One of the most fascinating opportunities for a real horror film buff would have to be hearing an expert like Stephen Rebello, author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, speak about the iconic film. Bestselling thriller novelist Kevin O'Brien (Vicious) interviewed the Hitchcock expert about the classic horror film sure to be played on countless television sets this Halloween. In preparation for the holiday, read the unabridged interview of one horror expert by another.
Kevin O'Brien: I first heard about Psycho in the early 1960s, when I was just a kid. My oldest sister was afraid of taking a shower if no one else was in the house because of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. So-I just had to find out more about this movie and see it. When did you first find out about Psycho? And do you remember what it was like when you saw it for the first time? Did you have any idea of what you were in for?
Stephen Rebello: Well, Kevin, if your sister was one of the many who wouldn't shower after seeing Psycho, Hitchcock would have advised: "Have her dry cleaned." As for me, growing up in southeastern Massachusetts, I remember reading in the Boston newspapers these little "teasers" about how the famous director and TV personality Alfred Hitchcock was making this secretive, very different kind of movie. Not the kind of thing he usually did-a full-out shocker-type film. One of these items mentioned that Hitchcock had posted guards at the studio soundstage doors to keep out the prying eyes and ears of the curious. He swore the cast to secrecy about the plot. Well, my young imagination went into overdrive imagining what Hitchcock might be up to.
By the summer of 1960, though, I became obsessed when I saw for the first time the Psycho movie trailer. It played at the most mysterious movie theater around-a slightly eerie, faded, grand, and expansive old movie palace called the Durfee in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. If Norma Desmond had been a movie theater, this would have been it. Hitchcock taking us on a tour of this motel and scary old house made his movie seem strange, spooky, and grown up as hell; so did the constant TV and radio ads, also narrated by the grand old man himself. And the posters in the lobby, with that cracked, shattered yellow title lettering, Janet Leigh wearing a bra and slip, Anthony Perkins looking tense, a shirtless John Gavin and that tagline: A new-and altogether different-screen excitement. To me, it all spelled: hot stuff.
I wasn't alone. Kids in my school were talking a lot about Psycho and, once the Legion of Decency forbid any good Catholic from seeing it, everyone wanted to see it. I lied, schemed, and cheated my way into the theater that first day. The place was packed and once Janet Leigh drove up to Bates Motel in the rain, you could feel dread building in this audience of mostly tough, working class, largely immigrant people. Once Leigh flushed the motel bathroom toilet-a first in an American movie!-then, disrobed and stepped into the shower, the theater sounded exactly like a kids' horror movie matinee, even though it was filled with grownups, authority figures, friends of my parents, even one of my teachers.
They yelled like banshees. As the rest of the film went on, the audience talked to the screen and shouted out warnings to the characters. I saw one of my schoolteachers run up the aisle looking gray and nauseous. People were stunned after the shower murder, though. It was that staggering. And when Martin Balsam as the detective climbed the stairs of the Bates house and when Vera Miles tapped Mrs. Bates's shoulder in the basement, the place went berserk. I've never experienced anything like it before or since in a movie theater. The audience wasn't self-conscious, faux-hip, or knowing. Nothing then was meta or ironic. The response was primal. Even though I was too young to understand half of Psycho the first time I saw it, it shook me.
O'Brien: Robert Bloch's novel Psycho is based on the Ed Gein case. Can you tell us about Ed Gein and his crimes?
Rebello: As you have in some of your wonderful books, Robert Bloch took inspiration from the crimes of a real-life, deeply disturbing, and dangerous psychopath. Mr. Bloch, a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft, lived in Wisconsin in 1957, just miles from where police that year discovered almost unimaginable horrors at the dilapidated farm and house of Ed Gein, an unmarried, middle-aged loner who was known as an odd duck by pretty much everyone in his community. The police found the nude, headless, recently slaughtered body of a woman hanging by her heels in a shed. A human heart was in a coffee can on the stove. This unfortunate woman wasn't Gein's only female victim, as the search revealed. Gein's various activities included dressing himself with female human remains, grave-robbing, cannibalism, necrophilia and, very likely, maternal incest. Mind you, this was a guy hired by his neighbors to babysit their little darlings. The case became a national sensation, even though many of the police findings were too sensational and twisted to be reported by the press in those days. Although Bloch claimed that even he didn't know the grisly details, somehow his creation "Norman Bates" was uncannily like Gein in many ways. So, Gein-who appeared to be a meek, bland, slightly effeminate mama's boy when he was actually the stuff of nightmares-inadvertently became one of Bloch's inspirations for writing Psycho.
O'Brien: How did Hitchcock stumble upon the book, Psycho, and why was he interested in making a "horror" movie?
Rebello: Hitchcock had been making films since the 1920s and, by the forties, was pretty much acknowledged as the master architect of motion picture thrillers. By the fifties, he was beginning to feel particularly pigeon-holed in the suspense genre and was always relentlessly pursuing material that was different, unique, attention-getting. He drove his associates and agents insane trying to find things that would ignite his imagination. By 1959, several of his most successful films had been very expensive to make. He didn't like that. The final straw was when he had lavished time, love, money, and preproduction on a film to star Audrey Hepburn and Laurence Harvey that he had to cancel for various reasons. That was a terrible blow, and that project could have been one of the great Hitchcock films. In a state of agitated frustration, the novel Psycho came to his attention because of an intriguing New York Times review by the respected novelist and critic Anthony Boucher. The book, generally, won strong reviews. Hitchcock had noticed how low-budget, non-star horror movies were making a killing by attracting the younger audiences he was after. Psycho fit in with his idea of trying something bolder, more contemporary, and with economy of scale. He began talking about horror movies with his associates and asking, "What if someone good were to make a horror movie?" But he was one of the few who saw merit in Psycho; many of his associates warned him against making Psycho. They thought it was beneath him.
O'Brien: In the book, Mary Crain (Marion in the movie) isn't stabbed in that fatal shower. And Norman Bates is not nearly as handsome and charming as Tony Perkins. Can you explain some of these alterations and any other differences between the book and the movie?
Rebello: But she is killed in the shower in the novel. In fact, Hitchcock told many people that he was most attracted by Bloch's notion of a murder coming out of the blue in an everyday, confined setting-the shower, where we feel relaxed and complacent but where we're utterly vulnerable. Hitchcock was thrilled with the idea of shocking audiences by casting a major star as the heroine and killing her off so early in the picture. That violated every Hollywood rule. Bloch's heroine has her head cut off in the shower, not exactly the kind of thing that even Hitchcock could have gotten away with, even if he had been tempted. Bates in the novel is middle-aged, pudgy, alcoholic, brooding, unattractive, repugnant. He also has extensive conversations with his mother, which would have been fatal and a cheat on film. Casting Anthony Perkins was a lucky masterstroke; he's as charming, attractive, sad, perverse, and lethal as earlier Hitchcock killers like the one Joseph Cotten played in Shadow of a Doubt and Robert Walker played in Strangers on a Train. Perkins had already worked with top directors like William Wyler, Anthony Mann, and Stanley Kramer, and Paramount had spent lots of money promoting him as a successor to the late James Dean or comparing him to the young James Stewart or Henry Fonda. Although he had become a teen idol and even made some hit records, things hadn't quite clicked and, at the time, Perkins felt typecast and owed Paramount a movie. Hitchcock could hire him inexpensively. It was a perfect storm.
O'Brien: How did screenwriter Joseph Stefano get involved in the movie?
Rebello: Hitchcock had thrown away an earlier draft by James Cavanaugh, a talented young TV writer known for scripts for the series Suspense and Playhouse 90; what got him the Psycho adaptation assignment was his teleplay for the famous 1959 Alfred Hitchcock Presents entry Arthur, in which Hitchcock himself directed Laurence Harvey as a murderous young chicken farmer. No one liked Cavanaugh's adaptation of Psycho, though, and Hitchcock's powerful and much-feared agent Lew Wasserman made the case for Joseph Stefano. Hitchcock was amused by Stefano-a talented, offbeat former dancer, singer, and songwriter who regaled and fascinated Hitchcock with intimate revelations from his psychotherapy sessions. They made quite a pair.
O'Brien: I hear Anthony Perkins was Hitchcock's first choice for Norman Bates. What about the other roles? I hear Eva Marie Saint, Shirley Jones, Carolyn Jones, Stuart Whitman, and Brian Keith were in the running for other major roles. Could you tell us some more about the casting-and who else was in the running?
Rebello: Perkins was pretty much "locked" for Norman Bates, but there were brief discussions about Dean Stockwell, Roddy McDowall, Laurence Harvey, and others. Hitchcock wanted the biggest star possible for the female leading role. Hitchcock associates and top talent agents suggested such stars, appropriate or not, as Lana Turner, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Maureen O'Sullivan, and more. For the heroine's sister, there was talk of Shirley Jones, Dolores Hart, and Diane Varsi, and for Sam, Marion's boyfriend, Robert Loggia, Stuart Whitman, Brian Keith, Richard Basehart, and Leslie Nielsen were among those in the running.
O'Brien: I spotted the Psycho house in an Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode, "The Unlocked Window." How did they come up with that creepy house, and was it in any other films/TV shows?
Rebello: After many discussions with Hitchcock about what he did and didn't want, art directors Robert Clatworthy and Joseph Hurley designed the house and built it on the Universal backlot, clearly referencing Victorian architecture as typified by Edward Hopper's haunting 1925 painting House by the Railroad. The art directors appropriated architectural pieces from other standing sets on the Universal backlot, including the house from Harvey. Originally, they built only the front and side of the house because those were all Hitchcock needed to shoot. After Psycho, the house got altered but remained as a standing set and can be seen in several episodes of the Boris Karloff-hosted anthology TV series Thriller, in the Western shows Wagon Train and Laramie, in such feature films as Invitation to a Gunfighter, and, yes, in the Psycho-esque "An Unlocked Window," among many, many other TV episodes and films.
O'Brien: Why did Hitchcock use his TV show crew to shoot the film (instead of his usual cinematographer, Robert Burks)? And why did he shoot it in black and white?
Rebello: After becoming so well known in the fifties for his big-star, big-budget Technicolor films, Hitchcock tackled Psycho as something of an "experiment" but also a throwback. He loved referring to it as his "30-day picture" and, just as he did in his early filmmaking days in England, he wanted to try new things while keeping the budget low, at around $800,000. One way of accomplishing this was to work with his trusted TV crewmembers, who were accustomed to working fast and with great skill. In those days, the decision to film in color versus black and white could be as much an artistic decision as a financial one. Black and white was as ideal for Psycho as it was for such other movies of the sixties as The Apartment, Anatomy of a Murder, To Kill a Mockingbird, Days of Wine and Roses, Hud, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, Cape Fear, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Haunting, In Cold Blood, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
O'Brien: Is it true that Janet Leigh gave John Gavin "a helping hand" during their love scene?
Rebello: That's what the gifted, very classy, and discreet Janet Leigh said, blushing as she did. Hitchcock and the charming, thoroughly professional Janet Leigh got along beautifully, but somehow he wasn't especially happy with what he was getting out of John Gavin. He wanted passion, sexuality, heat, and he seemed to feel Mr. Gavin was self-conscious and uncomfortable. Hitchcock apparently took Ms. Leigh aside and asked her to take . . . matters . . . into her own hands. Mr. Gavin responded. What a pair of troupers.
O'Brien: Rumors have flown that title designer, Saul Bass, filmed the shower scene. Can you put those rumors to rest?
Rebello: Well, Kevin, those rumors flew but they've long since crash-landed. There is no underestimating Mr. Bass's extraordinary gifts as an artist, but too many key people who were on the set have vehemently denied his assertions. I doubt anyone takes the claim seriously anymore-if they ever did. Saul Bass's contributions to the movie-his visual concepts for the shower sequence and the Arbogast murder on the stairs, the test footage of the shower sequence that he shot using a nude stand-in-are indelible. Let's remember that Saul Bass provided Hitchcock with a powerful and evocative roadmap for how to film and edit the shower sequence in an era in which extreme violence and nudity could only be suggested but not shown. But let's also remember that Hitchcock, Robert Bloch, Joseph Stefano, especially Janet Leigh, film editor George Tomasini, and composer Bernard Herrmann are the stars and authors of that now-iconic scene.
O'Brien: Any interesting stories about filming the famous shower scene?
Rebello: Here are some things that did and didn't happen during the filming of the shower scene. It was not shot by a Japanese crew. Not a frame of it was filmed in color. Janet Leigh shot the scene virtually nude, which was very brave and completely unheard-of for American movie stars in those days. Hitchcock also hired a nude model to shoot the entire sequence just in case Janet Leigh's modesty made her guard her body and ruin the shot. That model, Marli Renfro, is definitely visible in the overhead shots. Hitchcock in his elegant dark blue suit and tie would often be seen chatting about wine, travel, and dirty jokes while Marli Renfro sat next to him, completely naked. Male crewmembers on the closed set hung from the rafters to get a better view of Janet Leigh; such a frank, bold scene was unheard of at the time. It was quite an engineering feat to make certain Ms. Leigh had sufficient warm water for the entire length of filming. So, no, Hitchcock did not douse her with cold water to elicit her screams-a silly rumor that undercuts what a skilled actress Janet Leigh was. Anthony Perkins was not used in the scene in any way; he was already in rehearsals for a Frank Loesser musical on Broadway. Hitchcock wanted to spare Perkins any discomfort or embarrassment and, besides, Perkins had such a distinctive body type that he would have been recognized immediately by audiences. "Mother" was played in the scene by stuntwoman Margo Epper, whose face was blacked-out with makeup to conceal her identity. The sound of the knife stabbing flesh was accomplished by stabbing a casaba melon and also a slab of meat.
O'Brien: Is it true that Hitchcock didn't want music to accompany the shower scene? Can you tell us about Bernard Herrmann's contribution to the film?
Rebello: Hitchcock was out to break a lot of new ground this time. That included his wanting Psycho to look, feel, and sound unlike his elegant suspense movies like The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, or Vertigo, with their romantic, haunting symphonic scores by Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock dictated precise notes for sound effects and music for his films; for Psycho, he was after a downbeat, cool, strange jazz score perhaps similar to those director Otto Preminger had from Elmer Bernstein for The Man with the Golden Arm and from Duke Ellington on Anatomy of a Murder. He smelled change in the air, the coming of a new, franker, more violent era, and he wanted the film to be modern, to appeal to a new audience. For the shower murder, he was adamant that audiences would hear only the sound of the water, the heroine's screams and the sounds of the knife ravaging her body. Tough, savage stuff. He resisted Herrmann's idea of an all-string score and screaming violins but, once he heard the great composer's work for the shower scene, he apologized-in his own way, that is-by admitting of his no-music dictate, "Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion."
O'Brien: I've seen a few seconds of Janet Leigh actually taking off her bra during that scene in which Tony Perkins spies on her through a peephole. But this didn't make the US version of the film (check the special features of the DVD). How much trouble did Hitchcock encounter with the censors?
Rebello: Hitchcock had been challenging and tweaking the hypocrisy of censorship from the beginnings of his career. He threw down the gauntlet with Psycho, deliberately upping the ante with suggestive situations, exposed flesh, provocative themes, imagery, and subtext. When Paramount submitted the screenplay to the censors for review, as all major films had to in those days, their decision came back that Hitchcock was skating on extremely thin ice. They demanded less frank dialogue and lots of changes, for instance, in the way he proposed to film such things as the opening sequence with Janet Leigh and John Gavin shacked up in the hotel during her lunch break, the shower sequence, and more. The censors were especially infuriated about suggestions of incest between Bates and his mother. Hitchcock mostly ignored their restrictions and made the film he wanted to make, with some concessions. On the whole, he played the game brilliantly-deliberately inserting things in the script that he knew he wouldn't get away with but that would distract the censors from things he was willing to fight for. When the censorship board demanded that he recut the shower scene, for instance, he didn't touch a foot of the film; they didn't notice. In the end, the censors weren't a match for him. But make no mistake-this was a major battle. They could have stopped the movie from being released. Hitchcock didn't get away with everything, though. He wanted Janet Leigh bra-less in the film's opening, her breasts brushing John Gavin's bare chest.
O'Brien: Is it true that Hitchcock didn't have much confidence in Psycho when he viewed the finished product for the first time?
Rebello: The early cast and crew private screening did not go particularly well, although that's hardly unusual in Hollywood. The film apparently played flat, unexciting; it lacked tension. Hitchcock secretly always held the view that if the film really didn't work, he'd edit it to an hour and show it on television. A later screening for close associates-this time edited more tightly and accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's score-played much better. Many people today don't realize that even more effort and planning went into the scene of the private detective being killed than the heroine's. It was the stabbing of the detective that brought the early audience right out of their seats with terror. As you know, Kevin, Hitchcock didn't hold any sneak preview screenings for the public, and there weren't even advance screenings for the press. Some say that Hitchcock wanted to keep the film's revelations a complete surprise. Others argue that Hitchcock was unconvinced that Psycho was up to his usual standard and that he wanted to do preemptive damage control. To anyone who questioned him, he'd just shrug it off and say, "It's only a movie." Even his personal production assistant tried to calm down people on the set who were worried that Hitchcock was going too far: "Don't worry. He's already planning the next movie in his head."
O'Brien: "No one will be admitted into the theater after the start of the film." Can you explain this mandate and other marketing strategies Hitchcock used?
Rebello: In those days, the price of a movie ticket bought you not only a feature film, but also newsreels, short subjects, previews of coming attractions, and a second feature film. People would drift in and out of theaters as their interests and schedules permitted. That's how the old expression originated: "This is where I came in." Psycho helped change all that. Hitchcock was a master showman and, taking a cue from the publicity campaign for the superb French film Les Diaboliques, he created the aura of an "event" around Psycho. He made himself the star and centerpiece of the movie's advertising campaign. At the first-run engagements of Psycho, theater owners were instructed to hire uniformed guards to stand outside theaters to prevent audiences from trying to enter the movie house once the film had begun. Great publicity! Life-sized cardboard cutouts of Hitchcock stood in the lobby, and recorded messages from Hitchcock informed ticket-buyers of the reasons behind his unusual admissions policy and also hyped them to expect to be terrified and stunned. At one showing, audiences waiting to get in were wrapped around the block and, when it started to rain and they wouldn't leave, Hitchcock was contacted by the theater manager and asked what to do. "Buy them umbrellas," he said. Before the era of Facebook, Twitter, spoilers, and text messages, audiences loved being surprised and loved the chance to feel that they were part of the ritual that seeing Psycho turned out to be.
O'Brien: What was the public and critical reaction to Psycho when it was first released?
Rebello: American critics gave the film mixed to negative reviews-"a blot on an honorable career" as one called it. Hitchcock himself speculated that he'd put critics' noses out of joint by refusing to invite them to the usual free advance screenings. Critics actually had to suffer the terrible indignity of having to pay to see the film along with the rest of us-the great, unwashed public. On the other hand, the public response to the movie was phenomenal. Audiences lined up around the block for the very first showings and the film was held over for weeks and weeks in many theaters. Psycho was a cultural phenomenon, the kind of movie that you'd hear people talking about at grocery stores, post offices, everywhere. Interestingly, when the movie turned out to cause a sensation, some of the same critics who panned it suddenly got religion and named it on their end-of-the-year "best lists." The public "got" Psycho-or, as Hitchcock put it, "went Psycho"-long before the critics did. Over the years, of course, the movie has been acclaimed as a masterpiece.
O'Brien: I couldn't wait to see Psycho when it was set for its TV premiere on The CBS Friday Night Movies in September 1966. But something happened in Kenilworth, Illinois (one town away from where I lived at the time), that caused the TV premiere of Psycho to be canceled. Can you explain?
Rebello: CBS pulled that network premiere after the September 18th murder of twenty-one-year-old Valerie Percy, who was brutally killed with a hammer and a knife by an unknown assailant in the family home she shared with her twin sister, her mother, and her father, then US Senator Charles H. Percy. You may remember that there was a big international investigation and a $50,000 reward but Ms. Percy's murder remains an unsolved crime to this day. The film was rescheduled, but pulled again after the tragic fire on the Apollo space mission. In the end, the movie never had a network TV showing. Hitchcock took considerable heat from the press about his "responsibility" in contributing to what some called "the American cult of violence." When a young man on death row said that he killed his most recent victim after seeing Psycho, Hitchcock said, "He had killed two other women before, so when the press called and asked if I had any comment, I said, "Yes. I want to know the names of the movies he saw before he killed the other two, or did he kill the first one after drinking a glass of milk?"
O'Brien: Finally, can you tell us why you think Psycho continues to scare us and influence so many other thrillers-fifty years later?
Rebello: Psycho continues to scare audiences and inspire filmmakers because the story works, the characters resonate, the dialogue is full of dark little gems, the imagery is stunning, and the mood, subtext-the film's dark underneath-is troubling, primal, and universal. As directed by Hitchcock, it's a one-of-a-kind collision of sexy soap opera, crime thriller, old dark house Gothic, black comedy, tragedy, and psychosexual mind warp.
For some, it is a perfectly enjoyable, enthralling, well-made "movie-movie," yet it also works on deeper subconscious levels in subversive and masterful ways. No wonder we're still enjoying Psycho, analyzing it, having nightmares about it, quoting it, parodying it, being influenced by it. And here I've gotten the privilege of talking with you about it, Kevin, while, later today, I go back to my involvement in preparations for a major feature film set against the making of Psycho that will begin production early next year. Somewhere, Hitchcock is having the last laugh at all those who warned him not to make Psycho. It wasn't "only a movie," was it?
O'Brien: Thank you for your time, Stephen! It's a thrill and an honor to talk with you. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is one of my all-time favorite film books.
The thrill and honor are also mine, Kevin. Next time, I get to interview you, and we can start with one of my favorites, Vicious.