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The Studio Sabotaged 'Psycho' And The Fact That It Was Made Is Miraculous

Entertainment | August 29, 2019

Left: Alfred Hitchcock in a publicity photo for 'Psycho.' Right: Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Source: IMDB

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the most claustrophobic thrillers of the 20th century, and it features easily the most famous shower scene in film history. Considered to be one of the highlights of Hitchcock’s career, Psycho is one of those films that you just have to see. Even though the film made a truckload of money at the box office upon its release, its distributor, Paramount, had zero faith in the source material or in Hitchcock’s directing.

Keep in mind, Psycho was far from Hitchcock’s first movie. He pitched the idea to Paramount after the back-to-back success of Vertigo and North by Northwest. He was more than 35 years into a career filled with hits made from odd character studies and the studio just didn’t think people would like the movie. Hitchcock believed in the story so much that he made the movie on his own dime and turned the financial setbacks into one of his most inspired films. 

Paramount Thought The Story Was Disgusting

source: Paramount

When Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock's long-time assistant, read Anthony Boucher's positive review of Psycho, a novel by Robert Bloch, she knew that her boss would want to read it. Hitchcock read the book and was transfixed by the shower scene. That brief moment had something that he could sink his teeth into. He explained:

I think the thing that appealed to me [about the book] and made me decide to do the picture was the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue.

Paramount refused to make the film based on its premise, but that didn’t stop Hitchcock -- he anonymously bid on the film rights and won them for $9,500. Going back to the studio, Hitchcock received the same pushback as he had before. Paramount felt the book was “too repulsive,” they wanted Hitchcock to make another one of his thrillers that was littered with A-list stars. Hitchcock declined, his head still in the shower. 

Hitchcock Used The Crew From His TV Show To Save Money

source: Paramount

It’s inaccurate to say that Paramount softened on their stance surrounding Psycho. They never warmed to the film, but they were finally worn down by Hitchcock, who clearly knew that the movie had artistic and commercial value. At first, Paramount tried to dissuade Hitchcock from making the movie by refusing to provide his usual budget. North by Northwest cost $4 million, Vertigo cost $2.5, but Psycho was made for the paltry sum of just over $806,000.

To get even a minuscule budget Hitchcock, had to make a series of concessions. He agreed to a quick turn around, and to film on black and white stock (more on that later), and in order to keep things cheap he said that he would shoot with the crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series. Paramount balked at this, saying that even with those cost-saving measures in place that there was nowhere for the film to be shot because all of their sound stages were booked despite the fact that this was a financial low point in the industry.

Faced with the prospect of being locked out of the studio from which he had a contract Hitchcock countered that he would personally finance the film and that he build the sets at Universal-International or shoot on location when possible if Paramount would simply agree to distribute the picture. He didn’t take him $250,000 director's fee and instead received a 60% stake in the film negative, one of the most judicious deals ever made in Hollywood, although Paramount didn’t realize it at the time. 

Paramount Wanted An Audrey Hepburn Movie Instead Of 'Psycho'

source: Paramount

By 1960 Hitchcock was known for making mid-budget suspense films with high-caliber stars. He regularly worked with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Grace Kelly. Hitchcock’s run from Dial M for Murder to North by Northwest contains some of the biggest Hollywood actors at the time, which in theory makes people want to see the movies. Before going all-in on Psycho Hitchcock was prepping an adaptation of No Bail For The Judge, a thriller about a lawyer who has to defend her father, a judge, who’s accused of murdering a sex worker.

Audrey Hepburn was set to star in the film, but when complications with her pregnancy arose she backed out of the film. Hitchcock told Paramount that he was scrapping the picture even though they’d already spent $200,000 on pre-production. It’s likely that Paramount was supremely unhappy with Hitchcock for his decision to throw away a bunch of their money, and that’s why they didn’t want to help him make Psycho

Hitchcock Didn’t Want To Shoot 'Psycho' In Black And White

source: Paramount

Despite its ability to bring out harsh shadows and to put the viewer in a specific mood, Hitchcock didn’t have any particular affinity for shooting in black and white. In 1959 (when the film went into production) there was no nostalgia surrounding black and white film the way there is today. It was seen as the film used by cheap B-movies that couldn’t afford to shoot in Technicolor.

But if Hitchcock wanted to keep the budget below $1 million, the easiest way to do that was to shoot in black and white. This fiscal choice allowed for Hitchcock to keep the shower scene (the one thing he really wanted to shoot) from being too gory, and he was also able to pay homage to Les Diaboliques, a French thriller from 1955 that the director found particularly inspiring.

Janet Leigh And Anthony Perkins Took A Pay Cut To Appear In The Film

source: Paramount

Hitchcock wasn’t averse to having stars in his films, he loved the power that an A-list actor wielded over an audience, but with the minuscule budget for Psycho, he couldn’t exactly cast Audrey Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart. Instead, he cast Janet Leigh who was hot off of Touch of Evil and Who Was That Lady in the role of Marion Crane for $25,000 -- a quarter of her normal fee.

Anthony Perkins, who was already well known for his roles in Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, was seen as the perfect actor to play Norman Bates. Perkins was paid $40,000 for the role, which wasn’t a bad chunk of change, but it was less than a star normally received for appearing in an Alfred Hitchcock and Paramount production. It’s obvious that everyone working on the film understood that something special was happening with the film and that they wanted to be a part of it.

'Psycho' Was A Huge Hit

source: Paramount

After its premiere in New York on June 16, 1960, Psycho became Hitchcock’s biggest hit. At the time critical reception was middling on the film, but that didn’t matter. By the end of the film’s theatrical run, it made $50 million on an $800,000 budget; adjusted for inflation that’s nearly half a billion dollars. Thanks to his 60 percent ownership over the film he made $15 million from the box office, and the movie is still making money.

Aside from the sequels, remake, and television series surrounding Norman Bates, the sets for the original Bates Motel and Bates house are still standing at Universal Studios in Universal City near Hollywood. After more than 50 years, the film that no one but Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make is still affecting viewers, and making them cry, “Mother, what have you done?”

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Alfred Hitchcock | Horror | Janet Leigh | Paramount Pictures | Psycho | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Anthony Perkins

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.