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Behind the Camera - Psycho
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Behind the Camera on PSYCHO

Except for some shots filmed on backroads in Southern California (the scenes of Marion fleeing Phoenix), Psycho was produced on the backlot at Universal Studios. According to various sources, Paramount either had no space available or refused to give Hitchcock any. At any rate, he was happy to work at Universal, where his Psycho crew regularly worked on his TV series.

Because he was working with a low budget, Hitchcock did not want to use top marquee names with the exception of Janet Leigh. But he hired her because he knew audiences would be shocked to see a star of her stature killed off early in the movie. (There is a slight giveaway in the credits, however, where instead of first billing, her name appears last as "And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane.") She was paid $25,000 for the role.

Despite the perception that Hitchcock used only one real star in the cast, the rest of the players were hardly unknowns. Anthony Perkins was a fast-rising young actor with a number of important pictures to his credit prior to Psycho including Friendly Persuasion [1956] for which he received an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He was paid $40,000 for his work, almost twice what Janet Leigh received and coincidentally the sum that Marion Crane steals in the story.

Vera Miles was cast as Marion's sister Lila, in part because of a slight resemblance to Leigh. But Miles had already made a Hitchcock film, gaining good notices as Henry Fonda's tormented wife in The Wrong Man (1956). She was supposed to have played the female lead in Vertigo (1958), but just before shooting began, she discovered she was pregnant. Hitchcock then cast Kim Novak in the part but remained furious with Miles. She was not happy making Psycho and felt that Hitchcock was punishing her by giving her an unflattering wardrobe that made her look matronly, never mind that it was designed by the famous Hollywood designer Edith Head. For her work, Miles received $1,700 per week.

John Gavin was also not an unknown actor prior to Psycho, having just appeared in the successful, big budget soap opera Imitation of Life (1959), opposite Lana Turner. Hitchcock did not care for Gavin and wanted one of his first choices for the role - either Stuart Whitman, Tom Tryon, Brian Keith, Cliff Robertson, or Rod Taylor – but Universal (to whom Gavin was under contract) forced the young actor on him. All through the production, Hitchcock referred to Gavin as "the stiff" and became frustrated over having to do so many takes of the opening scene; Gavin eventually performed it to his satisfaction.

Several well-known character actors were brought in for supporting parts, including John McIntire, the former March of Time newsreel announcer who had appeared in many films and television shows beginning in the late 1940s.

McIntire's wife, actress Jeanette Nolan, was one of the uncredited actors who provided the voice of Mrs. Bates. Hitchcock also used a man, Paul Jasmin, and Virginia Gregg, who voiced the character in the sequels as well.

To mislead moviegoers and newspaper reporters about Mrs. Bates's true identity, Hitchcock leaked stories that he was considering such stars as Helen Hayes and Judith Anderson for the part.

In addition to the trusted TV crew members, Hitchcock also hired Saul Bass, who had worked on Hitchcock's previous two feature films [Vertigo, North by Northwest, 1959], to design the titles and act as "pictorial consultant." He also hired Bernard Herrmann, who had written the scores for five previous Hitchcock films, including memorable ones for Vertigo and North by Northwest.

Principal photography began in November 1959. The first scene to be shot was the one in which Marion, asleep in her car, is awakened by a highway patrolman.

Hitchcock and Russell regularly used two cameras to get most of the shots in Psycho, rather than resetting to get different angles, a common practice in television but rare for feature films.

The camera used to shoot Norman's point of view as he watched Marion undress through the peephole required a circular mask on the lens.

Although Hitchcock rarely allowed improvisation on his sets, Anthony Perkins and Martin Balsam, as private eye Arbogast, were encouraged to interact spontaneously during their scene on the porch.

The shower scene in Psycho required 78 shot set-ups and took seven days to film. The set was built so that any of the walls could be removed, allowing the camera to get in close from every angle. Although other scenes were shot with more than one camera, this one used only one cameraman.

The shower scene was originally written to see only the knife-wielding hand of the murderer. Hitchcock suggested to Saul Bass, who was storyboarding the sequence, a number of angles that would capture screenwriter Joseph Stefano's description of "an impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film."

Janet Leigh wore thin moleskin to cover the most intimate parts of her body in the shower. Hitchcock kept a closed set during the shooting of the murder. Even so, Leigh later noted, "Security was a constant source of trouble. Even though I wore the moleskin, I was still pretty much 'on display,' so to speak. I didn't want strangers lurking around, hoping to get a peek in case of any accidental mishap."

Marli Renfro was paid $400 as Leigh's body double for some shots (according to some reports, she was only used for the scene of Marion's body being wrapped in the shower curtain). Although Leigh said for many years that there was never anyone actually naked in the shower, she admitted late in her life that Renfro did some shots nude. She also mentioned in her autobiography that she was nude in some scenes as the flesh-colored moleskin was washed away from her breasts. "What to do? ...To spoil the so-far successful shot and be modest? Or get it over with and be immodest. I opted for immodesty."

Reportedly, a fast-motion reverse shot was used to give the impression that the knife actually enters Marion's abdomen.

To achieve the effect of the water coming out of the shower head and streaming down past the camera on all sides, Hitchcock had a huge shower head made to order and shot with his camera very close to it.

Hitchcock has said that one reason he shot Psycho in black-and-white was because he thought the bloody murder might be too much for audiences. He used chocolate syrup as the blood swirling down the drain. Nevertheless, some audience members swore the scene was in color and that they saw red blood.

Perkins was not on the set during the filming of the shower scene. Instead he was in New York rehearsing a play he would open after Psycho was completed.

Perkins was very excited about the role and, according to a friend, was convinced the part would be an important career move for him. He was right, yet despite fine work in dozens of other pictures, he would always be indelibly linked to Norman Bates in the minds of moviegoers. He was so involved in his role, he kept coming up with new bits of business for Norman; it was Perkins's idea to have the character nibbling on candy all the way through the movie.

According to some reports, Hitchcock jokingly terrorized Janet Leigh by having the model of Mrs. Bates corpse placed in her dressing room.

The look of the tall vertical mansion on the hill contrasted with the low, long motel was a deliberate composition choice. Yet Hitchcock said it wasn't his intention to create a mysterious atmosphere with the big Gothic house but to recreate the kind of older architecture that existed in the Northern California setting of the story.

According to Hitchcock, Saul Bass only contributed one storyboard, covering the scene of Arbogast going up stairs to find Mrs. Bates. Because he was out with a fever, Hitchcock told his cameraman and assistant to shoot the scene the way Bass had laid it out. However, upon seeing it, he realized the intercut close-ups of the detective's hands and feet on the railing and stairs made it appear sinister, as if Arbogast were the murderer stalking his prey. So he reshot it.

For the high angle above the stairs in the Arbogast murder scene and the shot of Norman carrying "Mother" to the fruit cellar, the camera was placed in a cage hung from rails on the ceiling.

The shot of Arbogast falling backward down the stairs was a process shot of the actor (Martin Balsam) sitting stationary and waving his arms, as if losing his balance, in front of a screen projecting a previously filmed dolly shot moving down the stairs.

Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho was written for strings only, a departure for film music; strings had been mostly associated with romantic stories, not horror, which depended more on such musical devices as crashing symbols, screeching clarinets, ominous horns, and throbbing timpani. Herrmann called his score "black-and-white music."

A veteran of numerous pictures, including Citizen Kane (1941) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Herrmann had a particular understanding of Hitchcock's needs: "One has to create a landscape for each film, whether it be the rainy night of Psycho or a picture such as Vertigo....Hitchcock deals rarely with character portrayal, or has little or no interest in people's emotions....His interest in music is only in relation to how the suspense can be heightened."

Herrmann achieved the shrieking sound of the shower scene by having a group of violinists saw the same note over and over. He called the motif "a return to pure ice water."

Hitchcock originally wanted the shower scene to play with no music. In post production, while the director was out of town, Herrmann composed the famous theme and showed it to Hitchcock with the music upon his return. Hitchcock had to admit his original notion was an "improper suggestion."

Herrmann wrote the main title theme for Psycho before Saul Bass created the opening credit sequence. Bass animated it to the music, creating the stabbing, wrenching look in which the credits are ripped in half.

Herrmann related how the shots of Marion driving away after taking the money looked very ordinary. Hitchcock thought of having the soundtrack convey anxious voices in her head to add to the action and tension. Herrmann noted, however, that it still didn't work until he suggested bringing back the main title music. All in all, Hitchcock was delighted with Herrmann's very significant contribution to the film, giving the composer an unusual amount of credit (for Hitchcock) and stating openly that "33 percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music."

Shooting wrapped February 1, 1960, nine days over schedule. A rough cut was finished by April, at which point Hitchcock was convinced his "experiment" had failed. He was ready to cut Psycho down to a TV episode, but handed it to Herrmann to score. After he saw the completed film with the music, he was very pleased.

During post-production, Hitchcock had several wrangles with the censors over scenes they considered objectionable, including the opening scene (with Leigh in bed in her bra after obviously having had an afternoon tryst with Gavin), the suggested nudity and brutality of the shower sequence, and both the visual and aural depiction of a toilet. He managed to mostly get his own way, however, although he later said the opening scene should have featured Leigh's bare breasts.

A shot of Marion removing her black bra before her shower was removed by the U.S. censors while the scene remained intact in the U.K.

by Rob Nixon



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