Chris Sullivan on the moment film found the fear within
PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 November 2017
The murder of Marion Crane, as she took a shower at the Bates Motel, was one of the turning points of the 20th century, argues CHRIS SULLIVAN
In Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock plumped for perhaps the most direct, blunt film title in cinema history. Long before the suspense starts, no one can be in any doubt about what menace lurks ahead.
A new documentary about the movie opts for a somewhat more cryptic title, 78/52. It zeroes in on Psycho‘s pivotal moment, the moment that everyone knows it for, the moment the menace finally arrives on screen. The shower scene. And the documentary’s title gets to the heart of exactly why that scene represents a turning point not just in the film, but in film history, indeed, in history itself.
The title is a technical term, referring to the 78 camera setups and 52 cuts involved in filming it. Those numbers demonstrate the extraordinarily labour-intensive work that went into those three minutes of cinema, in which Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane is murdered. There are other numbers that further underline the point. The sequence took fully seven days of a 30-day schedule. The killing itself – rather than the build-up or aftermath – is only around 45 seconds of screen time.
The documentary, directed by Swiss filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe, is a tribute to this single scene, a cut-by-cut, almost frame-by-frame celebration and analysis. It explores where it came from but also where it took cinema.
An impressive array of directors and cinephiles are on hand to reflect on it, among them Sam Raimi, Eli Roth, Karyn Kusama, Peter Bogdanovich, Bret Easton Ellis and Guillermo del Toro.
“The scene changed everything for better and for worse,” says Philippe, a Hitchcock fanatic since he was a boy. “It had a tremendously positive impact on what was possible to make, and it opened up brand new areas of technique and ideas to the medium.
“The strength of the shower scene lies in the fact that it is so restrained... you don’t really see anything. Part of what makes that scene work is you are putting it together in your mind, and not necessarily seeing it. 78/52 is a celebration of what I still believe is the greatest scene in the history of movies.”
Others are similarly hyperbolic: “There had been violence in American films but nothing like Psycho, nothing that designed, nothing that intimate, nothing so remorseless,” says Easton Ellis in the documentary. “This meant that murder was now going to be an acceptable part of entertainment.”
There are plenty of these sorts of observations, although, at times, the documentary can slip into the slightly repetitive formula of those television clip shows in which personalities are filmed watching old footage, or recalling when they first saw something.
That said, the contributions are powerful. “When I walked out in Times Square after that press screening,” says director Peter Bogdanovich – who attended a first showing for the media on a September morning in 1960 – “I thought I’d been raped.”
Of course, the scene can only be understood in the wider context of the film, and the film in the wider context of its time. Helpfully – for most viewers have seen Psycho in the years since its release, rather than during its initial cinema run (when, famously, Hitchcock stipulated that no one could enter the theatre after it had started) – the documentary places Psycho in the critical, unsuspecting period in American history into which it suddenly burst, rather like the killer tearing back the shower curtain.
It was a brief time of angst, after the certainties, complacencies and prosperity of the 1950s, but before the assassination of Kennedy, the trauma of Vietnam and the anger of the civil rights movement. The film was adapted from a novel (also called Psycho; that brilliant, blunt title was not Hitchcock’s own idea) loosely-inspired by the case of Ed Gein (a convicted murderer and grave robber from Wisconsin).
Psycho’s release came soon after Hitchcock’s masterpiece, North By Northwest, and the change of pace was jarring. Stylish, colourful, containing some of the most memorable scenes in cinema history, and starring Cary Grant at his most debonair, North By Northwest was nominated for three Oscars.
Now, here was its director helming what some might describe as a schlock horror movie replete with a leading actress slashed to pieces whilst naked in the shower in the first reel – a hallmark of B movies, whose makers could ill afford to employ big actors for more than a few days.
Hitchcock had just turned 60 when shooting on Psycho commenced. He was more than established making movies that were film noir with a bigger budget. He even had his own hit television series comprising unrelated oddball short stories about crime, murder and motivation directed by others.
With Psycho, he was reasserting his prowess, showing young upstart horror directors like Roger Corman that he too could set the panther amongst the pigeons by making a black and white, low budget exploitation B feature that exceeded its every expectation.
It was like the Godfather of Punk, Iggy Pop stepping down off his throne to show the Sex Pistols just how it’s done.
Hitchcock had also seen Les Diaboliques (1955) directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot – who critics referred to the French Hitchcock – and considered that perhaps this was the type of movie he should be making in 1959. And his instinct was entirely correct. By producing the movie independently he was free to also test the censors (US studio films were limited by the puritanical 1930s Production Code, which restricted depictions of anything that could ‘lower the moral standards of those who see it’).
Indeed, as the new documentary shows, Pyscho – and the shower scene, in particular – while doubtless taking US cinema forward, also took it backwards, to an era before the Code, when filmmaking was experimental and pioneering.
It was just one way in which the film broke with the near-past. In the 1950s, there had been a trend for films about men fighting space aliens or fantastic supernatural creatures. The Cold War parallels were clunking. The fear came from without.
But then that shower curtain was torn back. The fear was not from afar. It was much more terrifying than that. The threat, the ‘psycho’, was the bloke next door, who killed for no reason and with no warning.
Just four days after shooting commenced on Psycho, four members of the Clutter family were murdered in their own home in Holcomb, Kansas, by shotgun blasts at close range, having been bound and gagged by two itinerants. The killings were big news and sent paroxysms of fear throughout the US (Truman Capote wrote an account of the murders, In Cold Blood) which were milked by Pyscho.
For Hitchcock, ever calculating, ever manipulating, that was always the point. “Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating,” he later recalled. “I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them…like an organ.”
At no point in the film is that clearer than in the shower scene. It was the murder of the Crane character that had first attracted him to the story, as he told Huw Weldon, who interviewed him for the BBC in 1964: “The only thing that attracted me to the story was the murder in the bathtub coming out of the blue. And that was about all.”
Everything about the scene was manipulation, even the timing of when it appears in the film. “In the average production the film’s lead Janet Leigh would not be killed off a third of the way in but I did it so to make the killing even more of a shock,” he said.
And, of course, everything about the filming of it was based on calculation. “It took us seven days to shoot that scene. And there were 70 camera set ups – naturally the knife never touched the body. It was all done in the montage.”
Hitchcock was a man known for his attention to detail. He went way beyond bordering on obsessive – and never more so than in the filming of that scene.
The finer details remain fascinating. Some aspects are well known, others less so. Hitchcock originally intended to have no music for the sequence (and all motel scenes), but composer Bernard Herrmann insisted he try his composition. Afterwards, the director nearly doubled Herrmann’s salary.
Chocolate syrup – supposedly Bosco’s – doubled for blood. Hitchcock auditioned several kinds of melons to find the one that sounded best when stabbed (casaba was the winner).
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.
But despite the decades of scrutiny and analysis, some dispute remains. 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. There is also the enduring myth that, 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 accommodating, supplying hot water throughout. The persistence of this particular myth does hint at a troubling aspect of the scene: its edge of misogyny, an accusation often levelled at Hitchcock himself.
In the new documentary director Karyn Kusama, describes Crane’s murder as the “first modern expression of the female body under assault”. For some, the scene is interpreted as an act of gratuitous, misogynistic violence; for others it is a critique of that. This debate is why the scene has preoccupied Hitchcock’s biographers as much as it has cultural and film historians.
“Something shifted in his personality from latency to actuality,” wrote Donald Spoto in his Hitchcock biography, The Dark Side of Genius. “From the resentment of his own unrealised erotic longings to a fierce anger toward those who aroused those unrealizable longings. This was never articulated… but it was clear in the new tone his films adopted.”
Undeniably, from Psycho onwards, seemingly sympathetic leading women were continually subjected to an ugly fate. Hitchcock’s fascination with cool blondes such as Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Vera Miles and Janet Leigh had always been apparent, but in the 1960s this turned to obsession. The star of his films The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964) Tippi Hedren, was to suffer the most from his untoward fixations.
Whether that shower scene unlocked something deep within Hitchcock is something we can only speculate on. What we can say, is that it took cinema, and culture, to a darker, but also more electrifying, place.
Chris Sullivan has written for the Independent, Times and was GQ style editor
78/52 is in cinemas now. North by Northwest is showing at the BFI Southbank and selected cinemas UK-wide