Monday, 19 March 2018

"78/52": the shower scene from Hitchcock's "Psycho" revisited

I first saw that scene in the Globe Cinema, Putney, in 1965, when I was 12 (the film was an X, of course, but I was big for my age - still am, actually). I was never the same again...

Despite that memorable experience, I remained perfectly relaxed about onscreen violence in horror films for the next 15 years - until I took my girlfriend to a showing of Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972) at the National Film Theatre in the early '80s.  It was still banned in Britain at the time, but the NFT was presumably allowed to show it because it was, in effect, a club. The film had been a big success at the American box office, it was constantly being talked about in horror circles, and I'd recently seen - and found myself rivetted by -The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Besides, as I was a horror writer at the time, I had an excuse for wanting to see it (although I didn't have an excuse for inflicting it on the my girlfriend - hell of a date movie!). There came a point in the film where two teenage girls are having their entrails pulled out while still alive when I decided I'd really had enough. I turned to my girlfriend and whispered, "Sorry - this is disgusting. Can we go?" Before she could respond, a flouncy little Irishman sitting in front of us turned round and, in a hissy, prissy, camp voice, said: ..."Well if you don't like it, why did you buy tickets?" Which, on reflection, is an odd question. After a robust, albeit sotto voce, exchange of views, we did indeed leave. "Enjoy the rest of the film, pervert!" was my rather lame parting shot.

I think my real objection to Craven's gorefest was the its plonking realism. There was no suspense, no tension, no surprise, no artistry - just a badly-shot, graphic depiction of some moronic psychopaths murdering some girls. I love well-made crime and horror films - but I have absolutely no desire to watch unedited footage of a violent crime being committed (especially if it involves torture and mutilation).
I was reminded of Last House while watching Hitchcock's Shower Scene:78/52, a documentary shown on BBC Four the other night. Despite a surfeit of pseudery, it's a fascinating programme. Many knowledgeable film folk forensically examine every aspect of the 45 seconds that (some would claim) changed films forever - and not altogether in a good way. It wasn't the shower scene itself which reminded me of Last House - Hitchcock's murder is all electrifying artistry, suspense, tension and surprise. It was the endless shots of the male contributors as they watched the scene again and again - there was something disturbing, almost unhealthy, about the sheer relish on their faces. Yes, they were enjoying the brilliance of Hitchcock's direction - and I probably have the same expression on my face when I watch it - but we're looking at a woman being brutally slaughtered here, chaps, so we should probably try not to salivate?
I know I'm becoming increasingly prudish as I grow older, but I can't help feeling that Psycho - unintentionally, granted - paved the way for every slasher film that followed, both those that were entertaining and well-made, and those that were crudely-executed exercises in misogynistic sadism designed to titillate inadequate young men.  Even more disturbingly, almost sixty years after Psycho, it seems that no television crime drama is complete without an utterly brilliant psychopathic killer capturing, torturing and murdering a whole string of young women. What in Psycho was a single shocking scene that had audiences shrieking their heads off in terror in cinemas across the world has turned into an increasingly tired staple of mainstream television. Yes, in my own tiny, insignificant way, I played a part in creating the cultural climate which has normalised sexually sadistic crime as family entertainment - but I genuinely hope we're reaching the end of the psycho-killer cycle. It really has been done to death (yes, I know).  That's enough of pots calling kettles black.

Having got that off my chest, it's back to 78/52 - I learned a lot. Here are some facts and opinions which interested me:

The shot of the knife apparently penetrating Janet Leigh's belly - the one that convinces us that we've actually seen her being stabbed - was achieved by Hitchcock pressing the point of the knife into her body-double's stomach, holding it there, starting to film, swiftly withdrawing the knife - and then simply reversing the shot.

The body-double was Marli Renfro, a glamour model who had already appeared in Playboy and later became a bunny at the first Playboy Club. (She's in the documentary.)

The only point in the whole film where Janet Leigh looks truly happy is when she's soaping herself in the shower - just before she's killed.

We get the impression that the shower scene is being shown in real time - but there's a jump cut from Janet Leigh with her hair dry to Janet Leigh in the exact same position with her hair wet: I'd never noticed it.

I had noticed the shot of Janet Leigh with her back to the shower curtain, oddly framed so that there's a large space to her left, through which we can see the bathroom door. Despite the presence of a beautiful, naked woman on the screen, our eyes are drawn to the empty space - deliberately, because that's where her killer is about to appear. The same framing is used for the shot where the victim, on the verge of death, starts to slide down the white-tiled back wall of the shower.
There's a pointless cut-away to the shower-head after Janet Leigh has died, which has long baffled film-lovers. They had to shorten the final shot of the actress because she took a tiny but noticeable breath.

I'd always assumed that the scene where Janet Leigh is lying dead on the floor of the shower, staring sightlessly, with water droplets on her cheek, was achieved by trickery - it had to be a still. But no, that's a live shot - as it were. (I still wonder how they stopped those drops of water from tricking down her cheek - maybe they aren't water!)

There's a shot where the camera's looking straight up into the shower-head as the water sprays out of it. How did they stop water splashing on the lens? By plugging all the holes in the centre of the shower head, that's how.

Janet Leigh steps beneath the shower and then turns the water on. As one commentator pointed out, nobody has ever done this in the whole history of taking showers: we all switch the water on first to test the temperature before stepping under the spray.

When the shower curtain opens to reveal the attacker, we can't see his/her face. This wasn't (just) clever lighting - the make-up man had to apply several layers of black make-up to achieve the effect. And, in any case, it was a double - Anthony Perkins was in Chicago that day.

The blood is diluted chocolate syrup. Hitchcock claimed the reason for shooting in black and white was that the sight of red blood swirling away down the drain would have been "repulsive" - by which he presumably meant that he'd never have got it past the censor. Speaking of which...

Hitchcock got the whole scene passed without having to alter anything. One suspects that that might have had something to do with him being the most famous director in the world.

The stabbing sounds were created using a casaba melon and a hunk of steak (which the sound man  took home to eat at the end of the day).

And here are a few points which aren't directly related to the shower scene:

One of the contributors to the documentary suggests that Psycho was Hitchcock's (successful)  attempt to prove that not only was he not past it - a creator of (as he put it) "beautiful technicolour baubles" - but was, demonstrably, ahead of the competition.

Another commentator points out that something had changed in American films in 1959, with the release of Suddenly Last Summer (cannibalism),  Some Like It Hot (cross-dressing), and Anatomy of a Murder (rape).  The suggestion is that Hitchcock picked up on that trend, and pushed it even further.

At the end of the scene where Janet Leigh, having decided to return and face the music, works out how much of the stolen money she has already spent and will have to repay, she tears up the page, tosses the pieces into the lavatory, and flushes them away. Nobody had ever flushed a toilet in an American film before, let alone shown the water swirling around inside the bowl.

Is it my imagination, or did Janet Leigh have a slight squint? It doesn't alter the fact that she was a beautiful woman - in fact, it might even have increased her allure.
Psycho by Robert Bloch, first edition, 1959
Robert Bloch
I continue to be astonished and annoyed by the disdain shown by film critics (and Hitchcock himself) for the novel of the same name on which the film was based, which was written by the enormously accomplished horror writer,  Robert Bloch. In 78/52 one of the "experts" tells us that the the shower scene in the film is vastly different from the one described in the book - and then reads from the book, proving that they're actually very similar. It wasn't a flash of genius that led Alfred Hitchcock to bump off his heroine a third of the way into his film - it's exactly what Robert Bloch does in the book! It's time Bloch got some credit for writing the stiflingly tense novel without which Hitchcock's masterpiece would never have existed.

If this has whetted your appetite, the documentary is currently available on the BBC iPlayer. Alternatively, it's also on YouTube - but I suspect it isn't meant to be, and may very well have disappeared by the time you click on this link. 


  1. This is very good post indeed.
    I'm not interested in horror but simply carried along by the prose.
    May I recount one incident in San Francisco in 1979.
    Perhaps the city was recoiling from
    a spike in street crime or it was a sort of post Haight Ashbury funk. Anyway aware of their city's cutting edge in anything that could be loosly termed as culture, new restaurants, art galleries, cinemas were being opened (and closed) a dime a dozen.
    My work colleague went to see one of these avant garde little numbers -
    hand held camera, a bit grainy, this natty gem being shot in Mexico - up on the silver screen in a bijou theatre in Polk street or was it Van Ness. No doubt the smell of pot was wafting around the auditorium.
    Ten to fifteen minutes into the film the audience discovered to their eternal dismay there was something only too real about 'The New Realism' on offer.
    I heard people were physically sick, the ticket office stormed, police called, cinema owner arrested and so on.
    This was the first time I'd heard the expression 'snuff movie,' and was curious to learn how the audience knew it was real as opposed to the scenes Mr.Gronmark describes.
    My pal replied "I don't know we just knew."

  2. 1963 through to the mid nineties saw an enormous rise in violent crimes in the USA for many reasons.
    The real horror could often be found on the streets morphing into a slightly different genre epitomised by the film Taxi Driver.'

  3. As for "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", my hairdresser of the time was a keen filmgoer and, while cutting my hair, gave me an enthusiastic account of the film. Too enthusiastic. I saw the results in my hairstyle, which took weeks to recover.