Who Directed the PSYCHO Shower Scene?
The murder of Marion Crane is one of the most iconic and memorable scenes in film history. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock shocked the viewers by killing the lead actress only 30 minutes into PSYCHO. The scene took 7 days to film in December of 1959. Of the 77 camera set-ups captured that week…only 51 shots were used in the final edit. The shower scene is a master class in filmmaking and displayed an advanced style in both editing and visual style.
It has been studied and analyzed ad infinitum by filmmakers, cinephiles and scholars…but what I find interesting about the shower scene is how ‘un-Hitchcockian’ the angles and editing are compared to almost all his other work. This is no doubt due to the contributions of legendary graphic artist Saul Bass who created the 48 storyboards for this scene.
The collaboration between Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock started with the the famous title sequences for Vertigo and North by Northwest. Saul was then hired as the Pictorial Consultant (the first time that title was used in filmmaking) on Psycho. He created the title sequence and the 48 uber-stylized and specific storyboards for the shower scene. Saul was paid $17,000 for his work. By comparison, Bernard Herrmann was paid $17,500 for the score as was scriptwriter Joseph Stefano.
Most of the 48 storyboards were shot exactly as diagramed by Saul Bass. It’s uncanny how accurately they match the final shots.
On those 7 days in 1959…both Hitchcock and Bass claimed to have directed the shooting of the scene. Several of the key players and Hollywood Legends weighed in…
Janet Leigh: “Mr. Hitchcock showed Saul Bass’s storyboards to me quite proudly, telling me in exact detail how he was going to shoot the scene from Saul’s plans”
Billy Wilder: “Like most people in Hollywood you knew who did what if you were in the industry, especially if great stuff was involved. Everybody talked about that scene. Right from the beginning I understood that Saul did it. Everybody knew. Everybody knew Saul was brilliant. Who questioned it until those remarks of Hitchcock? You only have to look at the sequence and look at the film and think. Think for one minute. You see the shower scene and you see it is not at all like Mr. Hitchcock…King of the Long Shot.”
Saul Bass: “When the time came to shoot, I was on stage near Hitch, who was sitting in his elevated director’s chair in his Buddha mode, hands folded on his belly. He asked me to set up the first shot, as per my storyboard. After I checked it through the camera, I turned to him and said ‘Here it is.’ Then Hitch said ‘Go ahead, roll it.’ It was an amazing moment. On Hitch’s set, no one would issue orders other than Hitch. So I swallowed hard, gulped and said ‘Roll camera! . . . Action!’ He sat back in the chair, encouraging me, benignly nodding his head periodically, and giving me the ‘Roll’ signal as I matched each shot to the storyboard.”
Alfred Hitchcock: “He [Saul Bass] did only one scene, but I didn’t use his montage. He was supposed to do the titles, but since he was interested in the picture, I just let him lay out the sequence of the detective going up the stairs, just before he is stabbed.”
No matter what the the key players said…one point is quite clear. Film is a collaborative art. Everyone on a project wants to contribute their strengths and make the film the best it can be. The best intentions and points of view can clash…but ultimately the best ideas will rise to the surface and survive…no matter who proposed them. This is when attribution and ownership comes into play. Everyone wants their due credit. Everyone wants recognition for their hard work. It can be rewarded with money, film credit, acknowledgement or other creative ways that Hollywood finds in attributing the hard work of artists.
In the video below…I have edited the Saul Bass storyboards next to the final film version of Psycho. No matter who directed the 7 days of shooting in 1959…it’s quite clear that the Saul Bass storyboards were followed explicitly to create the indelible images that made this spectacular scene.
Because the editing in the scene is so fast and frenetic…I have made my video downloadable from Vimeo so you can go frame-by-frame to fully appreciate the intricacies of the storyboards and the final film imagery.
For more info and detailed references…I recommend reading:
Comprehensive article on the collaborations of Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock.
A solid analysis of the shower scene by @johnneyred
Until next time…