Background to 'Psycho' almost as exciting as film

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

The initial offer for the movie rights to the novel "Psycho" was $5,000, but pulp fiction author Robert Bloch held out for $9,000. After his publisher and agent took their cuts, he cleared about $6,750 before the tax man came calling.

"It was a shockingly low figure -- even by 1959 standards -- for a title that would go on to become the most lucrative in the entire Hitchcock canon," Janet Leigh and Christopher Nickens note in the book "Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller."

Leigh died in 2004, but in 1995, she shared memories of her Oscar-nominated role of Marion Crane, director Alfred Hitchcock and her legendary shower scene. Some tidbits and talking points as the movie "Hitchcock" arrives in theaters today:

1. Leigh would have worked for free but settled for $25,000, a quarter of her usual salary, for the three weeks she worked during the two-month shoot. Anthony Perkins was paid $40,000 to play squirrelly motel operator Norman Bates, who believes "we all go a little mad sometimes."

John Gavin received $30,000 to portray Marion's lover and Vera Miles, $10,000 as Marion's sister. Ted Knight, later famous as Ted Baxter on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," received $200 as a police guard with no dialogue.

2. Hitchcock had photos taken of a slightly rundown Victorian mansion in Kent, Ohio, near the university campus, to serve as the inspiration for the family house on the hill.

3. Leigh, who wore nude-colored moleskin that was strategically positioned, spent seven days shooting the shower scenes. Hitchcock never asked her to appear nude, and a body double was used only for the scene in which Norman wraps Marion's corpse in the shower curtain and drags it to the car.

Also, the director never turned on cold water to produce a shocked reaction when "Mother" appeared, despite stories at Universal Studios tours to the contrary.

4. The leading lady of "Psycho" was one of Hitch's famous blondes, but she was treated far differently than Tippi Hedren during the subsequent making of "The Birds." Leigh speculated that was because she was already established in her career, was not under contract to Hitchcock and was married and socialized with the director and his wife.

5. A conversation between Hitchcock and his personal assistant, Peggy Robertson, inspired the policy that moviegoers had to watch "Psycho" from the beginning.

He was concerned that latecomers, common in those days, would be waiting to see Leigh when, in fact, her character had been killed off. When Robertson asked what could be done about that, he said, "Well, people shouldn't be allowed in the movie house after the picture has started."

It was brilliant from both a marketing and moviegoing perspective.

6. Many critics got this one wrong, with 60 percent of the initial reviews negative.

The New York Times, for instance, called it "a blot on an honorable career," while Time magazine said it descended into "a spectacle of stomach-churning horror." Some reviewers revisited it, and "Psycho" subsequently made the 10 best list of the Times, and Time decided it was superlative after all.

7. The movie went 0-for-4 on Oscar night. It was nominated for director, supporting actress for Leigh, art direction and cinematography. "The Apartment" and its director, Billy Wilder, were among the big winners that year. The supporting actress statuette went to Shirley Jones for "Elmer Gantry."

8. Leigh reported that Osgood Perkins once asked his famous father about the role that typecast him until his death. He wondered if Anthony Perkins could go back to 1959, would he accept or reject the role of Norman Bates.

After pondering the question for a day, he said, "I would definitely take it!" The younger Perkins said, "He was more interested in doing right by one part than in doing right by one's entire career."

9. In 2007, when the American Film Institute announced its list of top 100 movies of all time, "Psycho" was No. 14, sandwiched between "Star Wars" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

10. When Eva Marie Saint, 88, was in Pittsburgh a month ago for a showing of "On the Waterfront," she weighed in on the "North by Northwest" filmmaker and his wife-collaborator, Alma Reville.

"I knew her and it was quite a team, the two of them. I think he needed her and she needed him and she was always there," she told the Post-Gazette. "She participated in his career. In a way, because of those days, she was the woman behind him but she was really the woman next to him."


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here