The other day, while flipping through an album, I came across a picture that sparked off a long-forgotten memory. It was early evening in London and we were on our way back from a sightseeing tour. En route to our hotel at Earl’s Court, a sign on the gates of one of the row houses caught my eye. In a flash I grabbed the camera from my husband and reeled off a couple of shots. “Check this out,” I whooped. “This is the house where Alfred Hitchcock lived.” Hubby wasn’t impressed till I sat him through Psycho (1960). After that, like me, he was Hitched!
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, born on August 13, 1899, was a quiet, well-behaved child whom his father once described as a “little lamb without a spot”. One day, he was sent to the local police station with a note. The officer read the note from his father and locked him in a cell for five minutes saying, “This is what we do to naughty boys.” The ‘naughty boy’ grew up to make the classic Psycho. The film got the thumbs down from the critics, who were made to watch the movie with ordinary people (some were even turned away for turning up five minutes late because Hitchcock had insisted everyone watch it from the first frame through to the end for it to make the desired impact). They were appalled by the insane violence of Norman Bates. But surprisingly, the audience lapped it up.
Hitchcock had taken wife Alma off to Europe on a holiday before the film opened. Shortly after his return, he was presented with a cheque of $2.50 million as his share from the first quarter’s earnings. It was the maximum he’d ever been paid as an independent producer and in his 60s, the master storyteller was finally rich and famous.
The now-famous ‘slaughter in the shower’ featured Janet Leigh as Marion. But the nude shots were taken on a professional model, Marli Rebfro, because Hitchcock didn’t think it was ‘proper’ to subject a star like Janet to the indignity of a ‘nude’ scene. He himself directed the naked body double from a platform above the shower dressed in a shirt, tie and suit. The image flits through my mind every time I watch Norman pick up the knife in the movie.
Interestingly, even though the film is memorable for this ‘bloody’ scene, you never see Norman’s knife actually plunge into Marion’s body. And Hitchcock chose to shoot Psycho in black-and-white presumably because he didn’t want the screen to flood with bright red blood. In fact, the ‘blood’ you see is rich chocolate syrup and the knife was plunged into a melon to simulate the sound of it puncturing the flesh.
But despite all precautions, Hitchcock got a letter from an parent admonishing him that after seeing Les Diaboliques (1955), his daughter had refused to take a bath. Now, after Psycho, she refused to step into a shower. “What do I do now?” the man groused. Hitchcock replied with a cheerful, “Get her dry-cleaned!”
I’m told that Janet Leigh herself was so affected by the scene that she would refuse to take a shower unless absolutely essential. And when she did, she would lock all the doors and windows but leave the bathroom and shower door open.
I continue to take my showers but the first time I saw Psycho, I admit I screamed out loud at the lurking silhouette of my mother. Now, I wait to observe the reactions of others who don’t know what’s in store. The scene runs over three minutes, and includes 50 cuts. Hitchcock had initially planned a silent sequence with just real sounds of water gushing and the shower curtain swishing. But Bernard Herrmann begged him to listen to a piece of music he’d composed and titled The Murder. The master was so impressed that he almost doubled Bernard’s salary.
I’m equally wide-eyed about Frenzy (1972), Dial M for Murder (1954) and Vertigo (1958) to name a few, but as my favourite director’s birth anniversary comes up, I can’t think of a better movie than Psycho to pay tribute to him. And as I wind up this eulogy, I’m reminded of something I read in John Russel Taylor’s authorised biography Hitch. During a unique coast-to-coast press conference on closed circuit television to promote his last movie, Family Plot, Hitchcock was asked what he’d like inscribed on his tombstone. After a moment’s thought he quipped, “Something like, ‘You see what can happen if you are not a good boy’.”
I love that tongue-in-cheek quote, and as I hope my 12 year old will never be a good girl either, I can’t wait to see her reaction to Psycho’s shower scene. May be in a few years!