1960’s Psycho is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest film—and is certainly one of his scariest. Its place in cinema history did not come easy, however, as the movie’s production proved problematic from day one. Here are some stories from the set of one of cinema’s best-loved—and most feared—horrors.
Not many people know that Psycho was based on a novel, written by the American author Robert Bloch. Hitchcock purchased the movie rights himself—anonymously, to keep the development of the film as secret as possible—for $9,500 of his own money on its release in 1959. (Reportedly, he hadn’t read the book himself, only a positive review of it in the New York Times.) The story’s grisly plotline, however, did not go down well with Hitchcock’s producers at Paramount, and to bring the movie to the silver screen, Hitchcock was forced to finance the production himself. He eschewed his usual $250,000 directing fee—accepting a 60% stake in the film rights instead—and used his own home as collateral to fund the $800,000 production. The gamble paid off; however, as Psycho went on to earn more than $50 million at the box office.
It’s not the most festive of movies, but Psycho is set in the run-up to Christmas: A title card early in the movie informs the audience that Marion Crane (Janet Leigh’s doomed character) flees Phoenix on December 11. Reportedly, the holiday setting wasn’t originally planned, but when it was spotted during post-production that some of the shops and houses that Marion drives past on her way out of the city have Christmas decorations in their windows, Hitchcock decided to make the festive timeframe more overt.
As soon as he became interested in making Psycho, Hitchcock was determined to keep as much of its plot—including its famous twist ending—under wraps. Allegedly, he attempted to buy up as many copies of Bloch’s novel as possible to prevent future audiences from knowing what to expect at the end of the story, and during production refused any publicity stills to be released to the press. Critics weren’t even permitted to see the final film ahead of its premiere in 1960, and after it was released, Hitchcock demanded theaters not allow anyone into the audience after the film had started.
As well as the movie’s grim themes of murder, voyeurism, emotional abuse, and sexual repression, Psycho managed to break one more (somewhat less controversial) movie taboo. The scenes in Marion Crane’s room at the Bates Motel were the first in American cinema to show a toilet. And—even more scandalously in the reserved 1950s—Psycho was the first film in history to include the sound of a toilet being flushed!
Psycho’s famous screeching musical score was written by long-time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann. Incredibly, all of Herrmann’s music for the film was written just for the string section of an orchestra, bucking the trend at the time for theatrical scores to be more grand, symphonic compositions. Even more remarkably, the famous shower scene—with its screeching high-pitched violin accompaniment, which Herrmann entitled “The Murder”—was originally intended not to have any music at all, but when Hitchcock heard Herrmann’s cue for the scene, he wisely changed his mind.