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33 Things We Learned from the ‘Psycho’ Commentary

Psycho Rear Projection Shot
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on March 14th, 2013

Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock has many connections to this week. First of all, this past Tuesday was “National Alfred Hitchcock Day,” during which cinema fans revisit the master’s masterworks. Also, the biopic Hitchcock released on Blu-ray and DVD earlier this week.

Easily the most famous and most recognizable Hitchcock film was the 1960 thriller Psycho, which helped revitalize his career and changed the face of horror movies in general.

Considering that Hitchcock tells the story behind Psycho, and it’s based on the book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” (whose author, Stephen Rebello, performs the commentary here), it seems fitting to look at this classic thriller. Rebello’s commentary is available on the 2010 Blu-ray and subsequent DVD releases.

Psycho (1960)

Commentators: Stephen Rebello (Hitchcock historian)

1. His 47th film, Psycho is Hitchcock’s most famous movie and his biggest financial success.

2. The opening titles were created by Saul Bass, who served as storyboard artist and pictorial consultant. The parallel lines that cut across the screen was designed to complement the all-strings musical score.

3. For the opening, Hitchcock originally planned to shoot a four-mile-long helicopter shot that went from the rooftops to the motel room window, which he felt would rival Orson Welles’ opening shot from Touch of Evil. However, due to the limitations of helicopter shots, he had to result to dissolves of cityscapes.

4. Some of the themes in this film include voyeurism, secretiveness, duality and duplicity (exhibited by the great number of reflective surfaces in the film), as well as a visual juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical lines. Birds were also a common element, seen in Marion’s last name (Crane), the opening location (Phoenix), and Norman Bates’ hobby of taxidermy.

5. Hitchcock’s famous cameo in the film is as a man standing on the street corner outside Marion’s place of work when she comes back from the motel. Two other Hitchcock cameos include the director’s Cadillac, which twice drives past the policeman outside the used car lot and his daughter Pat Hitchcock (who had previously appeared in her father’s Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train) as the other secretary in Marion’s office.

6. Paramount did not like the movie at all, so they made Hitchcock fund it himself. This resulted in him shooting with his television crew to keep costs down. At one point, he even considered breaking the film into two parts for television, in case the studio wouldn’t back it or the film board wouldn’t allow it to be released.

7. The budget for Psycho was $800,000 (about 1/5th that of his previous film, North by Northwest). This included the rights to the novel, which Hitchcock bought anonymously for $9,000, as well as $15,000 to build the now-famous Psycho House on the studio lot.

8. At the beginning of the film, Marion is wearing white undergarments, to symbolize innocence. When she is in her apartment, getting ready to run away with the $40,000 in cash, she’s wearing a more notoriously-colored black bra and slip.

9. Hitchcock shot the entire film with a 50mm lens because that most closely resembled human vision, which played into the theme of voyeurism.

10. Originally, there was no calendar time frame to the story. However, when the second unit delivered shots of downtown Phoenix to use in the scenes of Marion driving out of town and seeing her boss, they included Christmas decorations in the city. The day and date of “Friday, December the Eleventh” were then added to the opening of the film, presumably in 1959.

11. All the vehicles in this movie were Fords because the car company sponsored the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show.

12. The design of the Psycho House was partly based on the Addams’ Family’s house in Charles Addams’ cartoons in the New Yorker, as well as Edward Hopper’s painting “The House by the Railroad.”

13. Upon getting the job to write the screenplay, second-choice Joseph Stefano told Hitchcock that he didn’t want the film to be about a middle-aged, pudgy, unattractive Norman Bates. This was how author Robert Bloch described Bates (whom he based on notorious serial killer Ed Gein) in the book. Gein later became the inspiration for Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hannibal Lecter.

14. Anthony Perkins, who was 27 when he played Norman Bates, was being groomed by Paramount to be a sensitive leading man and good guy like James Dean. At one point during the filming, Perkins asked Hitchcock if playing Norman Bates would be a bad career move (partly because it was such an odd character and partly because it was a huge risk to play a sexually traumatized man who appears in a dress in one scene). Hitchcock told him it might be. Not surprisingly, Perkins ended up being type cast as Norman Bates for the rest of his career.

15. In this film, the MacGuffin (which was a term popularized by Hitchcock) is the money that Marion Crane stole.

16. The voice of Norman Bates’ mother was achieved by blending the voice of Perkins with multiple actresses, including Jeanette Nolan, who was married to actor John McIntire, who played Sheriff Al Chambers in the film.

17. Prior to Psycho, no American movie had shown a toilet, let alone one flushing. Hitchcock showed Marion flushing one to challenge the Victorian views of the bathroom at the time and also to add tension leading up to the actual murder. In 1960s, this was quite scandalous, causing some unrest in theaters.

18. For the final cut, Hitchcock cut an overhead shot of Marion’s dead body on the bathroom floor. Stefano was adamant to keep the shot in because he felt it was essential to the emotional impact of the character’s death. However, Hitchcock cut the scene to misdirect the censors so they would overlook two shots: one that shows the knife actually penetrating the flesh and another where a glimpse of nipple is seen. (Watch the shower scene frame-by-frame to see these moments. You know I did.)

19. The shower scene included several body doubles because Perkins was rehearsing a Broadway play at the time. Stuntwoman Margo Epper played the Mother who draws open the shower curtain. Actress Anne Doran plays the Mother in the overhead stabbing shots. Playboy model Marli Renfro, who had the same physical dimensions as Janet Leigh, served as a body double for the actress so Hitchcock could set up his cameras wherever he wanted them without having to deal with modesty issues. Finally, Hitchcock held the knife during the close shots because he knew exactly where he wanted it to go.

20. Originally, Hitchcock did not want any music in the shower scene, but composer Bernard Hermann defied him and wrote the now-famous theme. Later, Hitchcock admitted to Hermann that his original idea was wrong.

21. Throughout the film, Norman Bates nibbles on candy corn. It was Perkins’ idea to have the character do this, making him appear like a bird eating seed. Hitchcock chose candy corn because he said Perkins had a neck like a chicken, and that reminded him of a chicken eating corn.

22. When Norman pushes the car into the swamp, it stops sinking for a minute before finally going under. Hitchcock put that moment in the film so he could gauge test audiences. When they laughed nervously as it stopped sinking and seemed relieved when it finally went under, Hitchcock knew audiences had made the switch to Norman as the guy to root for.

23. It cost Hitchcock $150 to have the engine of Marion’s car cleaned when it was pulled out of the swamp. The bill, along with the car, was later sold to a private collector.

24. Hitchcock was grooming Vera Miles to be his next Grace Kelly, and he had planned the film Vertigo around her. However, she got pregnant and was not able to do the film. Hitchcock used her in Psycho because she was under contract with him, but he never forgave her for this turn of events.

25. Perkins once suggested to Hitchcock that they do Psycho as a Broadway play. Hitchcock considered the idea but never could figure out how to effectively do the shock sequences like the shower scene and the death of Arbogast (Martin Balsam).

26. Perkins chose to wear his own clothes rather than the selected wardrobe for Norman Bates.

27. When Norman carries Mother to the fruit cellar, Mother is played by a little person named Mitzi. This was one of the ways Hitchcock tried to confuse the audience by varying the size of the Mother character.

28. The first time the Psycho House is seen in daylight is when Lila (Miles) heads towards it to find Mother.

29. Several lines had to be cut from the script because they suggested an incestuous relationship between Norman and his mother.

30. When Lila goes into Norman’s room, she picks up an unmarked book and looks inside. Back in 1960s, books that were unmarked like that implied they contained pornography. The original novel points out that book has pornographic pictures in it, which can be gleaned by Miles’ facial reaction to it, but the film board obviously would not allow pornographic pictures to be shown at the time.

31. When Norman bursts into the cellar wearing his mother’s dress, he screams, “I am Norma Bates!”

32. The penultimate scene in which Dr. Richmand (Simon Oakland) discusses Norman’s condition was included to ground the film in reality. Hitchcock believed that the concepts were so daring in the movie that the film board would not let the film be released without this scene. Even though there are cutaways to the other people in the room, actor Oakland performed the scene in a single take.

33. The skull overlaid on Norman’s face at the end of the movie did not appear on all prints. Hitchcock left it off some because he felt he might have gone too far with it.

Best in Commentary

Final Thoughts

I’ve always wondered how Alfred Hitchcock would have approached a commentary to his own film. I suppose he would have found it beneath him, unless his ego took control, and then he might have loved it. Still, with as slow and deliberate of a speaker as he was, he obviously would not have covered as much ground as Rebello does.

As a rule, I’m not wild about historian commentaries. I’d much prefer to hear the actual filmmakers. However, because there’s no way to go back in time and have the deceased offer their thoughts, this is the next best thing.

If you’ve seen Hitchcock, some of this information will be redundant. However, there are plenty of other tidbits of behind-the-scenes knowledge that do make this commentary worthwhile. Rebello only sounds pedantic a few times when he is clearly reading from his notes, but these are pretty rare. Hitchcock fans will get the most out of a commentary like this, but casual viewers can find plenty to enjoy as well.

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