Along with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is probably the most familiar motion picture in the history of cinema.
It has generated countless books, articles, treatises, lectures, university dissertations, fan clubs and websites all devoted to extolling and analysing Hitchcock’s “chilling shocker”. Practically every scene from the film has been dissected, examined and discussed in minute detail by a multitude of fans and movie historians. But the production and the problems Hitchcock faced in his attempt to get it made are just as fascinating as his revered movie itself.
Pulp writer Robert Bloch had based his novel Psycho on the real-life case of 51-year-old recluse Ed Gein (Gein rhymes with “mean”). In November 1957, Wisconsin State police were searching for a missing hardware store owner named Bernice Worden. They found her hung upside down in Gein’s farmhouse – headless and gutted. A further search of Gein’s property revealed grotesque female body parts, skulls and skins displayed throughout his home, which came from a series of night-time grave-robbing episodes to which Gein eventually confessed. Although police believed he was involved in a number of other murders, he was only implicated in the death of Worden and the murder in 1954 of local barmaid, Mary Hogan. Psychiatric reports delivered during the trial also revealed that Gein had had a tormented and possibly incestuous relationship with his mother, whose death had triggered his obsession for wearing the skins of females.
Details of the Gein case would form the background to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horrorfestThe Chain Saw Massacre,and Gein’s fixation with female anatomy and transvestism was the explicit inspiration for the Buffalo Bill character in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).But these would come years after the original Hitchcock masterpiece.
Bloch’s novel, published in 1959, had taken the basic facts of the Gein case and spun it into a macabre suspense story about Norman Bates, a fat and lonely 40-year-old roadside motel owner. One rain-swept night, a young woman, Mary Crane, who has stolen $40,000 from her estate agent boss, arrives at the motel Bates runs. He rents Mary a room and tells her he looks after his invalid mother who lives in the house behind the motel. They engage in some small talk during which she learns of Norman’s devotion to his irritable mother. Their talk convinces Mary to return the stolen money the next day. Later, as she is taking a shower in her room, a figure resembling an old woman and carrying a butcher’s knife pulls back the shower curtain. The knife cuts off Mary’s scream and her head. Norman, blaming his mother, disposes of Mary’s body, belongings and car in a nearby swamp. The rest of the story is taken up with the investigation of the disappearance of Mary Crane.
The book received a particularly good review in The New York Times, who described it as “chillingly effective”, which got the attention of Alfred Hitchcock.
Whilst still basking in the critical and public acclaim he had received for his film North by Northwest (1959), Hitchcock had been desperately searching for his follow-up production. He thought he had found it with the story No Bail for the Judge, and had persuaded Audrey Hepburn to play the role of a lawyer who must defend her magistrate father charged with the murder of a prostitute. But when Hepburn read the final script, she balked at an attempted rape scene and immediately removed herself from the project. After reading the review of Bloch’s novel, Hitchcock believed this would be a perfect alternative for his next production and immediately made a blind bid, buying the film rights for a mere $9,000.
Hitchcock owed Paramount Studios one more production from a five-motion-picture contract and subsequently delivered a synopsis of Psycho to the studio’s executive board. The four-man board, who were all in their seventies, were quite visibly shocked and appalled. They did not like the title and found the story “far too repulsive”. Furthermore, they firmly believed a film version would pose insurmountable problems with the Production Code censor. As a consequence, they refused Hitchcock his usual $2 million-plus budget and the use of Paramount’s facilities under the guise that they were all currently occupied. Hitchcock was certainly not used to a film studio refusing an “Alfred Hitchcock production” and immediately terminated the meeting with frosty politeness. Still determined to make the film, he now needed a fall-back plan.
Since 1955 Hitchcock had been the host and executive producer of the half-hour CBS television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His humorous and slightly sarcastic introduction of each episode, coupled with the now synonymous music of Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette, had made it a popular television series. More than 268 episodes were aired but Hitchcock only directed seventeen of them. However, he thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of being restricted. Television by its nature was restrictive by having to shoot each of the thirty-minute weekly programmes in no more than three days. Hitchcock had easily met the challenge and would now put it to its most profitable use. His plan was to employ his TV crew and maintain the television series low-budget methods to make Psycho.
A week or so later, MCA talent agency’s head honcho Lew Wasserman, acting as Hitchcock’s agent, proposed to the Paramount board that Mr. Hitchcock would defer his usual salary of $250,000 and make Psycho on a shoestring budget. Additionally, Psychowould be an Alfred Hitchcock Production, not a Paramount production. The studio would receive 40 per cent of the initial gross after which all revenue and ownership would revert to Hitchcock. And to save the Paramount executive any embarrassment, the production would be shot entirely at Universal studios (now owned and run by Wasserman).
With very little financial input Paramount agreed, even though the studio executives were adamant that the film would spectacularly bomb at the box-office. However, Wasserman’s innovative proposal would make Alfred Hitchcock a millionaire.