Psycho is based on Robert Bloch's 1959 novel of the same name, which was loosely inspired by the case of convicted Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein. Both Gein, who lived just 40 miles from Bloch, and the story's protagonist, Norman Bates, were solitary murderers in isolated rural locations. Each had deceased, domineering mothers, had sealed off a room in their home as a shrine to her, and dressed in women's clothes. However, unlike Bates, Gein is not strictly considered a serial killer, having been charged with murder only twice.
Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock's long-time assistant, read Anthony Boucher's positive review of the novel and decided to show the book to her employer, even though studio readers at Paramount Pictures had already rejected its premise for a film. Hitchcock acquired rights to the novel for $9,500 and reportedly ordered Robertson to buy up copies to preserve the novel's surprises. Hitchcock, who had come to face genre competitors whose works were critically compared to his own, was seeking new material to recover from two aborted projects with Paramount, Flamingo Feather and No Bail for the Judge. He disliked stars' salary demands and trusted only a few people to choose prospective material, including Robertson.
Paramount executives balked at Hitchcock's proposal and refused to provide his usual budget. In response, Hitchcock offered to film Psycho quickly and inexpensively in black and white using his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series crew. Paramount executives rejected this cost-conscious approach, claiming their sound stages were booked even though the industry was in a slump. Hitchcock countered he would personally finance the project and film it at Universal-International using his Shamley Productions crew if Paramount would merely distribute. In lieu of his usual $250,000 director's fee he proposed a 60% stake in the film negative. This combined offer was accepted and Hitchcock went ahead in spite of naysaying from producer Herbert Coleman and Shamley Productions executive Joan Harrison.
James P. Cavanagh, a writer on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, penned the original screenplay. Hitchcock felt the script dragged and read like a television short horror story, an assessment shared by an assistant. Though Stefano had worked on only one film before, Hitchcock agreed to meet with him; despite Stefano's inexperience, the meeting went well and he was hired.
The screenplay is relatively faithful to the novel, with a few notable adaptations by Hitchcock and Stefano. Stefano found the character of Norman Bates—who, in the book, is middle-aged, overweight, and more overtly unstable—unsympathetic, but became more intrigued when Hitchcock suggested casting Anthony Perkins. Stefano eliminated Bates' drinking, which evidently necessitated removing Bates' "becoming" the Mother personality when in a drunken stupor. Also gone is Bates' interest in spiritualism, the occult and pornography. Hitchcock and Stefano elected to open the film with scenes in Marion's life and not introduce Bates at all until 20 minutes into the film, rather than open with Bates reading a history book as Bloch does. Indeed, writer Joseph W. Smith notes that, "Her story occupies only two of the novel's 17 chapters. Hitchcock and Stefano expanded this to nearly half the narrative". He likewise notes there is no hotel tryst between Marion and Sam in the novel. For Stefano, the conversation between Marion and Norman in the hotel parlor in which she displays a maternal sympathy towards him makes it possible for the audience to switch their sympathies towards Norman Bates after Marion's murder. When Lila Crane is looking through Norman's room in the film she opens a book with a blank cover whose contents are unseen; in the novel these are "pathologically pornographic" illustrations. Stefano wanted to give the audience "indications that something was quite wrong, but it could not be spelled out or overdone." In his book of interviews with Hitchcock, François Truffaut notes that the novel "cheats" by having extended conversations between Norman and "Mother" and stating what Mother is "doing" at various given moments.
The first name of the female protagonist was changed from Mary to Marion, since a real Mary Crane existed in Phoenix. Also changed is the novel's budding romance between Sam and Lila. Hitchcock preferred to focus the audience's attention on the solution to the mystery, and Stefano thought such a relationship would make Sam Loomis seem cheap. Instead of having Sam explain Norman's pathology to Lila, the film uses a psychiatrist. (Stefano was in therapy dealing with his relationship with his own mother at the time of writing the film.) The novel is more violent than the film; for instance, Crane is beheaded in the shower as opposed to being stabbed to death. Minor changes include changing Marion's telltale earring found after her death to a scrap of paper that failed to flush down the toilet. This provided some shock effect, since toilets were virtually never seen in American cinema in the 1960s. The location of Arbogast's death was moved from the foyer to the stairwell. Stefano thought this would make it easier to conceal the truth about "Mother" without tipping that something was being hidden. As Janet Leigh put it, this gave Hitchcock more options for his camera.
Paramount, whose contract guaranteed another film by Hitchcock, did not want Hitchcock to make Psycho. Paramount was expecting No Bail for the Judge starring Audrey Hepburn, who became pregnant and had to bow out, leading Hitchcock to scrap the production. Their official stance was that the book was "too repulsive" and "impossible for films", and nothing but another of his star-studded mystery thrillers would suffice. They did not like "anything about it at all" and denied him his usual budget. In response Hitchcock financed the film's creation through his own Shamley Productions, shooting at Universal Studios under the Revue television unit. The original Bates Motel and Bates house set buildings, which were constructed on the same stage as Lon Chaney Sr.'s The Phantom of the Opera, are still standing at Universal Studios in Universal City near Hollywood and are a regular attraction on the studio's tour. As a further result of cost cutting, Hitchcock chose to film Psycho in black and white, keeping the budget under $1,000,000. Other reasons for shooting in black and white were his desire to prevent the shower scene from being too gory and his admiration for Les Diaboliques's use of black and white.
To keep costs down, and because he was most comfortable around them, Hitchcock took most of his crew from his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including the cinematographer, set designer, script supervisor, and first assistant director. He hired regular collaborators Bernard Herrmann as music composer, George Tomasini as editor, and Saul Bass for the title design and storyboarding of the shower scene. In all, his crew cost $62,000.
Through the strength of his reputation, Hitchcock cast Leigh for a quarter of her usual fee, paying only $25,000 (in the 1967 book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock said that Leigh owed Paramount one final film on her seven-year contract which she had signed in 1953). His first choice, Leigh agreed after having only read the novel and making no inquiry into her salary. Her co-star, Anthony Perkins, agreed to $40,000. Both stars were experienced and proven box-office draws.
Paramount did distribute the film, but four years later Hitchcock sold his stock in Shamley to Universal's parent company (MCA) and his next six films were made at and distributed by Universal Pictures. After another four years, Paramount sold all rights to Universal.
The film, independently produced and financed by Hitchcock, was shot at Revue Studios, the same location as his television show. Psycho was shot on a tight budget of $807,000, beginning on November 11, 1959, and ending on February 1, 1960. Filming started in the morning and finished by six p.m. or earlier on Thursdays (when Hitchcock and his wife would dine at Chasen's). Nearly the whole film was shot with 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras. This trick closely mimicked normal human vision, which helped to further involve the audience.
Before shooting began in November, Hitchcock dispatched assistant director Hilton A. Green to Phoenix to scout locations and shoot the opening scene. The shot was supposed to be an aerial shot of Phoenix that slowly zoomed into the hotel window of a passionate Marion and Sam. Ultimately, the helicopter footage proved too shaky and had to be spliced with footage from the studio. Another crew filmed day and night footage on Highway 99 between Gorman and Fresno, California for projection when Marion drives from Phoenix. Footage of her driving into Bakersfield to trade her car is also shown. They also provided the location shots for the scene in which she is discovered sleeping in her car by the highway patrolman. In one street scene shot in downtown Phoenix, Christmas decorations were discovered to be visible; rather than re-shoot the footage, Hitchcock chose to add a graphic to the opening scene marking the date as "Friday, December the Eleventh".
Green also took photos of a prepared list of 140 locations for later reconstruction in the studio. These included many real estate offices and homes such as those belonging to Marion and her sister. He also found a girl who looked just like he imagined Marion and photographed her whole wardrobe, which would enable Hitchcock to demand realistic looks from Helen Colvig, the wardrobe supervisor. The look of the Bates house was modeled on Edward Hopper's painting The House by the Railroad, a fanciful portrait of the Second Empire Victorian home at 18 Conger Avenue in Haverstraw, NY.
Both the leads, Perkins and Leigh, were given freedom to interpret their roles and improvise as long as it did not involve moving the camera. An example of Perkins' improvisation is Norman's habit of eating candy corn.
Throughout filming, Hitchcock created and hid various versions of the "Mother corpse" prop in Leigh's dressing room closet. Leigh took the joke well, and she wondered whether it was done to keep her on edge and thus more in character or to judge which corpse would be scarier for the audience.
During shooting, Hitchcock was forced to uncharacteristically do retakes for some scenes. The final shot in the shower scene, which starts with an extreme close-up on Marion's eye and pulls up and out, proved very difficult for Leigh, since the water splashing in her face made her want to blink, and the cameraman had trouble as well since he had to manually focus while moving the camera. Retakes were also required for the opening scene, since Hitchcock felt that Leigh and Gavin were not passionate enough. Leigh had trouble saying "Not inordinately" for the real estate office scene, requiring additional retakes. Lastly, the scene in which the mother is discovered required complicated coordination of the chair turning around, Miles hitting the light bulb, and a lens flare, which proved to be the sticking point. Hitchcock forced retakes until all three elements were to his satisfaction.
According to Hitchcock, a series of shots with Arbogast going up the stairs in the Bates house before he is stabbed were helmed by assistant director Hilton A. Green, working with storyboard artist Saul Bass' drawings only while Hitchcock was incapacitated with the common cold. However, upon viewing the dailies of the shots, Hitchcock was forced to scrap them. He claimed they were "no good" because they did not portray "an innocent person but a sinister man who was going up those stairs". Hitchcock later re-shot the scene, though a little of the cut footage made its way into the film. Filming the murder of Arbogast proved problematic owing to the overhead camera angle necessary to hide the film's twist. A camera track constructed on pulleys alongside the stairway together with a chairlike device had to be constructed and thoroughly tested over a period of weeks.
Alfred Hitchcock's cameo is a signature occurrence in most of his films. In Psycho, he can be seen through a window—wearing a Stetson hat—standing outside Marion Crane's office. Wardrobe mistress Rita Riggs has said that Hitchcock chose this scene for his cameo so that he could be in a scene with his daughter (who played one of Marion's colleagues). Others have suggested that he chose this early appearance in the film in order to avoid distracting the audience.
The shower scene
The murder of Leigh's character in the shower is the film's pivotal scene and one of the best-known in all of cinema. As such, it spawned numerous myths and legends. It was shot from December 17–23, 1959, and features 77 different camera angles. The scene runs 3 minutes and includes 50 cuts. Most of the shots are extreme close-ups, except for medium shots in the shower directly before and directly after the murder. The combination of the close shots with their short duration makes the sequence feel more subjective than it would have been if the images were presented alone or in a wider angle, an example of the technique Hitchcock described as "transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience".
To capture the straight-on shot of the shower head, the camera had to be equipped with a long lens. The inner holes on the shower head were blocked and the camera placed a sufficient distance away so that the water, while appearing to be aimed directly at the lens, actually went around and past it.
The soundtrack of screeching violins, violas, and cellos was an original all-strings piece by composer Bernard Herrmann titled "The Murder". Hitchcock originally intended to have no music for the sequence (and all motel scenes), but Herrmann insisted he try his composition. Afterward, Hitchcock agreed it vastly intensified the scene, and nearly doubled Herrmann's salary. The blood in the scene is reputed to have been Bosco chocolate syrup, which shows up better on black-and-white film, and has more realistic density than stage blood. The sound of the knife entering flesh was created by plunging a knife into a casaba melon.
There are varying accounts whether Leigh was in the shower the entire time or a body double was used for some parts of the murder sequence and its aftermath. In an interview with Roger Ebert and in the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Leigh stated she was in the scene the entire time and Hitchcock used a stand-in only for the sequence in which Norman wraps Marion's body in a shower curtain and places it in the trunk of her car. The 2010 book The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower by Robert Graysmith contradicts this, identifying Marli Renfro as Leigh's body double for some of the shower scene's shots. Graysmith also stated that Hitchcock later acknowledged Renfro's participation in the scene.
A popular myth emerged that, in order for Leigh's scream in the shower to sound realistic, ice-cold water was used. Leigh denied this on numerous occasions, saying the crew was very accommodating, supplying hot water throughout the week-long shoot. All of the screams are Leigh's.
Another myth concerns Saul Bass, the graphic designer who created many of the title sequences of Hitchcock's films and storyboarded some of Psycho's scenes, claiming he had directed the shower scene. This was refuted by several figures associated with the film, including Leigh, who stated: "absolutely not! I have emphatically said this in any interview I've ever given. I've said it to his face in front of other people ... I was in that shower for seven days, and, believe me, Alfred Hitchcock was right next to his camera for every one of those seventy-odd shots." Hilton A. Green, the assistant director, also refutes Bass' claim: "There is not a shot in that movie that I didn't roll the camera for. And I can tell you I never rolled the camera for Mr. Bass." Roger Ebert, a longtime admirer of Hitchcock's work, summarily dismissed the rumor, stating, "It seems unlikely that a perfectionist with an ego like Hitchcock's would let someone else direct such a scene."
However, commentators such as Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn have argued in favor of Bass' contribution to the scene in his capacity as visual consultant and storyboard artist. Along with designing the opening credits, Bass is termed "Pictorial Consultant" in the credits. When interviewing Hitchcock in 1967, François Truffaut asked about the extent of Bass' contribution, to which Hitchcock replied that in addition to the titles, Bass had provided storyboards for the Arbogast murder (which he claimed to have rejected), but made no mention of Bass providing storyboards for the shower scene. According to Bill Krohn's Hitchcock At Work, Bass' first claim to have directed the scene was in 1970, when he provided a magazine with 48 drawings used as storyboards as proof of his contribution.
Krohn's analysis of the production of Psycho in his book Hitchcock at Work, while refuting Bass' claims for directing the scene, notes that these storyboards did introduce key aspects of the final scene—most notably, the fact that the killer appears as a silhouette, and details such as the close-ups of the slashing knife, Leigh's desperate outstretched arm, the shower curtain being torn down, and the transition from the hole of the drainage pipe to Marion Crane's dead eyes. Krohn notes that this final transition is highly reminiscent of the iris titles that Bass created for Vertigo.
Krohn's research also notes that Hitchcock shot the scene with two cameras: one a BNC Mitchell, the other a handheld French Éclair camera which Orson Welles had used in Touch of Evil (1958). In order to create an ideal montage for the greatest emotional impact on the audience, Hitchcock shot a lot of footage of this scene which he trimmed down in the editing room. He even brought a Moviola on the set to gauge the footage required. The final sequence, which his editor George Tomasini worked on with Hitchcock's advice, however did not go far beyond the basic structural elements set up by Bass' storyboards.
According to Donald Spoto in The Dark Side of Genius, Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville, spotted a blooper in one of the last screenings of Psycho before its official release: after Marion was supposedly dead, one could see her blink. According to Patricia Hitchcock, talking in Laurent Bouzereau's "making of" documentary, Alma spotted that Leigh's character appeared to take a breath. In either case, the postmortem activity was edited out and was never seen by audiences. Although Marion's eyes should be dilated after her death, the contact lenses necessary for this effect would have required six weeks of acclimation to wear them, so Hitchcock decided to forgo them.
It is often claimed that, despite its graphic nature, the "shower scene" never once shows a knife puncturing flesh. However, a frame by frame analysis of the sequence shows one shot in which the knife appears to penetrate Leigh's abdomen, but the effect may have been created by lighting and reverse motion. Leigh herself was so affected by this scene when she saw it, that she no longer took showers unless she absolutely had to; she would lock all the doors and windows and would leave the bathroom and shower door open. She never realized until she first watched the film "how vulnerable and defenseless one is".
Leigh and Hitchcock fully discussed what the scene meant:
Marion had decided to go back to Phoenix, come clean, and take the consequence, so when she stepped into the bathtub it was as if she were stepping into the baptismal waters. The spray beating down on her was purifying the corruption from her mind, purging the evil from her soul. She was like a virgin again, tranquil, at peace.
Film theorist Robin Wood also discusses how the shower washes "away her guilt". He comments upon the "alienation effect" of killing off the "apparent center of the film" with which spectators had identified.