The shower scene, Psycho
Not for nothing was Alfred Hitchcock known as “The master of suspense.” On reading the proof of Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, he immediately ordered his assistants to buy up every copy they could find. He knew, in this pre-pre-internet age, that surprise and word of mouth about the shocks he would put on screen were key. “The thing that appealed to me was the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue,” Hitchcock said. And what more shocking surprise than serving up Hollywood star Janet Leigh, slashed bloodily in what would become one of the most defining moments in modern horror?
The scene was a brilliant coming together of different elements. It is difficult to believe how close Hitchcock actually came to scaling the film down into a TV play. In fact, from the beginning, he was a lone voice, insistent that it would work. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano recalled, “Paramount absolutely didn’t want to make it. They didn’t like the title, the story, or anything about it at all.” They insisted he wouldn’t get Technicolor camera equipment for it, for instance, so Hitchcock made do with a budget of $1 million, and used his TV crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This low budget, pulpy feel actually appealed to him, playing up the seedy nature of mother’s boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) spying on latest motel guest / victim, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). He even got in the first shocking glimpse of a toilet bowl in American movies, as Marion tears up and flushes the incriminating note before the fateful shower.
He shot the shower scene on a closed set, and Janet Leigh played up the impression that it was her getting attacked. “I believed that knife went into me. It was that real. It was scary!” In fact it was a body double, a model named Marli Renfro, a Dallas born stripper, and former Playboy bunny. Leigh was still required for close-ups and the shots around the actual attack, before and after. She wore only mole-skin patches to cover her breasts and private parts.
Psycho actually fed the obsession of a real life killer. In 2001 it was reported that handyman Kenneth Dean Hunt had killed “two women, including an actress who was the double for Janet Leigh in the film Psycho”- under her supposed real name, Myra Davis. Robert Graysmith, the author of Zodiac, the study of the infamous serial killer, investigated further. He found out Renfro and Davis were two different women, and Renfro is still very much alive (and living quite a full life, too). Davis was Leigh’s stand in for lighting set-ups. Graysmith surmised Hunt believed he was killing the woman in the shower, and went on to write a book about it – The Girl In Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower.
The shower murder comprised 70 shots, each two to three seconds long, both close-up and medium shots, filmed over 18 to 23 December, 1959, and meticulously storyboarded by Saul Bass. When Bass later claimed he directed the scene himself, he was perhaps being disingenuous – it followed his storyboard to the letter, but Leigh insisted Hitchcock was on set, directing the actors.
The final shot of Marion’s dead staring eye as she slumps over the bathtub took twenty takes. Leigh’s modesty went south, along with her sodden moleskin patches, refusing to adhere. She knew electricians in the gantry high above were getting an eyeful, but refused to demand a halt. The close-up on the eye actually came in for some stick from opthalmologists, for not dilating! Hitchcock always remembered this, and applied eye drops to his celluloid murder victims in future.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the scene as originally envisioned, is that Hitchcock did not intend for it to be scored musically at all. Only when he became dissatisfied with progress and broke for the Christmas break, would he entertain composer Bernard Herrmann’s suggestion. Herrmann had composed “The Murder” for the shower scene in secret, and sprung it on Hitchcock when he returned. In an interview in 1971, he stated he used only strings because he felt the black and white cinematography could be complimented by a “black and white sound”.
The shrill stabbing of the violin strings in the higher register was meant to convey one thing, according to Herrmann – “terror”. It of course matches the stabbing blade. The deep, sobbing repeats of the cello as Marion slides into the tub mimic the last gasping breaths of her dying body. It’s almost impossible to imagine the scene without that music; it is as iconic as (and influenced) John Williams’ two note tuba warning of the approaching shark in Jaws, and the dissonant, jagged nerve strings of the Joker’s music in The Dark knight, by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer.
Hitchcock later dismissed Herrmann from Torn Curtain in 1966 (he was replaced by John Addison) for defying his directives, including composing music for the murder, against his wishes. He may have felt his style had become too synonymous with Herrmann’s music in the public eye.
After the release of Pyscho, Hitchcock received an angry letter from a father. His daughter had refused to take baths after seeing a man drowned in a tub in the film Les Diaboliques. After seeing Psycho, she now also refused to shower. Hitchcock’s droll reply was brief – “Send her to the dry cleaners.”