Hitch on the Hump: Psycho (1960)- Part 1: We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes
“We all go a little mad sometimes.” is not only a quote from arguably Hitchcock’s finest film; it’s also one of the universal truths. Delving into a subject like Psycho, I felt like I was going a bit mad. Psycho belongs in the short list of films that have received literally millions of words from film scholars, critics, and rabid amateurs, like me, over the years. Attempting to take in as much as I could, I have immersed myself in the film. I have read countless critiques, poured over biographical information, and enough film theory to build a life size model of the Bates motel from paper mache (including a hundred page shot-by-shot breakdown of the film that made me have to take a long nap after its conclusion). Still, as I sit here to add my 2 cents, I have barely scratched the surface of the printed word on the subject. I hope that I can share some of the interesting things I‘ve learned and add something original of my own to the discussion of this great film.
Like many folks, I have a personal connection to the film. I can’t recall what age I was, but this was the first Hitchcock film I ever saw. I know I was young enough to be caught unaware of the secrets that the film contains, which I will spoil here shortly. If you don’t know what happens, I hope you’re as young as I was because you’ll get bored reading this fairly quickly. I, like the audience in 1960, was thrown off completely when Janet Leigh bit it at the halfway point in the film, and I thought Norman Bates, all stutters and nervousness, was being terrorized by a mother who would win Joan Crawford an award for good parenting. I can never get back to that pure experience, the first viewing of the shower scene, the first time the detective falls back down the stairs, or the first time the chair spins around slowly to reveal Mrs. Bates, but Hitchcock’s film never ceases to entertain or reveal layers upon layers built into its deceptively simple narrative. I started Hitch on the Hump for two reasons, to fill in a gap in my movie knowledge and to use what I learned to be able to explore Psycho further.
As usual with these reviews, I feel compelled to take the kernel of the idea back to the start. In 1957, Robert Bloch lived only 35 miles from Ed Gein. Gein went about the business of grave robbing and tanning the skins of recently deceased women in order to become closer to his dearly departed mother. (He also liked to cover chairs with skin, put skulls on his bedposts, plus when police raided his house they found “Pieces of salted genitalia in a box.”) Bloch had long been a fan of creepy stories, and was a particular fan of H.P Lovecraft who Bloch became friends when as a teenager. The same year Gein was arrested for his crimes, Bloch penned a split personality story called “The Real Bad Friend” which became the prototype for what would come. Two years later, he published his seventh novel, Psycho. He based the events of the book loosely on the Gein case, but not specifically on the murderer himself (similarly The Silence of the Lambs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and many more would plumb the depths of Gein mythology for their stories). Years later, he was surprised to learn “how closely the imaginary character I'd created resembled the real Ed Gein both in overt act and apparent motivation."
The novel garnered both good and bad reviews, but it came to the attention of the Master of Suspense in April of 1959 when the NY Times crime book reviewer called the novel “chillingly effective”. (Patricia Hitchcock’s biography of her mother, Alma, attributes the novel being brought to Hitch’s attention by his assistant Peggy Robertson.) Block was surprised when his agent approached him with a “blind bid”, one made anonymously, for the film rights. Bloch was paid between $9000 dollars reportedly for the rights, and he accepted though he had no idea where his novel was ending up. He was not too pleased when he learned that the buyer was MGM, purchasing the property for Hitchcock, and felt his fee was insultingly low. Indeed it was. Psycho would go on to become the most profitable of Hitchcock’s films returning many times over on its meager budget
Before he could bring his most well known film to the screen, he had to find the proper screenwriter. Hitchcock first approached James Cavanagh, an Alfred Hitchcock Presents writer and Emmy winner. Hitchcock gave Cavanagh a copy of Bloch’s novel and, as Steven Robello stated in his book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, eight pages of notes “in which the director laid out precise camera movements and sound cues for certain key sequences.” Cavanagh had the whole summer to work on the script, but when Hitchcock read the writer’s final script, he got as far as a scene that deviated from his instructions, read no further, and immediately discharged the writer from service. Though Cavanagh would not receive any screen credit, several key scenes in his draft would end up in the final film nearly intact.
The next candidate for Psycho’s script came from a background far outside of the norm for Hollywood screen scribes. Joseph Stefano had begun his career as a songwriter penning tunes for the likes of Sammy Davis Jr and Edie Gorme. He decided to take a stab writing a script based loosely off a family story, and he sold it quite quickly. That first script became the film The Black Orchid with Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren, and his agent used the film to try to push his client into the Psycho writing job. When Hitchcock was first considering writers, he screened The Black Orchid, but turned it off after a few minutes, deciding instead to go with Cavanagh. Now, with his first choice a washout, Hitchcock was prepared to give Stefano a chance and set up a meeting with the songsmith turned screenwriter. Stefano recounted his ideas for adapting the novel, and Hitchcock was delighted when Stefano described Marion “shacking up” with her beau. Stefano would later recall “the phrase "shacking up'' just kind of delighted him. I am not sure he had ever heard it.” He also thought that those two words “got me the job.” (Quite the good interview with Stefano at NYU can be found HERE and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the roots of the author and this film.)
Hitchcock gave Stefano with specific instructions as the director flew to Paris to promote the opening of North by Northwest. While Hitch was away, the director tasked Stefano to pen the opening scene in the hotel room which would set the tone for everything to come. When Hitchcock returned, he took the pages home with him where he and wife Alma read them. The next day Stefano was given one of the highest compliments in the world of Hitchcock, “Alma loved it.” Stefano later told in Pat Hitchcock for her book, “I was quite touched, because obviously, he liked it too. He was a sentimental man, but he wouldn’t show it.” Stefano continued his writing fearlessly, and penned many scenes that would be fodder for the censors to pick over. From the opening scene of a mid-day tryst, his daring to make a toilet flushing a integral part of the story, and the scandalous themes of voyeurism, murder, and oedipal insanity, Stefano’s script took chances in a way that a Hollywood author, penned in from years of working under the production code, may not have been brave enough to make. In November of 1959, Stefano and Hitchcock had lunch at the director’s home complete with a bottle of champagne on the rocks (Biographer John Russell Taylor quotes Hitchcock apologizing for “such a terrible solecism merely because they had no champagne properly chilled.”) Stefano and Hitchcock spent the rest of the afternoon going over the shooting script, and then, as Stefano recalled, the director began to look quite sullen and remarked, “The picture’s over. Now I have to go and put it on film.”
There was one last hurdle to overcome before Psycho could become the film that Hitchcock had envisioned, the studio. Hitchcock was under contract with Paramount, and studio head Y. Frank Freeman was aghast at the scandalous scenes that would have to be included to bring Psycho to fruition. It would be a major hurdle to get the film past the censors, of which Freeman was one, having accepted the job as the head of the MPAA. After a flurry or lawyers were thrown into the mix, a deal was finally made. Hitchcock would produce the film independently as an Alfred J. Hitchcock production with Paramount providing a shoestring budget of $800,000 dollars. The director would forgo his $250,000 salary in exchange for sixty percent of the profits from the film minus an agreed upon cut for the studio. After the studio recouped its investment, the film would revert to the director’s ownership, a decision that would lose Paramount quite a pretty penny in the long run. They also suggested that Hitchcock shoot Psycho on the Universal Studios lot to further distance Paramount from the movie. This would also be a mistake as Universal would rake in cash for years to come by being able to provide tours that showed off the Bates Motel and the house that loomed above it. It still stands at Universal Studios California and has been used for Psycho II, III, “Bates Motel” a failed TV pilot, and the 1998 remake.
Filming began on November 30, 1959 with a crew partially pulled from his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, an idea that had come to him when he first entertained the notion of Psycho. He would carry some of his regular cohorts over to Universal for the film, and he enlisted Editor George Tomasini, veteran of six Hitchcock productions, Saul Bass, the innovative title designer of Vertigo and North by Northwest, and composer Bernard Herrmann. From the TV series, he enlisted cameraman John L. Russell, who had shot Sam Fuller’s 1952 film Park Row and every installment of the TV show that Hitchcock directed; and Assistant Director Hilton A. Green, who would go on to produce the Psycho sequels and less impressively Pauly Shore’s Encino Man and Son in Law. In a 1974 interview with Andy Warhol, Hitchcock noted his choice of crew was intentional. “"I made the picture Psycho with a TV crew because they're adjusted to this fast work. Nine minutes a day” Working at this pace, Hitchcock and the crew shot as much as they could each day, and they only slowed down for one important scene in the hotel shower.