The character of Mary Crane was originally created by author Robert Bloch for his 1959 novel, Psycho. During the early stages of the film's production, the studio's research department found there were two people with that name in the Phoenix area and Hitchcock was asked to select from a list of alternative first names from which he chose "Marion".
- n.b. background details of the character from Robert Bloch's novel are incorporated into this section
Marion Crane is in her late 20s and living in Phoenix Arizona, along with her younger sister Lila. Marion's father died after being struck by a car when she was a teenager and she later nursed her dying mother through a long illness. Unable to attend college herself, she undertook a short business course and then began working for a real estate office whilst supporting Lila through college.
After her mother's death, and at the insistence of Lila, Marion took a short Caribbean cruise where she met and fell in love with divorcee Sam Loomis. Although keen to marry, Sam insisted that he must first clear off the debts he inherited when his father died. He now runs his father's hardware store in Fairvale, California and hopes to clear his debts within a few years.
Frustrated at her dead-end life in Phoenix and with Sam's insistence on waiting before they can marry, she seizes an opportunity to steal $40,000 from her employer and leaves Phoenix on the afternoon of Friday December 11th, 1959, to drive to Fairvale. En route, she tries to rationalise her actions and to decide what to tell Sam.
After sleeping overnight in her car by the side of the road, she is awoken by a passing highway patrolman who checks to see if she is alright. Increasingly consumed by guilt and fear over the theft, and spooked by the sudden appearance of the patrolman, Marion begins acting suspiciously. In the next town, she trades in her car and hastily buys a replacement from a used car salesman.
Continuing on, Marion is caught in an evening rain storm and accidentally turns off the main highway onto an old and unfamiliar road to Fairvale. Unaware of how close she actually is to the town, she pulls off at the Bates Motel to get some rest with the aim of reaching the town the following day. Keen to cover her tracks, she checks into the empty motel under a false name.
After a small meal with the shy and socially awkward owner of the motel, a young man named Norman Bates who seems to be dominated by his elderly mother, Marion realises her folly and decides to return to Phoenix the next day, before the loss of the $40,000 will be noticed by her employer on the Monday morning. With the guilt of the theft lifting from her shoulders, she takes a cleansing shower in her motel cabin bathroom. However, whilst she is still in shower, she is brutally attacked and murdered — the assailant seemingly Norman's deranged mother.
After Norman discovers the murder, he disposes of Marion's body and her possessions — including the stolen money which he fails to notice — by sinking her car into a nearby swamp.
Marion's body is eventually recovered after Lila and Sam expose Norman Bates as the actual murderer.
According to studio records, Hitchcock considered several actresses for the role of Marion — including Eva Marie Saint, Piper Laurie, Martha Hyer, Hope Lange, Shirley Jones and Lana Turner — before settling on 32-year-old Janet Leigh, a client of MCA, who was hired on a salary of $25,000. Although not a major star, Leigh had impressed many with her performance in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1959).
In her book about the film, Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller, Leigh recalled being sent a copy of Bloch's novel in October 1959 along with a note saying, "Please consider the part of Mary [...] Anthony Perkins is set to play Norman Bates". She wrote:
I read the novel in one sitting. Mesmerized. It was not a pretty picture Mr. Bloch had word-painted. In fact, it was down-right ugly and frightening [...] I couldn't wait to see what the talent of Perkins would bring to Norman and what other surprises the genius of Mr. Hitchcock had in store for me. For all of us. Because there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to play Mary Crane. No doubt at all. I leaned over, quickly dialed MCA, and said yes. I didn't even ask what the salary was [...] You see, what struck me when I read the script was — I really cared about Marion Crane, and that made all the difference [...] I liked her. So, when she is killed, I was devastated.
In the late 1990s, Leigh spoke about her portrayal of Marion:
I figure Marion's around 30, something like that, and she sees her life flitting away. So when this opportunity presents itself with the money, it was important that the audience know this woman, know that she's a good person, but know her frailties, know her weaknesses. And in a moment of weakness, she took the money, and then started to pay for it [...] She is not a thief. She is a very bad thief. She is clumsy. She obviously can't disguise what she's feeling. She's so obvious because she's not practiced. So this is not her nature, but it's a grasp. It's a desperate grasp at life. The only satisfaction, almost, was that on the ride [to Fairvale], she just imagined what they were saying back home [...] That's the really only sort of pleasurable moment she had, really, until she meets someone who is more mixed-up and more confused than she. She was able to realize she can't go that route either.
Leigh's performance was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at both the 33rd Academy Awards and the 18th Golden Globe Awards. Leigh lost out to actress Shirley Jones (who was one of the actresses initially considered for the role of Marion) at the Academy Awards ceremony but won the Golden Globe.
It is widely regarded that Psycho was the first mainstream Hollywood film to shock audiences by killing off a main character partway through the film. Although audiences were used to minor characters being killed off during the course of the story, it was tacitly assumed that this would not happen to the star of a film, especially not a popular star like Janet Leigh, unless the film was a tragedy and the death occurred towards the end of the film.
Contemporary reports of audience reactions to the shower scene murder included people standing in stunned shock or screaming wildly at the screen in disbelief. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano later recalled seeing the film in Los Angeles on the day it opened to the public:
As the movie went on, I saw people grabbing each other, howling, screaming, reacting like six-year-olds at a Saturday matinee. I couldn't believe what was happening. I found it hard to reconcile our movie with how the audience was reacting. I never thought it was a movie that would make people scream. When Marion Crane was in the shower and audiences saw the woman coming toward her, I thought they'd shudder and go "How awful," but I never thought they’d be so vocal. And neither did Hitchcock. When the shower sequence was over, paralysis set in. Nobody knew quite what to do.
Script supervisor Marshall Schlom also recalled a similar response from the New York opening:
I recall it opened on Sunday in New York. The next morning, we got these stories from theater owners who were calling the distribution exchanges telling them about people going berserk in the audience, running up and down the aisles. It was mayhem. They had to call the cops.
Notes & References
- Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990) by Stephen Rebello, chapter 6: Production Design
- Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990) by Stephen Rebello, chapter 6: Casting
- "Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller" - by Janet Leigh and Christopher Nickens, pages 30, 33 & 37
- The Making of Psycho (1997) - transcript
- Wikipedia: 18th Golden Globe Awards
- Wikipedia: 33rd Academy Awards
- Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990) by Stephen Rebello, chapter 10: The World Goes Psycho