The first screenplay draft for Psycho, written by one of Hitchcock’s television writers, was deemed by the director to be too dull, but a second draft by Joseph Stefano excited Hitchcock.
Stefano’s take on the story expanded in greater detail on the now renamed Marion Crane, who desperately wants to marry her lover Sam Loomis. But he resists due to his personal financial woes. Subsequently, she steals $40,000 (the greatest MacGuffin in Hitchcock’s career) from her boss at the real estate office where she works in Phoenix, Arizona. Marion heads off to her lover, who lives in Fairvale, California, hoping that the money will now change his mind.
After Marion is murdered at the Bates Motel, Stefano believed the audience would need to attach themselves to another character, so he made Norman Bates a younger and much more sympathetic figure than he appears in Robert Bloch’s novel. A delighted Hitchcock added, “We will cast a star actress for the role of Marion and the shock will come in the form of her unexpected and violent slaying. The audience won’t expect the star to be killed off one-third of the way through the film”. With his screenplay now virtually finished, Hitchcock began his search for a big-name actress who had the courage to play the doomed Marion.
Hitchcock drew up a list of fair-haired leading ladies that he considered might be able to play the role of Marion. They included Hope Lange, Martha Hyer, Eve Marie Saint, Angie Dickinson, Shirley Jones and Lana Turner. However, he surprised everyone when he gave the part to Janet Leigh, who was primarily known to cinemagoers as the love interest in various mundane Universal costume epics and comedies. But she had recently turned in a fine performance under the direction of Orson Welles, where she demonstrated a surprising allure as the kidnapped wife in the seedy noir A Touch of Evil (1958).
Miss Leigh jumped at the opportunity to work with Hitchcock as did the young, slender and softly-spoken Anthony Perkins when he was offered the role of Norman Bates (which would typecast him for the rest of his movie career). Vera Miles got the part of Marion’s younger sister, Lila, and John Gavin was cast as Marion’s lover, Sam, who together search for the missing Marion in the second act of the movie. The role of private detective Milton Arbogast, who is hired by Marion’s boss to recover the money, went to Martin Balsam.
Hitchcock’s determination to keep within his minuscule budget is indicated in the total cost for his main and supporting actors, which came in at less than $150,000 – contrast that against $450,000 plus ten percent of the gross it would have cost him to use either of his favourite actors, Cary Grant or James Stewart, in one of the male roles.
Meanwhile, studio construction crews were erecting the facades of the Bates Motel and house on the Universal Studios backlot where, except for a few shots filmed on the backroads of Southern California (used as back projection scenes), the whole of the film would be produced.
Hitchcock insisted that the architectural style of the Bates manse be “California Gothic”, little knowing at the time that his “Psycho House” would become probably the most recognised construction in cinematic history.
When the cast and crew began filming on 30th November 1959, they were all sworn to secrecy and could not divulge a single word about the story, even to members of their family. Furthermore, Hitchcock teased the Hollywood media that he was still searching for an actress for the part of “Mrs Bates”, which resulted in him being inundated with requests from senior Hollywood actresses to read for the non-existent part.
The now famous shower scene was filmed between the 17th and 23rd December. Janet Leigh would recall of her most demanding scenes: “During the day I was in the throes of being stabbed to death and in the evening wrapping Christmas presents for my children.” Following the Christmas break, shooting continued on the second half of the film, which finally wrapped on February 1st 1960. Hitchcock had completed what would become his most famous film in 30 days at a total cost of just over $800,000.
Whilst Bernard Herrmann composed what many regard as his quintessential music score, which would play a huge part in terrifying the audience, Hitchcock faced the dreaded Hollywood Production Code, who initially refused the film a certificate rating. Two scenes involving Janet Leigh: the post-coital opening wearing just her underwear and the seemingly nude shower stabbing plus “flushing toilet” scene presented problems for the Code officials. But fortunately for Hitchcock, Hollywood censorship was in transition as American society moved into the new liberal and more tolerant Kennedy era. Subsequently, through clever negotiations, Hitchcock managed to prove to the Code that those scenes were all vital components of the film’s plot. The Production Code finally gave – albeit begrudgingly – its approval.
To advertise Psycho, Hitchcock personally directed one of Hollywood’s greatest movie trailers. He conducts the audience on a guided tour of the Bates house and motel. Lingering in the bathroom of cabin number one he says, “All cleaned up now, you should have seen the blood. Well, it’s too horrible to describe. Dreadful. The murderer crept in here silently…” At which point Hitchcock whips back the shower curtain as Herrmann’s piercing and shrieking violins are heard and we see an undressed blonde (actually Vera Miles wearing a wig, as Janet Leigh was unavailable for the trailer shoot) who emits a bloodcurdling scream. The screen goes black and then the words, “The picture you must see from the beginning – or not at all!” appear on screen Hitchcock followed this up with strict instructions to all cinema managers insisting that “No One … BUT NO ONE… will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance of Psycho.”
Prior to Psycho, audiences were accustomed to casually dropping in and out of movie houses, which ran screenings continuously throughout the day. If people missed the beginning of the movie they stayed for the next showing until it reached the part when they came in. Hitchcock’s marketing ploy would eventually change the way exhibitors ran all of their films and the specific time they admitted audiences – only at the beginning of each screening.
Psycho was a phenomenal box-office smash. With the average cinema ticket in 1960 costing 70 cents, it had earned an astonishing $15 million domestically by the end of its first year of release. Following a worldwide release and numerous re-releases – and due to his 60 per cent ownership deal that had been struck with Paramount – it has been estimated that Hitchcock personally realised well in excess of $16 million (equating to $130 million today) from his movie.