What’s the greatest Alfred Hitchcock film? Every film fan will have a different answer, with “The 39 Steps,” “Rebecca,” “Spellbound,” “Notorious,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo” and “North By Northwest” all making compelling cases for being the very best. But few of his films had such an impact on cinema as “Psycho,” the 1960s thriller that saw him go into darker, more shocking territory than ever before, with some of the most famous sequences in the history of the medium.
Following secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) as she embezzles money from an employer and hides out at a deserted motel owned by the mysterious Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a man with serious mother issues, only to stunningly and unforgettably kill off its lead halfway through the film, the picture turned out to be the biggest hit of Hitchcock’s career, and was arguably his last truly great movie. It was released fifty-two years ago tomorrow, on June 16, 1960, and to mark the occasion, we’ve assembled a collection of five facts you may not know about the film. Check them out below, and you can bet there’s much more where this came from when “Hitchcock,” starring Anthony Hopkins as the director, and revolving around the making of “Psycho,” hits theaters next year.
1. The film followed on the heels of three projects that never got made.
Although the late 1950s saw Alfred Hitchcock make some of his greatest films, including “Vertigo” and “North By Northwest,” it was a frustrating time for the director, with several pictures that came close to production but never quite panned out — he made 9 films between 1950 and 1956, but only two in the following four years. In 1956, he’d set up a potentially expensive adaptation of Laurens van der Post‘s novel “Flamingo Feather,” a tale about two hunters who discover a communist plot to take over South Africa. The director had hoped to cast James Stewart and Grace Kelly after their success together in “Rear Window.” But in 1956, Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco, retiring from acting, and a research trip to South Africa led the director to believe that he’d face resistance from the authorities. Meanwhile, he’d long hoped to make a film of Henry Cecil’s “No Bail For The Judge,” a thriller about a female barrister who teams with a thief to defend her judge father from accusations of murdering a prostitute. He secured Samuel A. Taylor (“Vertigo“) to write the script, and set his heart on Audrey Hepburn for the lead role, with Laurence Harvey as the thief and John Williams (“Dial M For Murder“) as the father. But Hepburn became pregnant (she miscarried in 1959, but then had a son in July 1960), and dropped out of the project, and despite the fact that a 1959 Paramount brochure had already announced the film, the director pulled the plug (in part also because changes to British law regarding entrapment now made aspects of the plot implausible). With these projects falling apart — in addition to “The Wreck Of The Mary Deare” at MGM, which would have starred Gary Cooper — the director decided to make something quick and fast. Since both “Flamingo Feathers” and “No Bail For The Judge” had been set up at Paramount, Hitchcock felt he owed them his next film, and when his assistant Peggy Robertson brought him a review of Robert Bloch‘s novel “Psycho,” he took it to the studio.
2. Paramount really, really didn’t want to make the film.
Paramount rejected the project, refusing to buy the rights to Bloch’s book for the director. Unbowed, he pressed ahead anyway, acquiring the source material for $9,500, and setting James Cavanaugh, a writer on TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” to pen the script. While Hitchcock would eventually reject his draft, finding it “dull,” the hire was something of a model for the way he would go about the film; while some of his regular collaborators were on board, including Saul Bass and Bernard Hermann, the director decided to predominately use the crew from his TV series in order to make the film as quickly and cheaply as possible. Once Joseph Stefano (the second writer on board) nailed the script, Hitchcock went back to Paramount, offering to make the film for a fraction of his usual budgets with his small-screen crew. Even then, the studio refused, telling him that all their sound stages were full in the timeframe he wanted to make the picture, despite evidence to the contrary. Frustrated, Hitchcock struck a deal with Universal to shoot on their lot, and financed the $1 million budget entirely through his own Shamley Productions banner, with Paramount eventually begrudgingly agreeing to distribute the film. In exchange, the director waived his usual quarter-of-a-million-dollar fee, in exchange for 60% of the gross. He was understandably nervous as a result — at one point in post-production, he considered cutting the more button-pushing moments and only releasing the film as an hour-long special episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” But Bernard Hermann’s score (which Hitchcock had initially fought with the composer over — he wanted more of a jazz feel, and for there to be no music over the shower scene) finally convinced him to continue “Psycho” as a feature, and the risk paid off in a huge way: the film would be the biggest hit of his career, and Hitchcock personally made $15 million from its release, roughly equivalent to $150 million today.
3. If they’d stuck to the script, the shower scene would have been a lot messier.
As adaptations go, Stefano’s take on Bloch’s novel was relatively faithful — after all, it had been the plot that had attracted Hitchcock to the project in the first place. There were a few changes, however. For instance, Marion (or Mary Crane in the source text: the name was changed after it was discovered that there were two real life Mary Cranes in Phoenix, Arizona) only takes up two chapters of the novel, which opens with Bates, rather than her. One of Stefano’s major suggestions was to extend her role, and Leigh was always the first choice, although the tight budget meant that she took the project for a quarter of her usual salary (Eva Marie Saint, Lee Remick, Angie Dickinson, Piper Laurie, Martha Hyer, Hope Lange, Shirley Jones and Lana Turner were all allegedly considered for the role as well). Bates, meanwhile, was a more traditional creep in Bloch’s novel, a heavy-drinking, overweight man obsessed with the occult and pornography, but Hitchcock liked the idea of a more handsome, less threatening type, and came up with the idea early on of casting Perkins — although that lost him Kim Stanley (“The Goddess,” “Frances,” “The Right Stuff“), his initial choice for Lila Crane, who refused to work with the actor. But perhaps the most notable change came in the famous shower scene, which despite its taboo-pushing violence, could have been even gorier — in the book, Bates/Mother decapitates Marion, rather than merely stabbing her. Partly thanks to the Production Code, and partly out of sensible taste, Stefano and Hitchcock toned down the violence. Not that it made the scene less disturbing — Leigh would later admit that she was put off showers permanently, only taking them when she couldn’t have a bath. Hitchcock also famously received a letter from a man whose daughter had refused baths after seeing Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s “Les Diaboliques” (the black-and-white photography of which was a major inspiration for the look of “Psycho,” aside from it simply being cheaper), and was now refusing to take showers after “Psycho.” The director’s droll response? “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
4. Hitchcock’s secrecy about the film makes J.J. Abrams looks positively open.
Not above William Castle-style gimmicks when needed, Hitchcock’s promo campaign for the film reached new levels of mystery-baiting with “Psycho.” From the off, he knew he’d want the film’s shock twists kept under wraps, and allegedly told assistant Peggy Robertson to buy up as many copies of Bloch’s novel as she could in order to keep the plot secret. In a neat piece of misdirection, he told the trades he was trying to get veteran actress Helen Hayes (“Anastasia,” “A Farewell To Arms,” “Airport“) to play Bates’ mother. On the first day of filming, he made the crew raise their right hands and swear an oath to not spill any secrets, and even then, the ending of the script was kept from them until the last possible moment. Perkins and Leigh were banned from doing interviews, lest they accidentally drop any of the surprises. No press screenings were held to stop reviews from including spoilers — then, as now, normally a warning sign of a stinker, and critics were predictably resentful of having to see the film among the plebs. Most famously, the director insisted that no latecomers could be admitted once the film had started, with cardboard standees of Hitchcock standing in theater lobbies, warning audiences to be on time. Again, this was something Hitchcock was borrowing from Clouzot, who’d pulled the same stunt with “Les Diaboliques” five years earlier. The most entertaining part of the promo campaign was undoubtedly the trailer, which features no footage from the film, instead featuring a light, bouncy tone with Hitch himself giving the audience a tour of the Bates motel, hinting at the horrible events to come. The shock ending is something of a cheat — the trailer, which runs an impressive six and a half minutes, was shot after the film wrapped, and Janet Leigh was unavailable. Instead, Hitchcock used her co-star and screen sister Vera Miles, putting her in a wig to look like Leigh (the actress had actually shaved her head for “5 Branded Women” before making this, and had already donned a hairpiece for the main portion of the shoot). Watch the whole trailer below.
5. There was a real life murder tied to the film with just as many twists and turns.
One of the big questions about “Psycho” over the years was the extent to which Hitchcock used a body double for Janet Leigh in the famous shower scene: both initially said that it was all Leigh, but later admitted that, for a few of the more risque shots, they had indeed used a nude stand-in. But as it turns out, the most interesting question was what happened to that double after the film was released. The person in question was Marli Renfro, a glamor model and exotic dancer who was one of the earliest Playboy Bunnies. While Leigh seemingly did most of the scene with the help of moleskin patches, Renfro was brought in for certain shots; after the film, she covered Playboy in September 1960, and had a small role in “Tonight For Sure,” the second film by one Francis Ford Coppola. But after that, she disappeared from the radar entirely, until a 2001 Associated Press report announced that Kenneth Dean Hunt had been convicted of raping and strangling two women, including Myra Davis, which they said was the real name of Renfro — the latter victim part of a murder that had remained unsolved since 1988. According to The Guardian, after reading a 2007 interview with Davis’ granddaughter, in which she expressed surprise that her grandmother ever would have taken part in nude scenes, Robert Graysmith, the expert on the Zodiac murders (and the part played by Jake Gyllenhaal in David Fincher‘s “Zodiac“), took an interest in the case. In fact, it turned out to have been an error in the reporting of the case: Renfro and Davis were two different people, the latter having been Leigh’s stand-in during lighting set-ups. Renfro was alive and well, and had, according to Graysmith, been so busy “living life to the full[est] that she had no idea she was meant to be dead.” Graysmith believed that Renfro had been Hunt’s intended target — he was supposedly obsessed with the “Psycho” shower scene — but had mixed her up with Davis.