim, young, and good-looking.
Without question the most discussed and legendary scene in Psycho is the shower scene. Never, before or since, has a single scene from a motion picture changed the bathing habits of people in several nations, but the terrifying 45-second scene made countless women (and men) stop taking showers. Janet Leigh herself was unaffected while filming the shower scene, but after viewing it on film she realized how vulnerable a woman was in the shower. She was to switch to baths instead, not taking another shower for the rest of her life.
Cut from over 90 splices of different shots and angles, the knife is actually seen touching Marion's body only twice for almost imperceptible split-second shots. Interestingly, Tony Perkins was not present during the filming of the shower scene. According to Perkins, this was Hitch's idea, believing that Perkins slim figure would be easily identifiable and would spoil the mystery.
The "blood" in the scene was actually Bosco chocolate syrup. The sound of the knife penetrating Marion's flesh was actually the sound of a knife being speared into a casaba melon. A six-foot-in-diameter shower head was also used in part of the scene to ensure that the water sprayed past the camera lens.
Initially, both Hitchcock and Janet Leigh insisted that it was, indeed, Janet, in every second of the scene. But both later admitted that a stand-in was used for the more intimate shots. Contrary to urban legend, the water in the shower was not ice-cold (Hitch reportedly used the freezing water to shock Leigh). Janet Leigh assures us that the water was kept warm and comfortable.
One last bit of movie trivia: besides the historic shower scene, Psycho is also the first-ever film to feature a toilet being flushed.
Secrecy was of the essence for the release of Psycho. Before the film's release, Hitch sent out his personal assistant, Peggy Robertson, to buy up as many copies of the Psycho book off stands as she could. On the first day of filming, Hitch made all the crew raise their right hands and swear an oath of secrecy. As a red herring for the film's plot, Hitch also said he was trying to cast legendary actress Helen Hayes as Norman's mother (not wanting to give away the fact that Tony Perkins was, indeed, his own mom).
When Psycho was released in the summer of 1960, Hitch made a strict rule that no one was to be admitted inside the theater after the film had started. Movie lobbies all over America featured cutouts of Hitchcock pointing to his watch with the warning. In many theaters, a soundtrack was played before the movie's start, saying "Psycho will begin in ten minutes," "Psycho will begin in five minutes," etc.
The haunting Psycho soundtrack was the work of composer Bernard Hermann. Hitch had originally wanted a jazz-type theme and wanted the shower scene to be without any music at all. After he heard the music, Hitch was so delighted with Hermann's score he doubled his salary. Generously, Hitch was to say "33% of the success of Psycho was due to the music."
In 2007, the American Film Institute named Psycho the 14th greatest movie of all time. Tony Perkins as Norman Bates was voted the second-greatest villain in movie history (trailing only Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter) and Psycho was voted #1 on AFI's list of "100 Years... 100 Thrills." Psycho remains, to this day, the gold standard of suspense/horror movies.
Previously at Neatorama: Five Things You Didn’t Know About Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho Shower Murder Scene Fun Facts.