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The Santa Fe New Mexican (25/Jun/1995) - Behind the shower curtain



Behind the shower curtain

Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller

Janet Leigh and Christophere Nickens

Harmony Books

197 pages, $22.00

When actress Janet Leigh finally met director Alfred Hitchcock to discuss her role as Marion Crane in the film Psycho, she was surprised at the brevity and assurance with which the director spoke with her about her role.

"I hired you because you are a talented actress," Hitchcock said. "You are free to do whatever you wish with the role of Marion. I won't interfere unless you are having trouble and require my guidance...But there is a rule on the set — my camera is absolute. I tell the story through that lens, so I need you to move when my camera moves, stop when my camera stops. I'm confident you'll be able to justify the motion. Should you have difficulty, however, I will be happy to work with you. But I will not change the timing of my camera."

And so, armed with this scant yet telling information, Leigh plunged into the making of one of the most famous — or notorious — films of her career, Psycho .

35 years later, after being swamped with interviews about one of the most analyzed films of all times (is the shower sequence really considered the most famous scene in film history?) Leigh decided to examine the effect that Psycho had on the participants, their families and the public.

The result is Psycho: Behind the Scenes of The Classic Thriller , written in conjunction with Christophere Nickens, author of biographies on Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Natalie Wood. As a sample of non-fiction writing, it is decidedly weak. As trivia, however, it makes for fine perusing.

What is there about the film that most film buffs don't already know? Well, the script was based on a book by Robert Bloch that was based on a real-life crime spree involving mutilated women in Plainfield, Wisconsin.

Hitchcock paid a paltry $9,000 for the film rights, a measly sum even by 1959 standards. ("It could have been worse," Bloch once said. "The original offer was for $5,000.") The director's goal in making the film was to produce a low-budget black and white schlocker that would beat his bargain basement competitors (such as Roger Corman and William Castle) at their own game.

More film facts: Leigh was paid only $25,000 for her work. She did appear in all the shower scenes for the camera, though Hitchcock did apparently hire a nude double to wander around the sets to create mischief and set industry tongues wagging.

Critical reaction to Psycho was, for the most part, negative, as Leigh points out. But the public loved it. The director instituted a now-familiar policy of not allowing any patron to be admitted to the film once it began. The obvious reason was to gain publicity, but actually Hitchcock just felt that patrons coming to see Janet Leigh would be disappointed if they arrived late and their star was already dead (Leigh was killed off about a third of the way through the film).

Such tidbits are what make Psycho fun reading. Leigh also spends considerable time describing her work with Hitchcock, co-star Anthony Perkins (whose devilish sense of humor led him to hide outside movie theaters and then jump out and scare exiting patrons) and the effect the film had on both her professional and personal life. (Yes, it's true — she hasn't taken a shower since she saw the film.)

Compared to today's terrors (both real and reel) perhaps Psycho's horrors are somewhat tame. But viewers who still relish visiting the Bates Motel will no doubt enjoy Psycho . But be warned: like the movie, the book is always engaging, even if the sum of its parts don't really equal a whole.