5 'Psycho' surprises

5 'Psycho' surprises

At three minutes and change, the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is one of the most familiar in film history. The deadly encounter between Marion Crane and the cross-dressing Norman Bates was shot over seven days in 1959, and every element is instantly recognisable: the shadowy figure tearing aside the shower curtain, the stream of blood and water circling the drain, Bernard Herrmann's shrieking violins.

The scene has been dissected by scholars and critics and parodied by everyone from Mel Brooks to The Simpsons; its score has become aural shorthand for "something really scary is about to happen." Is there anything a Psycho fan still might not know about this most famous of cinematic moments?

Turns out, plenty. In his new documentary 78/52, the director Alexandre O Philippe examines the sequence in myriad ways, looking at, for example, audience reaction in 1960 (sustained, unremitting screams) and the film's visual obsession with shower heads. In addition to talking with directors, historians and others, Philippe pored over the original storyboards and Hitchcock's handwritten notes. Philippe estimated that he has seen the iconic scene thousands of times. Still, the documentary maker continues to be fascinated by it. Since completing the film, he has talked with the choreographer Sean Curran about the movement of bodies within the sequence and hopes to look at the Bauhausian use of triangles, squares and circles.

"There's so much I'm still discovering. That's why people keep going back to it  because it goes so deep," he said, adding, "There's only a handful of movies that do that."

Think you know Psycho? Here are five things that might surprise you:

The murder in the book is much different from the movie.

The story was adapted from a 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. But the killing is a lot shorter in the original telling. Hitchcock took 78 shots and 52 cuts (hence the documentary's title) to capture Marion's murder. Bloch took only 2 1/2 sentences to describe the killing, which ends with Norman lopping off Marion's head. Bloch also reveals Norman's heavily rouged mug (which the movie keeps in shadow). "In the book, the murder itself is an afterthought," Philippe said. "With Hitchcock, it was all about the murder."


Hitch had a fine ear for melons.


To find just the right sound of someone being stabbed, Hitchcock famously listened as his prop man hacked away at a variety of melons. Which one sounded most like a knife cutting through flesh? Hitch's one-word determination: 

 


casaba. Six decades later, Philippe replicated the experiment, hunting down 27 varieties of melons from across Latin America, Asia, and Europe, and chopping into them. He then sent the sound files to Gary Rydstrom and Shannon Mills, award-winning sound designers at Skywalker Sound, and asked them to listen. Their expert conclusion: casaba. "It has a very thick skin, and it's very starchy and gooey in the centre," Philippe said.

Norman's parlour wasn't just filled with stuffed bird carcasses.

There were also paintings - including a reproduction of Susanna and the Elders, by the 17th-century artist Frans van Mieris the Elder. In a promo for the movie, Hitchcock nods at the painting's "great significance" before quickly scuttling away. A popular subject of painters like Rubens and Rembrandt, the biblical tale tells of two old men who leer at a woman as she bathes, then threaten to blackmail her unless she has sex with both of them. In the film, Norman uses "Susanna" to cover the peephole through which he spies on Marion, the painting's depiction of voyeurism (and more) mirroring Norman's own lecherousness. "The version that Hitchcock selected is the most graphic version you can find," Philippe said. "They're not just looking at her or watching her, they're groping her, and it conveys this idea of the violation of a woman being watched."

 


It inspired another great movie moment.

Martin Scorsese used the shower scene as a model for the bout between Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson in Raging Bull, from the sprays of sweat flying across the canvas to the streams of blood shooting out of every inch of LaMotta's battered skull. When Robinson raises his right arm high above his head before smashing in LaMotta's face, it's lousy form for a boxer, but perfect for a knife-wielding murderer, which is what Scorsese was going for. Watch the two scenes side by side, and the similarities are remarkable, Philippe said, adding, "The moment you know that it was inspired by the shower scene, you can never look at it the same way. When you watch it, you can almost hear the strings.


Anthony Perkins wasn't the killer.

Spoiler alert: Norman's mom didn't kill Marion Crane. But it wasn't Norman either, or at least not Anthony Perkins as Norman. The mystery stabber was a body double, Margo Epper. Perkins was in New York rehearsing for a Broadway show, so Epper donned Norman's unbecoming dress and wig for the climactic scene. During filming, however, her features were visible in the shot, so layers of makeup were applied to darken her face. Audiences didn't notice that the killer's face was completely in shadow in a shower flooded with light. "You're too busy focusing on what's happening," Philippe said. "It's an obvious trick, but you're so focused on this shocking scene, the last thing you're going to notice is the trick. That's Hitchcock as Houdini. He's doing his magic right in front of your eyes, but you can't see it."

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