10 things you (probably) never knew about the shower scene in Psycho

Perhaps the most famous scene in the history of cinema, the shower killing in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is examined in forensic detail in the new documentary 78/52. Director Alexandre O. Philippe tells us what he found behind the curtain.

25 October 2017

By Oliver Lunn

Psycho (1960)

You’ll never look at the shower scene the same way again, says filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe, whose new documentary, 78/52, lays bare the nuts-and-bolts artistry of that scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

The doc’s title refers to the total number of camera setups (78) and cuts (52) in the scene, which itself lasts a mere 45 seconds. It took a whole week to film (a third of the film’s shooting schedule), and it was, as the new film shows, something of an obsession for the master of suspense.

78/52 is comprehensive yet thrilling, a frame-by-frame investigation with insights from Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bret Easton Ellis and others. No stone is left unturned, with heaps of eye-opening revelations. So even eagle-eyed Psycho fans will find new nuggets of trivia to commit to memory. 

To celebrate 78/52’s release, we sat down with Philippe to talk about some of the insights put forth in the film. Here are 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the shower scene.

1. Hitchcock made Psycho because of the shower scene

“When Truffaut asked [Hitchcock] point-blank why he wanted to make Psycho, Hitchcock replied, ‘I think the murder in the bathtub, coming out of the blue, that was about all’,” says Philippe.

Hitchcock and Janet Leigh filming the shower scene

Everything else in the movie hinges on that scene, with the doc drawing attention to the visual rhymes that foreshadow it: shots of showerheads appear in the background; the slashing of window wipers in the rain presage the slashing of the knife in the shower. “The movie never really achieves this kind of poetry again,” says Bret Easton Ellis.

2. The scene contains more layers of voyeurism than you think

In Hitchcock’s earlier thriller Rear Window (1954), Jeff (James Stewart) observes his neighbours from his window; we observe him, the voyeur, and so the observer becomes the observed. Psycho’s shower scene takes this idea to new levels. First, the painting that masks Norman’s peep hole. It’s called ‘Susanna and the Elders’ and it’s about men spying on a woman while she bathes.

“He removes the voyeuristic painting to become the voyeur looking in on the shower,” says Philippe. Add to that the male crewmembers above the shower, voyeurs out of frame. “There were all these people above, just watching her, which I think is another interesting element of voyeurism – it’s very meta.” They watch her, Norman watches her, Hitchcock’s camera watches her, and of course, we watch her.

Psycho (1960)

3. They used a casaba melon for the sound of the stabbing

When Hitch and his sound guy searched for the perfect stabbing sound, they didn’t turn to stock Hollywood effects. They turned to melons. They laid out an epic spread of every kind of melon you can imagine, until they found that perfect sound. Enter: the casaba melon. This melon sounds denser, less hollow. And, as they found, it sounded even more realistic when interspersed with a slab of steak.

4. They did 26 takes of the spinning shot emerging from Janet Leigh’s eye

When the camera spins out of the plughole, dissolving to the iris of Janet Leigh’s eye, also spinning, you see an optical shot (Hitch resorted to this technique, where a single frame is held as opposed to running in real time, because the technology wasn’t available yet). The camera pulls back, with the optical returning to the regular 24-frame rate footage, and you see her eye shake slightly, the last flicker of life.

Psycho (1960)

Hitch made her do this 26 times. “Unfortunately all the outtakes had been destroyed,” says Philippe. “We’ll never get to experience the 26 takes that come out of her eye. 26 takes! They’ve all been destroyed.”

5. Janet Leigh took a breath in the only usable take for the same shot

In that same shot, Philippe explains: “Janet Leigh took a breath in the one take that they could use, and so to hide that, they had to cut back to the showerhead.” What’s more, the breath was only spotted after production and therefore couldn’t be re-shot. But, as it is, returning to the showerhead with nothing but the sound of running water, it’s arguably more powerful than it would have been.

Psycho (1960)

6. Hitchcock broke the rules of cinematic grammar by using jump-cuts and 180 breaks

78/52 zeroes in on a number of formal innovations that broke with conventional cinematic grammar. Not least the jarring jump-cuts and dizzying 180-degree shifts in viewpoint. “One of the huge reveals was John Venzon, one of the editors, talking about that moment when Tomasini [George Tomasini, editor of Psycho] removed maybe four or five frames to give the impression she’s being slammed against the wall; you see the hand out of focus, and then the next thing you see is she’s against the wall,” explains Philippe.

Psycho (1960)

Aside from jump-cuts, Hitch framed Leigh with a huge expanse of curtain behind her, drawing our eye to the empty space. “There’s something that’s just not quite right. And you know that instinctively, you know that that shot is off. Why all this empty space? Well, we know why [laughs].”

7. Janet Leigh’s body double was a Playboy cover girl

Marli Renfro was a 21-year-old Playboy cover girl when she landed the role of Janet Leigh’s body double in the shower. One of the original Playboy bunnies, Renfro had to strip down for Hitchcock and Leigh to make sure she was a good match. She worked for seven days on that single scene. And it’s her hand that you see clenching the curtain as the life slowly drains from her limp body. After working with Hitch, Renfro – a redhead, as it happens – starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s first movie, Tonight for Sure (1962). It’s her only acting credit. 

8. It changed moviegoing – in terms of arriving, strictly, before the picture starts

“It changed the very ritual of moviegoing,” Philippe says, referring to the fact that Hitchcock insisted viewers not enter the theatre after the picture began. “That’s insane, that it even changes the way that we behave in relation to the silver screen.”

Peter Bogdanovich, talking in the doc, remembers attending the first press screening: “As you went in, Hitchcock’s voice was blaring on loud speakers, saying: ‘No one will be allowed in after the picture starts’.” Hitchcock said he did this because of the plot, because the leading lady was killed off a third of the way through. He didn’t want people whispering, ‘When is Janet Leigh coming on?’

9. They used Hershey’s chocolate syrup for the blood

Is it food colouring? Watered down paint? Pig’s blood?? None of the above. Google says they used Bosco chocolate syrup, which is close, but Renfro confirms the actual source. “They had a can of Hershey’s syrup, which was watered down, and that’s what they used for blood. But they had to dribble it around me and on me.” You also hear Hitch explain that he made the film in black and white because the draining away of the blood would have been too “repulsive” in colour. Tell that to Gus van Sant.

10. You think you see the knife penetrate skin because of one specific shot that was filmed in reverse

There’s one shot that you might have paused and pointed to as proof that Hitch showed a knife penetrating skin (or fake skin). You even see blood as the knife goes in. In reality it didn’t go in. “They put a little blood on the tip,” says Philippe, “and then put it against her belly button, and then shot it in reverse. That’s as close as it gets. But there’s never any actual special effect needed to show an actual wound. The body remains immaculate throughout the entire sequence.”

Psycho (1960)

Incidentally, this was how Hitch bypassed the censors’ scissors. “It’s exactly what Hitchcock told them: No, you didn’t see this. You thought you did but you didn’t. I didn’t do the things you told me not to do. I was a good boy.”

Watch Guillermo del Toro discuss the shower scene in 78/52 

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