When people hear the name “Hitchcock,” they often jump to Psycho, the horror film about homicidal mama’s boy Norman Bates that was the sensation of 1960. The film was based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, with a script written by Joseph Stefano. It starred Anthony Perkins as Norman, Janet Leigh as one of his victims, as well as John Gavin, Vera Miles, and Martin Balsam.
Initially, the film received mixed reviews, but the exceptional box office carried the day, followed by four Academy Award nominations, including Best Director for Alfred Hitchcock and Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh.
Psycho is now ranked among the greatest films of all time and is widely considered the earliest example of the slasher film. The plot focuses on the encounter between a runaway secretary-turned-thief, Leigh, and the demented owner of the remote motel where she ends up.
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Psycho wouldn’t be as hair-raising if not for the shower scene, which carries a horrific intensity still terrifying to any viewer. The casting of Leigh, who is repeatedly stabbed in the aforementioned scene, was provocative. Up to that point, Leigh, married to Tony Curtis, had starred in films dominated by perky musicals and romantic comedies.
She started her career in 1946 and appeared in over 50 films, including the dramas Touch of Evil and The Manchurian Candidate. She was already a prominent actress, and before Psycho it was unheard of to kill the leading lady of a film before even the halfway point. It made Marion Crane’s murder even more upsetting.
Janet Leigh talking about what it was like on the set of Psycho
Psycho was the film that made her famous forever, but it left emotional scars. Leigh has admitted she stopped taking showers and only had baths. This practice continued for nearly 35 years after the film release.
“I stopped taking showers and I take baths, only baths,” she once told The New York Times. The actress had trouble taking a shower even when she spent the night in a friend’s home or in a hotel where there was no bath but only a shower. “I make sure the doors and windows of the house are locked and I leave the bathroom door open and shower curtain open. I’m always facing the door, watching, no matter where the shower head is.”
Leigh explained: “The shower scene had been really difficult, technically. It took seven days and over 20 takes to shoot it, but it lasts only about 45 seconds on the screen. I wore a moleskin suit and felt very uncomfortable. When I fell down, I landed with my head against that tub and was squinched while trying to keep a non-focused look of a dead person, which was extremely difficult as the water kept running and tickling my face.”
In an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock made clear that the shower scene embodied the suddenness of murder. It was his principal reason for making Psycho. Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of the film, said that the original murder scene, as described in the novel, ends up with beheading. Hitchcock booted that notion as unnecessary.
When Janet Leigh first saw the entire film, she was in a projection room with Hitchcock and several other people. She was stunned, later claiming that the editing, the rhythm, and the music brought harsh realism to the scene. It was as though she could actually feel the thrusts of the knife going through her. She described the scene as “very, very emotional.”
Years later, even after watching the film over 15 times, she said that she could find unexpected elements to Hitchcock’s masterpiece. “You notice so many things, seeing it again and again,” she said. “There’s a light, almost an ethereal light, a heavenly light on Marion. It was like she was being purified. Cleansed. The water — it was like she was being baptized. She was cleaning not only her body but also the inner dirt. And this made the attack even more horrible.”
Despite the trauma, Leigh never did anything but praise Psycho. She said it was one of her most important experiences as an actress: “I’ve been in a great many films, but I suppose if an actor can be remembered for one role then they’re very fortunate. And in that sense I’m fortunate.”
The last decade of Leigh’s life was spent writing, before she died in 2004 at age 77. She published an autobiography, There Really Was a Hollywood, and a novel, House of Destiny, about the movie business. The actress also offered a revealing look into Psycho in her book Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller, co-authored with Christopher Nickens.
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When asked if the book had helped ease her fear of showers, she laughed, saying: “I have absolutely no intention of stepping into a shower.”