Released 60 years ago, in June 1960, “Psycho” is one of those films preceded by its own reputation. Alfred Hitchcock was already an established filmmaker at the time he directed it, but no studio wanted to take any chances with the project — which set a new level of acceptability for violence, deviant behavior and sexuality in American films. At the end of the day, “Psycho” was a relatively cheap production by Hitchcock’s standards at the time, but at the same time one of his biggest hits and to this day one of his well-known titles.
There are countless articles, books and even entire documentaries (like the brilliant “78/52”, by Alexandre O. Philippe) analyzing exhaustively the creating of “Psycho”, so today everyone already knows a story or two about the movie. Like the fact that real-life serial killer Ed Gein inspired Norman Bates, or that Playboy Playmate Marli Renfro was Janet Leigh’s body double in the famous shower scene. Or even the fact that it’s one of the first Hollywood films of the period to show a toilet!
For this article, I listed 15 less discussed and publicized pieces of trivia about Hitchcock’s masterpiece. For anyone who has the same interest and affection for “Psycho”, I strongly recommend the excellent book “The Psycho File: A Comprehensive Guide to Hitchcock’s Classic Shocker”, by Joseph W. Smith III, since the author was kind enough to put together in one place almost everything that has already been written, researched and discovered about this controversial film.
Have fun… and lock the bathroom door before taking a shower!
The amazing shot that didn’t work
Some claim that Hitchcock was impressed and jealous of the brilliant opening scene in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” (1958), in which the camera follows the characters as they walk through the city for three minutes in a single take. He tried to replicate the same mood in the opening scene of “Psycho”: originally, the aerial camera would fly over the city of Phoenix for four miles until it slowly approached a hotel building, one of the windows of this hotel, and finally “entering” through the window to see what happens inside the room. The director even announced that the opening of “Psycho” would have “the longest dolly shot ever attempted by helicopter”. Of course, that was decades before the steadycam system was invented, and the footage taken with a camera inside a moving helicopter was very shaky. Hitchcock was forced to sacrifice the single take idea; in the final version there’s three dissolves and a cut — ending with a final close-up of a miniature of the hotel window, made in studio. In 1998, when directing his much-criticized remake of “Psycho”, filmmaker Gus Van Sant was able to make his opening scene as Hitchcock wanted: on a long, uncut shot.
“Where have I seen this before?”
That opening scene with an aerial camera approaching a building, entering through the window and revealing a female protagonist lying half-naked in bed… Wow, what an amazing way to start “Psycho”! But who would have guessed, it was not the first time that a film started with those images! In 1954, a B movie called “Target Earth”, directed by Sherman A. Rose, begins in exactly the same way, with an aerial camera approaching a building, entering through the window and revealing actress Kathleen Crowley laying on the bed in her underwear!
Men and sandwiches
The last meeting of Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) with the two men of her life, Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), is marked by a sandwich that the protagonist does not get to finish eating. This is the snack that Marion doesn’t have time to enjoy in the hotel room where she was with Sam on her lunch break (it can be seen in the middle of the two in the initial scene), and also the improvised dinner offered by Norman on her arrival at the Bates Motel, just before the girl’s fateful shower. In either case, Marion never finishes the sandwiches.
A deadly advice
Alfred Hitchcock had a very peculiar sense of humor, and several “Psycho” scenes make that point very clear. Like Marion’s visionary statement to Sam after their secret meeting at a cheap hotel in the opening scene (“Oh, Sam, this is the last time”), a sentence that will prove to be true, as moments later she steals the boss’s money and flees the city to be killed by Norman Bates many kilometers away, without ever meeting his beloved again. Or Norman unwittingly delivering the truth about his mother, Mrs. Bates: “She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds” (yes indeed!). But the most sadly ironic moment in the whole film happens when a highway patrolman finds Marion sleeping in her car on the side of the highway, after spending the night driving. Thinking about the girl’s safety, the policeman suggests that she look for one of the motels in the region, “just to be safe”. As we now know, poor Marion Crane would be a lot safer if she had spent a second night sleeping in her car instead of following the officer’s advice…
The hidden unlucky number
A less subtle filmmaker would certainly throw a big “13” on the screen to announce Marion Crane’s tragic fate. Alfred Hitchcock chose to disguise it, but bad luck appears twice in the protagonist’s last hours of life. First in California Charlie’s used car lot, where Marion decides to exchange her Arizona vehicle for a new one. The adress of the business, which appears very clearly in a large ad, is 4270. And the license plate of the new car chosen by Marion — as we will see later when its trunk will serve as an improvised grave for the poor woman — is 418. In both cases, the sum of the numbers is 13 (4+2+7+0 and 4+1+8)! It may just be an incredible coincidence, but knowing the director’s perfectionism seems like something done on purpose, just for fun.
Hitchcock directed “The Birds” a few years later, in 1963, but those animals are already everywhere in “Psycho”. Marion’s surname is a kind of bird, there are pictures of birds decorating the rooms at the Bates Motel, Norman comments that Marion eats like a bird, etc. And, of course, there are the stuffed birds at the motel office, where a long and famous dialogue between Norman and Marion takes place just before the girl’s death. Something to note at this point is the disposition of two very characteristic species in the background. When Norman is talking about his mother, and about the influence she has on him, we see a big stuffed owl, with its wings spreading ominously. Like hawks and eagles, owls are birds of prey, which means they hunt and kill — like Norman and Norma Bates! And just before Marion returns to her room, where she will be cowardly murdered, she appears in the same frame with a stuffed crow, a bird associated with death and corpses (because it feeds on them), anticipating the woman’s fate.
“Psycho” is a story about voyeurism from the first scene, in which the camera enters through the window of a hotel room to reveal two lovers in a post-coitus moment. Nothing more appropriate, therefore, that there is a context for the painting strategically placed on the wall of the Bates Motel office, which Norman removes to reveal a hole through which he can spy on Marion taking a bath. It is a reproduction by an unknown artist of the painting “Susanna and the Elders”. The original is a 1610 painting by the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, illustrating a passage from the Bible in which the young Susanna was taking a bath in the river, naked, while two men watched her (an image that dialogues directly with the voyeurism theme in “Psycho” and with Norman Bates’ own action at the moment). The painting had several reproductions and different versions by other artists, like the one hanging on the wall of the Bates Motel.
The knife that penetrates the flesh
Much has been said and written about how the famous shower murder scene manages to shock by its extreme violence without showing any blood or gore. Hitchcock himself spoke of this in a famous interview with French filmmaker François Truffaut in 1962 (published in the book “Hitchcock/Truffaut”): “Naturally, the knife never touched the body; it was all done in the montage”. But there is at least one single frame, very fast, in which the tip of the knife seems to penetrate Marion’s body just below the navel! If you open this video and pause precisely at 1:53 you’ll see the magic happen. Some experts claim that it is just an optical illusion: the tip of the knife was actually obscured by a shadow, but did not actually “penetrate” the flesh. It is known that Hitchcock considered filming the scene using a fake torso created by the special effects technicians, and that he changed his mind at the last minute. There are those who believe that this scene may have been filmed using the fake torso, and so we see the knife more than touching, sinking briefly into the victim’s body. Although very fast, the image remains on the viewer’s retina.
A new beginning
Killing Marion Crane (until then the protagonist) in the middle of the film was a great shock for the time and one of the most brilliant aspects of “Psycho” until today. The poor woman’s story officially ends at 50 minutes of a film that totals 1h49min, when Norman Bates enters her room to get rid of the corpse. And maybe Hitchcock decided to leave a nod for the audience that a new narrative was starting from then on: the camera shows, at least three times, a newspaper folded in the foreground where it is possible to read the word “new”! Again, it may just be an incredible coincidence, but it’s just the kind of thing that is expected of Hitchcock.
Marion’s fate in Sam’s store
After Norman Bates sinks Marion’s car (and herself) in a swamp to get rid of the evidence of the crime, a fade-in finally takes us back to Sam Loomis, Marion’s fiancé and the involuntary pivot of the entire tragedy. In another of Hitchcock’s dark humor touches, the scene in Sam’s hardware store plays with Marion’s fate. First, an old customer discusses a pesticide brand, trying to determine whether it will kill insects with or without suffering — in what seems like an ironic mention of Marion’s cruel death, that we saw just a few minutes earlier. Then, when Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), meets Sam and Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) at the same store, to talk about Marion’s disappearance, there are two items highlighted in the background: a huge display of knives affixed to the wall (not a coincidence because the script specifically asked for “a display of various size carving knives”) and a bag of peat moss on the ground, right in the center of the frame. Peat moss is a substance that grows in swamps. That is, in the same scenario and frame we have references to Marion’s weapon of death and to the location where her corpse rests.
Norman Bates is innocent!
In an interview from the 1980s, actor Anthony Perkins joked that Norman Bates was innocent of all the crimes committed in “Psycho”, simply because he did not played Norman Bates or Norma Bates in any of the murder scenes of the movie! The iconic shower scene was filmed between December 17–23, 1959. At the time, Perkins was in New York working on a Broadway stage show, so the villain was played part by Margo Epper, part by Ann Dore — with her faces darkened so that only the killer’s eyes could be seen. Perkins was also absent from the set when the death of Martin Balsam’s character was filmed. To give the impression of Mrs. Bates as a fragile woman, dwarf actress Mitzi Koestner played the killer in these moment. In other words, the only part in the whole movie when we really see Anthony Perkins dressed as Norma Bates is in the final scene, when he doesn’t kill anyone.
The three voices and eight bodies of Mrs. Bates
Hitchcock had a lot of fun deceiving the press to protect the secret of the final scene of “Psycho”. In addition to a canvas chair reserved for Mrs. Bates permanently on set, the filmmaker also told the press that he was considering actress Judith Anderson to the role. Now we know that several people helped bring the iconic villain to life. First, three different people were hired to dub her “dialogues” with Norman: two women (Virginia Gregg and Jeanette Nolan) and one man (Paul Jasmin). Hitchcock recorded each of Mrs. Bates’ lines with the three different voices, and then used passages from each other throughout the film, to confuse the audience and even the voice actors themselves. As for giving a “body” to Mrs. Bates, Anthony Perkins (in the final scene only), a stuffed dummy and three different stunt doubles (Margo Epper, Ann Dore and Mitzi Koestner) were used, totaling eight completely different figures for a single character. Or nine, if we consider that Hitchcock himself confessed to having operated the knife in some of the numerous takes filmed for the Marion Crane death scene.
“Psycho” ends with a classic superimposed image of Mrs. Bates’ mummified face on the face of the imprisoned Norman, showing that he will never be free of the “mother” influence. Before the film ends, however, this double image dissolves into a third one (the police pulling Marion’s car out of the swamp), and for a second the three overlapping images create a bizarre moment when the chain pulling the car seems to be connected to Norman/Norma’s neck — as if to prove the indissoluble bond between the two, or even to suggest the hangman’s noose around his neck, announcing that the murderer could still be sentenced to death for his crimes.
The Uncut Psycho
There is a one minute longer version of “Psycho” that for many decades has been limited to reruns on German TV, and only this year (2020) has been restored and remastered for a International blu-ray release. The extended scenes can be seen in the video below, but basically show Marion Crane taking off her bra just before getting into the shower (showing more Janet Leigh skin than in the official version that everyone knows), more scenes of Norman’s bloody hands while cleaning the bathroom, and three stabs at Detective Arbogast in addition to a single one.