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"Psycho (1960): A Conversation with Joseph Stefano" - by William Baer




Psycho (1960)


Born in Philadelphia, Joseph Stefano (1922–2006) was a musical performer, composer, and songwriter before he began writing for Hollywood and television. His feature films include The Black Orchid (1958) with Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn; Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) with Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh; The Naked Edge (1961) with Gary Cooper and Deborah Kerr; The Kindred (1986) with Rod Steiger; Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) with Anthony Perkins; and Two Bits (1995) with Al Pacino. In 1998, his original screenplay for Psycho was used for the remake, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche. From 1963–1964, he was a producer-writer for the television series The Outer Limits, and his various television movies include the award-winning Made in Japan (1959) with Dean Stockwell. He received both the Robert E. Sherwood Award and an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

In his famous interview with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock explained that Psycho was undertaken as a personal and professional challenge: "Could I make a feature film under the same conditions as a television show?" Others have suggested that Hitchcock also wanted to "out do" at the box office all those popular, low budget horror films of the late fifties like the ones produced by William Castle and Roger Corman while, at the same time, making a more intelligent and astonishing film in the vein of Clouzot's Les Diaboliques. Were these objectives clear to you when you first became involved with the project in 1959?

STEFANO: In our very first meeting, Hitchcock told me that he'd been impressed by a company called American International which was making movies for less than $200,000 apiece, and he was especially impressed with what the films were doing at the box office. His very words to me at the time were, "What if somebody good did one?" In putting it that way, he wasn't criticizing American International and the other low-budget production companies; he was just issuing a challenge to himself. Since he was already set up as a production company at Universal for his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he was in the perfect position to attempt such a project. So right from the beginning, every single consideration was guided by his idea of doing "a low-budget movie" — not really to prove anything, but simply to make a lot of money. Hitchcock's movies had always made astonishing amounts of money, but he felt that they were beginning to cost far too much to make. North by Northwest, which he made right before Psycho, starred Cary Grant and had a huge budget, and Hitchcock felt that he wasn't being appropriately rewarded financially for what he was doing. So he decided that a low-budget success would change all that.

When you first became involved with the project and read Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, you clearly disliked the fictional Norman Bates. He was an unpleasant, obese, and balding drunk not to mention his other problems. And you felt it was crucial to make him more sympathetic in the movie. You also felt the same way about the Mary character, later renamed Marion. Did Hitchcock agree with these changes from the start?

STEFANO: Absolutely. My take on how to adapt this book into a movie, which I explained to Hitch in our first meeting, was that it should be about a girl who's in a dead-end love affair with a man who has serious financial problems. She loves him, but she doesn't want things to continue as they are — shacking up in cheap hotel rooms over her lunch hour whenever he can get to town. So I described to Hitch what this woman was going through in her sordid life when a wealthy, smarmy man unexpectedly walks into her office at the bank and hands her $60,000 in cash to deposit. And the temptation is just too much for Marion as she later realizes in the parlor scene with Norman. As she says to Norman, we all dig our own little traps, and when she made the decision not to deposit the money, she sealed her fate. It's a true moment of impulsive madness, but quite different from Norman Bates's madness. Norman's madness is a "convenient" madness which works to keep him out of trouble, and which also works to prevent him from confronting his ghosts. Marion's madness is more like one of those moments when somebody bumps into you on an elevator and you go temporarily mad. Mari...

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